As a child, Cynthia Basinet found that her thoughts were often scattered. As she grew older, she learned to focus and go deeper within. From that still place inside, she began to seek her own counsel and listen to her own voice. What she didn’t realize back then was that she was managing her ADHD.
These days, the former international model uses that voice in myriad ways. By speaking softly, she brings comfort to refugees of war and famine. For those who can’t speak for themselves, she amps up the volume as a passionate advocate. And on stage, with the lights down low, she’s a sultry crooner of swinging jazz standards.
Chet Cooper: I heard you went to a different kind of camp recently.
Cynthia Basinet: (laughs) That’s true. I visited Africa through a division of the United Nations and the United States Western Sahara Foundation. They sent me as a part of a delegation to refugee camps for several days at a time to help raise awareness of the conditions there. We often visited two or three camps at a time because the people were often separated so that if a disease broke out, it wouldn’t annihilate them.
Cooper: What happened during your visit?
Basinet: We sat with the UN leaders as the children put on something of a concert. We traveled with a staffer from Senator Kennedy’s office. Their organization is called Teach the Children.
Cooper: So what did you teach them?
Basinet: (smiles) It wasn’t just one thing. We were there trying to address all kinds of needs. Teach the Children was there to distribute shoeboxes that had been made by a Christian organization in, I think, South Carolina, and each member of the church filled a shoebox. Not just one church, I think it was several. And they waited for the trailer to pass through customs, because you kind of have to pay a little extra money to get your merchandise. But on the way in, the truck broke down. So we were all waiting for it to be fixed, so we could take the boxes to the children. Someone from Kennedy’s staff was there to observe and file a report, because the senator was the most supportive of the refugees’ situation at that time.
Cooper: So there was a concert?
Basinet: Well, they put on concerts quite a bit to keep morale up. And they play the music over the loud speakers at night when the people go to bed to lull them to sleep, like a lullaby.
Cooper: Do you know of any benefits that have come from that trip?
Basinet: I know that they were able to get the money that they needed from MINURSO—the UN mission to Western Sahara. It raised awareness in the States and now worldwide. For instance, they’re living on 500 calories or something like that a day, and four or five staples of food.
Cooper: What’s happening there now?
Basinet: Well, they’ve suffered tremendous rains and now floods, so they’re in need of blankets and basic shelter. They’re in a worse state than they were five years ago when I went to see them. They’re destitute.
Cooper: Who’s leading the charge on that right now?
Basinet: Well, James Baker, the United Nations Secretary General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara, has always been a supporter from the beginning, since 1991, I guess, probably way before that. But he recently resigned. There’s a bipartisan organization that this group falls under, and it has a lot of different people on the masthead: Ambassador Coors, Donald Rumsfeld… But their program has been upstaged by Iraq and North Korea, and the issues there of late.
Cooper: North Korea?
Basinet: I can’t say too much without getting deeply into the way they’re working politically, but I think the key is getting to the people and exposing what they are living through. The organization was the one that smuggled out the tape back in 2005 that was shown on NBC, and it was the first time we saw what the living conditions were in North Korea. They deal with emerging nations and nations in conflict, hot buttons, before America goes in. They try to support the underdogs that are trying to stand up against what’s going on that are on the side of America or the Western world. They support smaller entities that are trying to walk a democratic path.
Cooper: That’s interesting, because when I think of refugee camps, I think purely of human rights issues, basic shelter, food and health facilities.
Basinet: Right. But a lot of reasons why they need those things is political. So they’re all organizations in at once trying to mediate their needs and their applicability to the world now.
Cooper: You were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize?
Basinet: (laughs) Yes. That was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first woman winning the Nobel Peace Prize and to highlight the fact that despite thousands and thousands of women around the world working towards peace with individual peace projects, only 21, I think, have won in the last 100 years. So a woman, whom I believe is in the Swiss Parliament, put forth an idea to nominate 1,000 women around the world based on the population from each country to represent other women that are working towards peace.
Cooper: What was your part in that nomination?
