Kitt Shapiro is the daughter of the one and only Eartha Kitt, who is keeping her mother's legacy alive through Simply Eartha, a home decor website featuring Eartha's image and famous sayings, known as "Kittisms" on various designs for your home all made from natural fabrics, recycled goods, and in America.
Kitt and I had the pleasure of speaking about her mother's legacy, why she started Simply Eartha, and what it was like being the daughter of the legendary entertainer!
1. What was it like to grow up as the daughter of Eartha Kitt? I didn't have a lot to compare it to as far as being somebody else's daughter [laughs]. It was an amazing life. Hindsight is 20/20 and now that I'm 51 years old, I look back and think about what an unbelievable experience my life was. When I was very little, my mother was the most attentive parent. She was physically there. She always told me she loved me and she showed me love. She always included me in almost everything she did. She made sure I traveled with her because she felt travel was the best education I could ever get, much better than any textbook could ever give me. So when we traveled, she made sure I saw what the different countries we visited were really like. It wasn't from a tourist or fancy hotel perspective. She would make friends with the waiters, maids, and taxi cab drivers and made sure I got to stay in people's homes, real people's homes, not celebrity people. She made sure I learned the way of life was different in the country we were in. She showed me how different people lived. She wanted to make sure I knew that growing up in Beverly Hills, CA or London was not the way the rest of the world saw things.
Like all children, I certainly had my moments when I didn't want to leave the air conditioned hotel room or complained about going somewhere, but it never seemed to phase her because she knew in her gut, that the way she was showing me the world was far more important than giving into the little bit of complaining I was doing.
2. What did you enjoy most about having a mother who was an international celebrity? What was frustrating about it? I don't think I equated the fact that she was as famous as she was. I don't think I understood that as a little girl. I did understand that she had to travel a lot. As I mentioned earlier, she took me with her most of the time, but there were times when she couldn't take me with her and that was always hard for me because I was so attached to her.
I grew up going to a French school in Los Angeles and London and so I was around other children who's parents did special things, whether they were diplomats or celebrities, so they didn't have 9-5 parents. It didn't seem that my mother was doing anything different. She may have been famous, but the kids I was around also had unconventional parents, so I was in a world of unconventional people.
I don't think I really comprehended she was famous. Times were much different then. She could go out and be recognized, but people didn't really bother her. The one thing as a young girl that really, really bothered me was that I wanted to go to Disneyland with her. That was one thing she couldn't do, go to an amusement park. She was too famous to have a real experience at an amusement park.
3. You started the website, Simply Eartha after your mom passed away in 2008 from colon cancer. What made you want to honor your mother this way as opposed to writing a book or some other form? How did you decide on which home decor items you wanted to carry? Throughout my life my mother always said to me, "Don't throw anything away. Anything I've written or made, I've done for a reason." She would write down all these sayings, not that she necessarily made them up, but she coined them as "Kittisms." Once she wrote them down, you couldn't tell her she didn't make them up. She wrote ideas and thoughts all the time on little pieces of paper. Before she passed, she reminded me not to throw anything out. "Waste not, want not", she would say.
About a year after she passed, I went to pack up her house and found all of her writings, some of which I've seen before, but many I hadn't. So her words "Don't throw anything away" rang in my head and I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do with this stuff, but my mother's assistant helped me put these sayings in notebooks and binders and we put them in storage. I had worked for my mother for the past 25 years before she passed, so I was very used to the way her business was operated. I ran Eartha Kitt Productions, producing her tours, albums, books, etc, and so for Christmas 2010, I put little books together with pictures of my mother and her "Kittisms" for a small group of people who meant a lot to my mother. I sent them out as Christmas gifts. Some of the "Kittisms" were my mother's handwriting and some I just did on my Mac. People would call me and say "Oh my goodness, these are so fabulous. What a great thing to do." Then I created the Simply Eartha Facebook Page (because that is what you do in this day and age) and I started posting these "Kittisms" and people would comment on them and ask for more. Then I thought, "Well, what do I do next." My mother always said, "You have to do something with what you have. You can't just let it sit there. You have to give back." Since she passed away from colon cancer, I thought I'll give back by donating the proceeds to the various colon cancer charities. My mother was very much into her home. She was all about her home and her garden.
From there, the site just evolved. What most people didn't know about her was that she was very simple. She would always say, "I'm just a little cotton picker from South Carolina." She truly believed in the earth, in recycling, in composting. She was green before it was chic. I used to call her "The Original Beverly Hillbilly." She had her own garden in Beverly Hills. We raised chickens, made our own eggs, and I was never allowed to eat anything processed. It just made sense to be all about her home life. We started with the line of home decor and now we are going to produce a line of journals and notebooks since my mother was always about writing down her thoughts, feelings, and ideas. It just made sense to stay true to who she was. She was all about "Made in America." I mean, if you gave her something "Made from China," forget about it, she would give it right back to you. When I started to manufacture these items, I made sure of a few things: it had to be green (made with natural material, or made from recycled products) and it had to made in the United States. If I make something from oversees, my mother is definitely coming back to haunt me.
