Liza Minnelli: From Childhood To Icon

You can't talk about showbiz icons without mentioning Liza Minnelli. She was the daughter of "The Wizard of Oz" sweetheart Judy Garland, the main star of Bob Fosse's "Cabaret," and Andy Warhol's muse. But it's not as simple as it sounds — Minnelli didn't have an easy path from famous baby to fashion, music, and cinematography icon.

As Minnelli confessed to Variety, she's never had a moment to herself. "I was born and they took a picture," she said. Being in the spotlight as Garland's daughter brought along a mixed bag of memories. Her life became fodder for tabloids that were determined to portray her in various ways she didn't agree with: as the daughter of a struggling woman, a Judy Garland wannabe, or the poor girl raised by a mentally unstable star (via Vogue). Decades passed and life wasn't always kind to Minnelli, but she's earned an Emmy, two Grammys, an Oscar, and four Tony Awards. Apart from being one of history's few EGOT winners, Minnelli has a lifetime of experience and a story worth telling. Let's explore Liza Minnelli's journey from childhood to icon.

The following article contains descriptions of addiction.

Her mother's daughter

Before she was anything else, Liza Minnelli was the daughter of two Hollywood icons: Vincente Minnelli (who won an Oscar for directing "Gigi," per The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and Judy Garland. Garland achieved worldwide fame while she was still a teenager, after starring as Dorothy in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" (via Vogue). But as the years passed, Garland also became famous for being seriously abused by Hollywood directors. She was the lowest-paid (human) actor in the movie, and her MGM bosses were obsessed with keeping her thin. According to Biography, they would call her "a fat little pig with pigtails" and subject her to a diet of soup, coffee, cigarettes, and pills. 

Garland died of a barbiturates overdose at the age of 47, after a lifelong struggle with addiction and mood swings. Of course, this impacted her daughter, too. As Minnelli's ex-husband Peter Allen told Rolling Stone, Minnelli often had to take care of her mother: "When she was a kid, a doctor told her that Judy could not take more than a couple of Nembutals a day, that more might kill her, but that she had to believe she was taking more, so it was up to Liza to empty out most of the capsules and fill them with sugar." So, while Minnelli had the road paved to stardom from the start, she was also witness to the lowest lows of showbiz from a very young age.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Entertainment was the only way (but she had other plans)

Being born into a famous family might sound like a dream — you've got your career covered, right? But this also entails a pretty rigid road (and a small number of career paths). In an interview with CNN's Larry King, Minnelli confessed to dreaming of becoming an ice skater when she was a child. She added she was quite good at it, too, and that skating to music was her favorite part: "I loved the music so much that I wanted to do strides that matched it. It was like some kind of force. You know, then my mom brought me to New York. And I went to see 'Bye-bye, Birdie' and I thought, maybe I'll do that."

There was no way Minnelli could avoid the plays and musicals she eventually got involved in. Her parents as well as nearly all her friends and relatives were in the entertainment business (via Vogue). As Minnelli told Variety, she was 3 years old when her mother first took her onstage to perform with her. When Minnelli wasn't at school, she was surrounded by Hollywood stars — singers and actors alike — teaching her the ins and outs of the trade. Before she knew it, Minnelli was a singer, dancer, and actress, leaving her ice skating dreams behind.

She learned to sing from the very best

In an interview with Variety, Liza Minnelli explained that she had a few impressive mentors who surpassed even her mother in the arts of singing and performing. When she was still in high school, Minnelli moved to New York to come face-to-face with the Broadway world. It was there that Tony Bennett became her singing mentor. As per Britannica, Bennett was already an illustrious singer — his 1951 hit "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" had a snowball effect on his career. Minnelli's former roommate, actress Tanya Everett, remembers how Bennett would drop by unannounced and play the piano while Minnelli learned to sing to his tunes.

Then there was Charles Aznavour. According to The New Yorker, Aznavour was an Paris-born French singer of Armenian descent who revolutionized the French pop music scene by intertwining delicate melodies with daring lyrics and passionate performances. When Minnelli was young, he was also her lover — but first and foremost, he was her performance mentor. Speaking to CBS Sunday Morning, Minnelli confessed: "Charles Aznavour changed my life [because] I wasn't a good singer ... And I knew, because my mom was the best in the world." Aznavour thus taught Minnelli how to perform in her own way and step out of her usual characterization as Judy Garland's daughter. Minnelli explained to Variety: "I was absolutely concentrated on not doing what my mom did." It was Aznavour's gestures that inspired Minnelli when creating her famous "Cabaret" character.

