13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 86th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. Nina Simone was her stage name.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. She had humble beginnings.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. She was book smart ...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... with the degrees to prove it.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. Her career was rooted in activism.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. One of her most famous songs was banned.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. She never had a number one hit.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. She used her style to make a statement.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. She had many homes.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. She had a famous inner circle.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. You can still visit Simone in her hometown.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. You've probably heard her music in recent hits.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. Her music is still being performed.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Isaac Hempstead Wright Explains Bran Stark's Intense Staring in Game of Thrones

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

There's always been something off with Brandon Stark's empty stare that we see so often in Game of Thrones. This week, actor Isaac Hempstead Wright explained exactly how he pulls it off.

The 20-year-old went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and shared a few of his experiences from working on the show, including accidentally dropping a spoiler in his math class and the interesting sex ed talk he was forced to have with his mom given his tender age when he began filming the show.

He also talked about his "intense stare"—and his preparation for the role may not be as deep as you think.

"I'm kind of getting good at this sort of intense stare," the star began. "But it's actually aided by the fact that I'm completely blind when I'm on set. I don't have my glasses, and I don't have contact lenses."

"How thick are the glasses?" Kimmel asks him, to which Hempstead Wright replies, "They're not that thick, but I need them to see."

He recalled another time when his vision problems aided his character. In season 7, while filming a scene with Sophie Turner (a.k.a. Sansa Stark), he recalled Turner making a comment along the lines of "Isaac, your stare is like—you're staring into my soul!" to which the actor replied "I can't see you!"

Actors—they're just like us.

Richard Madden Shared a Hilarious Throwback Photo With Game of Thrones Co-Stars Kit Harington and Alfie Allen

Charley Gallay, Getty Images for Netflix
Charley Gallay, Getty Images for Netflix

Richard Madden may not have held the title of King in the North for long on Game of Thrones, but his memories of his time on the series—and the lasting friendships he forged—live on. Madden, who played Robb Stark, was famously killed off in season 3’s penultimate episode, “The Rains of Castamere” (a.k.a. The Red Wedding episode). But he has continued to champion the series, and his former colleagues, in the years since his premature demise. People spotted his latest tribute to his Game of Thrones days: a #TBT Instagram post that serves as a stark (no pun intended) reminder of just how long we’ve all been watching the epic HBO series.

The image features Madden with co-stars Kit Harington and Alfie Allen—each of whom is almost recognizable—after taking a ride on the Wheel of Belfast following their first read-through of Game of Thrones’s pilot episode. Which means that Madden’s caption that the photo is about 10 years old is pretty spot-on; the original pilot episode filmed in Northern Ireland in 2009, which would make all three of the actors about 22 years old at the time.

The show's actors have remained tight even after Madden’s brutal on-screen murder. In June 2018, Madden was a guest at Harington and fellow Game of Thrones co-star Rose Leslie’s wedding. Just a few months later, the 32-year-old actor—who won a Golden Globe earlier this year for his Netflix series The Bodyguard—was there to support his on-screen little sister Maisie Williams when she made her stage debut in I and You at London’s Hampstead Theatre. Which means that Madden might know more than any of us do in terms of how Game of Thrones will end, and could have been on to something when he predicted that ultimately, "[I]t’s just going to be three dragons flying around and everyone else is dead.” Hey, it could happen!

[h/t People]

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