DIVA: A History—What You Say? (Not to Me) She Ain’t No Diva!

In the fifth and final part, the divas of today: what is the range and who has it?

Previously: Break-Breakdown

If you ever want to see an argument go from zero to ugly in 60 seconds flat, just sit in on two drunk gays debating who’s the “better” diva? It makes your average Love & Hip Hop fight look like a calm and deliberate conversation between two mature, level-headed adults.

Scene from The Great Britney V. Christina Debate of 2002

But nothing and no one better come between a gay and his diva; not the woman who articulated his nascent desires as he lip-synched for his young queer life behind the sanctity and safety of closed doors; and certainly not the woman who exemplified the beauty, poise, glamour, and downright fabulousness to which he could only aspire, delivered in a package of heightened femininity to which he was otherwise forbidden entry. There is a personal connection among many a gay man to his diva, one akin to religion, and few inspire as fanatic a following, or derisive a reaction, as one of the biggest divas of the past century: Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.

The Material Mother

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I’d be remiss if I ended this series on the diva without touching on Her Madgesty. What she lacked in vocal dexterity she made up for in naked ambition and a near superhuman work ethic. Whereas superstardom seemed tailor-made for someone like Whitney Houston, who was courted by record execs before she even left high school, Madonna rode the struggle bus all the way to the top, where she tenaciously remained for most of her career. Among her professional achievements: Guinness lists her as the best-selling female recording artist of all time; she’s charted the most number one singles on Billboard; she is the RIAA’s best-selling female rock artist of the 20th century; she’s the highest-grossing solo touring artist in Billboard Box Score’s history; and she may be the wealthiest recording artist on the planet, that is, if you believe in celebrity net worths.

All that success comes courtesy of a legion of fans worldwide who remain devoted to the Material Girl some 35 years after she first arrived on the scene with her self-titled debut album. One would think, then, that Madonna would be immune to insecurities or petty jealousy, but Madonna’s legacy as a diva is built largely on her reputation for being kind of a bitch.

Now, let’s get something straight. The “bitch” trope has remained popular when discussing divas not necessarily because it’s true but because it’s convenient. ”Just because I have my standards, they think I’m a bitch,” Diana Ross has allegedly complained “more than once.” Being exact, even domineering, is an acceptable trait among men, but deplorable among women. When a woman in a position of power exerts that power, and it makes someone [read: a man] uncomfortable, she inevitably gets labeled a “diva” or a “bitch” to mitigate her power. But in the ’90s, as third wave feminism was washing over society, women began reclaiming misogynistic slurs— whether it was singer Meredith Brooks proudly declaring her bitchiness alongside her motherhood, or author Elizabeth Wurtzel praising “difficult women.”

Madonna’s propensity to shock, her unashamed celebration of sex and her own body, and a laissez-faire attitude toward giving fucks no doubt helped usher in this third wave. But Madonna’s feminist leanings didn’t preclude her from treating other women as her rivals and enemies, and the media was too happy to run along with it. Madonna has exchanged shade with her diva contemporaries (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson) and her diva elders (Cher, Elton John, and Patti LuPone), though she has reserved her ire for the aspiring divas to one “reductive” pop star in particular.

Still, bitchy behavior aside, Madonna put forth a blueprint that nearly every would-be diva that came after her followed—sex-positivity, constant creative reinvention, multimedia domination—none more astutely than one Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.

Baby, There’s No Other Superstar

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Lady Gaga

Beginning with Britney Spears—well, more accurately, probably beginning with Tiffany and Debbie Gibson—there was a search for who would be Madonna’s heir apparent. Britney got the sexiness and “she sure can move for a white girl” choreography down, but she was never as ambitious as Madonna, whereas Christina Aguilera also got the sexiness down but was more in the Whitney/Mariah lane of big-voiced belters. From the jump, however, Lady Gaga had Madonna’s combination of media savvy, fashion forwardness, unbridled ambition, and social awareness—along with the requisite sexiness.

