Australia

Broadway powerhouse, MS advocate Jennifer Holliday to 'blow the roof off' Australia

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One of the original "Dreamgirls", Jennifer Holliday lives with multiple sclerosis and, after making her return to the stage, hopes to inspire others living with the illness.

Broadway superstar Jennifer Holliday is a survivor.

And having experienced the toughest years of her life, she's now back stronger than ever. 

She shot to fame in 1981 when she originated the role of Effie White in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls.

Her performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" is arguably one of the greatest Broadway performances in history, and eventually earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for the 2006 movie.  

                            Broadway icon Jennifer Holliday performs for the Sydney Cabaret Festival on Saturday and Sunday.
Broadway icon Jennifer Holliday performs for the Sydney Cabaret Festival on Saturday and Sunday.
Supplied

But almost 20 years ago, Ms Holliday was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). 

"It was a devastating experience," she told SBS News.

"As someone who lives with MS, I understand the challenges. My message for the Australians like me, living with MS, is one of love, hope and to stay strong. Music has an incredible healing power."

Ms Holliday had to overcome depression, sight loss and even had to  learn to walk again to resurrect her career. 

She's been in remission for three years now and returned to Broadway for the musical revival of The Colour Purple. 

Her doctor has recently cleared her to travel internationally, and she wants to reach out to the MS community with shows in Australia. 

"The fact that I'm able to travel again and sing - I think to me, that should be a symbol of hope, you know, for people," she said.

More than 25,000 Australians live with MS, with about 10 people diagnosed every week. 

The manager for NSW MS support services Rob Lawrenson said it was important more and more people were talking openly about the illness.

"It's such a hidden disease, some of the symptoms, you can't tell sometimes people are living with it," he said. 

"So it is really great to have role models out in the community to show you can still achieve any goals you may put your mind to and you shouldn't let MS hold you back."

Ms Holliday will headline the Sydney Cabaret Festival which opens on Friday. The festival features more than 40 acts over 10 glorious days. 

Festival artistic director Trevor Ashley said each performance was designed to push boundaries and celebrate diversity. 

Australian musical theatre actor Trevor Ashley poses for a photograph during a media call for the Sydney Cabaret Festival.
Sydney Cabaret Festival's artistic director Trevor Ashley poses for a photograph during a media call for the festival.
AAP

"I have loved cabaret as long as I can remember," he said.

"As a confused child growing up, I discovered this incredible art-form that celebrated unique personalities and more than that, an irreplaceable bond between artist and audience. 

(From left) Australian actor Tim Draxl, musical artist Alison Jiear, director Trevor Ashley, singer Jennifer Holliday and American performer Natalie Joy Johnson
(From left) Australian actor Tim Draxl, musical artist Alison Jiear, director Trevor Ashley, singer Jennifer Holliday and American performer Natalie Joy Johnson
AAP

"Seeing artists like Lorrae Desmond, Julie Anthony and Geraldine Turner live made me believe I could be anyone I wanted to be - it changed my life."

The festival runs until July 14. 

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