DIVA: A History—Let Me Do Everything, Everything

In part three, how and why the 1970s was the golden era of divas.

Previously : 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.

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Cher with a Diana Ross impersonator and a Bette Midler impersonator

What was it about that halcyon decade? The cocaine? Obviously. But women were also reveling in a newfound freedom; the country was reeling from the previous decade’s apocalyptic social conflicts and in need of some much needed glamour; and as a result of that upheaval, popular culture was flourishing. TV, music, and film reached new heights as did the artists creating them. Some divas struck out on their own, leaving their Sixties selves behind and embracing new media, new musical genres, and new fashions. Other divas came into their own, catapulting themselves to superstardom.

I’ve always viewed divas as Matryoshka dolls, where one builds on another until we have one megadiva encapsulating all divas. And her name is Beyoncé. The divas of the ’70s had the examples of their foremothers—Josephine Baker, Maria Callas, Judy Garland, et al—to learn from, emulate, and surpass. And in the case of Liza Minnelli, an actual mother.

Liza Minnelli and mom Judy Garland

But where she was once in her mother’s shadow, with an Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret and the Emmy-winning TV special Liza with a Z, both in the same year, plus a special Tony the following year for her one-woman show, Liza at the Garden, and her frequent appearances at Studio 54—flanked by friends such as Michael Jackson and the fashion designer Halston—Liza became a diva in her own right.

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BFFs Halston, Bianca Jagger, and Liza

But those were the highs. We’ll get to the lows in a subsequent installment of this series. For now, let’s turn to one of the reigning divas of the decade, and all decades.

The Greatest Star

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Barbra Streisand

When it comes to the great diva hierarchy, Barbra Streisand sits near, if not at, the very top. She’s conquered stage, screen, and song with a mix of bottomless talent and insatiable ambition, and is the prime example of the diva as multimedia megastar.

She came of age in the ’60s, scoring one of her first big breaks at the Greenwich Village gay bar The Lion in 1960. From there, she quickly rose the ranks of stardom: From singing sensation (her debut album won the Album of the Year Grammy) to Broadway baby in her debut I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Tony nom) to TV star (her debut special, My Name Is Barbra, snagged five Emmys) and then movie star, reprising her Tony-nominated role in Funny Girl and winning an Oscar in her film debut. Point being: She had a lot of critically-lauded debuts in a very short span of years. By the time she won a Special Tony for “Star of the Decade” in 1970, she had accumulated the quadruple crown of showbiz awards, the EGOT, and had established herself as the preeminent diva of her day.

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With James Caan in the 1975 sequel to Funny Girl, Funny Lady

But her meteoric rise was beset by problems. Streisand’s reputation for being a perfectionist and (like Maria Callas and many a strong-willed woman) “difficult” took root in the filming of Funny Girl, during which she reportedly clashed with veteran Hollywood director William Wyler. She demanded extensive retakes to suit her vision, sidestepped Wyler to voice her own opinions on costume and photography, and had most of her scenes with co-star Anne Francis cut to such an extent that Francis tried to sue to have her name removed from the credits.

“She’s not easy,” Wyler said of the then-25-year-old, “but she’s difficult in the best sense of the word, the same way I’m difficult.” Wyler also thought that the rumors he and Streisand didn’t get along on set was the work of producer Ray Stark in an effort to build publicity. Though Streisand’s time on her next film, Hello Dolly!, also proved difficult. She and co-star Walter Matthau literally hated each other and she didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with director Gene Kelly, either. It also didn’t help that some felt Streisand was miscast, including Broadway’s original Dolly Levi, Carol Channing, who said hearing of Streisand’s casting was like being an “observer” at her own funeral.

Like Mary Pickford and United Artists before her, Streisand sought more control over her career and joined forces with Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen to form their own production company, First Artists. Under that shingle, Streisand would produce two of the biggest hits of her film career, The Main Event and A Star Is Born. Streisand would eventually seize complete creative control in her French-tipped claws, becoming the first woman to write, direct, produce, and star in a major motion picture with 1983’s Yentl.

Streisand’s difficulty off-screen was a result not only of her perfectionism but her insecurity, since she didn’t fit the mold of the usual glamorous ingenue. Instead, she broke it. Whether it was Streisand’s nose, Diana Ross’s saucer-like eyes, or Cher’s ethnic ambiguity, the modern diva came to represent a non-traditional beauty—one reflecting America’s changing landscape of diversity—further emphasized by dramatic cat-eyes and elaborate Bob Mackie confections.

