An original member of the Supremes, Mary Wilson has been performing since she was 14 years old. Since the group disbanded in 1977, she's established herself as a solo performer, an author and an advocate for humanitarian causes, In 2003, she was named a Cultural Ambassador for a Department of State program to improve international cross-cultural understanding. Last year she became a spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), a non-profit focused on finding solutions for humanitarian problems. At a time when food costs have shot up, Wilson is particularly proud of the HDI initiative that gives Food Stamp participants greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables by contributing $5 towards a minimum purchase of $5 at 46 farmers markets in upstate New York. Here's what she had to say about her involvement with HDI and the road that led her to where she is today:
Judith Weinraub: What kinds of things did you do as a cultural ambassador?
Mary Wilson: Each country was different. You performed, visited schools, talked about important issues like AIDS—in some places it was a subject that hadn't been spoken about. In [one country], Stop in the Name of Love became an AIDS anthem. In Laos we planted fruit trees so the children could have a balanced diet. In Bangladesh, we saw young children breaking blocks into building material. I talked about how the Supremes came from poverty, but you can still have a future. I gained a lot.
JW: A performer known for flash and glamour you aren't immediately associated with causes like bringing healthful foods to families who can't afford them. What appealed to you about the farmers' market program?
MW: When I was child in the Brewster Projects in Detroit, my mother had to use food stamps for some of our food. I remember going to the Eastern Market and dragging home 50 pound bags of potatoes. But the market was a pleasure. There was a wonderful feeling of getting the best fresh food.
JW: What kind of meals did you have?
MW: We ate well. Lots of fruits and vegetables and always a well rounded meal cooked at home—no fast foods. We didn't feel we were poor because our plates were always full.
JW: Aside from the healthy foods initiative, part of your responsibility as a cultural ambassador was to find talented young performers and mentor them. How did that work?
MW: It was a little like American Idol. You hear people sing, you listen and you critique.
JW: You've also spoken in women's prisons and even taught etiquette.
MW: Actually the main prison in Danbury in Ct. I had done a concert there and, through my former manager who lives in the area, I met a woman who helped run the prison. They had set up a program for women coming out of prison. I went back a couple of times and would give my "Dare to Dream" speech, and talk about re-entering society, how to do that gracefully and leave prison mentality behind. Etiquette is part of that. It's always important to present yourself well. You could see how those women needed an extra something to know how to do that.
JW: Speaking of concerts. Let's talk a bit about your solo career. You began performing alone after the Supremes disbanded and are still performing a great deal. What's that like?
MW: At first it was very awkward—and scary. I went to Europe, where people didn't know all about us, to learn to be out in front, and was able to do it without people catching on. After two or three years, I felt confident.
I travel with two singers, one tech and four musicians, so it's getting more expensive. I also like to invite women from the audience to come up and do backup. They love it, and it's amazing how many of them still know the old moves.
JW: So with all you're travelling as a performer you've still managed to find time for a lot of charitable and humanitarian activities. You were an international cultural ambassador; you're acting as a spokesperson for the HDI. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
MW: We always did that as Supremes, and our management set all that up, mostly as PR.
But we learned early on that as black women, we were ambassadors. We were the face of America, the face of Black America and the face of women.
After being a star celebrity for so many years, and experiencing life at its height, I realized I saw so many people less fortunate than I—especially children, and realized that could have been me. You say to yourself, I wanted to be a part of making things better.
Judith Weinraub is a New York writer and a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow.