After Health Scares, Natalie Cole Changes Breakneck Pace

Complications from Hep C have forced singer Natalie Cole to slow down.

October 17, 2008, 4:21 PM

Oct. 19, 2008— -- LOS ANGELES — Natalie Cole was worried she'd be forgettable.

The singer had known for months that something wasn't quite right physically. It wasn't until she was sprawled out on the floor of her New York hotel room last month, barely breathing, that she was forced to figure out what was ailing her. She was in the middle of a heavy schedule of appearances to promote her new album, "Still Unforgettable," which like 1991's "Unforgettable … With Love" features a virtual duet ("Walkin' My Baby Back Home") with her late father, Nat King Cole.

After Cole, 58, checked into a hospital for tests, doctors told her she had fluid in her lungs and 10 percent kidney function.

"I could have been dead," the eight-time Grammy winner says, sitting in the living room of her high rise dressed in charcoal gray slacks and a matching sweater set, her hair cropped and her face made up. "The volume of work that I've had before, I can't do it. Instead of 90-minute shows, maybe I'll only do 60. Instead of dancing around the stage, maybe I'll just walk elegantly."

The most recent health scare came on the heels of her announcement in July that she had been diagnosed with hepatitis C (a liver virus), probably the result of years of intravenous heroin use in the '70s and '80s.

To treat it, she was receiving weekly injections of interferon (a drug also used with cancer patients), which was rough on her body. She lost her appetite, hair and 15 pounds. At the same time, she was finishing her album and gearing up for a tour, later canceled.

Days after the album's release, she was told she needed dialysis three days a week. Since getting out of the hospital, she's stopped taking interferon, but the dialysis continues for now.

In more than three decades of friendship, says her former personal assistant Benita Hill Johnson, Cole has never had worse than a head cold.

"Natalie thinks that she can't be defeated in anything," Hill Johnson says. "Her biggest disappointment is that she's going to have to slow down."

Cole is hoping to get her doctor's approval to do a few concerts here and there; she's itching to get back on the road, even if that means dramatically changing her set.

"I'm getting stronger every day. As much as I don't like dialysis, it absolutely is giving me the strength and the endurance that I need, so I'm happy for that," Cole says. She pauses to kiss goodbye to her mother, Maria, who says she needs to look into her daughter's eyes to see that she's healthy.

Cole doesn't love the idea of getting dialysis while traveling for work, "but it is what it is, you know?"

It'll be a different life on the road, but those who know her best doubt that fans will notice the difference.

Given where Cole is now, "I don't know that people expect Natalie to run across a stage," says Tena Clark, her album's executive producer. "Her voice is still gorgeous. Natalie could sing the Yellow Pages and people would sit there on the edge of their seats."

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