The batmitzvah girl who walked like an Egyptian

In the ’80s, Susanna Hoffs fronted hit all-girl band The Bangles. Now, she reveals her unexpectedly rabbinical background.

By Paul Lester, October 21, 2010
Susanna Hoffs, today, performing as guitarist and vocalist with the reunited Bangles.

Susanna Hoffs, today, performing as guitarist and vocalist with the reunited Bangles.

The Bangles had it all. Good looks, critical acclaim and a series of infectious chart hits. For a period in the 1980s, with songs such as Manic Monday, Walk Like An Egyptian and Eternal Flame, the all-girl four piece from California were one of the biggest acts in the music business. But there was something else that made them really special. Unlike other girl bands - think Spice Girls or Girls Aloud - The Bangles wrote much of their own material, actually played their instruments, and made their own decisions about how to present themselves.

It could not last however. The band split in 1990, and Susanna Hoffs was to blame. Well, not really. But it was her promotion by the press to unofficial frontwoman status - reporters were impressed by her photogenic looks - that hastened the band's demise.

"That definitely increased tension," admits Hoffs now, adding that being in The Bangles towards the end was like being part of a dysfunctional family. "Drugs and breakdowns weren't our problem. It was the stress of life on the road and living together like a family every second of every day with no escape route."

Hoffs is happy to talk about that painful time - 20 years on the girls have settled their differences and reformed. "It's really fun now. We travel and work all year round. Some of those conflicts in the '80s were hard to get through, but we did it. And here we are."

Born in 1959, Hoffs's upbringing was "arty". The creativity encouraged by her parents - her mother is movie director Tamar Simon - proved inspirational. "It was a very lively household with loads of discussion and debate," Hoffs says. She considers that it was "a kind of model for how I raise my own kids" (she has two by husband Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers movies and Meet The Parents). "I feel very lucky that I grew up in that way. It had a huge amount to do with how I ended up in a band."

Before she formed The Bangles, she studied arts at the University of California. It was the punk movement of the late-'70s that convinced her music was the right path. "I thought being in a rock band was the ultimate art project," she says, "because there was the visual stuff - the album covers, the clothes and the image - as well as the music and movement. It was theatrical." Hoffs was not a punk rebel; rather she describes herself as a "retro-beatnik bohemian type" who was, as the '80s dawned, "steeped in an obsession with '60s music and fashion". Luckily, she was not alone - local sisters Debbi and Vicki Peterson shared her interests. As soon as they met, it was platonic love at first sight. "It was weirdly instantaneous," Hoff says. "It was as if we ran off to Vegas that night and got married in an Elvis wedding chapel."

With Hoffs assuming guitar and vocal duties, Vicki Peterson on additional guitar and vocals, Debbi Peterson on drums and Michael Steele, the final member to join, on bass, The Bangles were ready. Hoffs remembers the early days as "a golden era when our wildest dreams were coming true". Funk superstar Prince was so smitten with the band that he used to turn up unannounced at their gigs; eventually, he provided them with a song, Manic Monday, that reached number two in the US and the UK. The rumours that she and Prince were involved in a relationship were, she insists, untrue.

The band in their chart-topping ’80s heyday

The band in their chart-topping ’80s heyday

"We never dated, but he did invite us down to his studio once and we jammed till three in the morning - unbelievable," she sighs. "It's almost like a dream now. Some of the stuff that's happened in my life has been so crazy."

Perhaps Hoffs has been unable to survive the craziness of her career because of her material grandfather, who, she says, instilled in her a sense of rectitude and duty. "He was a very prominent rabbi in the Chicago area," she says, proudly, of Rabbi Ralph Simon. "He won the Israel Man of the Year award in 1976. He marched with Martin Luther King. He was very active politically for Jewish and humanitarian causes. He was revered in his community and very special, a real intellectual but also a big-hearted guy. I was blessed to spend so many moments of my childhood in his company."

Her mother's eldest brother, Matthew Simon, also entered the family business. "He became a rabbi, and he still is one, in Maryland, near Washington DC. So there are a lot of strong Jewish roots in my family."

She adds that her childhood in Los Angeles "wasn't really traditional" - while her mother kept kosher, her father, Joshua, a psychoanalyst, came from a less Orthodox background. However, when Hoffs was 12, her family travelled to Israel where her grandparents were living at the time. It was there that she and her older brother marked their coming of age. "We went to the Wailing Wall and my brother, who's 13 months older than me, had a little ceremony. Then we went to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and I had a mini-batmitzvah. It was amazing."

Reissues of The Bangles's albums will be released, with extra tracks and new sleevenotes, by Cherry Red next month

Last updated: 2:01pm, October 21 2010