Volume 75, Number 43 | October 27 – November 2, 2005
Judy Duglacz, a New York Jewish lesbian long ago transplanted to Marin County, California, founded Olivia as a record company 32 years ago and has successfully transformed it into a leading cruise provider—yet she still misses her hometown.
Center Fetes Enterprising Lesbians
Judy Duglacz, founder of Olivia Cruises, among those honored at Women’s Event 8
Every fall since 1998, New York’s lesbian community has gathered together to honor its own at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center’s Annual Women’s Event.
This year’s event, to be held on October 29 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers, will honor Judy Duglacz, president and founder of the lesbian cruise lines Olivia, with a Vanguard Award for activism in the community. Legendary tennis star Billie Jean King will be on hand to present this award, and emcee Suzanne Westenhoefer will also present honors to the Queen’s College Women’s Basketball Team of 1972-73; the Center’s former director of development Janet Weinberg; and Nancy R. Sweetser, founder of Miracle House, which provides housing and support to families from out of town visiting their loves ones dealing with serious illnesses in New York.
“I started Olivia at the beginning of the gay liberation and feminism movements, at a moment in time when I had a tremendous opportunity… to virtually create a company that spoke to a community that wanted to be found, but didn’t want to be identified,” said Duglacz in a recent interview with Gay City News. “People were afraid of losing their jobs and families if they were out, and that still exists in some parts of the country. But Olivia has such a powerful mission, and such a love affair with the people that it serves.”
Duglacz, a New York native by way of Plainview, New Jersey, and Bayside, Queens, began Olivia 32 years ago as a record company. From a flip comment made by lesbian singer Meg Christian during a radio interview came the idea among Duglacz and some friends to start a company that had both political impact and financial returns.
“Women were having a hard time in the recording industry because they were not being taken seriously, so we said what a great opportunity this would be to build a culture around music and women’s lives,” Duglacz recalled. “We thought, ‘We can create community and change the world through music,’ so we started Olivia.”
The fledgling label’s first two albums were impressive for an independent record company, selling 75,000 of Christian’s release, and 300,000 copies of Chris Williamson’s “The Changer & the Changed,” according to Duglacz.
Over the years, Olivia produced about 40 albums, and helped bring lesbian singers and songwriters into the mainstream. By 1990, Duglacz was ready to try something new.
“I realized maybe it was time to expand the company in other directions,” she said. “I was out of the closet my whole adult life—except when I went on vacation with my partner. It made sense to make a vacation place where you could be free. I had Olivia around 15 years at that point, and really just morphed the record company into another company.”
Olivia Cruises began with Duglacz chartering cruise ships to several destinations. The boats began to fill up, and the trip rosters continued to expand. Duglacz said that Olivia still operates as a large chartering company, taking cruises that range from 300 women traveling to Tahiti to 1,800 headed to the Caribbean. Among her personal favorites was a trip to the Greek Isles that ended in Venice. Duglacz is currently working on a book about her three decades with Olivia, and relayed a funny anecdote. She recalled taking a group of women to visit Turkey after the conflicts in Kosovo had so badly disrupted the nearby Balkan Peninsula. Turkish merchants eager to sell their wares were more than happy to see tourism picking up and the passengers scooping up their rugs and leather goods. Several days later, stories about how the Olivia passengers helped boost the local economy were featured in Istanbul’s four largest newspapers. When the ship docked in its next port of call, Duglacz said, the women were given a warm welcome.
“We go to the Grand Bazaar, and everyone has read the morning paper, but we’re not quite understanding,” she remembered. “Shop owners were screaming, ‘Lovely lesbian ladies, come to my shop!’ It is just an example of wherever we go, how we are wonderful ambassadors. To be in the forefront of a cultural and political movement has been a really fun and challenging place to be.”
But Olivia’s work was not always hailed so widely on Duglacz’ home turf. She recalled that even after an 1982 Olivia concert series in Carnegie Hall became the venue’s highest grossing event, it was met with a mere blurb in The New York Times.
“But it is great to come back to New York and be acknowledged and honored in this way,” she said of the Vanguard Award. “We are continuing to grow extensively… it comes from a tradition of believing that you can change the world, taking political and social beliefs and putting them into a business model that can thrive.”
Duglacz says Olivia will soon venture into the resort and retirement community business, as well, Duglacz said. The retirement communities are envisioned to include access to high quality gay and lesbian social and health service providers.
Duglacz was enthusiastic about a recent opportunity to work collaboratively with another leading example of lesbian visibility—Showtime’s series “The L Word.” An episode of the show was shot on an Olivia cruise.
“Like any TV show, it represents a part of a community, it represents a concept,” she acknowledged. “Does ‘Sex in the City’ represent all single women in New York? No. But the women are fabulous, and it should be taken seriously because what they’re doing there is deep.”
Olivia has also reached out to prominent women athletes as spokeswomen. Pro golfer Rosie Jones came out in an op-ed in The New York Times just as her sponsorship deal with the company was set to be announced. Duglacz hinted another prominent sponsorship, with a lesbian athlete who will also be coming out, is in the works, a suggestions apparently borne out this week by Houston Comets star Sheryl Swoopes announcing she is a lesbian and a new Olivia spokeswoman.
“We are working hard to be an ideal company,” said Duglacz, who asserted that Olivia has helped “hundreds of thousands of women…d come out of the closet… [and] change their consciousness.”
Indeed, Duglacz’s business has been touted as one of the top places to work and one of the top 20 women’s companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Duglacz said she loves living in Marin County with her partner of 27 years, Rachel Wahba, and their daughter, but acknowledged that at times, there is simply no substitute for New York.
“It took me years to understand that you aren’t going to see local New York news on the West Coast,” she said. “I’m a Jew, and if I needed to get a menorah for Hanukkah, I would go to Macy’s and pick one up. But I couldn’t do that here. Really feeling New York-centric is something that never goes away. I didn’t understand, number one, that the whole world wasn’t New Yorkers, and being a Jew leaving New York, I didn’t realize that half the population wasn’t Jewish. It took years to get used to the sense that people weren’t as intense… There is a real cultural difference. I love living here; it is absolutely beautiful here. But I am a New Yorker at heart.”
Duglacz will spend her short time in New York visiting friends, and then leave for a Halloween cruise, featuring comedian Kate Clinton and Olivia’s now-famous Halloween costume contest, with a $1,000 prize.
Women’s Event 8 will begin with cocktails and a silent auction at 7 p.m., dinner and awards at 8 p.m., and dancing at 10 p.m. with music spun by DJ Karin Ward. Among those items featured in the silent auction will be a Western Caribbean cruise from Olivia, a walk-on role on “The L Word,” a golf vacation package, a spa day, show tickets, dinners, plane tickets, gym memberships, jewelry, wine, and art. Proceeds benefit the LGBT Community Center’s women’s programs.
For complete information and tickets, which start at $275, visit gaycenter.org or, or call 212-620-7310.