Me: It's nice that you are able to honor this way and teach people something about her life that, I don't think, many people would know on a regular basis.
Kitt: With the internet today, people can find out almost anything public about someone, but a lot of people didn't realize just how incredibly profound and instinctive she was. She always listened to her gut and respected herself and always acted that way. People were always surprised at how tiny she was in person and I believe you met her? There was a picture you sent me?
Me: Yes, I met her after seeing her in Nine on Broadway.
Kitt: People would say that they thought she was so much bigger because of the way she carried herself. She carried herself with a sense of respect and elegance. That is something she always felt was being lost generation after generation. To be able to pass on who she truly was, not just her persona, I'm blessed to be able to do that. I was blessed to have a mother like her who was so connected to her environment, universe, etc, and really lived that way, up until her death. I always knew how much she loved me and she knew how much I loved her. I think that's the greatest gift a parent can give a child. I am truly blessed when she was alive and with her death of the memories she gave me and that I have as much closure one could possibly ever have when you lose a parent.
My husband came in right before my mother died, I think she waited until I wasn't alone, and he called the hospice nurse who asked me if I wanted to clean her up and change her clothes. I said I did and I went into the bathroom to run the water, making sure it was warm, and the nurse came in and said, "I don't think she's going to care if the water is hot or cold." I looked at her and said, "You don't know my mother, if I put a cold washcloth on my mother, I don't care how dead she is, she's coming back and taking us both with her." Even then, my mother had given me that gift. She had only been dead 15-20 minutes and I was still able to laugh with her, even though she wasn't physically there. I just thought that was an amazing blessing. I'm also blessed to know that I was blessed. That's another reason why it's so great to be able to share these "Kittisms." You put something up that people respond to, puts a smile on my face. It's my mother's mark on this planet is still being left. That's pretty cool that I'm able to do that.
4. With your mother's passing, how did you find the strength to make it on and continue through? I'm not going to pretend it was easy. That first year I barely wanted to move in many ways. Everything that happened the first time was tough. That first Mother's Day was just awful. Everyday I pretty much shed a tear thinking of her and missing her. It is the way of the cycle of life. It is the way it's supposed to happen. Our parents are supposed to go before us and my mother had left this in my head. My mother really engrained in my head, "Don't throw anything away. Don't waste it. Don't let it sit there and do nothing." The more creative and the more into the process I've gotten, and it's been a learning curve because I've stepped into a business I knew nothing about, and my mother who was always happy that she was learning throughout her entire life, and so I look at it as the baton has been handed to me and it's my job to do something with it. I had no choice but to make this all work. To be able to take this energy she exuded and carry on the legacy is just the life path I'm supposed to be on.
5. Now that it has been a few years since her passing, what do you miss most about her? I miss her talking to me and laughing at my jokes. My mother thought I was the greatest gift to the planet. She thought everything I did was wonderful. She always laughed with me and at me. I miss just sitting with her and laughing the most. I miss her voice too. She would always call me Kittala. I'm lucky I can hear her voice in recordings and movies and TV, but it's not the same just hearing her speak to me.
6. One of the things I enjoyed reading on Simply Eartha is how you mention things that your mother taught you to "be true to yourself, live honestly and with respect for everything and everybody. She also taught you to possess calm in a place of panic and to remember that humor is one of life's most precious gifts." How exactly did she teach you these lessons? Are there specific moments you remember learning each of these lessons? There were many times from big to small incidences that happened where my mother's sense of calm was tremendous. I wasn't and am still not that calm of a person, but I think I've become more so as I've gotten older. That ability to realize that panicking, worrying, getting upset in a situation doesn't change the situation. It only makes it more difficult to see what's happening clearly and to think more clearly. That's one thing my mother always told me, "Don't panic. God may not always be there when you want him, but he's always on time." So that ability to truly trust that every experience we have in life is designed to get us to the next place, even if it's not a place we want to be, we are supposed to be there. There is either a lesson we are supposed to learn or a gift we are supposed to give somebody else. We are not solely walking on this planet in solitude. We are all connected beings.
