Redefining the diva

In the 16th century, as the female performer emerged from the all-male actor troupes, so did the diva. An Italian word commonly used since the 14th century to describe goddesses or deities, 'diva' became a fitting description for exceptional female performers whose divine talents made them appear other-worldly.

The rise of the diva

Once a virtuoso has been judged a diva, that is all that needs to be said, at least for the audience that gives her that epithet. The Diva becomes divine, she becomes the idol of the stage, the queen of the city, she is a siren, an enchantress, a charmer, someone who magnetizes her audience… countless admirers, wildly applauded and acclaimed… who is ultimately the object of a blind, passionate and unrivalled cult.

Isabelle Moindrot, Mythologies of the Diva in Nineteenth-Century French Theater, Cambridge University Press

Isabella Andreini (1562 – 1604) was an Italian actor and musician whose astounding range and skill helped define the early diva. Described as a multifaceted genius, Andreini transcended her humble origins, was passionate about education and captivated audiences with her divine eloquence. Her motto, Elevat Ardor (the flame rises), reflects her sense of creative power. Her performances seemed to create a visceral experience that combined public intimacy and authenticity with a superhuman persona, attracting a cult of worshippers.

By the 18th century the diva had found her place on stage and was recognised as a woman of exceptional artistic talent and power in Italian opera. Popular operas of the time were often based on classical mythology and featured gods and goddesses, and 'diva' was an epithet applied increasingly to the godlike heroine, the prima donna. As opera grew in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries, the diva developed cult status.

Opera as an art form spread across Europe during the 19th century and, as its popularity grew, the diva travelled too. There was a simultaneous shift in the balance of power in the opera house from the impresario and manager to the composer, as Italian composers such as Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini were creating and co-creating operas with powerful lead roles for the female soprano. These new operas combined extraordinary characters and music to accommodate the growing art, talent and ambition of the diva. Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini's Semiramide were staged across the Continent, placing the tragic heroine centre stage and providing the singer with the lyrics and the melody to deliver vocal and emotional gymnastics. Bel canto (beautiful singing) emerged as the quintessential singing style for the early divas.

Portrait of Giulia Grisi as Norma in the first scene of the opera 'Norma', colour lithograph, by Richard Lane and Alfred Chalon, published by J. Mitchell, 1831, England. Museum no. S.221-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One opera in particular had a significant impact in defining the diva in the 19th century: Bellini's opera Norma, which premiered in 1831 in Milan. The heroine is a high priestess whose character echoes Diana, the Roman goddess of woods and hunting. Norma performs the iconic aria (solo voice) 'Casta Diva' in a dramatic pagan ceremony, in which the sacred moon and the diva are immortalised as they are presented for worship. This highly charged visual narrative constructed around the voice of the prima donna established a diva aesthetic and concept. When it was first staged in Paris in 1835 with Italian singer Giulia Grisi (1811 – 69) in the title role, it was to have a profound impact on audiences, including the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier:

Giulia Grisi is Norma, and never, to be sure, did Irminsul have a more beautiful and more inspired high priestess. Song, passion and beauty, she has it all: bottled rage, sublime violence, threats and tears, love and anger. Never has a woman bared so much of her soul in the playing of a role…

Portrait of Maria Malibran showing the singer in the role of Desdemona in a production of Rossini’s Otello, hand-coloured print, by Henri Decaisne, about 1830, London. Museum no. S.3755-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Gautier portrays the performance of the diva on stage as a total work of art – and recognises the diva as "thrice gifted", a perfect fusion of music, words and image. He goes on to establish links between generations of exceptional performers by referencing Spanish singer Maria Malibran (1808 – 36) and further expresses the parallels between the live performer and classical antiquity:

What secret excavation near the Parthenon produced that mask so pure, so classic, so vivacious, that the most violent emotion cannot distort, and which remains beautiful during the most dramatic agonies.

This male perspective, which imagines the performer as a marble statue, perhaps also reflects a fear of feminine creative and sexual power. While the diva remains celebratory and otherworldly in Gautier's writing, his definition denies the female performer mastery over her own artistry by considering her talent to be divinely bestowed.

