"I don't toot glitter": Kristin Chenoweth on embracing her failure, anger and questions for God

On "Salon Talks," we learn how the "Wicked" star's thoughts on faith, fear and forgiveness became a book for fans

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 29, 2023 8:00AM (EST)

Kristin Chenoweth (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/John Russo)
Kristin Chenoweth (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/John Russo)

Kristin Chenoweth is a show business rarity — a Broadway icon and LGBTQ advocate who's also a devoted Christian. "Being a person of faith and saying it in this industry, I always felt like I was being judged. Why was I being judged? It's a huge part of the journey so far," she told me on "Salon Talks." 

The actor, singer and author is best known for originating the character Glinda in the iconic musical "Wicked," and multiple screen successes in "Pushing Daisies," "Glee," "Schmigadoon!" and other indelible roles. In her new book, "I'm No Philosopher, But I Got Thoughts: Mini Meditations for Saints, Sinners, and the Rest of Us," Chenoweth explores the complicated, seemingly contradictory sides of her life from starting out as a Oklahoma girl who just wanted to sing, dance and act to a now Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy winner with many stories to tell. 

Watch our candid "Salon Talks" conversation about faith, forgiveness and failure, and why in real life, she promises that "I don't toot glitter." Also, read a Q&A of the episode below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You've written a memoir and a children's book, but this is different. This is a workbook, a conversation with your bestie when you're feeling a little depleted and you need a pep talk. Tell me what you wanted this book to be and who you want it to be for.

I want it to speak to everyone. At first I thought, this is geared towards women, but at my book signing the other night, I found it was half and half men and women, which I loved. When I first was approached about writing another book, I thought, "No way, this constant book report due, I can't do it." It was at the height of the pandemic before vaccines, before we really knew what was going on. My agent said, "Well, what else are you going to do? You're not going anywhere." I was like, he has a point. I just needed it to be authentic and come from the heart and figure out what it was going to be.

I'm a big journaler. I'm also a big reader. Left to my own devices, I can stay up all night writing, and I do that in my journals. I took the time to start going back and reading some of my journals. I thought, I wonder if there's a book that I could write about some of these entries, or at least have chapters that are topics that come up again and again in my journal. That's how it started. Then it just snowballed into philosophies and quotes I love, and then some of my own quotes as well that I crack myself up on. I don't know if they're funny or not, but [it's] anything that I could give encouragement by what I've learned. I show in the book a lot of the good, but I also show a little bit of the dark. It's not something I'm comfortable normally doing, but it was important to do so.

I love when I see a book that has a bright pink cover that is so whimsical and cute, but also does go into these dark places. You talk about real challenges that you've had, depression and anxiety and death and grief and forgiveness. A big part of that is your spirituality. Talk to me about that side of it, putting the spirituality into this very mainstream book for audiences who may have very different views.

When I first started this career, I was just a very normal Oklahoma girl who wanted to sing and dance and act. I didn't know when I moved to New York that people don't really talk about Jesus or God. I mean you can, but it's not like being from the South. I learned here there was way more of a diverse community of people that I was meeting. And I loved it. I loved it because just because I believe a certain way doesn't mean it's the right way. It just means it's right for me and it's what works for me. 

"This is why I write books because I love to hear from people what moved them, what made them think a different way on something."

Thoughts on judgment come up a lot in the book because being a person of faith and saying it in this industry, I always felt like I was being judged. I don't really lead my life with judging others. Why was I being judged? So of course it's going to be in my book. It's a huge part of the journey so far. No, not everybody agrees. That's OK too. I have friends that are nothing like me, and on paper we should not be friends, but we're besties because they challenge me. They make me think a different way. Hopefully I do the same for them. That's what makes relationships fun and interesting. I believe can really stand the test of time. Also frankly, it's a relief to have a friend group where everybody can bring their perspective to something. That's what else I was trying to do with the book too. This is my perspective and this is what I think. How do you view this situation, that quote, your life in a pie chart? That's why there's stuff to do inside the book, a working book, so to speak.

This book is very playful, but also challenges the reader in unexpected ways to be curious, to be forgiving and to be open. You start with talking about doubt, which I think a lot of people on the other side of the conversation about Christianity don't think is part of the discussion about faith.

