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The Last Word: Lionel Richie on Meeting Mandela, the Pitfalls of Fame, and the Secret to a Perfect Moustache

Legendary singer also reflects on growing up in the segregated South and why he’ll never retire

Lionel Richie reflects on meeting Nelson Mandela, growing up in the segregated South, and why he'll never retire.

Illustration by Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

When asked about turning 70 last year, Lionel Richie is jovial but resolute. “I don’t think anything about aging or getting older,” he tells Rolling Stone from his Los Angeles home. The four-time Grammy winner and seller of more than 90 million albums worldwide doesn’t have time to outline a memoir of his glory days because he’s not done living them.

Before the pandemic, there was a European tour planned to piggyback off the singer’s successful Las Vegas residency. There’s American Idol, where Richie doles out amiable, fatherly advice alongside Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. There’s HELLO by Lionel Richie Eau de Parfum, billed as an “indulgent arrangement [that] exudes an elegant, sultry aromatic experience,” a description that could also apply to Richie himself.

Richie hasn’t released an album since 2012’s Tuskegee, but that doesn’t matter in the least. The “We Are the World” co-writer long ago traded the title of “popular singer” for “cultural icon” — an artist who has parlayed untold reserves of goodwill into generation-crossing hits and tireless humanitarian efforts. In conversation, he walks the line between admirable humility and earned pride; a constantly joking septuagenarian who would warmly tell all young people, “Get on my lawn,” so he can absorb (and arguably top) their energy and vitality.

“Who do I deal with every day?” Richie says. “Yes, there are people my age, but there’s a world out there of 18-, 22-, and 35-year-olds who talk to me every day. I’m dealing in a world family.”

Who are your heroes and why?
My mom and dad. I use them as my foundation for the whole thing. I didn’t realize what they were going through at the time when I was growing up [in segregated Alabama]. My growing up seemed very normal to me. And then as I got older, I realized that the forces around them were not easy at all. And so with segregation being a part of the everyday lifestyle, it was not clear to me why my parents didn’t tell me more about their struggle. And as I got older, I kept asking the question, “Why didn’t you tell me what was really going on?” And they said, “Well, we didn’t want to taint your view of what you were able to do.” They never told me about the limitations.

They thought that if they did, then you would have a “ceiling” of sorts?
Right. Wherever their stop was, it would be my stop. And they wanted it to be, “Everything is available to you.” So it wasn’t until I got to high school where I started seeing what was really going on because I could process myself at that point. But we used to always call Tuskegee “the bubble.” If you grew up in the bubble, they shielded you from the reality of what was really happening. It had a great deal to do with how I see the world now because I have the knowledge of their story. But I’m so happy I found it then and not at the beginning of the roots of forming my personality.

Did you see being in the “bubble” as a positive or a negative?
It was a great positive. When I first found out about it, I thought it was a big negative because I was just angry that … Why didn’t you tell me the story of your struggle? And then as I found going forward, I would never have written the songs that I wrote. I would never have looked at the world the way I see it today. It was so bitter; I could have definitely gone down another path because it was so in-your-face. Joining the Commodores [at age 19] gave me a tremendous education because these guys did not grow up in the bubble either, so it was a fast education as to what really goes on.

Do you remember when racism first tangibly affected you?
Cynthia Dionne Wesley. We had a little group of kids that all got together from various cities and she was one of the young ladies in my group. I wondered why I never saw her again and my family told me she had moved away.

Actually, she was one of the girls who was killed in the [1963] bombing of the [16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham]. But of course, they didn’t tell me; I found out later that that was what happened. It created the foundation for my awareness of what was really happening. From that point on, I became a steward of change and had to figure out how to present it. And so I found that love would be the message. I can approach the world with open palms as opposed to a closed fist.

“I can approach the world with open palms as opposed to a closed fist.”

You’ve mentioned in the past learning a similar lesson from Nelson Mandela.
I knew him at the end of his life when he came out of prison. And I was so taken aback by the fact that he embraced love instead of hate. I thought he was going to come out and the anger should have been spewing. But instead, he took the position of the messenger and bringing people together as opposed to trying to divide people.

When I first met him, he came up to me and said, “Young man, I’d like to thank you for your lyrics [and] your music. Because it helped me through many years of being in prison.” And I started crying immediately in front of me.

How do you even respond to that?
You don’t say anything. I started crying and could not stop crying. But again, to come out with that presence of mind and to come out that clear after those years of captivity and then be able to have the message that he had was just ridiculous. It just humbled me to the core that he was so present and not a broken man.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I have a little thing in my life called courage. My dad used to always say, “What is the similarity between a hero and a coward?” And the answer is they were both scared to death. It’s just that one stepped forward and one stepped back. That’s my growing up. So whenever I’ve been in terror with myself — when I realized that I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this — I just think of that statement in my courage box. For God’s sake, step forward.

