Farewell Violetta Villas (10 June 1938 - 5 December 2011)
The night of John Waters's Christmas show at Royal Festival Hall, I came home to learn that the great, tempestuous Polish diva Violetta Villas (10 June 1938 – 5 December 2011) had died earlier that day at her home in the village of Lewin Klodzki aged 73. My Polish friend, work colleague and fellow Violetta fan Marta (the village where Marta is from borders Lewin Klodzki) had both texted me and Facebooked me alerting me of her death.
I first learned of the existence of Violetta Villas from the reliably excellent The Homoerratic Radio Show blog on 25 January 2011. It described her as a “Polska Yma Sumac” and provided a link to an MP3 of Villas singing an intoxicatingly strange but appealing Polka-Mambo hybrid entitled "Czterdziesci Kasztanów (Forty Chestnuts)": think Latin exotica from behind the Iron Curtain. You can listen to it here, and I recommend you do. I downloaded the song and frequently drop it into my Dr Sketchy set lists, especially towards the end when I'm drunk.
Intrigued, I started Googling Violetta Villas and hit the mother lode: Youtube was full of clips from her ultra- kitsch 1960s and 70s TV specials and film appearances. The next day at work Marta filled me in on the rest: how Villas’s promising international career (she was a celebrated Las Vegas headliner in the 1960s and appeared in some Hollywood films, including the legendarily awful 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon) was cut short by Communism, how she’s still revered in Poland now that she’s an elderly and eccentric recluse. I was so inspired that night when I blogged the latest Dr Sketchy set list, I incorporated a tribute to Villas (read it here), in which I rhapsodised:
" ... Villas is a berserk outsider artist; a wild low-budget Eastern European hybrid of Jayne Mansfield/Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita / Brigitte Bardot / Charo; a punk (her image and un-hinged performances can suggest Nina Hagen or Jayne County); and a self-parodic possessor of a camp /kitsch drag queen sensibility (is it deliberate or naive? Certainly her persona evokes the films of the Kuchar brothers and John Waters. There’s something wonderfully grotesque about how Villas deliberately buries her own natural beauty under the matted bouffant wigs and thick transvestite/ clown-like make-up)."
(Note: Marta has instructed me to point out I was wrong in claiming Violetta's hair was a wig. In spite of appearances, that wild, exploding mane of tousled blonde hair was apparently 100% Violetta's own, something she took fierce pride in. I stand corrected!)
In the English-speaking world there really haven’t been any decent, thoughtful Villas obituaries. When you Google, what you keep finding on the web is the same press release statement announcing her death and giving a brief summary of her career and accomplishments recycled over and over. Marta says that in Poland, meanwhile, Villas’s death has caused a media storm, which makes sense considering she was their super star equivalent of a Bardot, Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. Her life was always scandalous and troubled and so, it appears, was Villas’s death. Looking at photos and Youtube clips of Villas in her heyday, she’d clearly modelled herself on Brigitte Bardot. Like Bardot, when Villas retired from show business she devoted herself to animal activism, operating an animal shelter from her home. But unlike Bardot, Villas didn’t have the wealth or resources to adequately maintain her animal sanctuary and shortly before her death the Polish authorities shut down her menagerie due to “overcrowding and insufficient care.” To further multiply the humiliation, Marta says at the same time Villas was also briefly committed to a psychiatric institution. Villas’s only family at the time of her death was her son Krzysztof, to whom she was seemingly estranged (he's apparently given interviews to the Polish media highly critical of his mother). In the initial obituaries it mentioned the cause of her death was unknown and that an autopsy had been ordered. Marta has since said the autopsy revealed nothing abnormal or suspicious about Villas’s death. She’d announced her retirement from public performing earlier this year (her last-ever concert was on Valentine’s Day 2011) and was obviously in declining health. (I’d read something about tuberculosis, but I might have misinterpreted that). It looks like Villas simply died of old age at what these days we think of as the relatively young age of 73.
It would be nice to think Villas had found some serenity in her later years after a stormy life of great success followed by profound personal and professional disappointments. Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be the case. It’s a cliché, but the music of Violetta Villas will live on and surely cult status beckons for this outrageously original artist. The world is a duller place without her!
/ A very young, unpolished but utterly magnetic Violetta Villas at embryonic stage: still with puppy fat, darker hair, possibly pre-nose job. Adorable /
/ Sex kitten Villas in the late 1960s. I love the Jayne Mansfield squeals she emits at the beginning of the song, and the wild costume changes (leopard print bathing suit, Little Bo Peep; towards the end she appears to be wearing the rubber mini skirt and thigh boots of a dominatrix) /
/ Villas tearing apart "Strangers in the Night" ... accompanied by a troupe of mimes in face paint. Watch for the climactic moment when she smashes her Champagne glass /
/ Violetta Villas at her absolute zenith in 1970, singing in Russian in the 1971 Polish film Dzieciol. Wow ... just wow. This is majestic. Let's remember Violetta Villas this way! /