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The New Divas

August 30th, 2013

Contributor Lindsay B. Davis takes a look at today’s up-and-coming divas from NYC and around the globe.

Barbra. Bernadette. Diana. Ask someone his or her favorite diva and you will often get a single, one name answer that carries the majesty and aura of a goddess. Purists know the word ‘diva’ has early roots in the opera world and believe a girl’s gotta be able to siiiiing to earn the title. Others feel a diva’s performance ability and theatricality is as important as the voice when it comes to firmly affixing oneself amongst the diva ranks. The association between ‘diva’ and ‘prima donna’ —  see Phantom of the Opera’s ‘Prima Donna’ for entertaining context — also explains why divas are known to be a bit, shall we say, fussy.

Who better to talk to about divas than Newsical The Musical’s Christina Bianco, whose Diva Impressions ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ YouTube video went viral a few weeks ago and as of August 30th is approaching 3.9 million views. Bianco’s parade of the most iconic divas (and a few additions like Zooey Deschanel thrown in for comedic effect) captures each female star’s essential quality, from Adele’s guttural alto to Christina Aguilera’s runaway melismata.

BB: How do you define a diva?

Bianco: There are two types of divas. One is a performer who demands your attention because she excels at her craft, has achieved a significant level of fame and is highly respected for her talents. For example, Patti LuPone. The other is a performer who has been so successful and popular that she is viewed as an icon, so even if her career falters, it doesn’t shake her foundation of fame. A good example is Brittany Spears. Divas are a force to be reckoned with.

BB: Which divas do you find most compelling?

Bianco: The ones who stand the test of time. I love Bette Midler and Dolly Parton because no matter the medium (music, stage or screen), they have triumphed. They continue to pack houses and entertain audiences, decade after decade, with no sign of stopping!

BB: Who do you have the most fun impersonating?

Bianco: Definitely Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenoweth. Those four women give me a lot to work and are fiercely talented, so I enjoy the challenge of singing their material.

BB: Do you have a favorite diva performance?

Bianco: Yes, it is Shirley Bassey singing ‘Goldfinger’ live at Royal Albert Hall, which I’ve only seen on YouTube. Her outfit, gestures, command of the stage, ownership of the song, impeccable vocals and not to mention the fabulous orchestra behind her, make it what I think is the most perfect diva moment ever! They just don’t make divas like that any more.

Meow Meow (photo credit: Karl Giant)

Meow Meow (photo credit: Karl Giant)

And then there are the divas breaking the mold and reinventing the term by busting out of tradition. I spoke to Australian born, international performance artist Meow Meow (real name Melissa Madden Grey) who The New York Times calls “a spiritual offspring of Sally Bowles (via Liza Minnelli) from “Cabaret,” filtered through the German chanteuse Ute Lempe.” Meow Meow believes she has “exploded the term diva” and with respect to diva terminology itself, “the post-modern Diva will not be defined or limited, clearly!”

Explosive is an appropriate word to describe Bridget Everett, whose August 28th performance at Joe’s Pub was audacious and beyond wild. Her Broadway caliber vocals are applied to profanity laden songs which she belts — at times completely bare chested —  with fists pumping and legs kicking through the air, as if she is channeling an arena rock band front man. Everett flips the term on its head, a deconstructionist diva on a bender, and one of the most dynamic and entertaining women currently (un)gracing the NYC stage.

When it comes to divas and their fan bases, one of the most loyal and passionate are drag queens. The intersection of drag and diva culture, from Dina Martina to the ladies of Lips, is one that continues to attract and fascinate audiences. Ask Miss Kiki the Hot Mess who his favorite divas are and you will get a list that includes J. Lo, Eartha Kitt and Miss Piggy. Says Miss Kiki, a regular fixture on the NYC drag queen circuit, “Personality trumps voice and there is a grandeur that differentiates a diva from a regular performer.”  When I asked Miss Kiki the difference between a diva and a drag queen, he said, “A Queen Diva usually has been in the game longer…they also come with a WHOLE lot of personality and drama, more so than a drag queen would.” A diva will always reign supreme.

Lindsay B. Davis is a journalist, actress, playwright, producer and director. She resides in New York City. 

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