Ravaged by the drug addiction she fell into after the death of her father Nat King Cole, singer Natalie Cole was dying of kidney disease. Then, she tells Rebecca Hardy, fate intervened
Natalie Cole is such a cheery soul I’m pretty sure she’d find joy in a bank holiday traffic jam. ‘Life is such a gift, I just say thank you all day,’ she says, flashing the sunniest of smiles. ‘I’m like the poster child for going through a lot of s*** and coming up smelling of roses.’
And boy, has she gone through it. So much so, it’s a wonder she’s here at all. Drug addiction, hepatitis C, kidney failure and, most recently, a kidney transplant that saved her life.
Not to mention the many sad losses in her life, from the death of her father, the legendary Nat King Cole, when she was just 15, to her beloved sister Cookie four years ago and her mother Maria last
Strewth, Natalie. Don’t you ever sob, rant, cry, ‘Why me?’ ‘I’m not a superwoman,’ she says. ‘I was brought to my knees. But I do believe that here [she taps her head] is where everything happens. Rather than thinking, “Poor me”, you turn it into something positive.’
Today, Natalie looks fit as a flea at 63. She hasn’t felt this good for years.
In 2007 she was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a legacy of her years of self-destructive drug abuse, which reached its peak at the height of her early fame. Natalie was 25 and head-over-heels in love with her son’s father, songwriter/producer Marvin Yancy, when she emerged as one of the biggest female soul singers on the planet with her number one album Inseparable in 1975.
Within two years she had her first platinum record Unpredictable and, by 1979, her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s since sold over 30 million records.
But she was a troubled soul. The second oldest of jazz legend Nat King Cole’s five children, she adored her father and was devastated by his death in 1965 from lung cancer, just nine days after her 15th birthday. ‘I was at boarding school in Massachusetts,’ she says.
‘From that moment on I can’t really tell you what happened. I was in shock. They put me on a plane and I cried all the way back to LA. It was a horrible, horrible week.’ She soon began taking what she calls ‘a conga line of substances,’ later graduating to heroin and crack cocaine. ‘If the pain is bad enough you’ll do anything you can to avoid it, anything to keep from feeling that way again: drugs, bad decisions with men – apart from my son’s father.’
Indeed, following her divorce after four years of marriage to Yancy, Natalie married disastrously twice.
Her third marriage to Kenneth Dupree, a bishop, ended in 2004 – three years before her hepatitis C diagnosis. ‘I was shocked when the doctor told me,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t have imagined the aftermath of doing drugs 30 years earlier would come back with such a vengeance. The medication I had to take was a form of chemotherapy. You feel like death every day. No appetite. No energy. But the treatment worked. It cured my liver 80 per cent, but compromised my kidneys.’
Natalie was in New York when kidney disease was diagnosed. ‘I was having trouble breathing so a friend of mine called her doctor. He took one look at me and said, “You need to come to my office.” He took X-rays and said, “Your kidney is operating at eight per cent. I need to get you into hospital right now.” Within two days I was on dialysis.’
The normal life expectancy for a patient with chronic kidney failure is between three and five years, and donors are in very short supply. But Natalie had been on dialysis for only eight months when a kidney was found, after she appealed on CNN’s Larry King Live.
Natalie’s donor was a young woman called Jessica from El Salvador who died while heavily pregnant with her baby boy Lucas. Jessica was the niece of a nurse called Esther, who had once tended to Natalie. It’s a miracle Jessica’s kidney was a match. ‘I’d had surgery in LA for an infection and Esther looked after me,’ says Natalie. ‘A couple of weeks later she was watching Larry King with Jessica.
‘She said to her, “I took care of that lady for a day and she was so nice. I wish we could find her a kidney.” A few weeks later Jessica passed away. She was eight months pregnant and had a stroke. They saved the baby and the family gave all her organs away. Esther said, “I know a lady who needs the kidney.” It was a perfect match. It was meant to be.’
A miracle? Perhaps, but, given the ‘gift’ that’s Natalie’s life, one wrapped in tragedy. She was with her sister Cookie, who was desperately ill in hospital with lung cancer, when she received the call that a kidney was available and had to take the awful decision to leave her bedside. ‘Cookie passed away several hours later. It was devastating. She was my biggest cheerleader and my best friend. I’m still not over it.’
Then last year, to add to Natalie’s misery, her mother died of stomach cancer just three months after being diagnosed with the illness. She shows me a photograph of her gorgeous mum on her phone. ‘That’s her at 70-something. She’d had about three facelifts,’ she chuckles.
Natalie had already lost her only brother, Nat, in 1995 after a long illness. ‘There’s only me and my 52-year-old twin sisters Timolin and Casey left now. We were with her every minute of every day at the end. She was still funny.
‘We talked about Dad a little and she said, “I’ll be seeing your dad,” which was very interesting because my father had said he wanted to divorce her when he passed away [the couple had already split up]. We put some of his music on.
‘On the second day she said, “OK, you can take it off now.” We were all cracking up. Losing people is dark, but some things you just have to accept. I’ve always valued life but it’s heightened now. There’s no time to sit around – you can rest when you’re dead.’
Which is really why we’re here. Nine-times Grammy award-winning Natalie has released her first album since her 2009 kidney transplant – in Spanish – and it’s already the top-selling Latino CD in the US. Natalie says she felt a compulsion to make an album in Jessica’s native tongue in honour of the woman who saved her life. ‘I believe everything happens for a reason,’ she says.
‘You couldn’t have told me five years ago I’d even be doing a Spanish record, let alone that it would be the No1 Latin CD. This record is a tribute to that family’s love. They gave me life.
‘I feel more than blessed,’ she says. ‘I should have been dead a while ago, but I’m still here for a reason. I don’t know what the reason is so I just take it one day at a time.’ Article Link…