Behind the Mic : Eartha Kitt
Born: 17th Jan 1927, South Carolina
Died: 25th Dec 2008, Connecticut
Memorable Characters: Yzma, Queen Vexus, Cool Cat
You might remember Eartha Kitt as the singer of hits such as Christmas classic, Santa Baby - or perhaps as the 1960’s vixen and best remembered actress to portray Cat Woman. In holding such incredible credits that are still considered contemporary even by younger audiences today, you would be forgiven for not immediately realising her relevance as a voice artist. However, with an impressive list of characters and productions she has lent her voice to - and quite the armful of Annie Awards and Daytime Emmy Awards to show for it, her contributions to voice over must not be overlooked!
The extraordinary tales of Kitt’s life are a colourful mix of exciting career highs, bravery and hardship. Her legacy is framed differently depending on who you ask or what you read. In obituaries, she was noted for her “difficult reputation”, being a “force of nature” and a “seducer of audiences”. The New York Times recorded that she was among the first widely known African-American sex symbols - an aspect that Kitt clearly reveled in as a self-professed “sex-kitten” and even referred to herself as “the original material girl”. One of the greatest (and oft referenced) endorsements of Kitt was from Orson Wells, who in the 1950s declared her to be “the most exciting woman in the world”.
Kitt’s early years were desperately poor, born out of wedlock of an African American and Cherokee mother who soon abandoned her and a white father whom she never knew. In fact, it wasn’t until she was 71 years old that she discovered her date of birth. Kitt began her career in the 1940s and was a rising star as an actress and singing sensation through the 1950s. In fact, her singing style was something that future icons would strive to base their own on, including Janet Jackson, Madonna (who covered Santa Baby) and Diana Ross (who said that Eartha Kitt’s influence was massive in how she created her sound and look in The Supremes).
Her career experienced quite the blip during the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s as a result of ‘The White House Incident’. The incident took place at a luncheon of leading women, invited by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968, to discuss the subject of ‘Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?’ At the time, protesters were raging against the Vietnam war and 1968 proved to end up being the deadliest year of the war for the Americans. Kitt recalls growing increasingly frustrated, feeling that the women at the luncheon were losing sight of the discussion at hand. When her time came to speak, she ensured that the conversation was refocused and took the opportunity to let Lady Bird have both barrels.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot … and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
It is claimed that Lady Bird was reduced to tears and when it was time to leave, there was no car to take Kitt back to her hotel. Shortly after, Kitt’s bookings for entertainment appearances were cancelled and work offers in American dried up, as a result of a smear campaign. The CIA produced an extensive report about her full of gossip and lacking any evidence. In a later interview, Kitt called the report "purely" political and proof that she was blackballed by LBJ.
In the late 1970’s, Eartha Kitt’s career was reignited when she starred in Broadway hit, Timbuktu, earning her a Tony Award. However, her ventures into voice acting didn’t start until the late 1990’s. While the Disney character she is most associated with is Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), this was not actually her only, or even first Disney character. In 1998, she voiced Bagheera in Disney’s largely forgotten third adaptation of the Mowgli stories from the Jungle Book, the live action straight to video film, The Jungle Book : Mowgli’s Story. However, just a couple of years later, she would use her distinctive voice to breathe life into the humorous, evil yet likeable villain, Yzma. The success of the film, that was in part thanks to the character vocalisations, meant that it turned into an entire franchise, with a sequel film as well as a video game and subsequent TV show. Kitt won 3 Annie Awards and 2 Daytime Emmy Awards for her role as Yzma, 1 Annie Award in 2011 for ‘Outstanding Individual Achievement for Voice Acting by a Female Performer in an Animated Feature Production’, and a further 2 in 2007 and 2008 for ‘Best Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production’ and Daytime Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008 for ‘Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program’.
Between 2003 - 2007, Kitt provided the voice for Queen Vexus in the Nickelodeon show, My Life as a Teenage Robot. It seems almost meant to be that after a career of being defined with every feline reference imaginable - a voice that “purred”, being a “sex-kitten” who “prowled” across the stage, even having a career that had “nine lives”, one of the final productions she would lend her voice to was Wonder Pets, in which she played Cool Cat. It was for this role that she posthumously won her final Daytime Emmy Award.
Eartha Kitt is truly incomparable and remembered for so much more than just her varied career (as spectacular as it was, covering so many different mediums and being as current and acclaimed for her work in her final years as she was at the height of her career). In terms of her voice, she has used hers for so many purposes, being a real inspiration as both a voice actor and in life. As a voice actress, she has portrayed characters for Disney and Nickelodeon (as well as guest appearances in The Simpsons and American Dad). As a singer, she has impacted and influenced music and musicians with her distinctive style and sound. And perhaps most inspiringly of all, she used her voice to speak up for what she believed in, fighting for what she felt was right and not allowing herself to be held back for fear of the consequences.