From Dolly Parton to Beyoncé: A love letter to divas

Where you find a diva, you’ll likely find a businessperson, a self-starter, a hustler, extending her creativity and occupying space in the overwhelmingly male worlds of the music and movie industries.

Divas have always been able to use the fruits of their talents as a means of escape from a life of limited opportunity and expectations or to an alternate reality where their choices are their own. Their power lies in the freedom to choose.

We meet our contemporary divas in a world that, in many ways, is much better equipped to receive them than ever. We are in the midst of a boom of cultural hashtag slogans for female success: #LeanIn, #GirlBoss, #BossBitch, etc. are all calls for female empowerment, achieved, so the thinking goes, by adopting typically ‘masculine’ practices while asserting the freedom to represent and express yourself in whatever way you choose.

While divas of the past would have been allowed to display their wealth, it was frowned upon to display the manners or language of their male counterparts in polite society; today, it can all be done in public and out loud. Even the word ‘diva’ itself has now been added to the lexicon as a term relating to female empowerment, success and entrepreneurial spirit.

With their outrageous amounts of talent, vision, hard work and sheer moxie, some of those divas from the last 70 years have taken their destinies by the scruff of the neck, pushing past what’s expected to forge a new future for themselves and consequently, those that follow, are celebrated. These divas have been able to channel their success into something larger than themselves, their sound or their voices.

Here are some of the most incredible divas throughout the years…

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton

Richard Rodriguez

Dolly Parton’s journey might well be the definition of a rags-to-riches story. Born and raised in a one-room cabin in Tennessee and the fourth of 12 children, she was playing guitar by the age of six. Signing a recording contract at 19, she released her first country single, Dumb Blonde, in 1966. Her star continued to rise, setting the stage for a pop-pivot in the mid-1970s, which introduced her to a whole new audience. In 1980 she starred in the comedy film 9 to 5, securing her an Oscar nomination and sending her fame into orbit.

A self-styled ‘Backwoods Barbie’, she sings about the hardship and realities of a woman’s ‘down-home’ life while looking like a pop-art version of ‘exaggerated womanhood’. Her image worked for sales but led to frustration behind the scenes. Nashville and country music were and generally remain hotbeds of traditional conservative values – a ‘good woman’s’ place was rarely on stage, and never in the boardroom.

‘Dumb Blonde’ seemed to be the broad perception of her within the music business, and Parton’s experience of the music industry was one of underestimation and diminution: the age-old questioning of the legitimacy and authenticity of a woman’s art and business nous based on her manner, her look. The broadsides came from women as well as men. A notorious 1977 interview by Barbara Walters questioned whether Parton worried about others thinking she was a joke due to the way she looked:

“People have thought the joke was on me, but it’s actually been on the public. I know exactly what I’m doing, and I can change it any time … I am sure of myself as a person, I’m sure of my talent…”

Like Marilyn Monroe before her, Parton utilized this blonde bombshell persona to infiltrate spaces of male power, making some prudent decisions along the way, starting her own publishing company at 20 and retaining publishing rights to the vast majority of her songs.

Barbara Streisand

Barbara Streisand

Kevin Mazur

Self-expression was never a challenge for Barbra Streisand, the plucky all-rounder with an almost incomparable tick-list of talent – all singing, dancing, acting AND directing. Streisand is the complete Hollywood package, albeit with a working-class Brooklyn accent.

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