Felipe Rose: Village People's Macho Man

Felipe Rose is, of course, best known as the Native American-clad performer in the sensationally popular disco group, the Village People; but this joyful Asbury Park resident is now spreading his wings as a gifted solo performer. Born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, he was attracted to the arts as a child. In 1970, when Rose was 16 years old, he won a scholarship to study dance with the Ballet de Puerto Rico, with whom he participated in a dance-drama recital at Lincoln Center. Soon afterward Rose ventured into the NYC nightclub scene, and an aunt encouraged him to honor his father's heritage by dressing in his tribal regalia; this led him to don the Indian attire. While working as a dancer and bartender in a Manhattan club dressed as an Indian, he caught the eyes of French producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, who recruited him as the first member of the Village People.
In 1977, the Village People had their first hit with “San Francisco.” That was quickly followed by “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” in 1978. In 1996, Felipe started Tomahawk Group, an entertainment and recording company, and in 2000, he began working on his solo career. His single “Trails of Tears” was nominated for three NAMMY Awards (Native American Music Awards). In 2002, he was the opening act at the 5th Annual Native American Music Awards, celebrated at the Marcus Amphitheatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, winning the award that year as well. Felipe has appeared in many films including: Can't Stop the Music (1980), The Best of Village People (1993), and Feathers and Leathers: the Story of the Village People (1999). He also participated in the 2000 documentary, “Village People: The E! True Hollywood Story,” and appeared with Kelsey Grammer in Down Periscope.
Felipe continues to perform with the Village People as they tour around the globe opening hotels and casinos, performing at concerts, charity events (for which they have raised millions of dollars), celebrity parties, and many other venues. He was about to jet off to Hollywood to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 12th when he sat down to chat with Living In – The Jersey Shore on the deck of his Asbury Park apartment with his cat, Kimba.

LIJS: Your heritage is an interesting mix.
FR: Yes. My mother was Puerto Rican and my father is Native American – Lakota Sioux.

LIJS: Where did you grow up?
FR: Well, I was born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, but being a bi-racial baby, I grew up with this knowledge of two worlds. Being half Native American and half Spanish I thought in two worlds, I lived in two worlds. My parent’s separated early on, and I lived with my mother, but I stayed in touch with my father and my aunts.

LIJS: How did your parents meet?
FR: My mother met him going up to an audition in New York City. She was already dancing at the original Copacabana, and she said that he came down from the sky on a piece of metal…he was a welder. A lot of Native Americans aren’t afraid of heights, so they put up a lot of the bridges and buildings in the city.

LIJS: Where is your dad now?
FR: He lives in Colorado Springs. I brought him here last year and he was a big hit. He has the long hair, and he wears a feather and plays the flute. He was on the 5th Street beach with us, walking around, playing the flute for everyone; they all loved it!

LIJS: Do you play any instruments?
FR: No, I don’t…well some percussion. But as a song writer I am a lyricist. What I tend to do is lock in on a melody. I’ve always said that as a song writer, I’m a really lousy storyteller, so I’ll usually collaborate.

LIJS: Ever collaborated with your dad?
FR: Yes, we did a piece called “Audyan” that just won Best Pop Recording; he played the flute and I did spoken word; Yolanda Martinez did back up vocals and Jimmy Lee Young sang lead. My father has been nominated for several NAMMYs.

LIJS: What about your mother and siblings?
FR: Well, my mom passed away about 15 years ago. I have a bunch of half sisters in Brooklyn that I really don’t have any communication with; they think I am from another planet. Then I have a brother who passed away, and another brother who my mother gave up for adoption, and we found each other on the internet in 1990. He came to New York and we met, but we had nothing in common. We just came from vastly differently worlds. But I have cousins and aunts and uncles that I am very close to and I have godchildren I adore.

