With a new album, Lynda Carter returns to her first love before Wonder Woman made her famous. The revival of the superhero and the #MeToo movement makes it a good time to consider the past, finds Rachel Dodes
On a Friday evening in March, 10 studio musicians, most from Nashville, Tennessee, are tightly clustered in a living room in Potomac, Maryland, tuning their instruments and waiting for Lynda Carter, the actress best known for playing Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series of the same name.
After a few minutes, Carter enters the room, huddles with her band and apologises for the delay. She explains that she has just come off the phone from Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and her husband, Paul.
“They called to say congratulations on the new album and they’re sorry they can’t be with us this time around,” says Carter, 66, wearing not a leotard, high red boots and gold cuffs but a navy blazer, black trousers and slip-on trainers, her hair in a high ponytail, earlobes dripping with diamonds. “They’re at the Houston rodeo with the family. Isn’t that nice?”
For more than three decades, this onetime beauty queen turned actress and singer has cut a glamorous figure in this well-heeled suburb of Washington. The next evening, Carter and her band would be performing at the Kennedy Center, after which they were hitting the road for a brief tour, stopping in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, to celebrate the release of her fourth studio album, Red Rock n’ Blues.
The title of the album, her first in six years, refers to how she was feeling “kind of patriotic and also kind of, you know,” she says as she smiles and raises her middle finger. “Like, ‘We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere.’”
The “we” she is referring to is nothing less than womankind. The rise of the #MeToo movement coupled with the resurrection of Wonder Woman as a blockbuster movie franchise has caused Carter to revisit some of her own experiences in the entertainment business. Married to Robert A Altman since 1984, she recently told him for the first time that she had been sexually assaulted early on in her career. She didn’t want to name the perpetrator publicly, she says, partly because she had consulted a lawyer who told her there was no recourse at this point.
“Mostly,” she says, “I don’t want to make this about me. It’s about, ‘What can I say that might help other women?’”
With an eclectic mix of songs like Duffy’s 2008 pop-soul hit Mercy, and a slowed-down reinterpretation of the Motown classic Stop! In the Name of Love, the album showcases Carter’s sweet yet powerful voice and also pays tribute to her family. She wrote a country love song for Altman, a former lawyer who is the chairman and chief executive of ZeniMax, a video game company.
There’s also a ballad called Change Just a Little, dedicated to their son, James Altman, 30. Their daughter, Jessica Altman, 27 (both children are also lawyers), accompanies Carter on a couple of Everly Brothers songs, but at the Kennedy Center, they belted out the female power anthem Somethin’ Bad, recorded by Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert.
“When she asked me to be on the album, it was a no-brainer,” says Jessica Altman, who is sitting on the floor during the rehearsal sipping tea from a Wonder Woman mug.
The couple’s sprawling Georgian-style mansion contains its fair share of Wonder Woman memorabilia, such as a needlepoint pillow on the living room sofa, a bobblehead on a kitchen shelf and dozens of photographs on the walls. “We’ve tried to keep up with our own history,” Carter says. “I have a lot of albums, but when the photos are in books, it’s harder to access them.”
Because of Carter’s enduring portrayal of Diana Prince in Wonder Woman, many fans don’t know that she was a singer long before she ever auditioned for an acting role. At 14, she stopped waiting tables at her uncle’s restaurant in Winslow, Arizona, after realising she could earn $50 a night singing in a band. Although she was a good student and qualified for an academic scholarship to attend Arizona State University, she couldn’t resist the lure of the road. So she left home, promising her father that she would post him every other wage packet to save.
“My husband once asked my mother, ‘Why on earth would you let your 17-year-old daughter go on tour with a bunch of musicians?’” Carter recalls. “My mother said, ‘Excuse me, have you ever tried to talk Lynda out of something she made up her mind to do?’”
While touring with various bands, Carter learned about music theory from jazz musicians and performed at Las Vegas lounges, borscht belt hotels in New York, honky-tonk joints in the South and supper clubs throughout the country. She remembers she was somewhere in the Midwest, in between gigs, when she saw a thirtysomething female lounge singer onstage and had an epiphany.
