The New Divas

Hollywood loves its divas.  Even when their demands drive everybody crazy, there’s something about a starlet who knows what she wants and how to get it.  The 90’s ushered in a new crop of divas (and divas in training).  In the October 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Rebello ran through some of Tinseltown’s most fabulous actresses.  Some were on their way out while others were ascendant.  Find out how the biggest divas of the decade lived twenty years ago.

Has everyone noticed how utterly hip it’s become to be a diva? Even back when it was reserved for the opera world’s most flamboyant, grandiose prima donnas, the term “diva” carried with it a note of awed, thrilled disapproval–at the spectacle of a talented, charismatic, successful star elevating herself to extra-human heights of willfulness, selfishness, vanity and imperiousness. But now, flashy starlets everywhere are begging to be called divas, and audiences seem eager to be captivated by any large-living showgirl willing and able to carry on shamelessly at nosebleed altitudes. Figure it out: chart-toppers En Vogue titled their second album “Funky Divas”–and it went triple platinum.

Fame, wealth and privilege have nearly always been lusted after, and, once achieved, have always produced bad behavior. The ’90s diva, being even more obscenely well paid than her predecessors, does not merely indulge in one pair of Manolo Blahniks after another, she has a closet built to house her collection. She drops a cool $10,000 on a jewel-studded case for her $1,700 Motorola StarTAC flip phone. She sports an entourage roughly the size of the population of her former hometown. She never leaves the house unready for her close-up. She plays the media like a kid doing Nintendo. She makes powerful men suffer. She gets her agent to hold the studios hostage on her behalf, then personally demands additional bowing and scraping.

Why, exactly, is it now so de rigueur for an actress to be not merely a star–an over-rewarded, professional narcissist–but also a diva? One clue is provided by a glance back at the last generation of divas who paraded by on the floats of their own grandiosity. In the 70s, when fame was emerging as the universal religion of Western civilization, such names as Cher, Jane, Diana, Barbra, Donna and Faye struck terror in Hollywood hearts from the executive suite to the makeup trailer. Cher perfected the gaudy, Southern California Bob Mackie version; Jane the constantly self-inventing corporate model; Diana the up-from-the-ghetto huntress; Donna the disco-dancing queen; Barbra the diva-in-perfectionist’s-clothes; Faye–well, one battle-scarred veteran publicist insists she’s “the diva who put the ‘d’ in ‘diva.'” These intrepid explorers of the outer reaches of self-involvement and exhibitionism proved the huge attraction that lies in being fabulously bigger-than-life, able to get away with stuff the rest of us only dream of doing.  Divadom demands an honesty that’s intoxicating–as in, “Let’s be honest here. I’m fantastic!” And let us be honest–we love divas. We love them because they act out for us the deep, dark wishes we all have to Be Big.

Coexisting cheek by jowl alongside the diva phenomenon of the ’70s was the evolution of that Brando-invented ethos, I’m-not-a-star-I’m-an-artist. Brazen chutzpah and spotlight-drawing glamour hardly jibed with precious notions of Serious Artistry, so when the star-as-artist pose flourished, Donna, Diana, Faye, Jane, Cher and Bob Mackie languished; Streisand sublimated her divadom into diva-directordom. But how could such a ruse persist, when the lust for fame spirals ever upwards? How long could actresses with talent and star wattage be expected to cloak naked ambition as the desire to pursue their art? How long could the whole deceitful charade go on before somebody shouted, “Stop! I want to be a big, fucking movie star! I want the money, the men, the Manolos!”

The first trumpet blast to herald a new era of divadom was sounded right at the beginning of the decade by the original New Diva, Sharon Stone. Even before Basic Instinct rocked audiences around the world, Hollywood insiders touted Stone for her clever wit and feared her for her bravura nerve. (“If I get with someone who is bullshitting me,” she once explained, “I grind ’em right into the dirt.”) With Basic Instinct, Stone gained the credentials for true divadom: she was celebrated and imitated, and she rose magnificently to the occasion. She now lives in a $4.5 million chateau with a custom-designed Ralph Lauren screening room; she manages to bring public places to a standstill with her entrances (which include a sizeable entourage); she insists on keeping the wardrobes from her films; and she vacations in sultan style–she took not just the most luxurious suite at Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort, but the owner’s penthouse, and she occupies the $5,066-per-night Coco Chanel Suite at the Ritz in Paris.

