by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
With her eye-catching red hair and spectacular, soaring vocals, New York City siren Collette McLafferty was one of the most sought-after Big Apple singers in the early 2000s, when she transplanted to the city and founded her indie band edibleRed.
And while her story never ended in sold-out arena tours on the level of Lady Gaga, she got a lot further than me and most of my peers. At the band’s peak, around 2004, edibleRed was a staple of Lower Manhattan nightclubs and a favorite of the MTV Buzzworthy crowd.
But shortly thereafter, the music industry started to favor teen pop singers over gals strumming guitars. After shedding tears over the end of an era (and her band), Collette decided to pursue session work, and was invited to join several lucrative cover bands. It wasn’t original music, but for a singer in her mid-30s in a super-competitive marketplace, it was a pretty sweet life that paid the rent.
In 2014, when Collette was asked to sing for a P!NK cover band on a temporary basis by a seemingly nice guy named Rik who’d auditioned for edibleRed years before, it seemed like a no brainer. A short-term freelance project with no strings attached. But then the guy’s lawyer buddy (Charles Bonfante) got wind of the project and filed a lawsuit to the tune of $10 million, claiming Collette co-conspired to steal his idea for a Long Island P!NK tribute band. [You can read the actual lawsuit by clicking here].
The 112-page lawsuit caught the attention of media outlets like the New York Post — but that only seemed to make things worse. Although the lawsuit was riddled with insults against Collette for her voice and appearance, it never mentioned Collette’s age (she was over 30, which was ancient for pop stars). Still, click-bait headlines like “Singer Sued for Being Too Old and Ugly” dominated the search engines.
Embarrassed and angry, Collette was determined to fight this off, clear her name and rise above the naysayers — ultimately to prove that a woman doesn’t have to stop singing the minute she turns 30 (or 40, or even 50).
Four years later, Collette’s determination has exceeded her own expectations. In addition to becoming one of the most vocal advocates against frivolous lawsuits, Collette’s penned a memoir about her experience, and racked up tons of new EDM singing gigs. Oh, and she’s working on a new album out, too, called “42.”
I recently caught up with Collette in Manhattan to chat about the insanity of what she now calls “P!NK Tributegate,” and some of the lessons she hopes to pass on from that crazy experience. Her memoir, Confessions of a Bad Ugly Singer (New Haven Publishing) is out now, and it’s incredible. [Rockmommy reached out to Mr. Bonfante on Friday morning at 11:30 a.m. regarding this memoir. He said he had “no comment” for this article].
I read the book in two sittings, and identify with everything Collete talks about— the ageism and the sexism that’s inherent in the music industry as well as the beautiful opportunities that lie ahead if you open your mind to what’s possible.
Here, Collette herself tells it better than anyone else:
Rockmommy: When you first came to New York and started performing, what were your biggest fears and about making it as a musician?
Collette McLafferty: To be honest, I was pretty fearless when I first started. I was a rock star in my head; it was only a matter of time until everyone knew it. My biggest fear was that I would get signed and shelved or critically panned (the latter became true). Other then that, I was convinced I would be a rock star. Oddly, I’m glad that didn’t happen because I had so many life lessons I needed to learn. To be fair, a lot of musicians in the New York music scene had that mindset. We all thought we were on the verge of blowing up. You kind of had to think that way, as the scene could be cutthroat sometimes. This was back in the day when record labels had more power and we actually needed them. There was no YouTube, no Spotify. You couldn’t make a music video on your cell phone. As I started getting into the industry on a larger level, I noticed the values I was asked to embody didn’t line up with the real me. I was told to never have a female-fronted band open for us or make sure to cleverly disguise my real age in interviews.
Rockmommy: You talk in your book about how your music was a big hit in the early 2000s when every label in the country wanted to sign alt-rock girls with guitars. When did you realize the tides were turning, with the resurgence of teenage pop music?