With his radical enthusiasm for art for art's sake, Gautier harnessed the late 19th-century fascination with the diva in Paris at a time when women were often objectified by men, and when a prima donna, far from being respected by society, was often seen in the same light as a prostitute. These ideas were reinforced by French poet Charles Baudelaire in his Painter of Modern Life, in which men are represented as flâneurs (a leisurely observer of urban society) and dandies (someone who is overly concerned about looking stylish) and fashionable women as objects for male consumption.

Reinventing the diva

It is against this patriarchal backdrop that the 19th century creative diva had to operate. As the century progressed, she had to negotiate a rapidly changing world, where image, technology and the demand for women's rights played a role in shifting perceptions of the performer both on stage and in society.

Before recorded sound, the diva was defined through a variety of media. On stage, pyrotechnic visual effects were often used to amplify her operatic performance. With the invention of new stage lighting techniques, by the middle of the 19th century she was literally placed in the limelight; towards the end of the century, she was illuminated by electric light. Off stage, the diva was captured countless times in photography. This new, experimental art form disseminated her image, ensuring presence, relevance and familiarity to her admirers and initiating a cult of celebrity.

H Beard Print Collection, published by The Illustrated London News, 23rd December 1848, London. Museum no. S.3309-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Victorian London was an established home for Italian opera and an important stage for international stars. The city became central to the creation of the performer's image, with media and photographers constructing and sharing diva personas, magnifying their appeal and encouraging public interest in the stage goddesses through print and the popular cartes-de-visite (calling cards). Publications such as the Illustrated London News were important publicity vehicles for the diva that reached upper- and middle-class audiences. It seemed that Victorian society felt a need to separate the dramatic persona of the artist from the performer herself in a quest for respectability.

Jenny Lind, photograph, by Hansen, 19th century, Stockholm, Sweden. Museum no. S.138:61-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (1820 – 87) was frequently depicted as the epitome of femininity, mythologised as an artist and a lady, a model of piety, domesticity and purity. This idea reflected Lind's generous spirit but also reinforced Gautier's classical obsession, with contemporary visual artists capturing her female beauty as an idealised Grecian or sculptural form. This widely produced imagery of the diva, stripped back and simplified, also reinforced the Victorian notion that good taste should be understated – in marked contrast to the flamboyance and exuberance displayed by future generations of divas in control of their own image.

Jenny Lind, engraving, by W. Roffe after a drawing by A. Roffe, 1888, London, England. Museum no. S.3415-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1883, when the Oxford English Dictionary first defined the diva as 'a distinguished female singer, a prima donna', Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919) was in her prime. This Spanish-born Italian opera singer had travelled across North and South America and was revered throughout Europe as a goddess on stage. Her fame, success and wealth gave her independence, status and freedom, unparalleled at the time by any other profession available to women.

Adelina Patti, photograph, by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1889. Museum no. S.138:340-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

At the height of her fame Patti was revered by admirers worldwide, painted by the leading artists of the day and second only to Queen Victoria as the most recognised woman in Britain. She was not only able to finance the purchase of her own castle, Craig-y-Nos in Wales, but in 1891 she added her own theatre to the site, based on La Scala in Milan. Patti was an astute businesswoman whose extravagant lifestyle was reflected in her choice of fashionable dress. A stage costume designed for her by Morin-Blossier – a leading Parisian fashion house founded by Victoire Morin and Marie Blossier, renowned for supplying gowns to European royalty – demonstrates how Patti's financial independence allowed her the creative agency to style her own look. The Victorian diva had reached 'royal' status.

Costume worn by Adelina Patti in an unidentified production, designed by Morin-Blossier, 1880s, France. Museum no. S.478-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The abundance of images of the diva, from cartes-de-visite to engravings, were pivotal to Patti's public image. They revealed star quality and respectability, further amplified by narratives in print that projected the diva as an idealised woman and role model who assumed a philanthropic role in society. As a result, the Victorian public perception of the opera diva was largely positive, although confined within the expectations of a patriarchal society, muting, to some degree, her individuality and self expression.