First of all, there's been a time in my life where I had to really look and see, is this what you believe? This is what you grew up with, this is what you were ingrained with, but is it truly your belief? I came to the conclusion that yes, it was. I did have some questions though. In my first book, the memoir, I had a postscript. I called it Questions for God, with things like, "Why do people hate gay people so much, God? And what happened to JonBenét, God?" I didn't know that so many people would be interested in that and love that section, so I did "Questions for God, Part Two."

I don't question God's love for me, but I have questions for him because why wouldn't I? After Cain and Abel, was there a first woman? I want to know, because I have questions for God, and when I get to heaven, I believe that all will be revealed. Some of it will be revealed through life lessons here on Earth. I love that you brought that section up because doubt is part of having faith to question and go, "Why that?" Okay, I'm going to take the meat that serves me well, but I'm not going to choke on a bone, which is in the book and said by my grandmother. I love that she said that to me, because I've taken it throughout my life and used it.

You talk about your advocacy in the LGBTQ community and what a big part of your life and your service that is. Have you ever had people come up to you from the Christian community and say, "You really got me thinking about my own perspective and you've really challenged my beliefs in a way that have made it a little more expansive now"?

Yes, I have. If I could tell you just one conversation, I had with a woman many years ago. I was at a book signing and she said, "When did you start being the gay rights advocate? Because of Broadway?" I said, "No, it was in the third grade when one of my friends started getting taunted, and I started my quest of understanding it then." She said, "Well, my daughter has come out as trans, and I can't accept that." She goes, "Because of my faith and our faith." She goes, "I love everything about you, but I just have a little problem here because you seem to cherry pick what you want to take and then the rest. That's not how our faith is."

I said, "You're absolutely right to have your opinion. I'm going to ask you something. Is it worth kicking your daughter out the house, telling her she's going to hell and damnation because of how God put her together? Is it worth it to you? What if she's wrong, OK? What if you're right and she's wrong? She'll find that out later when she goes to heaven. She'll find it out. It'll be revealed to her. But what if she isn't, and you're wrong? Is it worth it to you to put her to the side, disconnect from her?" She goes, "It's breaking my heart. I can't get well, I'm sick all the time." I go, "OK, there's your answer. You're making your own self sick because of your, pardon me, bigotry, about a certain aspect of your daughter's life when you have unconditional love."

"I didn't take action and take care of myself out of fear and worry and anxiety that my career would end."

I said, "Do you feel that you have unconditional love for her?" She said, "I do." I go, "You don't." She started to get upset and I gave her a big hug and I said, "It's OK. I'm not judging, I'm just saying. I'm not even a therapist. I just know that is not worth it. I'm sure that I have done things in my life that have embarrassed my parents. Not everything I say do they agree with, but they would never toss me aside because I'm their daughter. That's like our heavenly Lord. He does the same thing. He can be frustrated and he can almost feel like, are they not listening? This is for your own good, or I set this example so you would learn not to do that, whether it's a parable or not."

I said, "Our Bible is a great guide and our faith is great. All I keep my focus on is how God's going to work in my life. But listen, do not let her go over that." And she just cried and cried and cried. She said, I'm hearing you, "I'm hearing you." I always wondered what happened there. These moments are why you write books. This is why I write books, because I love to hear from people what moved them, what made them think a different way on something. That was one of the more powerful stories that I came into contact with.

You talk about forgiveness in this book, and about what that really looks like. Part of forgiveness sometimes means getting angry. You talk in this book about an accident that you had in 2012 on a set of a television show. I wonder if part of what you've learned along the way has to do with people's perceptions of you being this tiny good witch, and what you've learned about speaking up for yourself and owning forgiveness, but also owning anger.

I love this question, Mary Elizabeth, because what I came to understand about my own self is that I had a lot of anger. Not only did it trigger anxiety and depression out of the blue, but I had a lot of anger. And why? Because I do a cheer that I made up that I think a lot of Southerners can relate to. It's called "Push it down, push it down, way down, push it down, push it down, way down." I was the queen of it. There's a problem? Let's push it down. You have injury and pain? Push it down. Someone harmed you, you know what? Push it down. It comes up in a lot of ways. It was expressed to me from people I worked with that maybe it wouldn't be a good idea for me to take action, because then I would never work again.

