Opera singer. Style icon. Outspoken woman. Divine being. High-maintenance nightmare.
A “diva” could be any of these, depending on who is speaking, and about whom. It’s a word known all over the world, without needing translation, said Kate Bailey, the curator of an exhibition exploring the term that is currently on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. “But everyone thinks of it differently,” she added.
“Diva” comes from the Latin for “goddess,” and Bailey wanted to reclaim it, she said, after working on a 2017 show about opera at the same museum, and becoming curious about the archetype. “I wanted to unpack the term, to trace its origins and look at why it had become negative,” she said.
The exhibition makes the argument for a diva as a glamorous, modern star. Across two floors, items like Franz Winterhalter’s portrait of the opera singer Adelina Patti, and Bob Mackie’s flame dress, as worn by Tina Turner, Cher and Diana Ross, chart the rise of the diva as a source of inspiration.
But outside the museum, the term is more complicated. What makes a diva, for better or worse?
Théophile Gautier, a 19th-century French critic, first adopted the word to mean a talented soloist in opera. “Song, passion and beauty, she has it all,” he wrote of the Italian singer Giulia Grisi. These women were revered, but from a distance.
Over the years, the opera diva gave way to the Hollywood talkies diva (Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis); the soul music diva (Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone); the pop megastar diva (Rihanna, Lady Gaga); and many more iterations.
In the 1930s, gossip columnists began publishing accounts of Hollywood divas, who were extremely exacting about their work. In the London Daily Herald newspaper, in 1936, a columnist described a performer who “before she can go on set to play a scene has to have violin and guitar play mood music.”
Since then, the word has never quite lost its implication of bad behavior, unruliness and arrogance. Kirsty Fairclough, the editor of a forthcoming book called “Diva: Feminism and Fierceness from Pop to Hip-Hop,” pointed to scolding news coverage of the pop star Mariah Carey, whose riders have reportedly included a special assistant to handle her used chewing gum.
“It’s the ‘woman getting too confident, too big for her boots’ thing we see in popular culture,” Fairclough said.
On her 2008 album “I am … Sasha Fierce,” Beyoncé sang that a “diva is a female version of a hustler,” but there is no true male version of a diva. Men branded as such are often gay men who express themselves through flamboyant costuming, like Elton John, whose Louis XIV-inspired 50th birthday outfit hangs upstairs in the exhibition.
Being a diva is not just about exuberant dressing, though, according to Bailey. It’s about “using your voice to do something useful,” she said. Diva-ship and activism have long gone hand in hand: Marie Lloyd, a diva of England’s music halls at the beginning of the 20th century, was involved in strikes by theater workers to protest unfair working conditions; Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for Angela Davis in 1970, when Davis was arrested on charges including criminal conspiracy; and Lady Gaga frequently criticized the army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy before it was repealed in 2011.
This can sometimes feel at odds with the hyper-consumerist glamour of the diva lifestyle. But divas are often people who have struggled to reach success. Gemma Collins, an English media personality known for the reality television show “The Only Way is Essex,” is a self-described diva, and proud of it.
In the past, she had worked hard for less than $3 an hour, she said in an interview: “I’ve made cups of tea for people buying BMWs.” Now, “If I’m doing a performance, I would not wear anything but ostrich feathers,” she said. “At the end of the day, a diva is just a woman who knows what she wants.”
This attitude is part of the diva’s appeal, according to Fairclough. “They exist as figures to admire, due to the ways in which they amplify self- acceptance, empowerment and celebrate individuality,” she said.
Despite attempts like the Victoria and Albert Museum’s to rehabilitate the diva, it seems likely it will remain an embattled term. “It is an expression of the ambivalence and misogyny that is at the core of a lot of stage cultures,” said Michael Reinhard, a lecturer in media studies at Rutgers University, “and it’s going to invite reclamations at the same time that people are using the term diva with negative associations.”
In all its contradictions — privileged but socially engaged, famous but fighting for privacy, in control but subject to the whims of her industry — the diva remains a beloved figure.
“They might say they don’t, but people love divas,” Collins said, “because we’re a rare breed, honey.”
Through April 7, 2024, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London; vam.ac.uk.