You still get scared after 50-plus years of performing?
Listen, I know that sounds strange, but my definition of an artist is that we are egotistical maniacs with inferiority complexes. So if you tell any artist, “Man, you crushed it,” there’s a little voice inside of you going, “I don’t know, man. Are you sure? I’m not sure.” But you’ve got people watching you and people expecting something from you. And you can’t turn to your troops and go, “Guys, I’m scared.” That’s not what they want to hear. And that’s when you have to step forward.

“There’s pimps, hustlers, whores, and thieves. And then there’s a dark side to the business.”

What do you wish someone would have told you about the industry growing up?
I came in as, “I trust everybody.” And I always use this as a motto: There’s pimps, hustlers, whores, and thieves. And then there’s a dark side to the business.

You just named your memoir.
[Laughs] I think I just did. And don’t get me wrong, [this industry] is so fascinating. You can’t not want to do it. Because all the things I just named, it makes up exactly what’s the intrigue of the whole business? And if you are one of the lucky ones to survive all of that…

I remember I called my mom and dad one day [after my first Commodores royalty checks] and I said, “Oh, my God, Mom, Dad, [business associates] stole $360,000 of my money.” And my mom said, “Now you leave those people alone and come home.” And I said, “No, no, no, Mom, it’s fantastic. It only cost me $360,000 to learn that message. It could have been millions.”

Do you want to say who stole from you?
Oh, hell, no! [Laughs] Most of them are still in business. [Laughs]

What’s the best and worst part of success?
Well, the best part, of course, is winning. Everybody wants to be a singer. Everybody wants fame. Everybody wants the money. And then guess what happens? You win. Now that’s the good news. The bad news is that money, power, and fame only magnifies you; it doesn’t change you.

So if you are a little bit of a gangster, you’re gonna be a big gangster. If you are a little bit of an asshole, you’re gonna be a big asshole. If you’re a nice guy, you’re gonna be a big nice guy. So everyone thinks that it changes you, but the worst of it is you will find out who you are. And a lot of people find out who they are and don’t survive themselves.

“Money, power, and fame only magnifies you; it doesn’t change you.”

But you’ve been famous for almost 50 years. Tell me about…
You can say it. You can say it. A hundred years. One hundred years! [Laughs]

At what point in your career did you become comfortable with being famous?
You never really get comfortable because it keeps changing. You keep thinking, OK, I’m going to retire at 40 or 50 and it keeps going and you go, “What the hell is this crap?” I think I only became comfortable with it for probably the last 15 years.

That’s it?
Yeah. Because up until that point, things start changing. Remember now, we’re in the business of reinventing yourself every year. There are people who say, “Oh, my God, back in the Seventies.” Well, this is 2020. So that means you’ve got a lot of change that has happened between the 1970s and now. And a lot of people went out in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, or they came and left. The ability to have a song that people keep singing generation after generation or decade after decade is pretty fricking blessed.

You’re a musical icon, but your daughters have become stars in their own right through reality TV and fashion. Would you ever want to appear on a show like Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
I always like to use the word “lane.” I have my lane. And there’s certain things if you did see me, you would go, “Now what the hell is Lionel Richie doing there?” If you ever find yourself saying that, then I’m in the wrong spot. Me on the Kardashians would be … not a good move.

What do you think are the most important rules that you live by?
My father kept saying to me over and over again: integrity is everything. It starts there. He said, “People may not like you. But if they respect you, you’ve won.” The second thing is that you treat people the way you would like to be treated. That’s just ground-floor rules. And then of course, the next thing is, in life, family is the core. You have to have some form of a family unit.

“I missed birthdays. I missed weddings. I missed funerals. I didn’t know that people were dead.”

You went on a self-imposed five-year hiatus in 1987, after decades of fame, to attend to your ailing father. Did your personality or rules to live by inherently change or did you try to remain consistent regardless of where you were in life?
I think not knowing that that break in my career [was coming] probably saved my life. I didn’t plan on stopping or slowing down. You get a phone call from your dad and he says, “I’m not doing well. I’m going to the doctor. I want you to go with me.” And when you go and you find out it’s not good …

The only thing that made the machine work back then was you put out another album and then you go on tour and you go around the world and around the world. And the rocket was flying at the fastest it could ever fricking go in life. So I knew that one more album, I’m not going to have the time to spend with my dad. So I stopped.

And three things happened: I went through my dad’s experience [Richie’s father died in 1990], I went through a divorce, and I went through voice surgery. They always say, you can’t hit a moving target, but when you stand still, they know exactly where to shoot. Everything caught up to me at the same time, but during that period, I had a chance to really gather my thoughts as to how fast this rocket was going. And there are some people who continued on with their rocket and they didn’t make it. People kept saying, “You could have put out another 20 songs.” Yeah, but the fact that I stood still for a minute to take in where I was probably saved my life. And once you realize you’re traveling that fast, it’s scary, man.