Adelina Patti performing at the Albert Hall, painted illustration in grisaille, probably created for the Illustrated London News, 1901, London, England. Museum no. S.390-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the first decade of the new century the media continued to construct an image of Adelina Patti as powerful yet often demanding, creating a public fascination with diva behaviour and status, from beauty routines to contracts. On her US tour, the Los Angeles Times stated that 'the diva was paid $5000 to sing two songs, and received a large allowance for herself and a private car for her own exclusive use'; on another occasion, when invited to sing outside her stage performance, 'the Diva showed no inclination to oblige'.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Victorian stars of the stage, the divas of the spoken word, played an important role in shifting the cult of the diva, as the female performer found her voice and greater individuality and artistic freedom through drama. British actors Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928) and Vesta Tilley (1864 – 1912), French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923) and Italian star Eleanora Duse (1818 – 1924) created diverse and distinct roles both on stage and in society at large.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, photograph, 1899. Museum no. S.137:133-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sarah Bernhardt was renowned for her melodrama, using extravagant gesture to express emotion, particularly to express female suffering on stage. Like the opera divas who performed tragic heroines, she could communicate intense emotion through her dramatic interpretation of strong characters. Throughout her long career Bernhardt also challenged gender boundaries and took on powerful stage roles both male and female, from Hamlet to Joan of Arc; her artistic excellence was recognised throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. As an exceptional, international and often eccentric star, she was depicted through a multiplicity of images, reflecting and encouraging the public's burgeoning fascination.

Sarah Bernhardt as Joan of Arc, poster, by Eugène Grasset, 1890, Paris, France. Museum no. E.190-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha created many of the 'divine images' of Bernhardt that boosted her fame and immortalised the image of the performer. Theirs was a mutually beneficial and creative collaboration: Bernhardt was both a muse for Mucha's distinctive artistic style and gave him the opportunity to design the posters advertising her US tours. Hugely popular with international audiences, the actor was in control of her own image and as early as 1912 presented a series of 'cinematograph films' in a private exhibition which revealed 'the diva' in 'various amusements and occupations'. Bernhardt's popularity and ability to embrace new technology was seized on by the pioneers of early film as the stage goddess went on to inspire the next generation of cinema's heroines. The profound impact of Bernhardt's fame was reflected in dramatic newspaper headlines announcing her death in 1923.

Photographic portrait of Ellen Terry as Cordelia in a production of King Lear, 10 November 1892, Lyceum Theatre, London, England. Museum no. S.611-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Theatrical trailblazer Ellen Terry was trained to perfection in the works of Shakespeare. Larger than life and with an international reputation, Terry was described by her son as more than an actress:

She spread herself out and encompassed the stage, the stalls, the pit, gallery and somehow the air.

Performing traditional roles, she appealed to respectable Victorian theatregoers and inspired a devoted following. Adoring fans remained fascinated by her performances. In her unconventional personal life Terry exploded traditional ideas of the Victorian woman, striving for independence and freedom.

Vesta Tilley, photograph, late 19th – early 20th century, England. Museum no. S.146:593-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

At her retirement concert Terry performed on stage with Vesta Tilley, a music hall artist whose cross-dressing stage acts challenged notions of what a female performer could do. Together they provided a celebration of diva power across gender and identity. Tilley's traditionally masculine style was embraced in the 1920s and '30s by film star Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 92), who confronted conventional ideas of femininity by wearing trousers on and off the set.

