Irene Soderberg is a larger-than-life figure within the LGBT community. She’s a comedienne, a singer and an actress.
She’s suffered from health problems in recent years, but she’s back and better than ever. She’s performing at the Stonewall Equality Concert, which will kick off Palm Springs Pride on Friday, Nov. 1, at the “Forever Marilyn” statue at Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way.
A child of Finnish immigrants, Soderberg grew up in New York state.
“Even as a kid, I was always singing. We worked from the time we were 8 years old … in the fields, hard labor—people would say it would be slave labor now, but that’s all we knew. We worked from February to November every year, picking all the fruits and berries. We also worked in a cannery.”
While Soderberg has varied talents, she’s especially passionate about singing.
“I knew that singing was always my life,” she said. “When I was in fifth-grade, I was a soloist in the chorus, and all the rest of the chorus girls were sixth-graders,” she said during a recent phone interview from her home in West Hollywood. “… It was so interesting that I had a big challenge in college, and I turned away from music and quit school. I was devastated by the music director. I started bartending, moved to Hawaii, and I started belting it out behind the bar—and that’s how I got started singing again. I got an Equity contract singing behind the bar at Hamburger Mary’s in Waikiki. I got back to it just like that.”
That singing led to her appearing in a production of Godspell at the San Jose (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, a gig that she said led to the unleashing of her “inner drag queen.”
“I would get these clothes, take them, cut them up and turn them into a new outfit. We would watch Saturday movies, and I would put on a different outfit to go with every movie that would play on Saturday afternoon,” she said. “I just loved the costuming, and many people don’t know this, but I make my costumes. Drag queens approach me now and say, ‘Make my clothes!’ I say, ‘If you got the money, honey, it’s possible!’”
After moving to San Francisco, Soderberg won a Mae West look-alike contest.
“I was working on a show at the same time called Men Behind Bars, and I was playing a fairy godmother,” she remembered. “I made my entrance onto the stage from a wire 40 feet above the stage. While we were rehearsing, they said there was a Mae West look-alike contest, and ‘that you should enter.’ I made my own outfits and everything, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ People always said I could do Mae West better than anyone. Lily Tomlin was a judge.”
She said she managed to make the entire audience laugh with her comedy and acting talents; in fact, she said she managed to win the contest before she even sang her own parody of a song from the 1920s, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
After five surgeries in four years, she had to take a break and cut back on live appearances. She also deals with other health issues on a daily basis.
“I’m HIV-positive,” she said. “I got HIV from my ex-husband in San Francisco. I’ve been HIV-positive for about 24 years. Most people don’t know that I’m HIV-positive. I’m speaking out now, because it’s important people get inspiration and validation from whatever source they can, and who better than to give reassurance, comfort and inspiration than a fairy godmother?”
She is now returning to doing what she does best—entertaining people, making them laugh, and sharing her song parodies with audiences. She has started performing regularly at Azul/Alibi in downtown Palm Springs.
“I really respect the owner, George Kessinger,” she said. “He actually built that place. He is really kind of a man after my own heart, because my father built our house. I think the whole place is wonderful; the staff is very professional, and I can’t say enough kind, wonderful things about how great they are.”
She has recorded five albums and is currently working on a sixth.
“One has to work within one’s own budget, and the music business has changed dramatically over the years,” she said. “I recorded my first CD in 1999, and I actually was at Palm Springs Pride in 1999 selling CDs. It was so wonderful, because I sang, and people were lined up to buy my CD. My song parodies are the reason I’m booked all over the country. I can mix up beautiful songs with being funny, which makes it irresistible to people.”
While Soderberg has performed at gay-pride celebrations around the country—including much bigger celebrations—she said Palm Springs Pride is an especially wonderful event.
“First of all, it’s the last one of the year,” she said. “It also has this charm to it. I sang in San Francisco for a half-million people at gay pride; that’s a far cry from Palm Springs gay pride, but the energy of Palm Springs and the genuineness—you can’t find that anywhere else. It is just so intimate, and it’s a celebration, especially with marriage equality this year. It’s so exciting.”
The Stonewall Equality Concert takes place from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday, Nov. 1, at the “Forever Marilyn” statue, at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. Other scheduled performers include the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus, DJ Corey D spinning a retro ’80s mix, Doug Strahm and Arro Verse. Admission is free. Visit pspride.org/pride-2013/equality-concert for more information.