Do you say that more metaphorically or literally? Did you actually feel your life had been in peril if you kept going at that rate?
Yes, yes. Remember, fame is odorless and tasteless. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. You follow me? One day you realize, well, why is everybody not here with me? And then you realize, because you’re going too fast. And there’s a moment when you… [pauses] I missed 20 family reunions. I missed 20 Christmases. I have 20 years of hit records. I missed birthdays. I missed weddings. I missed funerals. I didn’t know that people were dead. But meanwhile, I was flying, man, and this thing was happening.

With all the success at the time came excess. What was the most indulgent purchase you made in your career?
[Pauses] Probably my first divorce [laughs]. It was another one of those great life lessons. But as time goes on — even though I am now very good friends with my ex — you realize, let’s get past this and then you realize this is not the end. This is just another portion of your career and you keep moving. The biggest indulgence other than that would be my kids [laughs] who continue to come to me and say, “Oh, my God, Dad, can you get this for me?” By the way, to fans, I am so happy if you had your kids listening to one of my songs, except for one thing: as long as their last name is not Richie. [Laughs]

My biggest thing right now is just to enjoy the ride. Health is the value now. I’m at a restaurant about three weeks ago and a nine-year-old came over to the table and said, “Hey Mom, Dad, it’s Lionel.” So I think if I’ve got nine-year-olds thinking of me as one of them, I’m doing OK.

“The edge is always fascinating, but you got to know where the center is to come back to once in a while.”

There’s no real smooth segue to this, so I’ll just ask it: What is the secret to a successful mustache for anyone who wants to grow yours?
I can answer that for you. I not only cut, but I tweeze.

The key is the tweeze?
[Lowers voice to ridiculously romantic-sounding level] The tweeze is the key.

Why is the tweeze important?
Because on the areas close to where you want to get an edge, if you try to cut it, guaranteed, depending on your attention span, you will mess up your moustache by cutting it too short. You know how you’ve had that moment where your arm just had a spasm and you go, “This is not the person I want to represent today, but it’s not going to come back before the photo shoot.” That’s when you learn, OK, on the points where you really want to make a detail, just tweeze those last three; don’t try to go after them with the blade.

Two years ago, you told GQ, “I’m addicted to exhaustion. I love the adrenaline.” What do you do to relax?
Man, listen, I think I’ve given up on that. When I say that I am absolutely addicted to exhaustion and even when I’m exhausted … I’m a hyper maniac. Once my brain is firing, then it just starts everything in. Years ago, I went to a dear friend and said, “You know, I think I’m gonna start acting more serious and I’m going to calm down and be more of a lower key. Do you think that would be wrong?” And the guy said, “Lionel, if you don’t act hyper, people will think something’s wrong with you and that you’re obviously on some kind of medication.” [Laughs]

I’ve always been this way, but you know what it is? I love life. I love it. As long as you can stay in the middle of the road sometimes. And of course, the edge is always fascinating, but you got to know where the center is to come back to once in a while. That’s what I call family.

“Someone asked me years ago, ‘When do you plan on retiring?’ And I said, ‘From what?’”

How did it feel to turn 70 last year?
Seventy was very interesting. I threw my mother her 70th birthday party [in 1987]. We were in Australia and Elton [John] came and brought champagne and we all celebrated my mom. I raised the glass and said to her, “Whatever you were thinking about doing, Mom, do it now.” OK, now, the only thing wrong is I’ve been doing “now” since I was 22. [Laughs]

My real age is about 45. Every time someone says happy birthday, I go, “I’m 45” and I don’t think anything about aging or getting older. I don’t have time to sit down and think, “Oh, my God, man — I’m 230 years old. What the hell is that?”

It may just make it much more awkward to perform a song like “Young Girls Are My Weakness.”
Oh, my God. [Laughs] When we wrote that song, we were college students and we considered anything from 18 to 22 the “young girl.” That’s it. The joke now is if Lionel Richie said, “Young girls are my weakness” now, I’m going to jail. I mean, can you imagine?

When we wrote “Brick House,” [there’s the line] “Makes an old man wish for younger days” and we used to point to the old guys in the audience. Now when I do it onstage, the band points to me. That’s not funny! [Laughs] I keep trying to tell them, “I’m 45, guys. I’m 45. You’re messing up my chi.”

Is it harder to summon the energy and desire to create than in the past?
You have to wake up every morning and have a passion for something. Make plans, for God’s sake. Make plans. And then more importantly, love something. You got to be passionately into something. Because otherwise the passion button goes away. You gotta have something that makes you go, “Oh, man, I can’t wait.”

There’s the old saying, “Actors don’t retire; they die.” Do you ever see a time where you would just retire for good?
They’re gonna have to carry me out, babe. Someone asked me years ago, “When do you plan on retiring?” And I said, “From what?” I’ve never had a job. People who work want to retire. I’m still the 19-year-old kid hanging out with the Commodores right down the road. I must admit the travel has gotten a lot better. But the fun and the adventure is still the same. People say, “But you play and sing the same thing.” No, no, I never did 2020 before. I did 2019, but I’ve never done 2020 and then I’m looking forward to 2021 and 2022 and 2023. The whole thing is a giant play period.