Dark Lady

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It’s hard to believe Cher was ever anything other than her own person. Today she’s mostly known for her quixotic Twitter presence and for grand theft cinema for her show-stealing cameo in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

But in the 1970s, Cher was the baddest bitch on the block. Still, it took her awhile to establish her own sense of autonomy.

Cher rose to stardom as one half of the duo Sonny and Cher with her husband Sonny Bono, who acted as her Svengali of sorts, writing and producing much of their early musical output. After their brand of feel-good hippie bops went out of style, they found a second wave of success in the early ’70s with their variety show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, revealing that Cher was a more than capable actress and comedian.

Even after they divorced in 1975, and Cher was tasting the fruits of solo success, she leaned on Bono. While Sonny’s solo TV show, The Sonny Comedy Revue, was a failure and Cher’s, simply titled Cher, a success, she brought her ex back for the revamped The Sonny and Cher Show, but that too proved short-lived.

Cher’s music career would have starts and stops throughout the ’70s, but she stacked the early part of the decade with a trio of solo number ones: 1971’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” 1973’s “Half-Breed” and 1974’s “Dark Lady,” which would be her last number one until scoring the biggest hit of her career, “Believe,” 25 years later.

Despite her success without Sonny, Cher’s image always belied her talent, especially when she teamed with the premier diva designer of the day, Bob Mackie. Every week in primetime, Cher’s gamine figure was on full display in tearaway after tearaway…after tearaway.

But if you watch her (thanks to the magic of YouTube) with any of her eponymous show’s formidable acts—from fellow divas Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, and Bette Midler to the Jackson 5, Elton John, and David Bowie—it’s clear that she was a versatile performer able to keep up with the best in the biz.
 

The ’70s wasn’t Cher’s most successful decade—she had a number of flops before moving onto Oscar-winning movie stardom and musical comeback glory with “If I Could Turn Back Time” in the ’80s—but it served as the foundation for establishing her diva credentials. She became a fashion icon, a television star, and notched up a few hits to cement her status as the “Goddess of Pop.” And as we’ve previously learned, “diva” is just another word for “goddess.”

However, like many a diva to varying degrees of success, Cher tried her hand at disco, but one name stood feathered head and bedazzled shoulder above the rest.

The Queen of Disco

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Donna Summer

Donna Summer—like soul sisters Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Chaka Khan—came from the church, but where those divas found early success in soul and R&B, Summer became the face and voice of a new sound.

Disco was the sound of the gays, blacks, and Latinos. It originated in New York dance clubs frequented by brown and queer people, before it got watered down, whitened up, and commercialized to where even fictional ducks were boogie-oogie-oogie-ing. That’s when the backlash started, when disco became a novelty. But when it was just getting started, it was the music to which one escaped and felt free.

Donna Summer met Giorgio Moroder in Germany in 1974 when Summer was working as a part-time model and backup singer for the rock band Three Dog Night. Moroder, an Italian producer based in Germany, and his partner Pete Bellotte signed Summer to their label Oasis, producing Summer’s debut album Lady of the Night. It became a hit in Europe, but the following year the trio found success stateside with “Love to Love You, Baby.”
 

Seventeen minutes of moaning, cooing, and faked orgasms, “Love to Love You, Baby” became one of the definitive songs of the ’70s, but it was 1977’s hyper robotic “I Feel Love” that influenced all electronic music that followed. With Moroder and Bellotte, Summer barreled through the tail-end of the decade, becoming in 1978 the first woman to simultaneously hold the number one song and album on the Billboard charts with “MacArthur Park” and her live album, Live and More. 1979 proved her most successful year yet, racking up three number ones with classics “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with none other than diva supreme Barbra Streisand.

Remember when Beyoncé had Gaga hop on the remix to “Video Phone” and she returned the favor with Gaga’s “Telephone”? That’s Barbra Streisand deigning to duet with someone who, comparatively, just got in the game and still showing up in matching perms. It’s one diva looking at an up and coming diva and saying, “I see you, bitch. And I’m hopping on this train, and taking it down the track.”

Streisand, as always, knew what she was doing. When Summer was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, she was referred to as “the diva de tutti dive, the first true pop diva of the modern era.”

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