Nicknamed “Sharon Stones” (“I have the biggest balls in Hollywood,” she’s claimed), she has raised high the ceiling for diva behavior, while giving it both a veneer of clever humor (“I find since becoming famous I get to torture a higher class of men than I used to”) and a self-aware, postmodern spin (“My life is actually quite like Valley of the Dolls, except that I have better clothes and hairdos”). Stone may be equaled or surpassed by others for sheer excess and cultural influence–witness Madonna, whom the word “diva” does not adequately describe–but not for style. Every new look she devises is widely imitated (which is good, since she, unlike most other divas, has taste). When she sported that black Gap turtle-neck to the Oscars in 1996, the store restocked its chain of stores with the item and quickly sold out of it.

It should surprise no one that Sharon Stone inspires many of today’s emerging “baby divas.” For example, she clearly serves as a beacon to diva-ascendant Jennifer Lopez. Asked recently by this magazine to name the movie star that she thought had genuine style, Lopez showed both her diva-in-her-own-mind leanings and her tutelage at the school of Stone: “Me! I have great style,” she replied. “So does Sharon Stone–she has my kind of style.”

Lopez, who first came to the public eye as a Fly Girl on In Living Color, seemed from first glance to be all lit up and ready to become a diva-for-life. Vintage Hollywood photographer George Hurrell once said that the quality which made such divas as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow so glamorous was “a hunger that showed in the eyes.” Lopez shows the hunger. She seems bolder, pushier, more exciting and more glamorous than many of her peers. And she’s tough as nails, a diva requisite. She recently told a journalist how she toyed with Jack Nicholson while costarring with him in Blood and Wine: “He was all into, you know, was I too young for him. I was, like, ‘No! You can get a chick my age, just not me.'” Having auditioned for the title role in Evita, she vowed, “If Madonna does a good job, I’ll be the first one to say, ‘Fucking Madonna rocks.’ But if she doesn’t, I’ll be the first one to say, ‘She sucks.'” Obviously, Lopez is about as awed by living legends as she was by the fake boa constrictor she took on in Anaconda.

Cojones and showy good looks aside, the Bronx-born Lopez has just the sort of nose for publicity that marks a true, self-promoting showstopper. Who else but a diva-in-waiting would invite a journalist and photographers to her precipitous wedding to the gorgeous young guy she met when he was waiting tables in Miami? For that matter, who but a diva would schedule her wedding to coincide with the premiere three weeks later of Selena, her first stab at the truly Big Time. Lopez has media-spin instincts that outstrip those of most stars a decade older than she. Rumor has it that the reason she wasn’t visible at the Oscar pre-show last spring was that she deliberately came late so she’d be the last in the door and draw the final blast of paparazzi attention.

Stone’s femme fatale act on-screen has not been lost on Lopez either. She’s followed up My Family/Mi Familia, Money Train, Jack, Selena, Anaconda and Blood and Wine by making U-Turn for Oliver Stone. If her lead role as the man-eater in that film does for her anything like what Sharon Stone’s turn in Basic Instinct did for her, Lopez will grab the clout to stage a full-court press on divadom. And if she ignites with George Clooney in their upcoming thriller, Out of Sight, she could establish her diva supremacy as a sassy, fun-loving, egocentric of the sort we most enjoy–from the safe distance of a theater seat, anyway.

On the more senior level of the new divas, Whitney Houston became a movie star in that irresistibly romantic goo known as The Bodyguard, where she worked those mighty pipes, strutted her way through her concert sequences, sparred bitchily with Kevin Costner and played– how much of a stretch was this?– a talented, complicated, volatile diva. She came on gorgeous, bossy and unreasonable, and some who have worked with her on Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife suggest she did not need to do much research to get into character.

Much of Houston’s spikiest, most petulant behavior is, no doubt, a response to how the press has slammed her penchant for wretched excess (e.g., she lives in an $11 million New Jersey estate and she reportedly had a $75,000 miniature version of the estate built to house her two akitas, Lucy and Ethel) and her rocky marriage to Bobby Brown, not to mention the won’t-die speculation about her sexual preferences. But not everything can be blamed on those naughty tabloids.

Tales from the set of Waiting to Exhale portrayed Houston as short-fused, mercurial, manipulative and partial to highly public tongue-lashings of members of her personal entourage (an assemblage she refers to as “The Royal Family”). She’s reported to keep aloof from coworkers, to make little effort to disguise any boredom, and to be so utterly humorless that wags have suggested she may have missed a bet by not casting herself as the wicked stepmother in the Cinderella musical she’s starring in for TV. As one crew member on Waiting to Exhale put it, “Whitney must have taken Diana Ross lessons somewhere along the way. She’s like a kid in her own world and plays by rules she makes up along the way.”