Basinet: Well, they were trying to include different members of society other than just human rights and nonprofit organizations. They also wanted to include people in the arts, such as a recording artist, and they looked at the project in terms of microeconomics—how people in conflict, with limited income, can still find ways to have their own start-up companies through the power of the internet. I’m a huge proponent of the internet, and the idea of building your own allies and not having to wait for a government organization to step forth to help you.
Cooper: Are there companies in that area that bring internet access to the camps?
Basinet: No, not at all.
Cooper: Have you talked with any companies about that?
Basinet: What I tried to get, immediately after coming back from the camps, was extreme sportswear sunglasses, because they have such a high rate of cancer in the eyes from the silica, the sand. One pair of sunglasses could be shared amongst 50 different people, and at least it would allow them the ability to live. We think about global warming in America, but you can’t imagine how much it is affecting people living in camps without shelter. The winds are stronger, the sun is stronger, the heat is stronger, the rains are stronger. So it was so frustrating just trying to get that, and I don’t have any accessibility to Silicon Valley or any way of getting computers. All I could do was to impress upon the head of the hospital and the head of the school to use their resources to help the people in the camps.
Cooper: How did you get started in modeling and end up singing?
Basinet: I started as a house model for I Magnan and then Bob Mackie “discovered” me and put me in his show. After that, a modeling agency in San Francisco picked me up. Then I moved to Paris and modeled for five years in Europe. When I came back here, I started making commercials, music videos and movies. Then I had a voice coach and in ‘97 I started recording music.
Cooper: So recording music came fairly late in your career.
Basinet: Yeah, but when I grew up, they used to tell you, “Come back when you’re older,” because it was jazz. My voice definitely has a jazzy feel.
Cooper: And these days do you travel around performing?
Basinet: Usually for special charity events that raise awareness or money.
Cooper: Tell me a little bit about your awareness in the area of learning disabilities.
Basinet: It kind of comes with having a child and meeting with his teachers all the time and trying to solve problems for him. I started to look at myself and how I processed information. I also have an older brother who is mentally challenged. That obviously made me more sensitive towards people who don’t have a voice, and I think it also helped me tune in more to others because I had to listen unconditionally. I became a kind of bridge.
Cooper: When did you realize there was a difference between your brother and other kids?
Basinet: Somebody in the neighborhood pointed it out maybe when I was around six.
Cooper: How did it affected your brother?
Cooper: How did it affect you?
Basinet: Any time you have a high-needs family member, the whole world centers around him. So that’s the only thing you know from the getgo, that all your thoughts and care are for this person.
Cooper: Does that cause problems among the siblings?
Basinet: I imagine it does in many families.
Cooper: What does your brother do today?
Basinet: He was working at Home Depot, stocking. One thing a lot of these large companies do really wonderfully is take in people who are mentally challenged, and put them into the workforce.
Cooper: What about your experience with ADHD?
Basinet: I paid attention to how my mind worked, and I realized that I was giving my son a lot of different things to do at once, instead of expecting him to complete one task. So I had to start to quiet my own mind. And then, when I stilled my mind more, then the spiritual aspects of my life came forward. That’s when I started understanding more about how Ritalin played into my emotional development.
Cooper: What was your experience taking medication as a child.
Basinet: At every age a child develops certain things. At the age of eight he or she learns to play with others. At the age of 10 he or she learns how to do this skill or that one. And as that child is developing, who’s to say how much medication is appropriate to give to him or her? How does it affect the way that child learns a task or skill? I think the meds I took made me more isolated. I was very much in my own head.
Perhaps in some minor way, the experience of being medicated as a child drew me inward, where I found my voice and tapped into my own energy. But the process not only freed up my voice, but my ability to use it for those who don’t feel they have one. Like Oprah always says, “Nobody’s luckier than women in America,” and I always think, “I don’t know, for me it’s been really hard.” And if I’m saying that, can you imagine what a woman in Sudan or the Philippines is saying?
Cooper: How did you fare in school?
Basinet: Very well. I probably wouldn’t be a good musician if I hadn’t had the meds, however, because they gave me the ability to focus and go deeper into my music.
Cooper: It’s always one of those ‘what if?’ situations.
