At 60, cabaret star Lorna Luft has seen it all. The daughter of Hollywood legend Judy Garland and film producer Sidney Luft, she lost her mother to an accidental overdose, watched her half-sister Liza Minnelli’s rapid rise to stardom and suffered the psychological impact of battling breast cancer. Now in remission, and an ambassador for cancer research, Luft will be performing a selection of seasonal music and “songs my mother taught me” in London next month.
Luft says she was always destined for a career in showbiz. The Hollywood life was the norm for her, having grown up in a home where stellar musicians, dancers and directors would visit regularly to shoot the breeeze with her Episcopalian mother and Jewish father. “To me, they were just people, they were just my mum’s friends. Other people might not think that’s normal, but that’s my normal. There are lots of children who have celebrities as parents but only a few of us have legends as parents. We’re ‘the children of’ and part of an unspoken club.”
In the diverse environment of her childhood home, she “was raised to accept all religions — our house had a church and a synagogue. We respected all religions and learnt to not believe that yours is better than anyone else’s.”
She made her performing debut on her mother’s TV show in 1963, chatting to singer Jack Jones and belting out a rousing version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. An iconic image from her earlier years shows her being held up to the mic by her smiling mother.
“All those memories are still with me,” she says. “It’s always like that. Some families are a family of lawyers, others are doctors. Mine just happened to be a family in showbusiness. I might have wanted to be a nurse when I was five-years-old but I was always going to go into showbiz.”
No shrinking violet by anyone’s standards, Luft says there is no competitiveness with her equally brash elder sister. In fact, the duo have performed together on a number of occasions and speak at least twice a week.
“I’m so proud of Liza, she’s amazing,” Luft enthuses. “I was so happy with her rise to stardom and to watch her become a force of nature on stage. There’s no rivalry because of the seven-year age gap. When we were children
I was probably a real pain in the ass. I would always follow her around, as a sister does.”
Luft’s own career has incorporated film roles such as Paulette Rebchuck in Grease 2 and she is also an author and Emmy-nominated producer. She honed her cabaret style by performing in New York night clubs. “The clubs gave me the skills to perform today,” she explains. “I just love the intimacy of cabaret. People come to have a good time and not think about their troubles.”
And her musical standards are high. She admits that she is not a “big fan of the copycats. I only listen to the originals. The originals who really started a sound and made a change. I mean, what would Frank Sinatra have done without Bing Crosby?”
She is on top of current trends, admiring Lady Gaga and Madonna and “was a big fan of Amy Winehouse. I loved her whole package. I thought she was the real deal, from her lyrics to music and performance.” Her advice to the aspiring “original” is “to learn to do it all. You’d better learn to be the triple threat — sing, dance and act.” She counts singer Barry Manilow, theatre director Walter Bobbie and concert pianist Michael Feinstein among her “dear friends”.
In February 2012 Luft was diagnosed with breast cancer, recalling the diagnosis as “like being hit in the face by Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. I was terrified, scared, in denial. I literally didn’t know what to do.” After intially postponing treatment, she was pushed to get “educated and was victorious. My doctor told me to put on my paint and go to war. So that’s what I did.”
Her hair has started to grow back and the impact on her performance has been positive. “When I was diagnosed, I asked my doctor: ‘Will it affect my voice’? He said: ‘Yes, from this day on every song will have a new meaning.’ And it really does.”
And although Luft has followed the family showbiz tradition, Vanessa and Jesse, her children from her first marriage to Israeli-born rock musician Jake Hooker, have chosen more mainstream careers. “My kids have no interest in it. My daughter wants to be a chef and my son works in computers.”
“Looking forward” to her London shows, she adds: “I respect the British theatre and culture. All the art forms that are typically British. I know England very well, I used to come back and forth as a child. Plus my husband [Colin Freeman] is British, so we’re going to get a chance to see his family, who live just outside Portsmouth.
“Colin is not Jewish but he’s got every Jewish phrase — Yiddish is so expressive,” she laughs. “Plus, he loves a deli. Trust me.”
Lorna Luft’s Back in Business is at The Crazy Coqs — www.crazycoqs.com — Brasserie Zedel, in London’s Piccadilly, from December 3-7 and 10-14