Outside the Victorian theatre, in the music halls around Britain, female performers from the working classes were gaining recognition. Marie Lloyd (1870 – 1922), the most recognised British music-hall star, took advantage of her popularity and public profile when she supported the 1907 music hall strike. Demonstrating her social consciousness and activism, she asserted that "we [the stars] can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves but for the poorer members of the profession". In contrast to the international, multilingual diva of the opera stage, Lloyd's comic public persona gave an authentic voice to the working classes. Her art was not otherworldly, as the early ideal divas were expected to be, but as a celebrated female performer holding sway over a substantial audience, she holds her place in the diva pantheon. Lloyd had to navigate and perform within the overt misogyny and sexism of the music halls. Like Patti, she was self-sufficient through her earnings and gave a voice to a generation of women who wanted the new century to bring new rights and freedoms, a sentiment echoed in her musical monologue 'You Can’t Stop a Girl from Thinking!'.

Sheet music for 'You Can’t Stop A Girl From Thinking!' sung by Marie Lloyd and composed by Tabrar, Harrington and Le Brunn, 1897, London, England. Museum no. S.75-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Despite her professional success, Lloyd's own life was far from liberated and she struggled with difficult personal relationships. As with other divas who came before and after, a powerful professional life was no guarantee of personal contentment and often attracted public scrutiny.

As the 19th century drew to a close, and as women's voices became more empowered, the female performer redefined roles in new artistic spaces and challenged perceptions of what a diva could be beyond theatre and opera. This can be seen in the context of the European artistic fascination with the biblical figure of Salome. Following the first performance of the play by Oscar Wilde in 1896, there was a plethora of interpretations of this complex female protagonist. Salome's power as an exotic temptress and murderer was celebrated and feared by male composers and stage directors such as Richard Strauss and Max Reinhardt, and concurrently provided a powerful feminist vehicle for expression for a generation of female dancers. As the respectable opera diva was only permitted to sing the role of Salome in Strauss's opera, dancers, deemed at the time to have less status than singers, were invited to perform 'The Dance of the Seven Veils'.

Tamara Karsavina in the role of Salome in Serge Diaghilev's ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, Ballets Russes, 1913. Photograph by Gerschel. National Art Library no. 38041800394074. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1913, impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned a ballet production, La Tragédie de Salomé, as a vehicle for pioneering Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina (1885 – 1978). Wearing a striking costume, she created an intoxicating performance that was risqué, bold and expressive. And visionary American performer Loie Fuller (1862 – 1928) enthralled audiences at the Comédie Parisienne with her sensual, fluid, interpretation of Salome that would electrify the dancing diva into the new realms of the moving image.

Isadora Duncan dancing in Breslau, watercolour, by Edward Gordon Craig, 1905, Germany. Museum no. S.196-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1904 Isadora Duncan (1877 – 1927), pioneer of modern dance, expressed her desire to empower women through their creativity, learning and self-expression. Her ambition was to establish a dance school that "would not be a school of dance but a school of life…". Recognising the power of her position as a potential influencer of young women and society, she outlined her mission, to create "a theatre where a hundred little girls shall be trained in my art, which they in their turn will better. In this school I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own". She asserted that the "free modern woman would be more beautiful and more glorious than all women of past centuries…".

Like many performers, Duncan was aware of her own place in the history of the female performer. In fact, she famously danced a tribute to Bernhardt on the night of her death. Such intergenerational relationships are a consistent thread, as performers reflect on the achievements of their forebears while being acutely aware of their own legacies.

Power struggles

Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt and Marie Lloyd were divas driving the first wave of feminism from their positions of success on the stage. They needed creativity, ambition, resilience and attitude to succeed. In 1918, 8.4 million women in Britain over the age of 30 were allowed to vote for the first time. Performers overseas such as Josephine Baker (1906 – 75) would have been galvanised by this development and inspired to fight similar battles for women's equality internationally. Singer, dancer and actor, Baker would become one of the great artists and role models for the next century – combining art, performance and politics both locally and internationally.

Josephine Baker in top hat and tails for a performance at the Prince Edward Theatre, photograph, 1933, London, England. Museum no. 89/1716. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I never took the easy path, always the rough one. But, you know when I took the rough path, I wanted to make it a little easier for those who followed me.

