Interview: Felipe Rose’s unexpected role in The Village People

“We were way ahead of our time,” said Felipe Rose (second from left). “It’s something that nobody had ever tried, and it’s so different that it still sells to many generations across the board for many decades.” Publicity photo “We were way ahead of our time,” said Felipe Rose (second from left). “It’s something that nobody had ever tried, and it’s so different that it still sells to many generations across the board for many decades.” Publicity photo

Like Playskool figures come to life, The Village People emerged on the disco scene in 1977, and by the following year the entire country was singing and mimicking the vocal group’s famous “Y.M.C.A.” moves.

An act derived from the gay culture of Greenwich Village, the group formed when Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo spotted a live performance by Native American Felipe Rose and used it as inspiration to capitalize on American male sterotypes and gay fantasy. The mustachioed entertainers used humor and caricature to break through, and even cut a commercial deal to use the hit “In the Navy” for recruiting until the U.S. Navy pulled the plug after labeling the macho men as controversial. 

The Village People will perform at The Paramount Theater on May 22. C-VILLE Weekly spoke to original member, Felipe Rose by phone.

C-VILLE Weekly: Talk about the launch of the group. It all started with your performances in Greenwich Village?

Felipe Rose: It started out first as a project to lend a percussion sound [to my act]. I used to wear sleigh bells around my ankles and alpaca fur pieces over that. You could hear me walking or as a pro dancer, you could hear me dance.

That’s how I met Jacques. At first I was just dancing in a club. I was just being a fool and an all-around consumed artist.

How close was the original vision to today’s Village People?

Jacques showed me a sketch drawing of what looked to me like the group, with me drawn in, and a cowboy and construction worker and a biker.

He said, “We’ve built a group around you darling, and I’m gonna make you famous.” I thought, “Oh God. Jesus Christ, what is this man doing? This is an awful idea.”

Was there a political intention from the beginning?

No, not at all. He [Jacques] just wanted to do a group. He was born on the 4th of July, and coming from France, the whole cowboys and Indians thing, motorcycle Marlon Brando, American male stereotypes—he was fascinated with anything American.

What’s the backstory on the song “Y.M.C.A.”?

Jacques had seen the letters on the side of a building—Y.M.C.A.—and asked, “What is that?” Right then and there we told him, and he turned to the writers and said, “I’m gonna write a new song.” He started to hum the tune, and wrote it immediately, and I thought, “What a disaster!”

Was there any sense of irony within the group about its popularity in middle America?

Whatta you gonna do? Tell the kids, “Don’t buy this album?” I thought we were gonna be a small New York-based club group. There was never irony on my part. The irony may be that my heritage, and that of my character, [was] not properly interpreted and promoted as a true Native American.

In terms of embracing the gay lifestyle in the ’70s, you were groundbreaking.

We were groundbreaking because that’s what Jacques wanted to do. They wanted to do a tribute band to celebrate the gay lifestyle, and I was getting paid. I was on contract. There were times they asked us to record certain things and I didn’t like it, and we were all vocal about that.

What was life like during the heyday of disco?

It was not too crazy. In fact, most days we were kinda boring and lived a quiet life. We were professional.

One time in a club where Saturday Night Fever was filmed—we were there right after the movie opened—the audience took a look at us, and they were all in polyester suits and here we were in loincloth, breastplate, headdress, half naked cowboys and motorcycle guys. We were like, “Uh-oh!” But they knew the songs, and everyone was dancing in the end.

What are your audiences like these days?

The diehards are still there. Ones that used to go to the clubs, and there aren’t any clubs anymore—especially in New York City. We have a very vast audience of different types of people.

You became ordained as a minister in order to perform a wedding for longtime fans? 

Yes. Me and Eric the Biker are ordained.

Do you perform gay weddings?

I did one on a ship in Australia. I married two guys. When we were onboard doing a concert, they found out I was a minister and came to me and said, “I would love to marry my boyfriend.” I said, “ What time?” Eighty people showed up dressed, with flowers in their hair. It was really beautiful.

Look, if I can bring two people together—any kind of people that really want to be together, and I’m asked to do it—it’s really an honor.

You still embrace your career in a vibrant way.

If you’re gonna do it, why go through the motions and pretend? That would show in your performance. That’s why I look so young. I look half my age. People don’t believe that I’m almost 60.

Do you have a message for Charlottesville?

Bring some reinforcement for the building because we don’t want to tear down the Paramount. We’re gonna shake the foundation, and we don’t want the roof to cave in. We don’t want anyone sitting down. This is a party. Bring your best “Y.M.C.A.” movements and show us what ya got.

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Geraldine Oconnell

Great show last nite