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Romy Haag: Queen of the underground

INTERVIEW: In 1970s West Berlin, singer, performer and club owner Romy Haag ruled the city's burgeoning nightlife scene – and stole David Bowie's heart. As the rest of the city goes through "where are they now?" syndrome, Romy rarely reminisces.

Image for Romy Haag: Queen of the underground
Photo by Veronica Jonsson

In 1970s West Berlin, singer, performer and club owner Romy Haag ruled the city’s burgeoning nightlife scene – and stole David Bowie’s heart.

From a distance, the glamorous older lady sitting on the sun terrace of Grosz almost blends in with the rest of the lavish restaurant’s conservative upper-class clientele. Almost. Upon approaching her, we notice the flaming orange hair, the colourful and elaborate clothes, her fingers dripping in chunky, sparkling rings, including a spider-shaped knuckle-duster on her middle finger. This is Romy Haag, the beautiful and flamboyant entertainer who was David Bowie’s paramour during his time in Berlin.

In her 1970s heyday, Haag (born Edouard Frans Verbaarsschott in the Netherlands) was one of the biggest names in Berlin’s underground night-club scene. Known for her wild performances, until 1983 she was also the owner of the legendary club Chez Romy Haag, drawing a who’s who of international superstars into her orbit.

Now 63, she’s a regular of the spectacularly remodeled Ku’damm coffee house. “It’s my signature drink, the oldest champagne house in the world,” she drawls, taking a sip from a glass of Ruinart rosé. As she divulges stories of her Berlin past in her distinctive low, husky voice, she reveals a mischievous side, proving that this woman is more than just an eccentric dresser.

Take us back to when you first arrived in Berlin in the 1970s…  

I came to Berlin at the end of 1973. Before that, I lived in New York. I came here because I was in love with a Berliner I’d met in Atlantic City. But for me it was no surprise that I ended up here; even when I lived in Paris as a teenager, everywhere I performed, people assumed I was German. They would introduce me as “the sensational Romy Haag, straight out of Berlin!”

Why would they say that?  

Because of my low voice. I guess the stereotype was that Berlin women all had deep voices, but you know, I spoke a little bit of German too. I’d been to Berlin before, on holiday.

And what did you think of Berlin when you first moved here?

Well, I loved the sense of community here. West Berlin was such a small city compared to New York and Paris. People were more accepting; it was very, very peaceful here.

And the nightlife?

In Bowie’s eyes, Chez Romy Haag was like looking into a mirror. The club reflected his music.

Oh, that was very disappointing. That’s what was so curious: there was nothing! No discotheques, nothing of interest to me. It was traditional, old-fashioned 1950s and 1960s-style cabaret, or music for stoned hippies. So I opened my own club!

You were only 23 when Chez Romy Haag opened.

Yeah, but for me, you know, I’d come from New York! You don’t think about things like that – you say, “let’s open a club now” and you do it.

Of all places, you chose Schöneberg’s Fuggerstraße. Why there?  

Well, the building was cheap. That area was nothing like it is now. People would laugh when I told them I was opening a club on Fuggerstraße. They said, “You’re crazy! No one will ever go!”

What was Chez Romy Haag like in the beginning?  

It was a discotheque for young people, not a cabaret, like the papers always say. The interior was inspired by Biba, the old shopping centre in London. It was really fashionable: Art Deco, black lacquer counters, mirrors… I wanted my club to look like that, so I painted the floors, the ceiling, the bar all black, and the walls were lined with mirrors. Then at the back, there was a very small stage with a red curtain.

And the music?  

Well, we didn’t have big-name DJs at the time. I just invited my friends from London and New York to play their records at my club. They would play disco music and this was very fresh. We would just dance, and then there would be a show, and then we’d carry on dancing.

What were the patrons like?

Well, Berlin people! Right at the beginning I would hang around outside KaDeWe and invite people to the club personally. You could tell who liked going out because they would always wear black and have their own gimmick, like a crazy hairstyle or accessory or something.

A lot of celebrities went to your club too…  

Yes, the club became more and more famous, and then rock stars would have after-parties at my place. So there was uh… Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, all those big stars.

So why do you think Chez 
Romy Haag became so legendary?  

Because it was so strange! It
 was really unique. In the entrance
 there would be somebody dressed
 up like the pope who would bless 
the people coming into the club with a toilet brush and a champagne cooler. So the atmosphere was like that, very underground, trashy, kitschy. You read the articles that all say Chez Romy Haag was 1920s-style cabaret and all that, but no, it wasn’t! It was more performance art. Like an Andy Warhol aesthetic, let’s say it like that.

So, for example…?  

Well, my very first act in the club was when I came out of a dust bin, all red, and sung Brecht’s “Show Me The Way To The Next Whiskey Bar” [Alabama Song]! So it was very trashy, which became very ‘in’ and so that was the reason it became so famous.

Do you think that atmosphere was what attracted David Bowie to Chez Romy Haag?  

He belonged there. The first time he went, he was like [jaw drops]. It was so outrageous, it was so Ziggy Stardust. I think, in his eyes, it was like looking into a mirror. The club reflected his music.

Did he stand out of the crowd?

No, not at all! I hadn’t even heard of David Bowie before I met him.