Born in the USA, Baker performed in Black vaudeville theatre on Broadway before arriving in Paris in the 1920s. Here she adapted her American stage skills and developed a unique stage persona in the French music hall. Through her theatrical performances and the evolution of her iconic 'banana skirt', Baker reinvented herself and harnessed the contemporary audience's racialised fascination with 'exoticism' and non-Western culture. Baker confronted and redefined highly offensive stereotypes and captivated audiences through her social, political and sexual power. Her popularity was strengthened by a world tour in 1928 – 29 and her performance in the stage show Ziegfeld Follies on her return to the US in 1936, which provided her with a voice on the international stage. She continued to fight against the societal weaponisation of race and gender, and became a champion of a free and open society, combating the forces of racism and hypocrisy. As an ambassador for tolerance, Baker showed the world that song and dance could be not merely performance, but a political statement. Her utopian dreams continued throughout her career: she became a spy for the French Resistance and mother to an international family – which she called her 'rainbow tribe' – adopting eight children to live with her at her castle in the Dordogne, Château des Milandes.

Plate from Le Tumulte Noir by Paul Colin depicting Baker and her famous 'banana skirt', colour lithograph, 1929, France. Museum no. L.1228-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Baker provided a crucial voice in the fight for racial equality, alongside other American singers from across musical genres – opera, jazz, gospel, blues and soul – who used the power of their voices as a vehicle for protest, disruption and change. Artists like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, with their exceptional voices, ensured that the song of the modern diva became the message and that they as performers were powerful agents for change. The protest songs of the divas fighting against systems of oppression would provide a foundation for future generations of fearless diva activists who continue to fight for change in society.

As film became the most popular medium of mass entertainment in the new century, many of the opera, stage and dance divas were cast by silent movie studios as leading ladies of the screen. This was to have a huge impact on the public perception of the diva, as the early film makers constructed films around the personality and star quality of the female performers, building on their fame and image. Both Bernhardt and Terry made silent films before their retirement and when Josephine Baker starred in La Sirène des tropiques in 1927 she became the first woman of colour to star in a studio motion picture.

Lyda Borelli (1887 – 1959) was one of the first Italian actors to cross from theatre to film, securing her place as a diva of early cinema. Borelli portrayed intense characters who were doomed and otherworldly, often bordering on the supernatural, echoing the tragic heroines of opera. Her visceral power was reflected in her immense popularity, with audiences attracted to her decadent, vampish persona: in La fleur du mal (1915), for example, a film that echoes the symbolism of Baudelaire's 19th-century text, her performance was dark, highly charged and sexual.

Of course, in the silent movie – the spectacular visual and dramatic art form in which the diva was central – the diva's voice was itself silenced. Acclaimed soprano Geraldine Farrar (1882 – 1967) was seen but not heard in Carmen (1915), a silent adaption by Cecil B. DeMille of the opera by Georges Bizet. Although losing her voice did not stifle the extraordinary vitality and energy of this much-loved opera performer, early cinema audiences could no longer hear her. In the same year Carmen was also played by American actor Theda Bara (1895 – 1955) in a silent film directed by Raoul Walsh. Both stars created sensational and sublime – yet silent – interpretations of the role, harnessing Carmen's exoticism and sexuality to project an image of the femme fatale that shifted representations of the female body. In doing so they, like Bernhardt and Borelli, demonstrated how the diva could have agency over their own image and sexuality on film, far from the classical ideal constructed for the Victorian opera diva. Performers like Farrar and Bara, who relocated to Hollywood, were pivotal in redefining the modern interdisciplinary diva as they made the transition from live stage performance into film.

