DIVA: A History—Break-Breakdown

In part four, the public loves an epic breakdown almost as much they love an epic comeback. Or is it the other way around?

Previously: Let Me Do Everything, Everything

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.

Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969. Legend has it her death helped spark the Stonewall rebellions, so strong was her connection with and to queer audiences. Her life was one of tremendous highs and mythic lows during which she had been an Oscar-nominated movie star and a top concert draw, earning accolades and waves of devoted fans ever since displaying at 16 a precocious dramatic heft when lamenting bluebirds flying over a rainbow. She was 47 years old.

Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when she passed, though it all seems inconsequential now. Everywhere I went that night I heard her voice, The Voice, calling out to me from cars driving by, from open apartment windows, from bars leading out to the street. Songs about wanting to dance with somebody, about being so emotional, about always loving you, about it not being right but somehow still okay. She was 48 years old.

These two iconic women represent the most extreme examples of the triumphant cum tragic diva, an archetype that has been played out and dramatized for as long as society has been at turns enchanted and disenchanted with the nature of female superstardom, which it views as both essentially fragile—divas are almost expected to have some sort of breakdown—but also desperately predatory. Just take Hollywood’s unending fascination with itself.

Sunset Blvd. is the quintessential story of diva desperation. Norma Desmond, played to the hilt by real life silent movie queen Gloria Swanson, is the beturbaned has-been determined to make her triumphant return to the silver screen. Ultimately, however, she’s a victim of her own diva delusions, obsessed with her youthful beauty and success, both of which have since faded.

Desmond is woefully out of touch with reality and cravenly fighting the ravages of time, in a comment not only on Hollywood’s treatment of its stars, but how female stars view themselves. And it’s unflattering on both counts.

More recently, Lisa Kudrow showed the cracks in the Hollywood diva facade with her brilliant turn in The Comeback.

Has-been and barely-ever-was Valerie Cherish, a ’90s sitcom star, is willing to do anything to taste the limelight of primetime again, no matter how demeaning or embarrassing. When she actually accomplishes this, albeit accidentally, in the show’s long-delayed second season, it’s almost at the cost of everything that has kept her afloat since her I’m It! heyday, including her marriage.

And then there is that ageless and evergreen cautionary tale, A Star Is Born, remade nearly every generation to show the consistently cruel caprices of fame. What does it say that even as the male protagonist is devoured by his fame, the female protagonist runs toward it?

 

The Oscar That Got Away

Warner Bros./Getty Images
Judy Garland in A Star Is Born

Judy Garland starred in, with apologies to Lady Gaga, the definitive version of A Star Is Born, if only for the story behind it. Garland left her home studio, MGM, in 1950, after 15 years of giving them her blood, sweat, and tears, often literally. She was fired from Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire in 1950 and endured a very public suicide attempt. The following year she divorced then-husband, and Liza’s dad, Vincente Minnelli.

Only 29 at the time, she began one of her many comebacks, including a legendary triumph at the London Palladium followed by a record-breaking and Tony-winning engagement at New York’s Palace Theater. “Hollywood thought I was through,” Garland later recalled. “Then came the wonderful opportunity to appear at the London Palladium, where I can truthfully say Judy Garland was reborn.”

Cornell Capa/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Judy at the Palladium, 1951

Hollywood came calling again and Garland signed on to star in a musical remake of 1937’s A Star Is Born, itself a remake of 1932’s What Price Hollywood? because who says Hollywood has no original ideas? The original runtime of the 1954 version, directed by noted “women’s [read: gay] director” George Cukor (who also directed What Price Hollywood?), was over three hours. The studio, without Cukor’s permission or supervision, cut it down to just over two-and-a-half, much to the director’s horror. Still, Garland received the best reviews of her career and she was all but expected to run away with the Best Actress Oscar that year, just as Garland’s cinematic doppelganger Vicky Lester snatched the same trophy in the film’s climax.

Garland was laid up in the hospital after just giving birth to her son Joseph from third husband Sid Luft, so a television crew posted up in her room the night of the Academy Awards ceremony to catch her acceptance speech. When she lost to Grace Kelly (for The Country Girl, of all things), the crew started packing up before Kelly even got to the stage. In response, Groucho Marx sent Garland a telegram: “Dear Judy, this is the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”

A Star Is Born would be Garland’s last major leading role before spiraling into another cycle of breakdowns and comebacks. She would reach more professional highs—including an Oscar-nominated cameo in Judgment at Nuremberg in 1962 and becoming the first woman to win an Album of the Year Grammy for 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall—along with more personal lows—debt, divorce, and drug addiction—before succumbing to her demons that summer in ’69.

Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
The funeral of Judy Garland

But Judy Garland didn’t conjure those demons by herself. The Hollywood star-making system, what they called divismo in Italian cinema, was not easy on Garland, who was already insecure about her looks. Sharing a studio with young glamour girls like Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner, whose boss, Louis B. Meyer, referred to her lovingly as his “little hunchback,” didn’t help. The amphetamines to keep her up for work and the barbiturates to put her down to sleep, all prescribed by the studio’s in-house doctors, as well as the restricted diet she was kept her on, further ensured a lifetime of addictions and self-destructive habits.

Garland’s immense fragility—she stood only 4’11—coupled with her immense talent endeared her to fans, but they could also turn on her. After two strong shows in Sydney, an increasingly frail and strung-out Garland arrived in Melbourne in 1964 for a show that is legendary for how disastrous it was. Garland showed up late, and dressed in her street clothes, missed her cues, forgot her lyrics, fought with the audience, disappeared from the stage for 30 minutes, and was booed by the exasperated audience. When one heckler told her to “act her age,” she reportedly responded, “I’m younger than you are. I’m supposed to be temperamental and I’m being temperamental.”

 

I Have Everything

Fotos International/Getty Images
Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard

Whitney Houston came from a family with a serious musical pedigree. She was the daughter of Cissy Houston, a soul diva herself who sang backup for everyone in the biz from Aretha to Elvis; she is the cousin of Dionne “Walk on By” Warwick and Leontyne Price, the first black opera diva. At 11, Whitney became a soloist in the junior gospel choir of her Newark, N.J. baptist church. At 15, she sang backup for Chaka Khan before becoming a teen model, appearing in the pages of Seventeen, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan. Record companies were clamoring to sign her, but Mama Cissy insisted Whitney finish high school first. After an A&R rep from Arista saw a 19-year-old Whitney performing with her mother at a New York City nightclub, Clive Davis signed her and the rest is history.

Whitney would go on to become one of the most successful singers ever, her first two albums selling a combined 22 million copies in the U.S. alone, and she remains the only artist to have seven consecutive number one hits. The greatest moment in American history, if you ask me, is Whitney Houston singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on January 27, 1991.

George Rose/Getty Images

Here you have, at the time, the most popular singer in the country, a black woman, singing a song with roots in slavery, to a largely white crowd, to an enraptured television audience nationwide, changing the way people sing that song from there on out, and making it a hit in the process, but eliciting an almost universal and unironic sense of pride and patriotism in a country where it’s hard to muster the former while fearing the manifestation of the latter.

While that would be the peak for any other diva, Whitney reached new heights of fame and success with The Bodyguard, breathing rarefied air reserved for only a few throughout history—Elvis, Judy, Michael. It’s a level of superstardom that claims more lives than it spares. The film, initially a star vehicle intended for Diana Ross in the mid-70s, was a phenomenon.

It grossed $410 million worldwide, becoming one of the top 100 highest grossing movies at the time; the soundtrack is still the best-selling soundtrack of all time, and set a diva standard by being the first album to shift one million copies in a single week; and “I Will Always Love You”—still lining Dolly Parton’s pockets— spent a then-record 14 weeks at number one.

Ostensibly on top of the world, Houston’s flawless image hid a torrent of personal issues, from drug use that began in her teen years, to a difficult relationship with Bobby Brown, whom she married in 1992. As the recent documentaries, 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? and 2018’s Whitney, attest, Houston also had trouble dealing with the expectations placed on her by her label, the music industry, and even other black people.

A gospel singer at heart, Whitney’s natural soul was manufactured out of her music as Arista wouldn’t let her release anything that sounded “too black” and as a result black audiences accused her of being a sellout. She was infamously booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, from which some claim she never recovered. There’s an unspoken belief that a black icon is always expected to transcend race, that their talent and success can be appreciated by everyone regardless of race, but the price of massive crossover success is the loss of one’s humanity. Along the way, Whitney Houston ceased being a person and started being a product.