Collette McLafferty: The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys paved the way during the Lilith Fair era, but Britney [Spears] changed the game. Her sales went through the roof in a way the industry had never experienced before. During the wave of angsty female pop, edibleRed was just getting started. Labels were looking for bands like us to ride the wave of Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Tracy Bonham, Garbage, and No Doubt. By the time we were ready to go pro, the industry changed overnight. I remember watching Melissa Etheridge, Paula Cole and Shawn Colvin give an award to Christina Aguilera. You could see the changing of the guard right there on TV. It happened in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, the same executives who told me I was young and promising at 26 were now informing me my time had passed. The women who dominated commercial radio in the late ’90s completely vanished. Rock bands were dropped by their labels en masse. It felt like an apocalypse of sorts. As new female artists got younger, women my age started to get shamed for existing. This wasn’t a thing when I was growing up. I was used to seeing rock stars on their thirties, forties and beyond.
Rockommy: Can you talk about your feelings in transitioning from edibleRed to gigging in cover bands? You describe some pretty powerful emotions when one of your bandmates got married, as the end of an era.
Collette McLafferty: To this day, I am so embarrassed that I couldn’t stop crying at [my drummer] Tom’s wedding for all the WRONG reasons! Everyone in the band was growing up in a way that I wasn’t. They were moving on to bigger bands, 9-to-5 jobs, spouses and kids. I was obsessed with edibleRed and making a career out of the band. It never occurred to me that the band might not take over the world. I had put every egg in this basket for 10 years and didn’t have much of a life outside the band — edibleRed WAS my life. I worked on the band morning, noon, and night. I realized I had to let everyone move on to their new chapters even if I felt left behind. We had many milestones: we played for 10,000 people, had our 15 minutes on MTV Buzzworthy and got a record deal — but the industry was going through a shake up. We weren’t hitting the big time, and we couldn’t keep living the starving artist lifestyle. It was time to grow up and I didn’t want to. Dave Eggar (a former edibleRed cellist who now tours with Evanescence) gave me some pretty solid advice. Even though we flopped on a commercial level, just getting signed and having a record come out was a win. He convinced me to leverage the experience for a solo career or session career down the line. He was right. Once our cover of “Hey Ya” got its lightening-fast nod from MTV, booking singing work was a breeze. I sang on commercials, records at weddings and in cover bands. I was constantly booked. There was only one thing I loved more then singing. That was singing and getting paid.
Rockmommy: Your name was dragged into a lawsuit over a PINK cover band, and although you had never met Chuck [Bonfante, the guy who sued you], the fact that you were called a co-conspirator was shocking. As the case dragged on, were there moments you thought it would never end?
Collette McLafferty: During the two years of litigation I felt as if my life was on hold. My happiness was on hold. My sense of peace was on hold. My sanity was on hold. In the beginning, I thought I would go to court, the judge would laugh and it would be over. At first I thought every court date would be the last court date. The lawsuit was so stupid, I couldn’t imagine the court system allowing it to continue to take up space. I didn’t realize that a court case could take years. Because I was sued by a lawyer representing himself, he had the power to keep me in the system indefinitely. I have spoken to people who have been in cases for ten years! It’s insane. The sense of not knowing when or how it would end drove me to some pretty dark places. I would start my day with a cup of coffee walking down the street and having an actual out-loud conversation cursing out Chuck! It wasn’t pretty. When I realized it could be a years-long battle, I started day drinking and telling every Lower East Side bartender about my troubles. Imagine the top 5 most stressful days of your life. Now imagine those 5 days elongated to 2 years. It felt like hell on earth.
Rockmommy: Do you regret your decision to reach out to the New York Post because of the way they interpreted your story and used an unflattering and inaccurate headline to drive “clicks”?
Collette McLafferty: I don’t regret calling the New York Post at all! Chuck painted me into a corner. He initially wouldn’t let me out of the case even though I had done nothing wrong. I missed my first filing deadline because I didn’t know what I was doing. By the time I got representation, my lawyer asked Chuck for an extension to answer. Chuck denied it and told Martin (Kera, my first lawyer) that it was because of Rik that I found myself in the “unenviable position of being in his cross hairs” and that if I thought getting sued once was inconvenient I would “certainly hate a second lawsuit for defamation of character” due to the fact that Rik was trashing him on Facebook. He basically admitted in writing that he was going after me because of someone else’s actions.