Photograph of Theda Bara as Cleopatra for film the 'Cleopatra', 1917. Photograph: ScreenProd / Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo

Theda Bara was among Hollywood's first stars of the silver screen. In 1917, she was one of the first actors to portray Cleopatra on screen, originating the blueprint for an iconic diva role, taken on later by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Cher. As an artist working in the early film studios, Bara experimented with her look, working alongside a curator of Egyptology from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to become the Egyptian queen. Bara was an originator of the vamp image and demonstrated how artists at the time could have creative agency, self-styling their look, from makeup and wig to costume. Her success earned Bara at the height of her career £41,000 a week in today's money. But it was the studios that seized and controlled the narrative. Seeing the popularity of Bara as the first femme fatale, they cast her in more than 40 films, harnessing her exoticism and casting her as a temptress and seducer. The studios were responsible for changing her name and her back-story – Theda Bara the Egyptian temptress was in fact born Theodosia Goodman, a child of Jewish immigrants from Cincinnati. Like many early silent movie stars, she never made a talkie (film with sound) and saw her popularity diminish as American tastes and movie storylines changed. Her revealing costumes were eventually censored by the authorities in 1930 and her films were subsequently, tragically, lost to the world.

But the commercial Hollywood studios had seen that audiences were hungry for sensational news and that the diva, under their control, could take on multiple identities and be the trigger for stories that would lead to box office sales. It was not just about her image or her voice: the diva became a publicity machine, controlled and driven by the film's promotors. With pin-ups, public appearances, studio magazines and interviews providing glimpses into the diva's private life behind the scenes, the cult of celebrity was by this time firmly established.

Yet some artists were ultimately able to take back control. Marketed by the studios as 'America's sweetheart', Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) became the innocent and wholesome star for a new generation, performing roles in silent movies such as Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). Pickford gained huge popularity and critical acclaim and was eventually able to harness her success to gain power over the studios. Defying the existing studio system, Pickford bravely set up United Artists in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. This production company laid important foundations for female independent stardom in the 1930s and helped professionalise the business of acting. As an empowered diva, Pickford was able to use her business acumen and shrewd understanding of contracts to change perceptions and enhance the careers of future female artists.

This mission of speaking truth to power while fighting for gender equality in business was continued by other performers in the industry, including Clara Bow (1905 – 65), Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003) and Ida Lupino (1918 – 95). Clara Bow, 'it girl' flapper from Brooklyn, negotiated a percentage-deal bonus that steered her from rags to riches. Having arrived in Hollywood from the UK at the age of 14, Lupino negotiated deals to keep three films outside studio agreement and found ways to expand her role behind the camera, forming her own production company in 1949.

Portrait of Bette Davis, by Houston Rogers, 1937, London. Museum no. RPS.3106-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The clash between Bette Davis (1908 – 89) and Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros. Studios, in 1936 is perhaps the highest-profile of these off-screen studio battles. Davis said of her situation, "I was told I had no right fighting like a man. Jack Warner told me he'd teach me a lesson", revealing the stark inequality for women at the time. A lawyer acting against Davis stated that "this is a rather naughty young lady. What she wants is more money". Her struggles and treatment by the patriarchy epitomise the challenges faced by female artists at the time and reflected the widespread negative view of feminine power:

When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch

Bette Davis

The Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s presented the diva in a variety of modern roles to a critical mass of women in Europe and the USA, yet this period saw a dip in gender parity, with women underrepresented as actors, directors and producers. The real power of the Hollywood diva dwindled as independent filmmakers of the 1910s and '20s were replaced by big studios. Due to her demands for equality, status and respect, a performer like Davis was projected as difficult on and off screen in an attempt to undermine her power and influence.

With the artist’s increasing boldness and drive to rock the status quo came an increasingly negative depiction of the diva, as many female performers were forced to work within the power structures of the studio system. This negative attitude and control gathered momentum later in the 20th century and endemic misogyny has taken generations to unravel, finally given traction and attention with the #metoo movement.

Mae West poster, screenprint, designed by Alan Fletcher of Pentagram, 1988, London. Museum no. E.408-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One of those who had been rocking the status quo of male-dominated Hollywood since the 1930s was Mae West (1893 – 1980). In words from her screenplay for I'm No Angel (1933), which reflect her own rebellious spirit, she reassured her followers that "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better". This mantra gave a voice to future generations prepared to take on the spirit of non-conformity and disruption. Some two decades later Marilyn Monroe (1926 – 62) echoed this sentiment as an artist striving for creative freedom and perfection:

I guess people think that why I'm late is some kind of arrogance and I think it is the opposite of arrogance…. The main thing is, I do want to be prepared when I get there to give a good performance to the best of my ability.