James Devaney/WireImage/Getty
The funeral of Whitney Houston

Both documentaries also focus on Whitney’s relationship with former best friend and business partner Robyn Crawford, with whom she was rumored to be romantically involved. According to the docs, Houston was most likely bisexual and her family’s—particularly her mother’s—opposition to her sexuality plagued the diva her entire life, further complicating her crisis of identity.

After her record-breaking triumphs in the ’80s and ’90s, Houston’s career took a dive as she battled drug addiction, existing primarily as tabloid fodder during the early part of the millennium. When Whitney was mentioned, it was often with a mix of nostalgia, regret, and ridicule, her place in pop culture forever crystallized in amber but her persona a shell of what she was. But Whitney never seemed like a Norma Desmond type, pining for her youth and her lost success. She was confident in her abilities and in her accomplishments, seeking not her past glory but, if anything, peace. In true diva fashion, Whitney was fiercely unbothered.

 

The Comeback Kids

Jim Smeal/Getty
Mariah Carey

The Comeback is essential to any and all diva legend. A diva is not a diva until she has had to climb her way back to the top, defying all of us who thought her washed up. Mariah Carey is the latest example of this. After a few rough years—including an ill-advised reality show, a failed engagement, and several public performing gaffes—Mimi is back with a critically-lauded album, a popular Vegas residency, and (as is expected of female performers more so than their male counterparts) looking snatched. But there are Lambs among us who remember Mariah’s breakdown on TRL in July 2001.

Mariah had given us everything in the ’90s, delivering dozens of bops, writing most of them, churning out an album nearly every year, touring extensively, and going through a very public divorce from Sony Music head Tommy Mottola. By this point, Mariah had grown comfortably into her outsize diva persona, lest we forget her now-legendary Cribs episode: wearing six-inch heels on her stairclimber, and in her bathtub; the walk-in shoe closet that is legit bigger than my entire apartment. It was Diva 101 and all wannabes should’ve been taking notes.

But when Mariah showed up with an ice cream cart and started stripping on the TRL soundstage, something was clearly afoot. She would be hospitalized days later for “extreme exhaustion” and a “physical and emotional breakdown.” Only earlier this year did Carey speak openly about her battles with bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with following her 2001 hospitalization.

“Until recently I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me,” she told People, adding that she finally decided to seek treatment after “the hardest couple of years I’ve been through.” Looking at you, Mariah’s World.

Liza Minnelli, another perennial punchline for drug and alcohol abuse, inherited her mother’s talents and troubles. In a 1997 review of one of Minnelli’s many comebacks—taking over for Julie Andrews in Victor/VictoriaThe New York Times’s Ben Brantley compared Minnelli to Garland, proclaiming Liza’s “every stage appearance is perceived as a victory of show-business stamina over psychic frailty.” He continues, “She asks for love so nakedly and earnestly, it seems downright vicious not to respond.”

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Liza Minnelli

Immense fragility and immense talent. But, at 72, Liza Minnelli has survived more than any one person should have to, and will always have the last laugh. Her late-in-life renaissance, from tumbling for comedic effect on Arrested Development to shimmying to “Single Ladies” in Sex and the City 2, has allowed her to reclaim some of the jokes at her expense over the years.

Tina Turner had all but been forgotten when she released Private Dancer in 1984, mounting one of the greatest comebacks in diva history.

Gary Gershoff/Getty Images
Tina Turner

After splitting from husband Ike Turner in 1978, Turner struggled to find solo success. She tried her hand at a cabaret show, made the variety show rounds, including a stunningly leggy duet on Cher, and dabbled in disco as nearly all divas did in the late-70s. Things started to turn around for Turner when old pal Rod Stewart brought her onstage with him on a 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live, after which she started opening for The Rolling Stones and touring across the U.S. and Europe.

Private Dancer was a critical and commercial success, selling over 20 million copies worldwide and snagging four Grammys including Record of the Year for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She followed that up with a turn in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, inspiring drag queens for years to come as the fabulously evil Aunty Entity.

Once she was back, Tina wasn’t going anywhere and she remained one of the most successful touring acts through her 2008 50th anniversary tour. In 1993, she fulfilled a diva milestone, the biopic, when Angela Bassett was robbed of an Oscar for playing her in What’s Love Got to Do With It. And in 2016, in what’s become the latest diva milestone, the biographical Broadway musical (see also: Cher and Donna Summer), Turner announced Tina: The Musical, opening on Broadway next year, as the legend embarks on her 80th year of rolling down the river of life.

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