“I woke up the next day and couldn’t stop crying,” Carter says. “I thought, ‘That’s me in 10 years.’”
She gave notice to the band, called the Garfin Gathering, and went home to regroup.
Carter signed with a local modelling agency – she was 5ft 9in, with long dark hair and stunning blue eyes – and within the span of a month had been crowned Miss Phoenix, Miss Arizona and then Miss World USA. She points to a framed picture of herself, wearing a crown, a sash and a minidress, stepping out of a plane in the early 1970s. She notes that while her mother was proud, she found the whole beauty-queen thing ridiculous.
“You have to visualise the time. Women’s lib! Burn the bra! Gloria Steinem!” she says. “And I had some guy telling me I needed a chaperone and had to go cut a ribbon somewhere. It wasn’t me.”
She returned to music, recording a few singles in England with EMI before moving to Los Angeles, where she took acting lessons with the well-known coach Charles Conrad. That’s where she met a young aspiring actor named Les Moonves, who became her scene partner and close friend. “He was so cute,” Carter says of Moonves, who is now chairman and chief executive of CBS.
The Miss World USA crown got her in the door for auditions, but Carter was disheartened to find limited roles for women. She nabbed a few small parts in TV movies playing “the pretty girl,” she says, which enabled her to get her SAG-AFTRA card while earning extra money playing gigs and singing advertising jingles.
Then came Wonder Woman in 1975, which turned Carter into a household name and international sex symbol. When the show was cancelled after three seasons, Carter, who by then was also the face of Maybelline cosmetics, was surprised.
“The show was larger than the executives realised at the time,” she says. “I was getting buckets of fan mail.”
After what she calls “an unfortunate chapter,” during which she was married to her former talent agent, Ron Samuels, Carter met Altman, in 1982. Maybelline was hosting a dinner in her honour in Memphis, Tennessee, and Altman was working with the legal team for Schering-Plough, then the cosmetics brand’s parent company. Once the relationship got serious, Carter says, she had absolutely no qualms about leaving Los Angeles and moving to the Washington area, where Altman lived.
“I was ready,” she says. “I wanted some substance in my life.”
She reaches into a cabinet and pulls out the blueprints for her house, which she and Altman built together in 1987, right before their son was born. “This was all farmland,” she says, looking out of a giant window in her study.
As the children were growing up, Carter took a hiatus from singing and touring with her band but continued to appear occasionally on TV shows and in films. She will soon reprise her role as Governor Jessman in a sequel to the 2001 cult comedy Super Troopers, which had its premiere in the US earlier this month. It will be out in the UK on 15 June.
She didn’t resume singing onstage until 2005, when she played Mama Morton in the long-running revival of the musical Chicago, in the West End. “My son was going to be a senior in high school, and I was about to be an empty nester,” Carter says.
Patty Jenkins, the director of the movie version of Wonder Woman, offered her a cameo, but Carter was on the road with her band and too busy to make the filming schedule work. For Wonder Woman 2, which will be released in November 2019, she says, “I will back Patty on whatever decision she makes.”
She and Jenkins met in person for the first time at the United Nations in the autumn of 2016, just before the election, at an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Wonder Woman character. They hit it off right away and realised they even had the same birthday, 24 July.
“My mom is hands-down Patty’s biggest fan,” Jessica Altman says.
Carter says: “I think you said, ‘Mom! This is like a bromance,’” adding that she also bonded with Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who now wields the Lasso of Truth.
After the success of Wonder Woman, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce offered Carter a star on the Walk of Fame. It was unveiled at a ceremony earlier this month with introductory speeches from Moonves and Jenkins.
“Most people say, ‘You don’t have a star yet?’ And I say, ‘Nope!’” Carter says. “When the new Wonder Woman movie came out I guess it reinvigorated the idea.”
At the Kennedy Center, she couldn’t help but do Wonder Woman’s signature move, the transformational twirl, for a cheering audience that included Tipper Gore, former baseball star Cal Ripken Jr and democrat politician Debbie Dingell.
But by this point, she has already kicked off her stilettos and is wearing sensible flats.
“I can’t take it anymore!” she tells the crowd. “I tried it, and I’m done. Burn the bra! Burn the heels!”
© NYT 2018