Helen Reddy was an Australian-American singer, actress, and activist who won the Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist in the 1974 American Music Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the 1970s, three of her songs reached #1 and 15 singles were on the top 40 of the Billboard Hot-100 list.
Reddy is best remembered for “I Am Woman,” which sold more than a million copies, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1972, and earned a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She wrote the famous lyrics, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore . . . I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” and women all over the world began calling in to request the song on their local radio stations. Reddy became an international pop music star and icon of the growing women’s movement in the 1970s.
Reddy died at age 78 after suffering for decades from Addison’s disease, a likely genetic disease caused her adrenal glands to stop producing essential hormones. In 2015, at age 74, she was so debilitated by her lack of adrenal hormones and by dementia that she had to be taken care of in an assisted living facility, the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Samuel Goldwyn Center for retired Hollywood talent.
A Life of Singing
Reddy was born in Melbourne, Australia, to parents who were both entertainers. By age four, Reddy was singing onstage in her parents’ vaudeville performances. However, constantly touring and performing is a very difficult life and at age 12, Reddy decided that she couldn’t stand her parents’ constant arguing so she left them to move in with an aunt. In 1961 she married Kenneth Claude Weate, a much older musician and family friend. They divorced in 1966 and she supported herself and her daughter Traci by singing on radio and television. In 1966, at age 25, she won a talent contest that rewarded her to travel from Australia for a record audition in New York City. After being turned down by that record company, she showed incredible courage. Despite having only $200 to her name, she decided to remain in the United States with her three-year-old daughter and pursue a singing career.
In 1968 at age 27, she had no money and couldn’t even pay her rent. A friend, Martin St James, arranged a party that charged a five dollar admission fee to go toward her rent. At the party, she met Jeff Wald, a 22-year-old secretary at the William Morris Agency, who crashed the party and didn’t even pay the entry fee. She married him three days later, to avoid being deported from the U.S. back to Australia because she did not have a work permit. Wald lost his job at William Morris soon after he married Reddy, so she ended up supporting him for six months by doing $35-a-night hospital and charity benefits. Wald became her business manager and they moved to Chicago and then Los Angeles, where Wald was hired by Capitol Records.
In 1970, at age 29, Reddy was signed by Capitol Records and recorded “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, which reached number eight in Canada and she was on her way. In the next five years, she had more than a dozen U.S. top-40 hits. In 1972, she and Wald had a son, Jordan. She gave a party at her house in which Olivia Newton-John met Allan Carr, a film producer who hired Olivia to start in the classic hit film, the musical “Grease”.
By January, 1981, Reddy and Wald had separated and he had moved into a Beverly Hills treatment facility to overcome cocaine addiction. Reddy filed for divorce but withdrew her petition the next day. She separated from him permanently in 1983 because of Wald’s continuing substance abuse. Wald went on to manage other performers including Sylvester Stallone, Donna Summer and Tiny Tim. Reddy’s son joined her, changed his last name to Sommers and became her assistant.
Reddy continued to tour, produce albums and act in musicals. She made frequent appearances on The Carol Burnett Show and other popular TV talk shows, and had a short run of her own hour-long TV show. In June 1983, she married Milton Ruth, a drummer in her band, and they divorced in 1995. In 2002 at age 61, she retired, but after 2011, she returned to work intermittently. A film about her life, I Am Woman, was released in 2019.
No cause of death was given in Reddy’s obituary, but she was known to have had lifelong muscle and joint pain. At age 35 and at the height of her fame, she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease is a relatively rare condition that can be genetic or can be caused by damage to the adrenal glands. These people then often lack the hormones, cortisone and aldosterone, and suffer:
• weight loss
• decreased appetite
• darkening of skin
• dizziness and fainting from low blood pressure
• salt craving
• low blood sugar
• nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
• belly pain
• muscle or joint pains
• memory loss
• loss of body hair
• loss of sexuality
Reddy was treated with cortisone and possibly also aldosterone, and she became a patron of the Australian Addison’s Disease Association. Many people recall that President Kennedy had Addison’s disease, and his case was probably genetic since his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, also suffered from the disease. Since Kennedy’s assassination, doctors have speculated that the back brace he wore may have kept him from surviving; see President John F. Kennedy: Should Health Records Be Released?
The symptoms suffered by people with Addison’s disease can have many other causes, but if you have several of these symptoms without some other explanation, ask your doctor to order the blood tests to make sure your adrenal glands are working properly. If you have a low level of the hormone aldosterone and a high level of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), you may be diagnosed with Addison’s disease and need to replace the missing hormones.
Helen Maxine Reddy
October 25, 1941 – September 29, 2020