Why divas just aren't what they used to be

Diva! The word feels onomatopoeic – like Viva! it seems to demand an exclamation point. Originating as a professional description of a principal female singer in the world of Italian opera, it has now undergone the same mutation as its foremost frenemy ‘prima donna’ – that is, meaning a woman who is demanding and ‘difficult’, especially in the work arena.

Diva-spotters across the pond have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of Barbra ‘The Velvet Foghorn’ Streisand and Céline ‘The Maple Syrup’ Dion playing two evenings apart at the British Summer Time festival in London this weekend. But my bet is that one could find far more bad behaviour among touring rockers The Rolling Stones, The Who, Black Sabbath and Eric Clapton.

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The best dirt I could dig up about Dion was that during her time on The Voice, “she brought an entire entourage of people with her [and] complained about everything, from her hair and make-up to the outfit that was chosen for her”. So what? I’ve got friends who act like that getting ready for a night out. Streisand can be high-handed, but as she says herself: “People look at me and say, ‘Success has gone to her head’. But that’s not true. I’ve always been this way. I’m no good at dealing with people or being tactful. I say whatever is on my mind.” That could be me speaking.

If only they’d added Mariah Carey (demanded 20 white kittens and 100 white doves to surround her as she turned on a shopping mall’s Christmas lights and “doesn’t do stairs”), Madonna (asked for new lavatory seats in each dressing room on one tour and demanded they be destroyed after she’d used them) or Christina Aguilera (demanded a foot massage every 30 minutes during her stint on The Voice) to the mix, then surely the fur and feathers would have flown.

Divas aren’t what they used to be – we mock these modern ones as we’re so familiar with their silly ways, they seem like family, but there’s a monstrous grandeur about the great divas of the past. Maria Callas once wrote to her own mother: “Don’t come to me with your financial troubles. I had to bark for my money and you are young enough to work too. If you can’t make enough money to live on, you can jump out of the window or drown.”

But the director of the New York Met said that she was the most difficult artist he ever worked with “because she was so much more intelligent. Other artists, you could get around. But she knew exactly what she wanted, and why she wanted it”. The Callas of pop, Dusty Springfield, enjoyed throwing things around, including a ginger wig she spitefully called ‘Cilla’, and after running over an old lady while driving at night wearing dark glasses, she observed, after her court appearance: “Nobody seems interested in the damage the old lady did to my car!”

A childhood friend of Diana Ross said: “When she was washing steps in the housing projects, she was just as snotty as she is now”; she demanded that everyone (including the other Supremes) call her Miss Ross, and it was all tiaras and tantrums from then on, including her signature move at the end of a performance – throwing her arms out in a way which invariably blocked the other girls’ faces.

If it doesn’t involve rudeness to people of a lower status, temperament is somewhat forgiveable – there are few things more attractive than someone who is good at something doing it in absolute full knowledge of how good they are at it and revelling in the fact.

Women have been taught since time immemorial that showing off is a bad thing – except as a lap dancer or pornography performer. Male singers can behave in an outrageously demanding manner and still be considered national treasures, whereas a woman who does so after a certain age would likely be ridiculed as ‘troubled’ (pitiable) rather than ‘trouble’ (fun).

As an adolescent, I yearned to be a diva and I was one for a good three decades. But when I look back on that time, I cringe at my lack of self-control and perceive diva-dom not as empowerment, but rather as the feminism of the inarticulate – yelling loud and saying nothing.

Let us emulate Kylie, who was notorious during her years as a Top Of The Pops stalwart for asking only for one thing in her dressing room – a kettle. The great Stoic thinker Epictetus wrote: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants” – and thus the diva is essentially a pathetic creature, for whom too much will forever be not enough.

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