Liza Minnelli struggled with drugs (albeit differently than Judy Garland)

Judy Garland's drug addiction is quite well-known, as is her death from a barbiturate overdose in 1969 (via Biography). It was a tragic but unsurprising event, after a lifetime of abuse from Hollywood execs. Needless to say, Garland's death impacted her daughter — Minnelli was only 23 at the time, and the two were very close. It's unclear whether Minnelli began using alcohol heavily as a result of her mother's death or as a consequence of growing up with someone who dealt with addiction all her life. Speaking to The Guardian, Minnelli focuses on the latter: "My whole life, this disease has been rampant. I inherited it, and it's been horrendous, but I have always asked for help."

This is where the other big difference between Minnelli and her mother comes into play. Garland struggled to hide her problems and often refused help, while Minnelli went to various doctors and tried to curb her addictions. Unfortunately, when she replaced alcohol with Valium and other prescription meds, she became addicted to those. Then came Quaaludes and cocaine. But not even those controlled Minnelli's life for too long. In 1985, she checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment. "I'm learning to be a friend to myself," she said at the time (via to The Buffalo News). In 2015, E! News confirmed Minnelli had returned to rehab a few times. So, while Garland's downward spiral seemed uncontrollable, Minnelli has powered through her lower moments and emerged victorious.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

She was friends with Frank Sinatra

Being born into Hollywood royalty also entails being friends with very famous people. For Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra was one of those people. As per Biography, Sinatra rose to musical fame in the 1940s, then gained notoriety as an actor during the 1950s, earning a large number of awards in the process. Amidst all this, he was friends with Judy Garland and her daughter, Minnelli. According to The Guardian, Minnelli was 16 years old when she left home and went to New York in an attempt to make her big break as an actress and singer. Even though her parents let her go, they told her she would not have their financial support. That's when Sinatra stepped in and sent Minnelli $500, to have a more comfortable start in the big city. 

Funnily enough, Minnelli sent the money back — she wanted to be independent. But that was not the end of Minnelli and Sinatra's friendship. Before long, they started performing together, too. As Biography reports, in the late 1980s, the two joined forces with Sammy Davis Jr. and did a world tour called "The Ultimate Event." Minnelli remained friends with Sinatra until his death in 1998.

She lived between fame and famine

Liza Minnelli's first few decades as a star were not all filled with caviar and VIP parties. In fact, as she told Rolling Stone back in 1973, it was a pretty big rollercoaster for Minnelli and her mother, Judy Garland. Sometimes, the two would go shopping for Dior hats (as shown in the picture above) and travel with 26 pieces of checkable luggage. Other times, though, they would be so poor that they would be virtually homeless. Once, Minnelli remembers sleeping in a park, and another time, she was kicked out of a New York hotel for inability to pay.

Minnelli explained that Garland somehow made a fun experience out of their poverty: "A lot of times we had to sneak out of hotels because she was out of bread ... We would put on all the clothes we could, about five layers, and just walk out leaving the rest, laughing. Mama'd say, 'Oh, hell, I needed a new wardrobe anyway.'" For Garland, sadly, poverty was an increasing problem toward the end of her life. As Vanity Fair reports, she had a huge debt to the IRS and was utterly destitute at the time of her death.

Minnelli didn't immediately adopt a lavish lifestyle after Garland's death, either. The 1973 Rolling Stone interview describes her shopping at supermarkets for products on sale. But it's safe to say, from a financial point of view, Minnelli's life was smooth sailing from then on.

Her best friend is Michael Feinstein

Much like Liza Minnelli, musician Michael Feinstein has had a fair share of famous friends from a pretty young age. It was actually through a pair of common friends that the two met — as Feinstein told Dan's Papers, these were George and Ira Gershwin. Feinstein had become Ira Gershwin's apprentice at the age of 20, and Minnelli was friendly with the composer through her father, Vincente Minnelli. Feinstein and Liza became instant best buddies — Feinstein remembers: "When we met, it was like meeting a lost cousin or sibling."

Minnelli also gushed over having Feinstein as a friend to CBS Sunday Morning: "I mean, we met each other and we're joined at the hip." Feinstein credits Minnelli with having an exceptional understanding of the human condition, and Minnelli praises Feinstein for always giving her the reassurance she needs to keep performing. Of course, the two have also been performing together for over four decades. As EW reports, Minnelli appeared next to her bestie in 2022, for a joint performance of Feinstein's "Our Love Is Here to Stay," to the audience's surprise and delight.

Liza Minnelli has had a fair share of tragedy in her life

Apart from recurrent drug addictions and bouts of extreme poverty, Liza Minnelli has had a pretty long list of tragic experiences. As per Biography, this includes four failed marriages: to Peter Allen (1967 – 1972), Jack Haley Jr. (1974 – 1979), Mark Gero (1979 – 1992), and David Gest (2002 – 2003). As Vice reports, her first and last marriages were dramatic, to say the least — Allen allegedly cheated on Minnelli with men and Gest was thought to be gay, mirroring Judy Garland's marriages to two gay men. Minnelli reportedly caught Allen in bed with another man on their wedding day. Later, Allen had an affair with Mark Herron, who was Garland's husband at the time. Per The Washington Post, her marriage to Gest ended with him suing her for spousal abuse (and accusing her of giving him herpes).

