An Absolutely Fabulous Celebration of History’s Greatest Divas

This heady, exquisitely delightful new book reveals the power behind the sequins

Left, Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who played Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story. Right, the Italian opera singer Giulia Grisi in the 1830s.
Left, Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who played Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story. Right, the Italian opera singer Giulia Grisi in the 1830s. Getty Images

Bottled rage, sublime violence, threats and tears, love and anger. Never has a woman bared so much of her soul,” the French dramatist and poet Théophile Gautier wrote of Italian opera singer Giulia Grisi in the 1830s. Gautier was the first to use “diva”—Latin for “goddess”—to describe an opera soloist of epic talent. In the next two centuries, the term moved from describing performers—Bette Davis, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Beyoncé—to describing almost anyone who’s fierce, provocative and generally beaucoup.

In her latest book, American Diva: Extraordinary, Unruly, Fabulous, Deborah Paredez, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University, celebrates divas of all sorts, arguing that their successes are particularly inspiring for people in marginalized communities, especially racial minorities. Paredez weaves historical accounts of these bold women into a thrilling cultural memoir: Over 250-odd pages, she illustrates how divas have historically used their authoritative talents to embolden the lives of those on society’s fringes.

Take Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican actress who stunned viewers with her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. Paredez describes how, for many Latinos, Moreno’s turn as the heroine Anita, with her high kicks and twirls, challenged inherited notions of who could make claims to own a spot in America—at a time when film and theater were both still lily-white. “She moves across dance styles and harmonies and perspectives and the borderlines of turf and tribe,” Paredez writes of Moreno’s rebellious spirit. In similar ways, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin assumed a diva persona that electrified their Black fans while creating opportunities for later Black artists who also wanted to make a living in the white worlds of rock and pop.

Most people associate the “diva” title with singers, such as Judy Garland and Whitney Houston, who are tagged as being high maintenance, or merely too much. Paredez reclaims the “diva” label as a celebration—and makes an intriguing case for widening the canon to include Venus and Serena Williams, “shimmering divas” who “were neither queens nor princesses, though they held countless titles” and became something like tennis royalty.

By the book’s end, Paredez’s thesis becomes entirely persuasive: The word “diva” is best used not for an opera virtuoso, but for any bold person whose work nourishes people too often starved of power.

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This article is a selection from the June 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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