At this point there is no way out. Calling the press was an absolute necessity, it definitely wasn’t something I wanted to do. I was six weeks into litigation and my legal bills were over $3,200. I was also living in construction and Chuck’s case was delaying my move. I asked Martin if I should go to the press. Martin and I agreed that if we got the case a quick blurb in the paper, Chuck would drop it. We were right. A couple hours after the New York Post ran the bogus headline “Singer Sued for Being Too Old and Too Ugly For P!NK Cover Band”, Chuck called Martin to drop it. This was after 6 weeks of sheer torture from a man who made it clear he wanted to keep me in the system.
I was initially very grateful to the New York Post for this. Chuck had a stipulation: he wanted me to sign a nondisclosure and act as if nothing happened. When I insisted he pay my legal fees and damages, he offered half!! Out of self respect I had to decline and fight this to the end. I was actually shocked that they took the angle they did because the real story was more interesting.
Rockmommy: If you could swap another headline for that one, what would it be?
Collette McLafferty: Disclaimer: I am not a headline writer, but I’ll give it a shot:
- “Two men in their 50s fight over a P!NK Tribute Band after Elder Fraud Investigation by Chase Bank”
- “Rik and Chuck: the real life Steel Dragon.”
- “Personal Injury Attorney Bludgeons Cover Band Singer with Legal Fees” (from my lawyer Martin)
- “Grown-ass man and personal injury attorney refers to former best friend, bandmate and client as a ‘sleazy crony’ in 112-page legal document.”
- “Two Men Fight Like Tiny Toddlers”! (My favorite, from an actress named Corbette Pasko).
Rockmommy: What is the biggest silver lining in this whole lawsuit? Is it Collette’s Law? A sense of empowerment in the #metoo era?
Collette McLafferty: I think the silver lining is that I’m not dead. Statistically, I was supposed to crumble. I was supposed to lose and get clobbered. I took on a lawyer, major media outlets and The Trial Lawyers’ Lobby. The upper echelons of the music industry turned its collective back on me by refusing to acknowledge any of this happened. While I could see many people supported me, it felt like the world was against me. I felt suicidal, but stayed alive because I had two senior rescue cats to feed. They needed me and that was enough. I had always hoped that P!NK Tributegate would have some epic ending …. Chuck would publicly apologize, P!NK would finally make a statement, Collette’s Law would pass…someone would make a Lifetime for Women made for TV movie… none of those things have happened yet. So the desire to live is my happy ending. Beyond that, many people know a whole lot more about the legal system then they did before as a result of my case. I definitely feel empowered.
The “me too” movement goes way beyond sexual assault. Women have been “mind assaulted” by a certain sector of the mainstream media for decades now. Eating disorders wouldn’t exist without the endless berating, age-and-looks shaming we have experienced endlessly, day after day. The New York Post headline “Singer Sued for Being Too Old and Too Ugly for P!NK Cover Band”, represents an outdated view of women, one that we are not tolerating anymore.
Rockmmommy: Are you gigging again? What are your plans now that this whole ordeal is over?
Collette McLafferty: I started working on a pop/electronica album called “42” back in 2015. When I was about 90 percent done, I was hit with another round of legal fees. It completely derailed the project, so I am hoping to finish that soon. My passion right now is studio work, so that is where my focus will be. My dream is to move somewhere dirt cheap, build a studio and make music all day. Over the last few years I have been working as a vocalist in the EDM scene. I’ve worked with producers all over the world, most of them I have never met! I’m looking forward to taking that to the stage when the time is right.
I’m going to debut a couple songs at The Parkside Lounge on Oct 17th! I will be reading a couple chapters from “Confessions of a Bad, Ugly Singer” and playing some songs that are mentioned in the book. It will be me and a guitar and a couple of friends on stage with me. I have thought about potentially turning “Confessions of a Bad, Ugly Singer” into a musical. There has also been some very early interest in a potential movie, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. If there is anything I have learned, plans are fluid. Nothing ever turns out exactly as planned, so I am trying to keep an open mind as to what the next chapter entails!
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.