According to The Guardian, Minnelli also suffered three miscarriages, two of which happened in two consecutive years (via The New York Times). During one of the miscarriages, a doctor's procedure to try and save the baby left her with a hiatal hernia, which still causes pain when Minnelli sings or eats — all the more tragic since the baby didn't survive.


Half a century after its premiere, Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" is still a staple of movie musicals: Every scene and song is memorable, and its political context (the slow and menacing rise of the Nazi regime) is still relatable in a world of ever-shifting political turmoil and wars. When Liza Minnelli was cast as the film's main star, Sally Bowles, she was still recovering from the death of her mother and trying to make her own way through the music and film industry. Joel Grey — who got an Oscar for playing the "Cabaret" Emcee — told Variety: "She was always like the little sister I never had. She was just very vulnerable and looked up to me."

Minnelli remembers working long hours with Fosse but enjoying every second of it. Fosse even helped Minnelli make a trademark out of her scoliosis, using her unique position and walk to create gestures specific to her character. In 1972, "Cabaret" became, arguably, what finally took Minnelli out of her mother's shadow and propelled her career to new heights. As Rolling Stone reports, she received an Oscar for her role, and she made it all-too-clear it was her big break as an actress: "I didn't much like that one thing somebody said last night, that in this horse race, bloodlines count, and Liza's got the bloodlines. That performance was mine."

The 2022 Oscars problem

In the spring of 2022, Liza Minnelli made a sensation when she appeared next to Lady Gaga to present the Oscars' Best Picture Award (via People). But Minnelli was in a wheelchair, and she appeared confused by the notes in her hand — when she said, "I don't understand," Lady Gaga replied, "I got you" and carried on with the show, almost appearing heroic by saving her older friend from an embarrassing moment. But according to Minnelli and her best friend Michael Feinstein, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Sadly, Minnelli never agreed to appear in a wheelchair. Feinstein explained (via ET Canada): "She was sabotaged ... She only agreed to appear on the Oscars if she would be in a director's chair because she's been having back trouble." Last-minute production issues led the stage director to insist that Minnelli use a wheelchair, even after she refused — she didn't want her fans to worry about her health. In the end, this is exactly what happened. Minnelli was so upset at the last-minute change that she became distraught on stage, forgetting her words and having people comment on her poor health after the Oscars.

She doesn't like portrayals of herself and her mother

Perhaps one of Liza Minnelli's most defining traits is her rejection of the way she and Judy Garland are portrayed by the media. Minnelli spoke to Vogue about the main issue from her perspective: "One of the biggest misconceptions about my mama is that she didn't provide me with a happy childhood." According to Minnelli, the media has been obsessed (for many decades now) with painting Garland as a tragic character and Minnelli as the poor girl who had to endure her mother's terrible mood swings and addictions.

Minnelli speaks openly about her relationship with Garland, so as to eradicate old misconceptions (via CBS Sunday Morning): "I thought my mother was perfect ... every little thing she did." This is probably why, as of 2020, Minnelli had refused to watch the 2019 film "Judy," in which Renée Zellweger played Garland (via Variety). According to Michael Feinstein, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, Minnelli said: "The greatest tribute to my mother is to watch her own movies, not a film about her." Feinstein also said Minnelli will never authorize a movie about her own life, for the same reason: "People are constantly portraying her in shows around the world and it's very painful for her ... She says, 'Honey, not when I'm alive and can still do it.'"

She had multiple health issues

Liza Minnelli has shown great strength more than once, recovering from addiction, tragedy, and multiple health issues. As The Guardian reports, Minnelli contracted viral encephalitis from a mosquito bite back in 2000. The consequences were horrendous, as she remembers on NBC News: "I couldn't walk and I couldn't talk, and they told me I wouldn't ... ever again." But as soon as everyone left her hospital room, she started rehearsing for Carnegie Hall — she knew she wanted to survive and get back onto the stage. Minnelli made an impressive recovery, in spite of her doctor's prognosis.

But that wasn't Minnelli's only scary visit to the hospital. As Minnelli confessed to CNN's Larry King, she has also had two hip replacements and one knee replacement, the latter proving extremely painful. She joked: "From the waist down I'm the tin man. From the waist up, I'm Judy's kid." Finally, Minnelli has had a lifelong struggle with scoliosis, explained by Strauss Scoliosis Correction, and, as Billboard confirms, she has also undergone back surgery. Minnelli makes it all too clear that she will do everything in her power to keep performing until the day she dies. And she credits her mother with giving her the necessary joie de vivre (via Vogue): "She had drive and she had guts. She had huge ambition, a great sense of resilience, and a simply wonderful sense of humor. I like to think she passed those three traits on to me.