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The Indy native on worming tobacco, her first days in NYC, and coveting Jim Nabors’ song.
Age: 77 Gig: Actress, singer, and host of her own talk show.
Track star: The Southern Indiana native will sing the opening number at the Indianapolis 500 this month, a tradition she started 20 years ago.
I am the youngest of 10 kids. And the fact that I could sing and entertain people—that came from being the youngest.
My father was a tobacco sharecropper. We used to have to worm the tobacco. You have to pull these huge worms off of the leaves and make sure they’re dead.
We were very poor. Dealing with poverty and adversity either makes you stronger or you go the other way.
I was so naive when I moved to New York, but I knew who I was, and I knew what my values were. I never ended up on the casting couch.
One of my greatest thrills is to sing [“God Bless America”] at the Indy 500. Right before you go on the track, you talk it out with the conductor. There is no chance to rehearse.
I have gotten a lump in my throat at times. I think about my brothers who fought in World War II and the Korean War. When the planes fly overhead, it always makes me cry.
You can’t cry while you’re singing, though.
After I sing and Mari Hulman says, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines,” we run like crazy to see the beginning of the race. It’s unbelievable. The energy, the way the crowd is right there, when you see the size of that track and realize that people all around the world are watching.
Jim Nabors is from Alabama. He’s been singing the song [“Back Home Again in Indiana”] for years, so it’s just tradition. Sometimes I wish I were singing his song. I almost did one year, because he couldn’t make it. The whole crowd was supposed to sing with me, but there was a glitch, and it never happened.
I used to go to the Black & White Ball, but it’s too loud, and since I have to sing, it’s just too hard on my voice.
I love what I do. I always feel that the best job is coming tomorrow.
This interview originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.