Another senior-level New Diva, Demi Moore, nicknamed “Gimme More” for the concessions she brazenly demands from studios and producers, has hung truly idiosyncratic bells and whistles on the notion of a diva, not the least of which is her ability to command a $12.5-million payday. A self-confessed “trailer-park kid” raised by a mother with a history of substance abuse (troubled or at least modest backgrounds are a common denominator among divas), Moore ended her involvement with drugs and alcohol early in her career to take hold of her destiny with a will comparable to Scarlett O’Hara’s. Like many a hard-luck kid before her, she quickly learned the art of living lavishly–even by star standards.

Almost everywhere she goes, she has traveling with her– often, one hears, at studio expense–two nannies, bodyguards, a masseuse, a yoga teacher, a cook, an assistant and an assistant-to-the-assistant.  Her marriage to another star, a male diva who makes almost twice what she does, allows for excess and largesse that are gargantuan even by diva standards. She and husband Bruce Willis maintain a $2.5 million Malibu manse, a 14-room pied-a-terre facing Central Park West, and a $5 million, six-bedroom, seven-bathroom home on 48 acres in Idaho. “At first, people might have thought that Demi was a diva-by-association,” says a studio boss, referring to Moore’s relationship with Willis (who had written into his Billy Bathgate contract a provision for a paid 22-person entourage), “but she has always struck me as a diva-by-design.”

One dramatic eccentricity that marks Moore as a diva-by-design is her propensity for self-exhibition. Every diva is an exhibitionist, one can argue, but Moore has raised the penchant to dizzying heights. Striptease alone makes that case. Demi didn’t just bump, grind and vamp in that movie, she’d indulged in an orgy of Deminess while making it. After shooting one of the show-it-off titty bar sequences in front of 200 horny, cheering extras, Moore gloated to a reporter, “After my experience, I felt very confident.” Then again, that experience came well after she’d appeared in the altogether twice on Vanity Fair covers, the most famous of which showed her seven months pregnant. (“I said I would get better with each baby,” she boasted to a journalist, “and I have.”) As a follow-up act to Striptease, Moore in G.I. Jane is every bit as exhibitionistic, only in a more bizarre way: this time she’s physically brutalized for the entire movie by boot camp workouts that leave little of her musculature to imagination. Oh, and she sports that martyred, Sinead O’Connor bald look that so delighted the paparazzi. And in dazzling diva style, Moore had her newly bought StairMaster 4400 ($2,500) shipped overnight by Federal Express to the G.I.Jane set.

Is Lela Rochon watching Demi Moore the way Jennifer Lopez watches Sharon Stone? Blessed with a body Jessica Rabbit might envy, Rochon has had no compunction about showing it to great advantage. She plays a pole-dancer in Gang Related, Demi style, although she was quick to point out, “Unlike Demi Moore, I didn’t have six months to prepare for my dance scenes in Gang Related. I had six days.” And who but a diva would boast to a reporter that her skin feels as smooth as a baby’s behind? At a recent magazine photo shoot, Rochon flat-out refused to don elegant designer clothes, insisting instead on wearing a vintage black lace bra with nothing over it.

But nervy ambition, not shameless physicality, is the true wellspring of the diva impulse, and there Rochon excels, inspired, she claims, by Diana Ross. “Divas aren’t divas by accident,” she’s said, referring to her study of her spiritual mentor, who, as a Supreme, made certain she upstaged her fellow group members and cemented her power base by having a child with Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr., and who, these days, is setting herself up as the star of the remake of–you guessed it–Diva.

Even as a virtual unknown, Rochon took umbrage when TV promotional clips for Boomerang featured her scene, but only mentioned costar Robin Givens’s name: “When they start off talking about Robin Givens starring in this movie and then they show my clip, it makes no sense,” she carped. “People think I’m Robin Givens and I don’t like it.” Rochon has since shown full-strength ballsiness. “When someone says ‘no’ to me, it’s kind of a turn-on, because it’s a challenge,” she has said. As a regular on TV’s The Wayans Bros., she couldn’t snag an audition for Waiting to Exhale, but her belief that she had to play the character Robin Stokes led her to call Waiting to Exhale author (and the film’s executive producer) Terry McMillan.

Her mission? To explain “what a good actress I thought I was and why they shouldn’t pick so-and-so, so-and-so, or so-and-so, but should pick me.” Rumor has it the role had already been virtually pocketed by Halle Berry, but Rochon was finally granted the audition she pursued, and, as she recalls, “I tore it up!” No wonder that when Rochon auditioned for The Chamber, a role written for Miss White-Bread, director James Foley reportedly told her, “You’ve got the chutzpah”–and gave her the gig. Rochon’s burning ambition already has her eyeing a whole other level of competitors. “When there’s a script Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan aren’t doing, I want my name on top of that list,” she’s declared. But she has no desire to be merely a tough cookie battling the competitive casting game gloves-off. Rochon wants to be a diva fighting for everything, gloves included.