LIJS: How did you end up in Asbury Park?
FR: Well, after my mother died I ended up in Richmond, Virginia. I lived there for a while, but things didn’t work out and I came back north. I tried Jersey City, but it was too crowded; things had just blown up there – the downtown Jersey City scene – so I had a like half a dozen friends here, and they were always telling me, “Come down to Asbury. You will love it!” So I came down and I just fell in love with the shore. That was 4 or 5 years ago.

LIJS: Have you seen much change here since you moved in?
FR: Yes. I love the diversity of Asbury because it brings everyone together. There is a very large gay and lesbian community here, but the diversity of artists is amazing; it’s become very bohemian. Families [are] everywhere and there’s so much to do. Every weekend there’s something – an art show, life guard races, film festivals. It’s frustrating sometimes because I miss so much fun stuff because I’m on the road.

LIJS: By the time this article comes out, you will have been to Rome, Milan, and Helsinki, and Los Angeles. Is that right?

FR: I love my life. I feel privileged. What I do and how I came up from the ghetto and Brooklyn, and, of course, the bi-racial background. I feel privileged to have the life I live. People are a trip, and everyone has a story. I always find it interesting when I am flying, discovering who is going to sit next to me. Sometimes people start talking right away, and other times it takes awhile for them to open up. I have just met some amazing people traveling and it has opened doors. People just love the Village People. I mean who doesn’t like the Village People?

LIJS: Well, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the group when you first came out, so to speak.
FR: We were pretty controversial in the makeup of the group, different walks of life – some straight, some gay – and yet we came together to perform. But the members of the group, we were all pretty private. We still are in our personal lives and in business.

LIJS: The costumes must help. You are all sort of disguised on stage, allowing you to walk around unrecognized; especially you, with your feathered headdress and face paint…
FR: Yes, I love that. People will stare at me and go, “I think I’ve seen that face before,” but they can’t figure it out without the feathers and the full gear. On stage I am very flamboyant to look at, so I like to fake people out and shed my skin. I can walk by a whole group of people waiting to see us perform or get autographs and they don’t know it’s me. The construction worker, David Hodo, he’s like that also; once he takes off the hardhat and the glasses and he walks around in his regular, preppy clothes, he is like night and day and no one recognizes him.

LIJS: Has anyone famous recognized you?
FR: We were on Leno. We used to do skits on there; I walked out of the dressing room [once] and there is Oprah – she was the guest – and she was like, “Hi Felipe, what are you doing here? You should go to Ashford & Simpson’s ‘White Party’ next week!” We did, and sure enough there she was with this big white hat on. We start dancing and I got this stick with another guy and everyone is doing the limbo, and I yell, “Come on Oprah, do the limbo!” She did and it was wonderful!

LIJS: You were doing the limbo with Oprah? That is so great! With all this activity, you really must need to keep in shape.
FR: Yes, I’m working out, but I’m recovering from an injury I had last October. I had sprained my ankle and then I taped it and got back on stage; I made it through three more concerts. Then on the third day I fractured two toes. When I went to the hospital to get it checked, I left with a staph infection. I had to stay in Florida for 5 weeks in a hospital, and they almost had to amputate my foot! My foot was black and getting bigger and bigger, so I had to have four operations on my foot, and a skin graft. But I had a wonderful doctor who saved my life, saved my foot – Dr. Harold Vogler. He knew I had a career, and he saved my foot. The people in the hospital were all so wonderful; they really took care of me. I’ve actually only just gotten back to dancing this last month. The guys in the group were really supportive, too.

LIJS: How many of the original Village People members are still performing?
FR: There are six of us, that’s our company name, “Sixuvus Ltd.” There is myself, Alex Briley (the G.I.), and David Hodo (the Construction Worker); we are originals. Then there’s Ray Simpson (the Cop), he replaced Victor Willis in 1980, and Jeff Olson (the Cowboy), who replaced Randy Jones in 1981. Then 15 years ago we lost the Biker with the big handlebar mustache; Glenn Hughes died of cancer. We got lucky with the swing, Eric Anzalone; that was just perfect casting.

