By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Universal Music
It was 30 years ago when Reba McEntire – music legend, gay icon, the epitome of country glamour – made Bobby Gentry’s “Fancy” her own. A feminist statement about a woman who turns to sex work to overcome childhood poverty, the story-song became synonymous with McEntire after her version surpassed the original on the country music charts. McEntire’s remake was featured on her 1990 album Rumor Has It, her 17th studio album. It has resurfaced three decades later in an anniversary edition, featuring two new versions of “Fancy.” One, a dance mix, was produced by DJ Dave Audé; the other is an acoustic live version.
On Zoom from her home just outside Nashville, McEntire greets me on my computer screen with her signature Southern charm and a full-face smile. Strands of her fire-red hair are being repositioned by an assistant’s floating hand. “I’m never my own glam squad,” she says. “I have (makeup artist) Neil (Robison) here with me. We were up bright and early this morning gettin’ ready, and I have my team to make sure I am decent.”
Even amid a pandemic, the sight of an undone Reba is … well, let’s just say there’s a better chance of getting a reboot of her hit TV series Reba (she’s on board). Because no-frills Reba? “I wouldn’t do that to ya,” she jokes.
During our conversation, the superstar reflected on how “Fancy” solidified her gay icon status, what impresses her most about drag queens who have performed the song, and why she doesn’t “judge the book by the cover” when it comes to the queerness of out country artists Orville Peck and Lil Nas X.
What do you remember about the photoshoot and that whole look for the Rumor Has It cover?
I don’t remember much about the photoshoot except (that) it was Sandi Spika who did my clothes and my hair back in the, oh, late ’80s and ’90s, and then all the way up until I went to do Annie Get Your Gun in 2001. She did my clothes, my hair, and it was her idea to do the rip-off inspired by the Barbra Streisand photoshop album cover. So we did that and everybody loved it. Of course it was the last setup of the day because she had worked two hours on all this hair and then, of course, we had it underneath that little scarf and the hat.
When you go to Walmart like you did to show your Twitter followers the Rumor Has It vinyl – well, first of all, do you always go out to Walmart looking like yourself?
No! Ha! We just popped in to visit the record department and sign a few albums. They were rippin’ the plastic off the record cover and I was signin’ some. It was fun. It was fun just to pop in and kind of make a little surprise appearance and then leave.
So you went there expecting to be noticed as Reba.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I had my mask on.
When you go as yourself do people actually believe it’s you or do they think they’re getting a Reba look-alike?
No, pretty much they go right for it, especially when I talk.
It’s the voice.
If I say something, then they’re (like), “I knew it was you!”
Are you saying no drag queen could duplicate that voice?
Some have gotten real close!
It’s been 30 years since “Fancy” was released, and by the time it was released in 1990, you already had a fairly devoted LGBTQ following. But with “Fancy,” is that when you knew you were a gay icon?
If I wasn’t sure, I was definitely sure after I released “Fancy,” yes. I don’t have any reason to think that I had a big gay following before that, but I think I did. But it just increased a lot by the time “Fancy” got out, and then the clothes changes and all that kind of stuff.
There was a whole drag explosion because of the song. Is that what you’re referring to?
For your gay fans, hearing “Fancy” at a gay bar after midnight was sort of just another day. Do you have any memories of hearing “Fancy” at a gay bar yourself?
No, no. Can’t say I have.
I feel like you’ve missed out. These 30 years have gone by and not one time have you stepped into a gay bar and heard “Fancy.”
I’m gonna have to make that happen!
What do the drag queens who have done “Fancy,” including Kennedy Davenport and Miz Cracker’s performance on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, get wrong and right when they’re performing that song?
Any time I have seen on television or YouTube anybody doing “Fancy” in drag I am in awe of their makeup and the time that they have spent to get all dolled up and just look fantastic. Anybody who can sing that whole song in heels and the outfits that they wear, hey, I’m applaudin’. There’s not gonna be any criticism from me at all.
I watched when you dropped the dress at the CMAs and a lot happens in the face. It’s a lot of acting.
Oh, attitude. Lots of attitude.
Well, drag queens have that.
You bet. I do know this: That they get my hand motions down pat, and the way I stand, and it’s just very flattering. I love it.
The “Fancy” remix on the anniversary reissue is produced by Dave Audé. What kind of input did you give Dave on what you wanted for the dance mix?
I didn’t. When a person knows how to do that, do a dance mix, I’m not one to give advice or say, “Do it this way or that way.” That’s their forte. Let them do their job. I think he did a great job.
I’ve talked to you twice in the past about LGBTQ issues. One of our conversations was about marriage equality, and you came out in support of it. It was a big moment. I remember seeing the headlines: Reba McEntire says everybody deserves marriage rights no matter their sexual orientation. And you illustrated why with a couple of friends of yours. Do you think that you’ve been able to be a bridge between the LGBTQ community and the conservative community who had or have trouble embracing LGBTQ people?
