By David Hennessy
As an actress, singer and writer, Heidi-Marie Ferren’s plate is already very full. However, Heidi-Marie also finds the time to fulfil her duties as Miss USO, a title she has held since 2008, performing and speaking across the world as an ambassador and steward of gratitude. She has performed and addressed crowds across the globe, singing for President Clinton, President Obama, performing in New York’s Time Square on New Year’s Eve and sharing bills with Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Patti LaBelle, Lee Greenwood, and Lady GaGa to name just a few.
On stage, she has played leading roles in Shakespeare and Shaw with some of the world’s most renowned directors. In addition to her stage work, Heidi-Marie has acted in a TV movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and played Wonder Woman in Bored to Death alongside Ted Danson. She has done national commercials and worked in film and television since she was a toddler on the hit series Romper Room. She is currently performing her one-woman play, Confessions of the Happy Bride, stateside but this is a show she also hopes to bring to the UK/Ireland.
“I love it here,” the performer with roots in Donegal tells The Irish World. “My great grandfather came over from Ireland, settled in Arkansas, and married a Cherokee Indian. They started a farm in Arkansas that spanned generations. That’s how we ended up in America.”
It was a trip to Ireland that helped Heidi-Marie realise singing was something that she wanted to pursue: “When I was 15, I went to Ireland. It was my first time out of the country and of course, I went there. It was where I was when I decided I wanted to do music. I was in this little hotel in Waterville. I went inside and there was a guy just strumming on the guitar and he just randomly asked if I wanted to sing something. I said: ‘Er, do you know any Patsy Cline?’ ‘Of course, I do.’ So I jumped up and I sat there and sang with him half the night, 15, little pub right on the water and I thought: ‘Well, this is pretty amazing, that’s what I want to do.’”
Heidi-Marie would now like to bring her performance to the UK and Ireland: “It would be wonderful to have more and more reasons to be here. One time I almost wasn’t allowed to leave (Ireland). They were asking me so many questions in customs: ‘Why are you here?’ ‘I like it.’
“It’s funny, I just worked with a wonderful girl from Dublin in the states and we were talking about Dublin festivals and things. It (Confessions of the Happy Bride) will be in Hollywood this June and then in New York in August and I’m really looking to have it come over to Dublin and London. There’s some very popular festivals and a lot of fabulous theatre up there (in Dublin).
“I have another one (show) I’m working on right now about the story of Amazing Grace and how it started. It’s a pretty incredible story and then I have a cabaret as well that’s still in development. I try to keep busy.”
Heidi-Marie is kept busy as Miss USO. The only lady to hold onto the title for four consecutive years, she explains what exactly is involved in the institution that is going since 1941: “It’s kind of like Miss America for the troops. To me, it’s more special than just a title because it’s grounded in service, so I not only get to be a part of uplifting those serving with words and music, but I also get to support them through fundraising activities that aide service members and their families. It is an amazing organization and I am blessed to be able to assist them in giving back to those who give so much to us.
“I do the national anthem at Yankees games, Mets games, I’ll do a wide range of civilian events, which are wonderful, because they help fund and support the other programming the USO provides, like care packages, service centres, and calling cards.”
The United Services Organisation was founded to provide the little things that can be forgotten in war: “The USO was started by Franklin D. Roosevelt upon urging from his wife Eleanor, who was getting letters from girlfriends, sisters, wives looking for a way to help their loved ones overseas. They would tell her (Roosevelt) about the little things in their letters that couldn’t be tended to by Uncle Sam, like sewing on buttons, or providing other small staples to make their lives easier and thank them for their service and sacrifice. At one point The USO would actually take letters from the centre and get it back to the families because post was not like it is now. I heard one story out on the road from a woman who had received the awful news that her husband had been killed in the line of duty. She said that before he went on his last mission he gave a letter to a girl volunteering at the USO, who said she was headed back to the states. He asked her to take his letter back to his family in case he didn’t come home. The girl found his wife and family the day after they received the news he had passed. The tears streamed down his wife’s face as she told me how much it meant to hold his beautiful letter. It was the last thing she would ever receive from him and it came through the USO.’
Heidi-Marie runs marathons and anything else she can in support of the USO. She is also on the board of Veteran Rescue and other organisations committed to supporting Veterans and their families. Heidi-Marie is deeply committed to helping those who serve.
“Members of my family have served in every conflict since the American Revolution and before that, they were fighting for their respective countries in Europe, so I come from a long line of service. It was that historical commitment to service and country and the memory of a special person that prompted me to get involved with the USO. I have a really good friend who is and remains to be one of the most inspiring people I have ever known. We met as kids on the school bus and stayed friends all the way through school. When he signed up for the Marine Corps, I baked cookies and wrote letters the whole time he was in training. When he was stationed in Iraq, it was harder to communicate, but I knew in my soul the day he was wounded. It was like the whole world had stopped. I tried for days to reach him and his family to just randomly check on him. Then two days later I heard of his injury. An IED had thrown the two tonne vehicle he was travelling ten feet. He had third degree burns over three quarters of his body: A really terrible injury. It took him three years to recover. But I knew in my heart, if there were one person in this world that would take those injuries, would take that situation, and make the world a better place, it would be him. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to work with the USO, I grabbed it because I wanted to be able to uplift people just like him, who selflessly put themselves in harms way for others and stand tall and inspire no matter what the outcome. I hadn’t seen him since he was wounded and didn’t know if I would ever be able to connect with him again, until one evening on the USS Intrepid. I was there to sing at the opening and he was there to introduce President Clinton. I couldn’t believe it. The USO had brought us together again and I have been singing and speaking on behalf of amazing individuals like him ever since.’
Filming Bored to Death, Heidi- Marie shared the screen with Zach Galifanakis and Ted Danson, finding out how much she had in common with the star who is well known from the sitcom Cheers and more recently, CSI.
“It was so much fun and absolutely hilarious,” multi-talented Heidi enthuses. “I spent a lot of time with Ted Danson. I love that man, he is such a good person. They (The Danson family) have a home in Little Rock, Arkansas so we chatted up about Arkansas and it turned out that my movement professor Jewel Walker, who is probably one of the world’s most incredible minds: I was in his last class and Ted Danson was in his first class. To top it all off the series camera scenic artist, who had designed and painted the very set we were working on, happened to be Jewel Walker’s daughter, Jessie Walker. Ted called out to her and she took a picture of Ted and I and sent it to Jewel. That was pretty incredible.”
And if asked to reprise her role of the super hero, Heidi would have no hesitation: “Wonder Woman, you could not get a better part ever. I’m ready for the feature film. They said they don’t want to film the Marvel version of The Avengers until they have a full length Wonder Woman film, so I’m right here and ready to go.”
For the full feature, see the June 15 print edition of The Irish World