Rumors buzzed around Hollywood that Halle Berry managed to lose the role in Waiting to Exhale to Lela Rochon by refusing to audition, diva behavior extraordinaire to be sure, especially when indulged in not by a Stone, a Moore or a Houston, but by a veteran of cable TV’s Solomon & Sheba, and movies like Father Hood, The Program and Losing Isaiah. This variety of self-enchantment is in keeping with Berry’s overall image.

Michael DeLorenzo, the New York Undercover star who was rumored to have had a short-term affair with Berry, was quoted as saying, “Halle is nuts!,” no doubt alluding to her much-talked-about mood swings, tantrums and attitude. And well he might. When vexed or under emotional siege, the beauteous temptress (a bad photograph of Berry has yet to be taken) can breathe fire with the best of the dragon ladies.“When I’m pushed to the limit, in life or in a movie, I’m like a cornered cat. I’ll scratch your eyes out,” she has said. “She can go from good girl to vamp like you and I shed socks,” said The Flintstones director Brian Levant of her on-screen allure. Such headsnapping emotional about-faces apparently happen offscreen, too. Atlanta Braves right fielder David Justice, from whom Berry split last year, claimed, “I always felt I was walking on eggshells with her. Everything I did was wrong.”

Still merely a diva-in-training at the moment, Berry’s got the looks, style and inclination to soar high in the diva pantheon. Warren Beatty handpicked her to costar in his upcoming as-yet-untitled project (formerly called Bulworth), which may be the ideal showcase to launch Berry’s ascent toward full-fledged divadom. If that film proves to be her breakthrough, she might find the $1.6 million home she shares with expensive objets d’art and her beloved pooches suddenly inadequate.

Salma Hayek, gifted with the lustrous look, fire and charisma of an old-time screen goddess, displayed herself at last year’s Oscar ceremonies decked out in an accessory only a true diva would dare to flaunt in front of billions of TV viewers–a diamond tiara. And she pulled it off. Hayek is so ravishing she even pulled off, on the same evening, that very iffy blue eye shadow. But don’t mistake Hayek for an actress who’s content to be merely physically stunning. “Beauty’s not the flesh,” she has declared, “but what you project. It has a lot to do with sensuality–the capacity to motivate dreams and fantasies.” With neither a big-screen smash nor a severe embarrassment so far on her resume, Hayek’s reputation rests mostly on her beauty and the steely aggressive commitment she radiates.

One hit picture and watch her pop as the actress and diva the evidence says she is.

Hayek’s history suggests she may have been a diva from birth (“I always got more attention than anyone else. If I hadn’t, I would have made sure I did.”). She may even have diva genes– her mother was an opera singer. As a young, self-admitted spoiled brat, Hayek convinced her parents she would “go on strike” unless they sent her to a U.S. boarding school, from which she was tossed for having too much attitude. At home she took to strutting around in a bikini, a form of dress her parents strictly forbade. With the opposite sex, she has apparently always been supremely self-possessed. “I hope to God I keep being spoiled by every man I meet in my life,” she has declared; and she’s fond of telling interviewers that, as a girl, she was often followed by “all the boys and all the boys’ fathers.” The grown-up Hayek reflects the cumulative effect of having been a man-magnet all her life: “Somebody told me I’m the biggest nightmare any man could have because it always looked and sounded like I could just walk away at any time … and I probably could.” If you missed her point there, listen up again: “I’m not going to have a boyfriend until I find one who has bigger balls than I do.”

For all the drama, extravagance and glitzy excess divas bring to bear on the Hollywood scene, a diva-free Hollywood wouldn’t be anywhere near as spicy, entertaining or fun. As Joan Crawford once put it, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” But there’s more than that to be said for divas. These women don’t merely make Hollywood pay through the nose, a lot of them also give through the nose. Elizabeth Taylor may once have had Chasen’s chili flown to her on the set of Cleopatra in Rome, but she’s also selflessly pumped tens of millions of dollars into AIDS research. Sharon Stone follows her example, not only with the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) but with a homeless rehabilitation charity as well. It’s a sure bet every other diva you can point to has done some larger-than-life good deeds. We’d all love divas anyway; when their lust for the spotlight leads to charity, it’s icing on the cake. Of course, you’d best believe that when a diva plays Lady Bountiful, she does it with flair. Hosting an AIDS charity event, Stone fired back at a wiseguy in the audience who urged her to auction her panties, “Anyone with $7.50 knows that I don’t wear underpants.”


Stephen Rebello interviewed Tori Spelling for the September ’97 issue of Movieline.


Posted on October 6, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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