LIJS: So you are all pretty tight, all six of you after all these years?
FR: Yes we are. It’s like a typical family; we agree to disagree. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and when we are doing business everyone gets to have one turn going around the table. I mean, if you asked us how to get down to the shore, everyone would have a different way of getting there, so our General Manager’s job is to hone in on everyone’s thoughts and bring us to a vote.

LIJS: With six of you what if it’s a tie?

FR: Oh, that happens. Then the tiebreaker is Mitch’s (our manager’s) vote. But we all get along, even on the road. We all sit apart on the plane usually because we like different seats, and then we get to the hotel and we shut the doors and we all take our “disco naps,” or work out or read or whatever…

LIJS: So you don’t see each other until you get on stage?
FR: No, this is something I started awhile back; it was to save time. But we dress in our rooms, and then we all meet up and go down to the lobby in full costume.

LIJS: That’s brilliant! It must create quite a buzz.
FR: Well, the best part is in the elevator. People go nuts, they are like, “Oh my god! You are the Village People!”

LIJS: Have you ever been in an elevator when one of your songs was playing?
FR: No, but I have heard it some strange places, and always at weddings. I once had two brides fight over me. I was performing at one wedding and we were on a break; I was out in the hallway with the guys, smoking cigars, and this DJ from another wedding saw me and was like, “Felipe! Oh my gosh, we are just getting ready to do a Village People medley; we just gave out the hats! Can you come over?” So he introduces me, gives me the microphone, and I start singing “Y.M.C.A.” and everyone is going nuts. Then the bride comes in from the wedding I was with, grabs the microphone away from me and starts pulling me out, and the other bride grabs me on the other side, and they are pulling and yelling, “Get your own Indian!” (laughs).
LIJS: That’s not even politically correct!
FR: No, I know. I’m very proud of that side of my heritage too. You know, I was writing and producing all kinds of music, club music and all, and then when I got down to Richmond, the Native heritage is very strong down there with the eight federated tribes. I began to feel that I needed to honor my heritage, so “Trail of Tears” was the first song I wrote and produced; I even designed the cover. Before I knew it, I was nominated for a NAMMY and I was opening the 5th Annual NAMMY Award Show in Milwaukee. Then I followed it up with two more albums, two more songs that were also nominated. What I did was…I brought the dance element into it.  And that one, “We’re Still Here,” won Single of the Year. So the Native American side of me is really involved in my music now.

LIJS: Where did you get the name “Swift Arrow”?
FR: That is my spirit name. My dad gave it to me when I was little because I was so fast running and jumping. He said, “Okay, Swift Arrow. You need to slow down.”

LIJS: Do you have a spirit guide, an animal?
FR: Yes, a wolf. A timber wolf and I’ve seen it in dreams. It’s also called an animal totem.

LIJS: On your homepage, www.feliperose.com, you have a link to “Cry of the Wolf.”
FR: Yes, that is another one of my causes. The wolf is an endangered species, and they are still being slaughtered in many states and countries. They are just beautiful animals and their plight lies in human hands.

LIJS: What other charities do you champion?
FR:  My local charities are blood drives and the hospice in Asbury. I go there a couple of times a month and serve food. I do reading for kids; I read Native American stories to the kids and I bring my headdress, but I wear jeans, a T-shirt, and my Native American jewelry. One time this principal was worried that I was going to show up in my loin cloth!

LIJS: Tell me about your donation of a gold record to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, a few years ago.
FR: Well, they didn’t take too kindly to it at first. I told them I wanted to give them a gift, and I pointed out to them that they already had so many hoop baskets and Kachina dolls and arrows and stuff, that I thought a modern day gift from a contemporary, modern day Native American artist that would show the diversity of our current people, like a gold record, would be perfect. Well we went back and forth with the letters and they weren’t sure and then I told them, “Well, Dick Clark says it’s priceless,” because I had asked him. So then they sent me this official letter from the curator saying that they would be honored to have it and to come in for the presentation. So they did it on my 50th birthday, and the place was packed. I signed these official documents, and they took the record out of the vault and the put it on display on the second floor in this oval hallway; they lit it all up and they have piped in the music of “Y.M.C.A.”