So how did you meet him?

We’d get high and brainstorm and talk about the world, life politics, music… We wouldn’t go out together that much because of the paparazzi.

He did a concert in Berlin in 1976 and his
 management called to
 use my Mercedes 600, and they said to me, “Come over, you have to see him! It’s a great show.” We were in the VIP lounge and when he came off the stage we saw each other, and that’s it! It was like love at first sight. We shared a moment together.

What was the most
 attractive thing
 about him?

I liked his
 whole style, he was so charismatic. And his eyes… at first I thought it was just part of his costume. I said to him, “Take that contact lens out!”

What happened after the concert?

There was an after-party at my place and we got
 to spend some time together alone. He was fascinated because I had a recording studio at home. I had like 4000 LPs in boxes, and he was searching and searching through them. I asked him, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I’m looking for my records,” and I said, “I don’t have any of your records!”

How would you describe him at the time?

Well looking back now, I realise he had to get rid of Ziggy Stardust, he had to get rid of drugs and all that. He was like a little poor boy whom I took like a mama in my arms, that’s how I felt about him. We’re both Capricorns, so we were alike, and I could sense he needed help.

Right, your birthdays are just a week apart. Did you ever celebrate together?  

Well, one time – I think it must’ve been 1977 – we threw 
a birthday party for ourselves in Paris. We went to a club on the Champs-Élysées called L’Ange Bleu which was owned by a friend of mine. It was only open for about six months because it was so expensive – the decoration, the Art Deco furniture, the cocktails. But it was unbelievable. Very, very beautiful.

What was a typical day with David like?

Well… we’d get stoned together a lot! We’d get high and brainstorm ideas and talk about the world, life, politics, music… We wouldn’t go out together that much because of the paparazzi. But you know, we wouldn’t see each other every single day. Even though we lived together at one point, he had his touring and I had to work too.

What else would you do together?  

Well, he was always in my dressing room! [Laughs] He would touch the costumes and watch how I did my makeup, and things like that.

So you were the inspiration behind a lot of his looks?  

Oh, sure! What’s that video called? “Boys Keep Swinging”? It’s just like Chez Romy Haag. The setting is a complete, one-to-one copy of the stage in my club. He’s performing one of my favourite numbers. There’s this one part of the video where he smears his makeup and he rips off his wig… my signature move!

What was it like 
to see your moves, your costumes, and your stage in his music videos?

My reaction was always, “Oh, that ass! What
 is he doing?” But he probably influenced me too, it was give and take. We were very inspirational together. After meeting him I became a punk. I had short red hair and I started making art rock – hardcore performance. I would whip people with a wet towel!

Do you still do that?  

No. Now I do rock chanson, although the American press insists on calling it cabaret-rock… My music now is very political. We’ve got no freedom anymore, there’s NSA everywhere, there’s homophobia – is this a Demokratie? Never! The 1970s was a freer time, much, much more free! Before we had one wall, now we have five or six. Every community has their own thing and their own clubs. Before, it was just West Berlin. You were walled in, but you were accepted by everybody. Everybody was in it together and everyone got along.

On your 2010 album Moving On you included a song “Helden” which contains a lot of references to Bowie’s “Heroes”…  

It is its own arrangement, but making it I thought, since he took so much of me, I’m going to take something of him.

So what does “Heroes” mean to you?  

If you want to be a hero, you have to act now. If we don’t kiss each other now, the world will stay the same. [In French] I interpreted it completely differently; when you know a different language it takes on a different meaning.

On Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day, the song “Where Are We Now?” has a lot of very explicit references to Berlin…  

Oh yes, I was very surprised! He said he was “lost in time near KaDeWe” – that’s where Chez Romy Haag was. I think he must be bored of his life now, and he wants some excitement, like back then. I think he’s realised that part of his life is over. He got old. Well, we all get old.

What memories does that song bring up for you?  

Not very many. I love the style of the songs, and I like that he’s going back to his roots, but I’ve got my own music to write and my own things to do, so I don’t think very deeply about these things.

When was the last time you saw each other?  

We lost each other at the end of the 1970s. When Angie found out we were together, she called a lawyer and they were harassing me. And there was all this bad publicity, and David had a fight with his record company… there was so much pressure on us, so I had to let him go.

Did you ever get back in touch?  

No, never.  

Chez Romy Haag – then and now

Romy Haag’s eponymous club opened its doors to the disco-starved inhabitants of West Berlin in November 1974. Inspired
 by the vibrant discothèques of Paris and New York, Haag rented a cheap building in Schöneberg to cater to Berlin’s alternative youth and gay community.

The locale quickly became renowned for its wild late-night parties, attracting everyone from drag queens to rock stars and paving the way for innumerable alternative clubs and bars in its wake, including the legendary Dschungel, SO36 and Anderes Ufer. In 1983, following the success of her first solo album, Haag decided to sell the club to focus on her music.

The former Chez Romy Haag on the corner of Welserstraße and Fuggerstraße is now home to the alternative sex shop and gay club Connection. Hosting events such as “Naked Night” and “Dominate Party”, the new club strives to be as outrageous as its predecessor, but the glamorous days of celebrity after-parties are long over.  

Originally published in issue #127, May 2014.