"I have failed big time in my life. Do I like it? No, but I'm human."

I didn't take action and take care of myself out of fear and worry and anxiety that my career would end. Would it have? It'd be an interesting experiment to go back in time. One thing I would say is that now it feels like it'd be easier to do that for me. [It's] not just my age, just about because of where we are in this life, about how I learned things from the younger generation. Hopefully I can impart what I know to them as well. I learned, no, that's not right. If you notice the younger generation, it's like, "No, I need 15 minutes of me time. I've got to have a mental health day. I was supposed to work out. I can't go to this fancy thing." I'm like, "This is your career." Now I'm like, "No, take a little page from them, just a little one, and listen."

Now, I probably would have not been afraid and I would have shouted it from the mountaintops, but then I was scared and it caused a lot of undue problems for me. I learned a huge lesson. By speaking about it in the book, in such detail, finally, it feels like some of the anger is being released, just to be able to say it. 

I remember one of the people that used to work with me said, "Well, it wasn't that bad though, right?" It was from a woman. I said, "I had a seven-inch skull fracture, cracked nose, teeth, ribs, and a neck problem, and a concussion. I'm lucky to be here." When it happens to you, first of all, you gain empathy for others' pain. I see others who have pain and I go, "I see you, and I'm sorry." It's been an interesting time dealing with it. That was all those years ago. But yeah, I still deal with it.

You talk about the fear that you felt back then of reprisal. You talk in the book about courage. I'm curious now, what scares you now? What if anything, are you afraid of today, Kristin?

I would be completely inauthentic if I told you I wasn't afraid of anything. But I am more open to things that scare me. If I do a project that scares me, I know it's probably the one to do. Also, I'm open. I don't like the idea of it, but I'm open to the idea of letting the world see, oh, that was a hashtag fail. I think normalizing failure helps our youth.

Not everything is perfect rainbows and unicorns, and I don't toot glitter. I have failed big time in my life, and I've worked very hard at letting the public see only part of it. Now I'm not so afraid of that. Do I like it? No, but I'm human.

The film version of "Wicked" is coming out, the introduction of this book by your friend Ariana Grande. Did you know "Wicked" was going to be what it has become? What do you think it is that makes this story so special and so meaningful to so many people?

I remember telling Idina [Menzel], after our opening night, because we got kind of mediocre reviews, "It doesn't matter because you defy gravity, girl, at the end of Act One, against all odds." And we have a huge duet about forgiveness with friendship and love, which is the real theme of the show that I think works. I knew after our opening night on Broadway, I was in a massive hit. Did I know it would become a juggernaut? No. I didn't know. I had prayed before the show happened. I said, "Dear Lord, I really want my Les Mis, Phantom, I want one of those." I believe when we pray we're allowed to pray specifically. Sometimes it's in God's will. I feel blessed that God's timing and mine landed at the same spot. 

"Not everything is perfect rainbows and unicorns, and I don't toot glitter."

I always tease myself. I say, Every time you plan, God laughs, Kristin. Stop it. But the theme overall for the show, I think makes truckers come up to me as well as little girls, as well as gay couples, as well as my friends, all of us. It's the same thing. There's two women that are the love story of the show. By love story, I don't mean the typical, I just mean that's the heart. We see two women who are unlikely best friends, showing each other different perspectives. Both of them are a little bit evil, a little bit wicked, and a little bit good. Both of them. "Wicked" doesn't mean one girl. 

Glinda doesn't start out so nice. It's the journey she has to make her actually become Glinda the good. It's the journey that Elphaba has to make her become wicked. I love to hear when two people say, We met at the show, or we met because of the show and now we're best friends. I see tattoos of "For Good." I think Stephen Schwartz was such a genius. When music theater works at its highest level, it propels the plot. Yes, it's a beautiful song, but when those lyrics are sung and it's about forgiveness with the person that you love the most and a goodbye in a way, and love, it's deep. It's deep. And we did it eight times a week.

I went a couple of years ago to see the show, just because I wanted to see it. I hadn't really ever seen it. And I thought, oh, there it is. That's why it's still going. There's those three things that I wanted: friendship, love and forgiveness. It's still there. So that's why it lives on.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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