When I was 13-years-old, my mother and I went to South Africa, during apartheid, in 1974. It was not very well received back home, my mother going into a country during apartheid. But my mother felt the way to truly make change is to go and make change. She felt artists were the true diplomats because they didn't have to follow protocol and political correctness. They could go and actually do something different. When we went to South Africa, she insisted on performing for inter-racial audiences, which of course people didn't do at that time, but she did. We traveled through the country for three months and we were raising money to build schools for the black African children and at one point we were in the town of Durban, South Africa, and there was this amusement park that I kept wanting my mother to come with me to (I had been going there everyday with my road tutor). One day, my mother was able to free up her schedule and come with us. We were in South Africa on VIP status so the rules of the country didn't pertain to us. We were on the bumper cars and all of a sudden the bumper cars came to a stop and one of the workers came over to my mother and said, "Excuse me, are you European?" and my mother said, "No, I'm American." The worker said, "No, no, that's not what I mean. Are you colored?" She looked at her skin and said, "I guess if you think this is colored then yeah, I'm colored." The worker said, "Well this is a white's only park and you are not allowed to be here. So my mother stood up and got out of the bumper cars and very calmly without saying anything started to walk out of the park. And I, in typical teenage fashion, start yelling and screaming and crying, "Tell him who you are. Tell him we are VIP and the rules don't apply, we can go anywhere you want." I remember my mother turning to me and raising her hand and saying, "Don't panic. Everything happens for a reason." We left the park and I cried for the rest of the day, very upset, not understanding why she didn't say anything or stand-up for herself. Well, a few days later, she was having a press conference and the photographers wanted her to take a picture. They asked her to do it on this balcony with the amusement park in the background. She said, "You know it's very funny, I was thrown out of that amusement park the other day." The press went crazy, "Eartha Kitt thrown out of amusement park." The owner of the amusement park found out and was embarrassed and called my mother and said, "I'm so sorry. The gentleman didn't understand. He had no idea who you were. How can I make it up to you?" My mother said to him, "You know we are raising money to build schools, so your donation, a big fat check would be very appreciative. And also my daughter loves the amusement park and she would love to come with some friends." So he sends over a check and sends over some tickets and we go back to the amusement park a few days later and my mother brings two white children, two colored children and two black children. At the time did I understand what she was doing, not necessarily, but I think back on it, that is how she made change. Her ability to stay calm and reacting her way was much more impactful than my way of wanting to make a scene. So, it's those lessons that my mother lived is how she taught me. That is truly how she lived her life.
My mother's given name was Eartha and she truly was "of the Earth." I do believe that there is a lot to be said for when you are really connected to this life source or energy. When you are truly connected to it, you function differently. I really believe that.
7. What have you learned about yourself from creating Simply Eartha and honoring your mother's legacy? I've learned that I'm more capable than I've given myself credit for and that I'm more creative than I thought I was. My mother would also introduce us as "I'm Eartha and she's Kitt." That's a lot to be brought up with, carrying your parent's name. When it's a famous parent, it's even more difficult. I wouldn't say it was a burden, there's a weightiness to it. I think I was blessed to be able to work for my mother, so we were together for our entire lives, but I was also the behind-the-scenes person, you know, I wasn't out on stage with her, so that's why I didn't think of myself as being creative. I've also learned that I'm able to have more faith and belief in what I'm doing. In staying true to myself and my mother, I possess more of a sense of calm than I ever did before and knowing that I am the vessel to carry on the legacy.
8. What future plans do you have for "Simply Eartha"? We're taking over the world [laughs]. We are going to bring even more design items for the home. We are also going to compile a book with all the "Kittisms," some in her writing and some not, similar to the books I gave her friends back in 2010.
9. Do you have other projects in the works to honor your mother's legacy? She has so many writings from parts of her life that were very impactful, such as The Civil Rights Movement, The Vietnam War, meeting Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill. She's another person in history, and I'm not sure a lot of young people know what she did. She wasn't Rosa Parks, but yet she made change in her own subtle ways. Similar to Rosa Parks she did it in a quieter way. I think that is a lesson to remind people. I would love to do a something like a traveling museum to schools. My mother was very connected to children who weren't as privileged and blessed. When she was alive, she had an organization called "Kittsvile" in Watts, in Los Angeles and on the weekend she would go there and teach dance. She taught the kids more than dance. She really taught them how to carry yourself. When you walk into a room a certain way, you give an impression to the people already there and feel differently about yourself. If you feel pride and respect for yourself and carry yourself that way than people are going to treat you that way because you are not giving them the option. That is what she would instill in these young people. She would also teach them to follow your own gut and treat yourself well. That means you take care of yourself. You look presentable. You speak to other people in a respectful way. She was very big on manners and you better give respect to your elders. She didn't care if she knew you or not, she was going to tell you what she thought. She felt you don't call them by their first name and you don't look down when they are talking to you. You shake hands, you look and act respectable around them. I really want this traveling museum to remind people that there was another person who made a difference. I think it's important to remind the next generation of this.
10. As a mother yourself, what traditions from growing up have you incorporated with your family? Once a year, we do a vacation with just the kids (no friends, no outsiders). We go to one place, we all stay together (it's not a beach or resort), and talk and play games. My kids role their eyes sometimes, but I think they'll look back on it later and be happy.