Lady Gaga has only been a star for a decade, during which she’s managed to become the first true diva of the new millennium. Though she modeled herself as a futuristic diva, with her outré fashions and irresistibly catchy dance music, her path to divadom has been rather traditional—the only difference being the pace at which she went through the tried and true motions. In 10 years, Gaga has gone through almost as many eras, reinventing her look and her sound with each new album, branching out into variety specials and a duet album, and most recently, tackling the diva rite of passage, movie stardom, with her critically-lauded turn in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born.

Whereas Gaga seemed to enter each new phase with a sense of divinely-gifted confidence, she appears more cautious in this one. She’s been playing this era rather safely, as far as Lady Gaga goes—this entrance notwithstanding. Having appeared in the zeitgeist with a fully-formed persona, Gaga exhibited a spontaneity in her early interviews, when you didn’t know what she’d say or do. Now there’s a popular clip of her repeating the same anecdote about 100 people in a room and only needing one to believe in you. I actually find this pretty endearing because, to me, it makes Gaga seem humbled, even surprised, by her own success—even though she knows she earned it, she killed it, and she’s probably getting a couple Oscar nominations for it.

And you know Madonna is pissed.

But in the end, Gaga is playing the game—the game of being a movie star. If Gaga showed up to every publicity event in a crazy lewk and spouted some crazy shit, as she has been wont to do, she could risk losing out on that golden glory that only a handful of divas have claimed as their own. An Oscar would also put her in a whole other stratosphere that, currently, is occupied by only one other queen.

A Female Version of a Hustler

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Beyoncé

Beyoncé is a movement and a culture unto herself. She has put in her time and her dues so that she can drop an album on Friday and by Saturday, the Internet is singing along to every word. When Bey released her self-titled album in 2013, it not only snatched the world’s collective wig, but changed the way people release music. Her visual albums and instantly iconic performances set industry standards with which everyone else is openly struggling to keep up. Beyoncé is the only artist who can say, “I don’t care about streaming numbers because you’re buying my album anyway, you motherfuckers.” Even though the Grammys continue to play themselves, every Beyoncé release is the album of the year.

Bey started out in the last days of blockbuster music sales in the late-90s, fronting the last great girl group we’ve had, Destiny’s Child. Then in 2003 she embarked on solo superstardom with her debut album, Dangerously In Love, and the first step in her pop culture domination, “Crazy in Love.” The song’s blaring trumpets announced a new diva in town and she made it clear she was here to stay with a then-record-tying five Grammys the following year.

Though she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Dreamgirls, acting was never Bey’s strong suit. Instead, she found her second crucial step towards diva supremacy with the 2008 video for “Single Ladies,” from her third studio album, I Am…Sasha Fierce, for which Bey broke the record for the most Grammys won by a female artist in a single night, set by noted reluctant diva Lauryn Hill in 1999.

By now known familiarly as Queen Bey, Beyoncé made her third step towards total omnipotence with the 2013 Super Bowl Halftime Show, during which she proved once and for all that she is the greatest live performer of her generation.

If Beyoncé was her fourth step to the top, Lemonade was her fifth. Garnering the best reviews of her career, Lemonade gave Beyoncé a legitimacy as an artist that eludes most divas, regardless of their own artistic merits—after all, Mariah Carey is one of the most successful songwriters in pop music history, but her diva eccentricities prevent the proper respect from being put on her name.

And then. Just when we thought she couldn’t possibly top herself: Beychella. Originally slated to perform at Coachella in 2017, Bey was sidelined by her pregnancy, but returned earlier this year for what is widely considered the best thing that ever happened. The dance break to “Everybody Mad” alone is enough to warrant a thousand thinkpieces and college seminars.

It was more than just a performance, though. Beyoncé is so great because she’s the culmination of a long line of great divas, starting with Josephine Baker, through Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, to the holy trinity of the ’90s: Janet, Whitney, and Mariah. Beychella was a declaration of black pride, female agency, and artistic virtuosity inspired and facilitated by her foremothers, as she made clear in her intro to “Run the World (Girls)”:

“Coachella, thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella. Ain’t that about a bitch? This song is dedicated to all the incredible women that opened up the doors for me. Thank you so much, ladies.”