Basinet: You give up one thing in exchange for another. There will always be something that you have to work around, so you try to get the best of both worlds, even though you don’t always know what that will be. With my son, I tried medication, briefly, as a last resort. I raised him in France, where there were a number of homeopathic options. I always try to look at the homeopathic solution first. Actually, I try lifestyle first, then a homeopathic solution, and then, if need be, medication.
Cooper: Do you ever think of going back to France?
Basinet: All the time.
Cooper: Have you been able to visit since? Basinet: A few times. But it’s so funny, I could have so easily wound up being stuck living in the Bay Area within a 30-mile radius from my ex. It could have been such a different life. And it just took fighting every step of the way to get around all the constant roadblocks.
Cooper: What were you focusing on at the time?
Basinet: I wanted to get a song in the soundtrack of a movie before my son was 18.
Cooper: And you did that?
Basinet: Yeah, by a month!
Cooper: So part of your overall mission is giving other people a voice?
Basinet: Beyond that, I want to help people step through their fears, and claim their authentic power. We have a lot of strength as individuals when we step out of the poo-poo-pity mode. We’ve been in therapy for 30 years. We’re very, very powerful as a nation. If we’d use our minds to go for what we want instead of complain about what we don’t have, we’d rock.
Cooper: So it’s not just giving people a voice, but letting people know they have one in the first place?
Cooper: And that would be a crooner’s voice?
Basinet: (laughs) Well—we’ve got a lot of crooners now.
Cooper: I read that you had come through an abusive relationship.
Basinet: That was somebody else’s perception of the situation. For me, it was happening when I was so young and then I had a small child, which really forced me to say, ‘I have to take control and complete responsibility for my own life and income and happiness and fulfillment.’
Cooper: Did you get marraige counseling before you left?
Basinet: It wasn’t a situation where counseling would have helped, but I’m sure for others it can. Women’s roles have changed so much, and they have to do so much that it changes the dynamic in the relationship, and I don’t think we’ve been able to establish the right balance yet.
Cooper: What does that mean to you?
Basinet: I think the men have too much time on their hands to be sittin’ around playing on the internet. (laughs)
Cooper: Only men have too much time?
Basinet: Women do so much work, keeping a house, going to work, raising kids, home schooling some times, taking them to activities, a thousands things. I know there are a lot of dads that are doing their part, but it’s not something that’s rewarded in society.
I think that old-fashioned ideals worked. I think that women can’t dream if they don’t feel protected and safe. Women don’t realize that when they’re in the work force, they’re swimming with sharks, you know?
Whether it’s on a business level or a private level, and then they come home and—it’s a lot to handle. Society doesn’t really reward what makes a woman a woman and why we’re so valuable. It’s almost like you’re a sap. “Oh, that’s what you get for caring too much. Oh, you shouldn’t put others ahead of you.” Well, that’s what comes with being a woman! I think our country could use a little more love—that’s why I sing love songs.
Cooper: Like “Santa Baby.” But isn’t that one pretty materialistic?
Basinet: I’ve never looked at it that way. I never looked at it like a gold-digger song. I don’t know if you saw the video I made, but I kind of looked at it like: There are so many women who are behind men, helping make their day go a little better. And it’s well-documented that men, on the whole, make more money, while women are more focused on taking care of the kids. I don’t care what country it is, there’s so much extra work that they do that they never get compensated for, and yet the male income increases. So sure, it would be nice if the wealth got spread around a little more.
Cooper: She’s asking for several things throughout the song.
Basinet: Like ‘a ring, and I don’t mean on the phone.’
Cooper: So it gets back to marriage.
Basinet: Yeah, marriage and security. And I don’t mean security in some boring way, I mean that you come home and someone’s got your back. Or your front.
Cooper: I’m not gonna make any jokes there… Actually, several of your songs have a home-front theme. One is about the fireplace.
Basinet: “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” That’s kind of like, ‘You take care of this and I’ll take care of that, and somehow it’s more peaceful for the both of us.’ And then when that’s happening, there’s more love, and it keeps building.
Cooper: What did you sing when you were in the Sudan?
Basinet: “Someone To Watch Over Me.”