Irene Soderberg

Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Illustration by Davidd Batalon
Illustration by Davidd Batalon

When my pal Joey, who owns Latitude 33 restaurant, Asian fusion with New Mexican influences and ingredients, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, told me about a friend of his who’s participated, produced, or performed in over one thousand AIDS benefits, I said, “Beat me a path to her door, Darling!”

When I arrive at Irene Soderberg’s abode in West Hollywood (the first environmentally green building in the dynamic city), she welcomes me with open arms. From the get-go, this singer, comedian, actor is charismatic, bursting with charm, and filled with a zest for life!

“The Fairy Godmother,” as Irene is known, is of Finnish descent (she taught her parents English and she speaks five languages), and was raised on a farm in a wee town in Washington. Irene worked in the fields from the time she was eight, as the family lived off the land raising cattle, growing veggies, and even churning their own butter.

Irene had a holistic upbringing and her mom was a psychic healer. Nearly twenty-five years ago she was diagnosed with HIV (having been

Photo by Carlo Cappomazza
Photo by Carlo Cappomazza

infected by her former husband), and decided to not go the Western route for treatment. She’s never taken any HIV medication.

We convene in her bubbly living room, with photographs, collages, and art fabric hanging on the walls. Her new CD, Irene Soderberg, along with her previous release, This Is My Life, lies on the coffee table and a sewing machine sits nearby, where Irene stitches many of her stage clothes.

Ruby Comer: So, tell me about your decision to not take the meds, Irene.
Irene Soderberg:
I had a doctor who tried to put me on HIV medication, believing she knew what was best. I’d done research since 1982 and knew more about HIV therapies and their side effects than most doctors. My health was so good that I refused. I found another doctor who respected my holistic, alternative choices. By doing my vitamin/herbal regimen, it’s kept my T-cell count very high and my viral load undetectable. I have that capacity [to do it on my own] and I choose to heal through music, laughter, and connection to hearts. When I’m on stage, I feel connected with the audience and they do too. [She shoots a sharp smile my way, then adds]…I get tested every six months at The Lesbian and Gay Center here in Los Angeles.

It’s full-tilt elation to feel empowered….
[She nods passionately.] Many people rely on what doctors say. Educate yourself! Knowledge is power. Research all the alternatives rather than taking pills for everything. It’s your body!

I couldn’t have said it better myself, sister. Listen, I want to know more about your husband, your initial diagnosis, and the impact it had on you.
My initial diagnosis was the first night I spent with Mark. It seems crazy, but that first night in April we went home together, I viscerally knew/felt it that night. I married him eight months later, because of it. I was on that ride and there was no turning back. I spent two years thinking I was about to die, then I left him, and set out to live my life in the most positive and inspiring way that I could!

Great Gatsby, good for you! What accounts for your continued motivation to perform at AIDS fundraisers?
Losing over 300 friends between 1982 and 1990. [She pauses and peers out the window that looks over the trees clear to the Pacific Ocean.] When I moved to Hawaii in 1982 and started working at Hamburger Mary’s, I acquired many gay friends. One of them was a doctor from San Francisco. One day he said to me, “See all those beautiful men laying there on Waikiki beach, Queen’s Surf? Fifteen of those men are my patients.” That was the impetus for me. I had to do something, so I started doing AIDS benefits.

Thank you—from the heart—for all your efforts, Irene….
Oh, Ruby, when I saw those beautiful men on that beach, I knew I had to effect a change. These boys had been my advocates, supporters, 5cdCoverIreneHi Res web

encouraging me to shine in all of my unique, quirky glory. They told me I was fabulous—from being a funny, chubby girl to showing the world I was like no one else! The more outrageous I was, the more they applauded. I had to help my boys…they gave me my life, and now they were losing theirs.

Oy vey ist mir. You’ve known a lot of people….Which individual has inspired you the most?
I meet people who inspire me in all my interactions. I’m lucky to still have hundreds of friends whom I’ve known for twenty-plus years. I’ve been most inspired by my beloved girlfriend Cindy. She taught me about love—about unconditional love. I’ve always been with men, so this was a new situation for me. She knew it when she saw me twelve years ago singing in Palm Springs. She’s…a…revelation, and we had a daughter, who is now five years old. Ella is an incredible being, a beautiful prodigy, whose light will shine to the world. She helped me heal….

Five years ago I would get sick if I only had one drink. My life [living] in Portland and Hawaii was a time that we drank a lot! I wasn’t an addict, but I stressed my body out with alcohol. I was working like crazy, driving back and forth to gigs every week for fifteen years. I pushed myself too hard and never gave my body a chance to rest and heal. It got to the point where I was taken to Cedars-Sinai ER. I spent four days in intensive care.

Afterwards, a good friend provided a safe haven, their guesthouse, where I spent four months healing and recuperating. I simply stopped drinking alcohol. I also stopped drinking any sodas. Since then I’ve had a run of surgeries that stopped my career. Three years ago I couldn’t walk, because of complications from surgeries. I’ve managed to stay healthy despite all odds, which is an attribute to my holistic regimen.

I consider you a role model, Ms. Irene, or rather, Fairy Godmother. How in the world did you come to coin yourself that moniker?
In 1988 I started out professionally as The Fairy Godmother in San Francisco for a big benefit, “Men Behind Bars.” It was an all-volunteer show with a cast of 125 of the best singers, dancers, actors, and musicians. It’s still one of the most spectacular shows ever produced to this day! After twenty-five years I’m still using it and, at times, it became a fitting title for some of my tours. My new tour is called “This Is My Life.” I travel around the country from resorts to hospitals, bars to churches, benefits to fundraisers. The Fairy Godmother brings laughter, music, magic, healing, and inspiration into people’s lives! Who doesn’t need that?

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Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]