It's a label Liza Minnelli cherishes, and one she's never fully understood.
"Gay icon." Ask her to explain it, and she'll come up empty.
On Google, Minnelli's name alongside that two-word phrase cues up 117,000 results. When she performed back east this spring, the Huffington Post's headline even credited her with economic clout: "Liza Minnelli's Borgata Hotel Performance Helps Renew Gay Travelers' Interest In Atlantic City."
A 2009 survey from http://www.onepoll.com named her the fifth-biggest female gay icon in history (her late mother, Judy Garland, beat her for first place). But though Minnelli appreciates the term, she has no idea when it first got pinned on her, or why.
"Any time you're called an icon of anything, it's great," the 66-year-old told the Daily Pilot in a phone interview. "And I think it's a huge part of my career. But if you go in there, you see not only gays [in the audience], you see families and all kinds of different people."
Minnelli would rather be seen as an entertainer for the masses than one for a niche audience. Still, the outspoken Proposition 8 opponent is happy to be connected to a cause in which she believes. So when MenAlive, the Orange County gay men's chorus, contacted her this year about joining them onstage, she agreed without even having met the group.
Thursday and Friday, Minnelli will join MenAlive in "A Winter Spectacular" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The show, featuring the singer's own band along with the men's chorus, marks her first Orange County appearance in almost two decades. (She did, of course, more recently co-star on "Arrested Development," a sitcom set in a fictional version of Newport Beach.)
So what motivates Minnelli to accept invitations from groups unknown to her? She laid out simple criteria.
"When it has something to do with freedom," she said. "When it's an event that can help people, and when it's a celebration."
A kindred spirit
Robb Neale, a singer, scriptwriter and choreographer for MenAlive, has had time to prepare to meet one of his heroes.
For the last three months, the chorus has rehearsed on its own with an accompanist singing Minnelli's vocal parts; she's scheduled to join them Wednesday.
It's not the first time Neale has waited a long time to encounter Minnelli. In the early 1990s, he attended a benefit show in New York in which she sang a song. Afterward, he waited for two hours by the stage door in hopes of catching her on the way out.
Minnelli hadn't stuck around, though, and the next time Neale saw her was a few years ago at a Hollywood Bowl performance. When MenAlive artistic director Rich Cook announced this year that the group would perform with Minnelli, Neale "couldn't contain" himself, he said.
Neale began to get into musicals in junior high, and a friend introduced him to "The Rink," starring Minnelli and Chita Rivera. Neale grew to love the star's craft, but he sensed a kindred spirit as well.
"Aside from her amazing talent, there is such a need to be loved," he said. "She wants to please the audience so much. It's not like … desperation or anything like that. But she wants to give so much that it makes me want to give it back."
Cook said MenAlive confirmed Minnelli for the show in the spring but held off on an announcement until August to keep from competing with her summer Hollywood Bowl appearance. For Cook, arranging a show with the "Cabaret" star was a longtime dream.
Minnelli and the chorus will perform both together and separately, weaving in Christmas songs, show tunes and more. Creating the set list has been a collaborative process, with MenAlive leaders joining Minnelli and her longtime arranger, Billy Stritch, to work out numbers.
"We're calling this 'Spectacular,' and it will be," Cook said. "All around."