“I’m sweating my ass off,” Anne Steele murmurs in between slinging some cocktails on a tray. And you can’t blame her.
The animated and whimsical 36-year-old blond is dressed in paint-spotted jeans and a black, low-cut top as she takes drink orders. While running to the bar to pick them up, she smears on the lip-gloss she always keeps handy, checks her BlackBerry (protected in a hot pink case) and juggles a microphone so she can provide some harmony to the tunes being sung at the piano.
Steele feels at home at Don’t Tell Mama, the Times Square piano bar that has been an institution in cabaret for the past 25 years and boasts a
professional singing wait-staff. When it comes time for Steele to take the stage this Sunday, she leaves the serving duties to someone else and, after a few opening chords, the crowd erupts with applause. They know what’s coming. Steele announces that it’s a sing-a-long, but lays down one rule: “Don’t sing my part!”
With a deep breath, the Upper West Sider begins a ruthless and stirring rendition of the power ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s obvious why Steele won Best Piano Bar Entertainer at this year’s New York Nightlife Awards and most recently received the Bistro Award for Best Female Vocalist. On the 13th anniversary of her arrival in New York City—a number Steele considers anything but unlucky—she finally feels like she’s giving it her all to become a successful entertainer. And she’s nothing like the title of her upcoming CD, Strings Attached.
“I don’t want to be 50 years old and think, ‘What could I have been if I had only tried?’” she said.
After studying psychology and political science at Indiana’s Ball State University, Steele had every intention of taking the GRE and applying to graduate school. Then one afternoon, she threw her GRE book into the trash and decided to audition for Opryland in Tennessee. She got the job, moved to Nashville and had no regrets.
While in Nashville, Steele knew she had to find her way to New York. She moved to the city in 1997 and spent the first few months naively imagining she’d be discovered walking down the street. She soon came to her senses and realized she’d have to work hard for any success. That’s what led her to Don’t Tell Mama. And working there, in an environment where an audience could sometimes not care less what she is singing, has helped her develop her confidence, while keeping her ego in check.
At 3 a.m., an exhausted Steele heads home to her apartment on West 96th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.
“There’s nothing like getting up here. I live a block away from both of the parks. The streets are open. It’s just neighborhoody with great restaurants and bars.”
It’s a long way from Shelbyville, Ind., where she grew up listening to Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston. Her hometown has a population of about 25,000, and according to her, her upbringing keeps her focused on the simpler pleasures in life—like cake decorating. In November, Steele baked her first cake: a wedding cake with three tiers, three layers and full-on decorations.
“I don’t know why I thought I could bake cakes, but it was sort of like this visualization thing where I imagined that I could do it,” she says with a laugh.
Steele recently began cake-decorating classes, a Valentine’s Day gift from Angie, her girlfriend of two years with whom she lives. Steele also credits Angie with teaching her about love.
“It’s really about treating someone the way you want to be treated and respecting the person you are with,” Steele said. “I’ve been in a lot of relationships in my life, and I can honestly say that this one has really showed me a way to be in a relationship beyond just the physical.”
Even though she’s participated in Rosie O’Donnell’s “R Family Vacation Cruises” for the past few years and has won several awards—including honors from the Manhattan Association for Cabaret and the MetroStar Talent Challenge—she’s still reaching for the dream of appearing on Broadway. She concedes, however, that she’s no longer searching for fame; she just wants to be able to make a living as a singer without having to wait tables. As for children, that’s not part of the equation, but marriage is an option. In truth, though, she admits that it may be just to make another cake.
Anne Steele performs at Don’t Tell Mama Wednesdays and Sundays. Visit www.annesteele.com for more information.
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