A Cultural History of the Diva
From Barbara Streisand cloning her pet dog to Mariah playing her own songs while she was in labor, we investigate how the world went from hating to loving divas.
Photos (L to R) by lifescript, Steve Gawley, Liam Mendes, chrisweger via Wikimedia Commons. Background via Flickr user Michelle Grewe
“I’m a working girl. I don’t make people bend over backwards, and I don’t like that in people. I’m definitely no diva,” Dolly Parton once told a reporter.
The word ‘diva’ immediately conjures a particular kind of woman, and it’s almost always used pejoratively. Dolly, often referred to as a country music diva par excellence, resists the label for all the reasons one might expect: a negative rep. To be a diva is to be a spoiled bitch; to have one’s talent come second to one’s egotism and flair for drama.
Originally, to be a diva meant to be a female opera singer, and its etymology comes from a Latin word literally meaning ‘goddess.’ The first woman to be known as a ‘diva’ was Italian silent actress Lyda Borelli, a gorgeous waif whose looks and figure were madly copycatted by Italian teenagers of the 1910s.
The label has long come to mean a woman celebrity of stage or screen; sometimes actresses, but usually singers, of a certain temperament. Being a diva connotes a particular kind of womanly arrogance. Tellingly, much like the word ‘slut’, it has no equally powerful corresponding masculine term.
Parton may not see her behaviour as diva-ish—and it rarely is—but that hardly matters when it comes to how the world regards her. It doesn’t matter that she grew up dirt-poor in rural Tennessee or that she’s been part of pop culture for five decades, but simply that she’s a cartoonishly buxom peroxide blonde with a series of smart-mouthed quips.
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Hard work and a salt of the earth upbringing don’t preclude women from being called divas. Like Parton, you can build your empire from nowhere and end up with a theme park named after you, or like Barbra Streisand, be a working-class Jewish girl from the Bronx and become one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. But if you’re a diva, those humble origins are quickly forgotten. Rihanna—a Barbadian immigrant whose father was a drug addict—is not often seen through the prism of the male rags-to-riches story.
Beyonce attempted to reclaim the term when she sang the words “diva is a female version of a hustler” on the 2008 album I Am… Sasha Fierce. FACT magazine editor-in-chief Al Horner sees this as a turning point in the perception of the diva. “It’s not a moment of self-criticism, but self-celebration,” he says. “It sums up the sea change nicely.”
It’s often more about perception than reality, and so when we consider the profiles of women like Streisand or Rihanna, it’s less about how they really do behave so much as the persona attached to them. Did Babs really clone her pet dog twice? Does Rih request her own private dancefloor wherever she goes? Did Mariah Carey play “Fantasy” while she delivered her children, so they could be born listening to the sound of her voice? I mean, probably. We lap up reports of mural-sized self portraits, peach-coloured toilet paper, and riders demanding ten white kittens. It’s fun to watch women who’ve worked for their power and money get to behave in silly, petulant ways with it.
“For fans of someone like Mariah Carey, being a diva is a massive part of her mythology—something to be celebrated,” Horner points out. “In an entertainment world dominated by men, you have a mixed race woman of Afro-Venezuelan and Irish descent who made insane demands because her talent was so great that she could. I think to a lot of fans, this was a manifestation of strength; of a refusal to shut up and know her place, or to just smile and be pretty.”
There are scores of famous women who’ve been tagged with the ‘diva’ label over the years, including powerhouse singers like Aretha Franklin and Patti Lupone. The 70s divas were dispersed across musical genres—Donna Summer, Cher, Grace Jones, and Parton herself. Streisand is often seen as one of the ultra-divas of the second half of the 20th century, with her big crooning style and tendency to demand she always be photographed from her “good side.” Madonna, too, was never afraid of showing a big personality and the wardrobe to match. She famously remarked, “I always thought I should be treated like a star.” It only takes a cursory viewing of backstage tour doc Madonna: Truth or Dare to see that she takes the idea seriously.
In contemporary parlance, maybe the word ‘extra’ would go some way in describing the aesthetic of the diva. Fluttery oversized false lashes, baby pink fur stoles, turbans with matching tangerine caftans, rhinestone-encrusted crop tops; you’d be inclined to think that I’d just listed a set of outfits from Drag Race. But these are all existing accouterments of women like Streisand, Madonna, Beyonce, and Parton.
“It’s a good thing I was born a girl, or I’d have been a drag queen,” Parton once said. She has a point: the diva is often so ultra-feminine that she inspires parody or drag. Streisand was famous for her matchy-matchy leopard-print gear and ultra-long fingernails; Parton for her bedazzled clothes and variety of blonde wigs. Zsa Zsa Gabor, the part-time star and full-time glamourpuss of mid-century Hollywood, exaggerated her frame by allowing her billowing fabrics to take up plenty of space, and dripped with a vulgar excess of diamonds. As Telegraph writer Bethan Holt wrote of her, Zsa Zsa would have been “a gift to the age of Instagram.”
The IDGAF spirit of Rihanna’s fully transparent, Swarovski-encrusted Adam Selman gown from 2014, complete with retro skullcap, personifies the spirit of the diva. But her hilariously chic tendency to leave functions and abscond with wine glasses is perhaps ultimate proof of her diva credentials—especially since she can clearly afford to replace restaurant glassware.
"Pop culture stopped recognizing the term as a slight on women and began recognizing it as a politicized term."
Reclaiming the word ‘diva’ might prove tricky, given that so many take it as shorthand for a bratty form of bitchiness. The public seems to hate a celebrity who’s not gracious, especially when that celebrity is a powerful woman. But isn’t there something radical in the diva’s refusal to be gracious, or tasteful, or one of countless other polite adjectives?
If the original meaning of diva was ‘goddess,’ there’s a ring of truth therein: These women are not like the rest of us mere mortals.
“I think at some point, pop culture stopped recognizing the term as a slight on women and began recognizing it as a politicized term,” Horner points out. Temper tantrums, tackiness, and solid gold bathtubs aside, we love divas because they invent their own rules. Nobody gets to tell them no.