LIJS: That and the Hollywood Star will be there forever! That is really a huge accomplishment!
FR: Yes, yes it is. Thank you.

LIJS: Where is the Village People star going to be? Do you know yet?
FR: It’s in the middle somewhere; we are in between Betty Grable and Liberace.

LIJS: What will you wear? I’m just kidding, I’m sure the group is going in full costume!
FR: (Laughs) Huge headdress, the works!

LIJS: So how do you dress for Halloween?
FR: Usually we are booked for that night…Halloween is a big night for the Village People. We are like the ultimate Halloween band. But last year I was a pirate, and I was a doctor once, which was fun.

LIJS: Do people ever ask to borrow your costume?
FR: Yes. But I don’t lend it out a lot. Some people I will let use it.

LIJS: When you were on “The Love Boat” were you just singing and dancing or were you acting as well?
FR: I was acting too. I played a jockey with a horse that we snuck on the boat. We were going to Acapulco for the Acapulco Steeple Chase. They had a stunt double for me and I am on the horse; I’m running and I fall off the horse and the horse keeps going. The horse’s name was Magic Night, and Gopher got knocked off his horse, so we are running neck and neck, nose to nose. It was very funny. It was a 2-hour special with Loni Anderson, Betty White…a real star-studded cast.

LIJS: So are you still getting residual checks?
FR: Yeah, weird $12 checks. But our music is in a lot of movie soundtracks, so we get residual checks in from all over.

LIJS: Your music has such staying power. Obviously it’s upbeat and fun, but why do you think songs like “Y.M.C.A.” are still popular after 30 years, when many of the 80’s stuff is passé?
FR: It is music from a simpler time; it’s not really heavy music to sit and actually ponder and think about. It’s just good, fun, party music! It doesn’t really matter what kind of music you are into – rap, heavy metal – when you are at a party and you feel like dancing, some songs just make you happy. It helps that everyone knows the dance, too, although they don’t always do it correctly.

LIJS: There is a wrong way to dance to your songs?
FR: Well, no, of course there is never a wrong way to dance to anything, but in “Y.M.C.A.” people always do the “M” wrong, your hands should point down towards the floor, not be on you head or shoulders.
LIJS: Is there anyone that you would like to collaborate with from a different music genre?
FR: Actually, Billy Idol.

LIJS: Billy Idol?
FR: Yeah, we used to hang out in downtown Manhattan, he and his girlfriend Perry Lister.  Perry was in the movie “Can Stop the Music” with us. Billy used to say to me with that curled lip (imitating Billy Idol), “You should get like a cavalry jacket, man, with the bandana, man, with some stripes, like you scalped some soldier, man…and took his jacket.”

LIJS: So what would the collaboration with Billy Idol be?
FR: That song, “Eye’s Without a Face”; I want to do a remake of that song with him, do it as a cover and make it kind of tribal…have my dad play flute. I want that to be on my next album.

LIJS: I know, back in the early days, Madonna opened for you! Any other greats you have shared the lineup with?
FR: Well, for the opening of phase four of the Atlantis in the Bahamas, they had this really big extravaganza. Every night it was a different party; Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Nancy Wilson! Then on the fourth night they had this huge disco party, and it was Steven Tyler, the Village People, and Earth Wind and Fire! It was awesome because you are performing, and there’s Shelia E, right in front of me, and Gloria Estefan, and Emilio…
LIJS: No wonder you love your life Felipe!
Favorite restaurants:
Bistro Ole, Mattison Park, and Market in the Middle (all in Asbury Park)
Favorite music:
Favorite movie:
Gone With the Wind
Pet peeve:
people who text to cancel an appointment instead of calling
Three people you’d like to have dinner with:
Sitting Bull, Elizabeth Taylor, and Henry Kissinger

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18 Jul 2015

By Teja Anderson