Me: I will say, of the vacations I went on with just my parents and brother, you do remember those times together and it makes a difference.
Kitt: With all the success of Simply Eartha, my kids are learning something about their grandmother that they didn't know, which is very cool.
Me: One of my friend's came over for 4th of July and he was talking about his parents and where they came from and my mom mentioned something about my grandfather, that I didn't know. It was nice to hear that fact and learn more about his life, especially since he's not around anymore.
Kitt: I think we all want to be connected and being connected to family (whether it's the one you are born into, the one you grow up with, or the one you fall in love with) is really, really important. I see more of my friends staying close to their parents and grandparents and having their children do the same. I was an only child and when my parents divorced when I was very young, my mother made sure I stayed close with my father's family. So, I did have aunts and uncles and grandparents. It's just very important to honor your family, whether they are famous or not. My mother would always say, "Everybody's a teacher at some point in their lives and we are all here for a reason to give each other care, love, and fuel for the next generation."
11. Your mother represented so many different things to different people. What do you remember most about her? Looking back, I realize how much she accomplished from being one little person with no family. She had the ability to move keep moving forward at times when she must have felt terrified. There is a survival instinct in just persevering, whether you do that on a private level or public. That's been a really important thing to look back and remember and admire her for. That could not have been easy. She didn't have any parental skills. She was an orphan. She was physically and emotionally abused. She lived at poverty level, but through it all she still had the ability to move forward. I saw that in her when she died. The hospice nurse said to me a few weeks before she died, "What's going to end up happening is that she is just going to stop drinking water and eating and just slowly fade away." My mother did ANYTHING but that. My mother left this world literally screaming at the top of her lungs. Of course I wasn't prepared for that. Two days before she died, she lost her ability to speak, but at her death she started screaming, and as a typical daughter I was screaming back at her, "You can go, you can go." My husband is standing in the corner having no idea what to do. She's screaming, and I knew she could hear me because the tears were streaming down her face, I'm crying, I'm telling her she can go, but what I saw at that moment, was how she survived her entire life. It was her survival instinct that took over at every point in her life, even then, at that moment, when there was no survival happening, she was not going to go easily without a fight. That is an amazing instinct that she never lost. It just shows what a truly amazing woman she was and that there was a reason for her to be on this planet.
12. What do you hope people remember most about her? One of the things I love about Facebook is that people can comment about their memories about my mother. They write about how my mother made them feel when they actually met her. People always had a positive impression of meeting her. When people met her, she really came across as who she was. People who didn't get to actually meet her, talk about how they were impacted by her whether it was by something she said or an interview they saw or just from her voice. It's a pretty neat thing to see how one person can have an effect on many people they come in contact with.
Me: I felt so fortunate when I got to see her in Nine, which was terrific.
Kitt: I loved her in Nine.
Me: Then to get to meet her afterwards was a real moment for me. I grew up watching her on Batman and then in my twenties I got to learn about her music and it was just wonderful have all those different facets of her life and now to get talk to you and learn even more about her and her legacy is so wonderful to me. I'm so appreciative of your time.
Kitt: You are very welcome. I love hearing how people were affected by meeting her. It just reaffirms my position in that I'm meant to carry the torch forward that she started. That is a really important thing and we all make our differences in the areas of the world we function in. We all have our outlets and we touch other people with them, as you do with Call Me Adam.
Me: I understand exactly what you are saying. It is always wonderful to meet my fans and hear that they have taken time out of their day, when there are millions of blogs to read, that they chose to read Call Me Adam, is just very cool.
Kitt Shapiro, only child of Eartha Kitt, introduces a lifestyle brand of coasters, plates, wall art, mugs, pillows, throws, and paperweights featuring the witticisms and images of her iconic late mother.
Upon her mother's passing from colon cancer in 2008, Shapiro discovered hundreds of whimsical thoughts scribbled on papers that they had referred to as "Kittisms"; Eartha said to her daughter, "When I'm gone, do not throw anything away – use it." So with part of the proceeds benefiting The Colon Cancer Alliance, Shapiro has preserved her mother’s legacy by weaving "Kittisms" such as "What I do today is how I am interpreted tomorrow," and "When life becomes confused, step aside and think" into this unique and collectible line of Simply Eartha home goods.
Simply Eartha also follows the entertainment icon’s strong feelings that Americans should be making products in America. These are all created in the Southeast, primarily Alabama. Being eco-friendly, and green-minded was also at the core of Eartha Kitt’s philosophy, and Simply Eartha’s products keep her passion for the environment alive.
Shapiro says "My mother was organic way before it was chic. She had a vegetable garden that she tended to, and a yard with chickens and roosters in Beverly Hills. She would be very happy with how these products are made. The coasters are natural tumbled stone. The plates are made from recycled glass. The throws are created from recycled T-shirts, and the dyes are all non-V.O.C. (non-toxic)."