Stop the track! Let me state facts: This is a five-part series on the history and evolution of the diva in modern culture. Get ready for a diva deep-dive.
Derived from the Italian for “goddess,” diva came into the English lexicon around 1883, when it was closely associated with prima donna (literally, “first lady”)—the principal female singer in an opera company. The legendary soprano Adelina Patti, at her peak in the late-19th century, commanded $5000 a night, paid upfront and in gold. Her contracts stipulated that she would receive top billing, in the largest font, and that she was “free to attend all rehearsals” but “not obligated to attend any.”
The African American diva has historically felt an additional responsibility or obligation to address the racism of a country that can at one turn exalt them and at the other, just as easily, demean them—whether it’s Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone writing “Mississippi Goddamn,” or Aretha Franklin demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
The 1970s were arguably the decade of Peak Diva. The nails were long, the hair was flawless, the gowns came down the navel, the eyelashes came up to the brow, and the talent was simply overflowing. Just think of the queens we had topping the charts, topping the box office, breaking records, and snatching literally all the trophies: Babs. Diana. Liza. Cher. Donna. Bette. It was an embarrassment of riches and we’ll never see the likes of them again.
She was a beloved entertainer with one of the greatest voices ever recorded. She provided some of the most memorable pop culture moments of the 20th century. She had a long and very public fight with addiction, which led to her untimely death before the age of 50. She was a diva’s diva.
In a post-Beyoncé world, any and everyone may be able to claim the title of “diva” but who actually has the range?