After Beychella, Beyoncé joined the ranks of The Greatest, Period. It makes sense, then, as the top diva in the game, that she would reclaim it as a title of respect, as she did with her I Am…Sasha Fierce manifesto. “Diva” pulls Bey’s receipts (“Since 15 in my stilettos been struttin’ in this game”) while serving as an empowering anthem about female independence that entreats listeners, regardless of gender, to proclaim, “I’m a, I’m a-a diva (hey), I’m a, I’m a-a diva!”

She Has the Range?

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Ariana Grande

In a post-Beyoncé world, any and everyone may be able to claim the title of “diva” but who actually has the range?

Thanks to a hilarious old clip from the British sketch show Little Britain featuring an unimpressed “Shirley Bassey”—the big-voiced British diva behind “Goldfinger” and the queer anthem “I Am What I Am”—and a shady tweetstorm from user @KingBeyonceStan, “the range” and who has it, entered the public discourse in 2016.

According to this knowledgeable and not-entirely-wrong Twitter critic, most of your faves (all contenders for the category: Diva, Legendary Up and Coming) simply don’t have the range: Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, even Adele.

Adele, disagreeing

Young’uns with said range, however, include Beyoncé (naturally), Jazmine Sullivan, Tori Kelly when she’s not busy with Nationwide commercials, Brandy, Christina Aguilera, and Ariana Grande.

While these divisions are made primarily along the lines of vocal prowess, they don’t necessarily translate to divahood. Which brings me back to my initial question with this series: What becomes a diva most? It’s not popularity or one’s vocal range, per se, though they are also important. Rather, it’s a combination—to borrow from a diva in her own right, RuPaul—of creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. Perhaps, then, the greatest test of a diva today is whether a drag queen is willing to impersonate you—imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

To impersonate a diva, a diva must first be worthy of imitation, meaning she must have a singular presence or style that is easily recognizable, though not necessarily easily duplicated. For instance, thumping one’s chest and tracing an invisible rainbow with your hand is, as any good gay will tell you, shorthand for Céline Dion. Beyond that, one must have made a significant cultural impact. Like, Pink is great—great singer, great performer, good gowns, okay gowns—but would the world be any different without “Just Like a Pill” or “Please Don’t Leave Me” despite both being low-key masterpieces? Whereas, contemporary and fellow Lady Marmalader Christina Aguilera has a handful of moments—Stripped, her performance of “It’s A Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammys, and generally having the range—that warrant full-fledged diva status.

One of the most important diva signifiers is being co-signed by an older, wiser diva. I personally don’t consider Britney Spears a diva (I’ve always felt she lacked a certain level of agency that such a lofty description demands), but I’m sure there are tons of folks [read: the gays] who do, and who remember Madonna popping up in the “Me Against the Music” video and locking lips with her (and Xtina) at the 2003 VMAs.

My personal feelings aside, Britney has had one of the greatest comebacks ever in pop music, which is nothing to sneeze at since longevity and the ability to recover from tragedy are among the most tell-tale of diva signs. Ariana Grande has been going through it over the past year and some change, including a bombing at her concert in Manchester that left 23 people dead in May 2017, the death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller earlier this year, and the dissolution of her engagement with SNL’s Pete Davidson shortly thereafter. Her resilience through it all—not to mention the fact that she was the only singer of her generation invited to perform at Aretha Franklin’s funeral and that she has a public persona already ripe for imitation—have put her on the fast track to divahood.

Finally, a diva absolutely must be larger than life. It’s something that can’t be manufactured or taught, like star quality, which is a talent in and of itself. Jazmine Sullivan can sing Rihanna under the table, but Rihanna will show up to the Met Ball and send everyone home in a hearse.

Just being Rihanna has become her greatest talent, and, therefore, no one else can do it. They can try it. But it won’t work. And no one understands the importance of diva singularity more than Mariah Carey. She’s been playing at being a diva so long it’s impossible to know where Mariah ends and where Mimi begins.

Which is to say, being a diva is, in part, a state of mind. Moreover, it is, or at the very least should be, a title recognizing one’s contributions to culture, and not a woman’s temperament or sense of self-importance.

As such, it is a title that should be applied sparingly.

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