Jennifer Holliday: From Broadway to Advocacy

. May 9, 2018.

In 1981, a 21-year-old from Texan, Jennifer Holliday, took on the role of Effie White in the premiere of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. A year later, Holliday earned a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her role, later reprised by Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film adaptation. Holliday’s success was dynamic, but the joy was overshadowed by tragedy.

“It was at the beginning of the aids epidemic,” Holliday explains. “Broadway took a hard hit, as did Dreamgirls. Most of the male creative team and chorus died of AIDs. We were at a time where we would frequently get a call saying that someone died. It was heartbreaking. At that time, HIV/AIDs was such an unacceptable and inexplicable illness. A lot of funeral homes refused the bodies, families wouldn’t take them, and churches refused funeral services. It was a very devastating time.”

Fighting a conflict

The loss of her friends was not the only misfortune that Holliday had to confront. Afflicted with depression, Holliday navigated mental health challenges in tandem with physical problems before eventually receiving a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, over 20 years ago. But Holliday did not succumb to the news, or her doctor’s urging for her to retire.

“I couldn’t have two diseases. I had to fight the depression before I fought the MS. The medicines for the two health issues were in conflict, so one of them had to go,” Holliday remembers. “I had to get the darkness out of my mind. I started filling my mind with anything I could— phone numbers, addresses, I was constantly reading— so there would be no space for sadness to creep in.”
Holliday says she began to fight her depression “immediately,” despite her doctor’s warnings: “Unless [they’re] saying that I’m dying tomorrow, I have to figure [my health] out. [MS] is a hard illness, and there is no cure, so you have to maintain a great sense of hope. Regardless of what your illness is, we can manage life. We can cope. But, first of all, we have to make a choice to live. We have to choose to live even if we’re sick, don’t have money, or are in a bad spot. We have to choose life.”

The minor chord is universal

Holliday’s strength is obvious, but she encourages others to understand that her resilience is not unique: “It comes from lying in a hospital until they let you go. It comes from having no other choice. You have to believe it’s going to work out, and you have to know when to stand up for yourself.“

To share her spirit, Holliday began speaking and working as a mental health advocate. “Sometimes you don’t have the right words in your speech, but a song or melody helps you get it out,” she says. “I’m grateful that I have a gift of singing that can allow people to feel something. I’m also grateful that I have a name that people can use to fundraise and bring awareness to certain issues.”

On Saturday, May 12, Holliday will lend her voice to the Ann Wayson Locher Memorial Fund for HIV Care (University of Toledo Foundation Fund #2600-344) for their SWEETDREAMS fundraiser, a gala event to benefit a population that suffers from high rates of mental illness. Holliday’s own struggles illuminate the complex relationship between chronic illness, mental health, and stigma.

“We have to constantly seek ways to keep our health and wellness,” advises Holliday. “We all have to make an investment in ourselves.”

Holliday will perform and deliver an address. In addition, the evening will include jazz vocals by Toledo’s own Ramona Collins, cocktails, a presentation on mental health challenges, and a Southern-style buffet dinner.

$150+ | 6-10pm | Saturday, May 12.
Radisson Hotel at the University of Toledo,
3100 Glendale Ave.
For more information, contact
or call 419-383-4072.