The Transformation of Animation Icon Susan Blu
The love Blu’s army of fans has for her is apparent at this year’s BotCon, the annual Transformers convention celebrating the famous robots in disguise. Throughout the four-day convention at the Pasadena Convention Center in Southern California, hundreds of fans line up for a chance to meet the woman who breathed life into several of their favorite childhood characters, ask for autographs, and snap impromptu selfies smiling beside her. A deafening roar follows her introduction at each BotCon panel where she makes an appearance, and each time she fields questions from the audience with kindness, humor, and grace.
Shortly after the convention’s Women in Animation panel, Blu joins me at a bench in a secluded corner of the conference center’s lower level, where the 66-year-old actress opens up about the obstacles she’s overcome to reach a point in her life where she’s not only out and proud but truly happy as well.
“It wasn’t always so easy for me to speak [in front of crowds] like that,” Blu admits as she neatly smooths out the ends of her loose-fitting, light pink button-up blouse over eggshell-white slacks — a subtle nod to the famous female Autobot she once voiced. “I’m a controlled stutterer and I was actually in speech therapy until I was 16. I was bullied pretty badly, but because people would tease me all the time, I learned at an early age I could make up voices and hide behind characters.”
She raises her eyebrows, shrugs her shoulders, and her eyes widen as her voice shifts to sound like that of a young boy’s. “I would do funny voices like this,” she says before her voice takes on a high-pitched animal-like quality, “or maybe one like this,” then shifting once more to a booming robotic sound, “and I would just pretend all the time.”
Without skipping a beat she reverts to her normal speaking voice and adds, “That eventually developed into a realization that I could do all these voices and I soon caught the acting bug.”
After graduating from Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where she studied theater to become a “serious musical comedy actor,” Blu left behind the conservative attitudes in her hometown of St. Paul, Minn., to follow her dreams in Hollywood. Soon she began booking guest spots on shows such as Kojak, Three’s Company, and The Waltons, but when she landed the voice role of one iconic commercial character it forever shaped the direction of her career.
“One day my agent called me and said, ‘If you were the Pillsbury Doughgirl, how would you sound?’ and this voice came out of me before I could even think about it,” she says before adding in a transformed voice, “Hi! I’m Poppie, the Pillsbury Doughgirl!”She continues, “From there I got this huge job voicing that character, which lasted three years. After that my agent sent me to Hanna-Barbera, where I started booking all these cartoons and it became a wonderful career for me.”
Bigger roles followed and by the mid-1980s, Blu was voicing characters in numerous shows, including future LGBT animated icons Arcee and Stormer, as well secondary characters and guest spots on the most popular animated shows of the day, such as G.I. Joe, Ghostbusters, Scooby-Doo, and The Flintstone Kids. But while the characters she played battled evil near and far, the actress was fighting a personal battle of her own deep in the closet.
“I knew I was gay,” she says. “But for many years I felt like I had to hide. So many of my friends died from AIDS in the early ’80s — best friends — and while the revolution of coming out in force really began around that time, for me, it took a while longer. That was all during a time when I was coming up in my career and it was really frowned upon.”
While her internal battle to accept her sexuality raged on, Blu’s career thrived. She made her voice directorial debut in 1987 with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series — for which she directed 193 episodes — and her reputation as a voice director skyrocketed. Numerous projects soon began speeding her way, but the woman who was becoming one of the most sought-after people in the voice-acting world still wasn’t happy.
“I was going to a therapist and I suddenly realized my biggest problem was that I was hiding who I was,” she says. “I remember going to work and finally finding the courage to tell a couple friends who I worked with that I was gay. They just looked at me and said, ‘Well, we knew that.’”
She throws her head back and lets out a warm laugh before she continues, “After that I thought, What am I so worried about? So I began to tell more people, and the more I outed myself, the easier it got.”
In addition to her directorial and voice-acting work, Blu opened Blupka Productions Inc., a voice-over school for actors. It was there she met and fell in love with Cynthia Songé, the woman she would later marry. The couple ran the school together for several years and eventually co-authored the industry handbook Word of Mouth… A Guide to Voiceover Excellence. Meanwhile, Blu continued adding credits to her growing résumé, which included providing additional voices for high-profile projects such as Disney’s Cars and Finding Nemo as well as voice-directing a long list of animated TV shows and films. Blu appeared to be on the winning side of her long-fought battle for happiness until Songé suddenly died after a short illness in 2010.
“Cynthia was a phenomenal human being and it was really hard for me when I lost her,” she says. “I fell into a pretty heavy depression over it. When she died I was in the middle of directing a bunch of shows and I had to stop everything. Losing somebody — the grief is just terrible.”
Blu credits the support she received from others, including fans and many people she’d worked with in the past, in speeding her recovery. “I was really surprised. A lot of people reached out to me — people I hadn’t heard from in years,” she says.
Though she took over a year off to mourn the loss of her wife and begin the healing process, Blu says she was still battling depression when she returned to work. But just when she felt as if she’d never stop sinking down further, something wonderful happened.
“I was having terrible neck problems and a friend of mine suggested I see her massage therapist, Tania [Themmen],” Blu explains with joy radiating from her face. “So I did and discovered not only was she a wonderful massage therapist but a wonderful person too. We just clicked from that first meeting. Then, because Tania was traveling, we started emailing each other and suddenly this beautiful love affair through email blossomed. When we finally got to spend some time together after she came back, I had a terrible cold, and I know this sounds cliché, but she was so sweet, brought over chicken soup, and the rest was history.”Blu and Themmen married in August of last year in Stamford, Conn. “I still love Cynthia, and I miss her every day, but I’m so glad that I was able to find love again,” Blu says.
Today, Blu is still one of the most sought-after names in the voice-over world, having voice-directed episodes for Cartoon Network’s Ben 10: Omniverse, Curious George, and, DreamWorks Dragons since returning from her hiatus and says she feels like a new woman.
“I know I hid who I was for a long time, and I’m sorry I did. But I’m out now and I’m very proud of who I am and what I am,” she says, tapping her right fist over her heart. “I’m ready to show my support of the gay community with vigor.”
In fact, Blu says she hopes to help bring greater LGBT visibility to the world of American animation. “One of my favorite shows right now is The Fosters — a show about a family that just happens to have two moms — and that’s on ABC Family,” she says. “So I believe the time is right and I’d love to pitch a gay animated show, because we really should have one.”
“Maybe something like a Laverne & Shirley type of show, but they’re together and adopt a bunch of dogs or something,” she adds with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, some of the hatred in the world that’s coming from young people today is because their parents are so hateful. That’s who’s teaching them to believe that way, and it’s a shame that goes on. Hopefully we can help provide another story to keep kids who grow up in that kind of family from following in their hateful footsteps.”