Can We Talk About?: Diana Ross in Central Park

Can we talk about the diva's diva hitting the peak of divadom?

Can We Talk About? is a weekly series exploring things both eggplant and pinching hand.

From 1964, when the Supremes scored their first number one hit with “Where Did Our Love Go?” all through the ’70s, Diana Ross was indisputably THAT BITCH. As the frontwoman of the most successful American group of the ’60s, she and the Supremes racked up 12 number one hits before she successfully transitioned to solo superstardom and a pretty impressive acting career, charting territory rarely explored by black women, and becoming in the process the first true modern pop diva.

Though she had amassed any number of memorable performances during that time, she topped herself in July 1983 with a now-legendary concert performance in Central Park. In celebration of Ms. Ross’s 75 years of snatched waists and snatching wigs, that concert will be—cue the horn stabs—coming out to theaters around the world this March. But first, let’s have a kiki about why it’s such a BFD in the first place.

 

To put it in modern terms, Diana Ross in Central Park was the Beychella of the ’80s. Much like Coachella, Central Park’s massive concerts had been the purview of primarily white acts, according to former Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis.”I was uncomfortable with that, so I began talking to [rock promoter] Ron [Delsener] about who might be a good fit,” Davis told the Daily News in 2013. “It wasn’t long before we decided on Diana.”

That’s Ms. Ross, thank you.

The concert was supposed to be a fundraiser for a children’s park, with a portion of the proceeds from Showtime’s exclusive broadcast and sales from souvenirs benefiting its construction. Ross, therefore, was not getting any coin for this—which makes what happens next that much more iconic.

The concert was, in short, a disaster.

At least in a lesser diva’s hands it would’ve been. 450,000 people showed up and things were, initially, going fine. Ms. Ross bounded onto stage at 6pm wearing a bodysuit that belied the three kids she had popped out a decade earlier, and the crowd was eating up all that hair and all those hits when 25 minutes in, the skies opened up and said, “It’s my house and I live here.”

However, if Mother Nature had any formidable foe, it was Diana Ernestine Earle Ross from Detroit, Michigan. With the rain falling, Ross defiantly told the crowd, “It took me a lifetime to get here, and I’m not going anywhere!”

As the storm intensified, conditions got more and more dangerous—both for the crowd and for Ross, who nearly fell off the stage. But, as she was taught in Motown’s spartan finishing school for performers, the show went on and Ross kept performing, all the while urging the audience to remain calm and to peacefully exit the park.

You know Storm from the X-Men? Who am I kidding, you’re probably queer so of course you do. Diana Ross in Central Park always reminded me of Ororo Munroe, another black goddess with a penchant for big hair and statement capes. The image of Diana Ross seemingly at one with nature, the master of her domain, must have had some influence on Storm’s design.

Like, how is that not Diana Ross in a gorgeous white wig?

Anygay, being a consummate performer, Ross promised to come back the next day, which she did, to a slightly smaller crowd of 350,000 people. Seeing that I find it nearly impossible to leave my neighborhood, props to all those die-hards who schlepped to Central Park twice in a single weekend. And we’re talking 1980s New York, when the subway was basically syphillis and stabbings on wheels. But that was the drawing power of Diana Ross.

The city lost $2.5 million dollars on those concerts, and to fund the playground, Ross donated $250,000 of her own money. Diana Ross Playground opened in Central Park on the west side of 81st Street on September 11, 1986. Breaking the dirt on her eponymous park, Ross said, “Creating this playground for the children of New York has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life and career.”

ECP/GC Images
Diana Ross, 2018

More than 30 years later, it still is.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a roaming writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat