It’s only very recently that I realised just how much approval I sought out when I was a child, a teen, a twenty-something, a thirty-something, even into my 40s… And then, just when I thought I’d die a ‘pleaser’, I hit 50 and, all of a sudden, I just didn’t give a shit!
So let me tell you that what society deems to be the ‘mature woman’s fate’ – to be irrelevant, invisible, not sexy – is a perverse lie we’ve been swallowing for decades.
My story is very typical of many women: who though confident and accomplished, turn ourselves inside out to be ‘enough’.
I know where it comes from.
I couldn’t make my mother happy, well, or save her – no-one could – but every child thinks they can and should. And if they don’t, it’s a recipe for a lifetime on the therapists couch. Depression stole her life (and ours) and her ability to be a healthy female role-model. There’s no blame; just compassion for us all. Being able to recognise that tells me how far I’ve come.
Finding my unapologetic power
I recently met a woman who I instantly connected with. Outspoken, confident and brilliant, she happily thanked her mother for assuring her from birth that she was strong, brave, capable, ENOUGH, and didn’t need to be a ‘pleaser’. She encouraged her to leave any job, man or relationship that undermined or diminished her. I literally had to sit down.
What I loved the most about our meeting was that we shared the key to female empowerment, the route to finding that unapologetic power, and that was our admiration for, and encouragement of, all the great women we knew.
And therein lies the rub: women supporting women; as opposed to women seeing women as competition – for men, for jobs, for looks, for the few crumbs thrown for us to squabble over!
The role models who inspired me
Let me tell you about my epiphany, my ‘Damascus’, and who I finally became — thanks to the ‘unapologetic’, badass, female role-models of my childhood, and the thrilling album they inspired me to record.
When I was around 6, my dad played us Nellie Lutcher’s Fine Brown Frame (1948), and my world changed forever.
It was a revelation: brimming with female confidence, of sensuality and sexuality, that I felt, but didn’t yet understand. She was unique, joyful, and SO musically accomplished — never begging for approval, she simply dragged your numb body to the party.
For this hyper-sensitive, funny-but-self-conscious red-head, living in a depressive household in the curtain-twitching, emotionally stunted suburbs of 70s’ London, Lutcher was a revelation. And a promise of a different way of being.
After her came other jazz and blues queens – Pearl Bailey, Julia Lee, Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie… – and together they made me want to be a genre-breaking powerhouse at the piano.
Diversions and disappointments
Then life came along with all its hormones and syndromes, disorders and disappointments. But I pushed purposefully through, bracing my backbone, creating, recording, touring, pushing and prevailing in an industry that appreciated female empowerment and individuality — provided it fitted neatly into a category.
But I lost my connection to my performing self when I wasn’t working. I’d be on stage and on fire and then I’d go home to self-loathe and ruminate. I always cared too much about what others thought, how they judged me and my music, when in reality I was the only one judging.
Jump forward to year two of COVID, hot on the heels of my streamed show FFS! in which I said and played what I wanted to an equally anxious audience who needed distraction, laughter and connection.
The need for joy
I was fearless and, ironically, having the most fun — and that’s when I decided I’d rather stick forks in my eyes than record another ‘deep and meaningful’ album of self-exposing self-penned songs. What I needed – what we ALL needed – was joy, hope, positivity, distraction, escapism, NELLIE and the ladies. Nellie and those unapologetic ladies.
I’d been living in New Orleans since 2007, recording there and drawing inspiration from the spectacular music scene, but now I went straight to the source: finding those perfectly-suited players who sizzled with the gritty, greasy, sexuality found only in the birthplace of jazz.
Years of parading at Mardi Gras had also taught me to let go, wig up, wear costumes, celebrate life, and reconnect with my inner child, so I was well-armed to embrace the period and the persona of this music and these women in my creation ‘Lady J’, an alter-ego, like most performers have, and which allows me to go big and be brave.
I dressed for the recording sessions, I channeled sass, I was the leader, the boss, the woman in control. Everything had the 40s’/50s’ look: Rita Hayworth meets Hepburn meets Dietrich — all swinging red hair, men’s suits, ruby lips and a mischievous twinkle of the eye.
Something wonderful happened
And then the most wonderful thing happened: young women started to follow me. So many young women. They came to the shows, and they all asked pretty much the same questions after: ‘How are you so confident on stage and how can I be like that?’
I realised that they were reacting to me just like I’d reacted to those woman as a six-year-old. And I could have cried at the realisation that, not only had I finally become the unapologetic woman who was always gestating inside me, but I had become a grown-ass role-model to boot! And, I was enjoying every minute of it. On and offstage. Simply because I was the same person off and on. No more hiding behind the game face; it was ME all the time. And if other people loved it or hated it, I didn’t care.
I told these young women what I’d learnt: that performing this music had been an exercise in female self-confidence. And confidence is sexy at any age
Start your unapologetic journey
So here’s what I suggest to get you started on your unapologetic journey:
Create a ‘fun nite’ and wig up, dress up, make-up, wear a hat. (Don’t let it wear you)
Sing and dance along to empowering songs (my album is a great place to start!) like when you were a kid and pretended it was you up there on stage. (It’s always worked for me.) Let go and find your fabulous self.
Stop comparing; stop envying; start being unapologetically your true self.
Create a life mantra. Here’s what mine is – say it with me now – ‘I don’t give a shit!’
Judith’s new album is Come on & Get It
By Judith Owen