Maybe. I haven’t asked. I’m not the type of person who forces my views and my opinions on other people when they are so adamant about it, but I am a person that will discuss it and say why I am the way that I am. I walked (my friends) Nathan and Justin down the aisle. It’s all because of love. It has nothing to do with anything except those two boys I love with all my heart and I wanted to be there for ’em. And if we just love each other and quite judgin’, I think this world would be a lot better place. It’s not my job to judge. I don’t want that job, at all. I just want to love people.
I wanted to know if you have heard Orville Peck’s version of “Fancy” and what you thought of it. Also, what do you think of him and his contribution to country music as an out gay artist?
I loved his version of “Fancy.” I thought it was different. I liked how he kept the music, the production, real low until the end of the song and then it got real big. I was expecting it earlier, so that was a great surprise. But I’ve just got introduced to him, because of his remake of “Fancy,” and so I’m not that familiar with him to answer the second part of the question.
What do you think is the significance of Lil Nas X being the first openly gay Black artist to win a CMA award for “Old Town Road”?
See, here’s the deal: You’re putting more emphasis on him being gay. To me, I looked right past that. I saw he was a very talented young man who had a vision about this song and he pursued it and it turned into a huge thing. I respected him for that. That he’s gay – that didn’t change my mind about how much I admired him for pursuing his dream.
Yeah. I guess in an industry where it has felt that it’s difficult for a gay person to breakthrough – and a Black person, for that matter – on my end, it seems like a big deal.
Yeah, I can see why. But it’s kind of like, I don’t judge the book by the cover; you gotta know the person, and if I don’t know the person, I’m taking the information I can get – talent, ambition, perseverance, a gift – and going with that.
Have you met Lil Nas?
I haven’t. But I know Billy Ray (Cyrus, who appears on the “Old Town Road” remix with Lil Nas X). I’ve looked and seen a lot of things about (Lil Nas X) in different stories. I think it was a Sunday morning program that I learned more about him. But admiration. Total admiration for him doing that.
How’s life in quarantine been for you? Is everybody healthy? Are you healthy?
All of my bunch are doing very well, thank you for asking. And I’ve really enjoyed the quarantine because I never had this much time off. I’m enjoyin’ it. I’m just relaxing. I grew a garden this year and I’m cookin’ out of it. I’m lovin’ it. It was weird, the first two months. In March, April and May I was in Oklahoma after my mom passed and we were cleaning her house out and separating everything, and then I came back to Tennessee after Mother’s Day and just kind of stayed out in the country, so not around big crowds at all.
I know you’re an “everything happens for a reason” person, and I was thinking about that because of what is happening to all of us in some way, shape or form right now. We’re all going through our own challenges with the pandemic. What do you believe is the reason for what is happening to us right now? Have you thought about that?
I’ve got different philosophies. Sometimes when things happen to me – like when I broke my leg skiing in ’96 – I always thought that was God’s way of saying, “Slow down, slow down, you’re going way too fast.” Not only skiing – but in life in general. So I see the good things that have come out of the pandemic and the quarantining, where families are sittin’ at the table again eating supper together and breakfast and being a unit instead of everybody going (in) different directions, running 100 miles per hour.
There are bad things that have happened because of people being sick and losing their lives and people losing their loved ones. That hurts my heart. But if I had to say the good parts about the quarantine, it’s that we’ve slowed down. Everybody goes too fast. And if we can just focus on the good and not so much of the bad, I think we’ll just be better off. Just take the good out of every situation you can get and not just dwell on the bad.
How do you stay so optimistic through everything that’s been happening that has me all shook up?
It comes with age because you can’t do anything about it, one way or the other. So you can choose to dwell in the misery or you can just search with all your might to try to find the more positive things that are coming out of the situation. That’s just what I try to do. I remember a long time ago, (I decided) to stay away from negative people because that’s infectious and it’s contagious, and I try to stay and hang out with positive people. It just makes the day so much brighter and easier. It just flows easier. Everything goes better.
To end, since we’re here for Rumor Has It, what have been some of the craziest rumors you’ve read about yourself?
There was one out just this past week about everybody up in arms about me investing in a CBD store or company or something. Well, I’ve never done that. And then somebody was telling me, “Well, I saw it; here it is,” and I said, “Well, I didn’t do that,” and then another friend in another part of the country sent it to me and said, “Did you do this?” I did not invest in a CBD company. And then there was a lot of very famous entertainers in this article that said, “Reba’s turned me onto this CBD; I am just so thrilled.” Garth Brooks being one of them. I don’t see how they get away with it.
So, you’re not having CBD gummies with Garth? That’s never happened?
Well, we’re gonna nip that one in the bud.
Thanks. I need all the help I can get. Ha!
It was great to talk to you, Reba.
Good talkin’ to you too. Stay well, stay healthy and be safe, and I hope we get to talk soon in person or over the phone. I enjoy visitin’ with you.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.