These strong-minded statements about their artistic struggles contributed to perceptions of the diva in the public imagination, often through the lens of a media that would revel in tracing the rise and fall of the most powerful global artists. Consumers were fascinated by their strong personalities and the tension between their public and private lives. For the diva, fame, life and art were under constant scrutiny. In 1952 the Daily Mirror exploited the discovery of nude photos of Monroe months before advertisements promoting her new movie Don’t Bother to Knock used explicitly sexualised images with the strapline 'every inch a woman, every inch an actress'.

Costume worn by Marilyn Monroe as Sugar 'Kane' Kowalczyk in film Some Like it Hot, designed by Orry-Kelly, 1959, United States. Museum no. S.1647-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1959, at the height of her fame, Monroe, as Sugar 'Kane' Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot sang 'I wanna be loved by you' and captivated audiences in a performance that was comic and heartbreaking in equal measure. Wearing a little black shimmy flapper-style dress, Monroe's emotionally bruised character drinks from her hip flask with her crossdressed co-stars before she entertains and dazzles in a showstopping musical and dance performance, reflecting the duality of the life of the diva on and off stage. Monroe was aware of the power of worshipping fans and how they contributed to her success: in her last interview she allegedly said, 'if I am a star, the people made me a star. No studio, no person, but the people did'.

Monroe also used her talent, fame and popularity as a positive force for others. She persuaded the owner of the exclusive Mocambo Club in West Hollywood to book her friend Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 96), at the time a rising jazz star who was battling against racism and prejudice. On debut night, Monroe sat in the front row and was joined in the audience by celebrities including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. Monroe, as a fan and friend, demonstrated diva solidarity and power, providing the highly gifted Fitzgerald with a significant career opportunity.

Costume design by Alan Barlow for Maria Callas as Norma at the Royal Opera House, 1952, London, England. Museum no. S.2255-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Returning to the world of opera, the birthplace of the diva, Maria Callas (1923 –77) is often described as the ultimate diva. Despite widespread fascination with her private life and the intrusive public gaze, Callas remained passionate and vocal about her role as an artist seeking perfection:

I am not an angel and do not pretend to be. That is not one of my roles. But I am not a devil, either. I am a woman and a serious artist.

Through the visceral and emotional power of her voice and the bel canto roles she performed, Callas connected to the past:

Maria identified with Bellini's Norma greatly. In a way it was her own story. Maria after all is a high priestess – the high priestess of her art. Yet at the same time she is the most fallible of women. Very human. As Norma, Maria created the maximum of what opera can be. In a lifetime, one can see many great things in the theatre but to see Maria Callas in Norma, what is there to compare it to?

Franco Zeffirelli, director

As creative artists of the 1950s, Callas and Monroe represent a catalyst for the next generation. Their personal frustrations with the containment of their art and creativity chimed with the theories expounded by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the year after Marilyn Monroe's tragic death, Friedan addressed women's discontent with a society that limited their opportunities: her treatise challenged women to stop conforming to the conventional picture of femininity, and to enjoy being New Women with identities and lives of their own. Friedan is often associated with initiating the 'second wave' of feminism, raising critical interest in issues such as workplace equality, birth control and abortion, women's education – and the power of female creativity. The final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, 'A New Life Plan for Women', proposed that women can achieve 'the freedom to lead and plan their own life'.

The diva reclaimed

As if with Friedan's mantra in mind, a new generation of empowered divas appeared in the 1960s, building on the foundations laid by their forebears, occupying traditionally male spaces and changing the dynamic between the female performer and subsequent generations of worshippers. In the world of opera the original 19th-century definition of the diva continues to evolve as modern opera voices continuously redefine and reinterpret iconic roles in opera houses worldwide. The rarity and brilliance of the performer's voice gives her a timeless, universal appeal, attracting a dedicated fan base as audiences travel across continents to see her perform. Exceptional voices have enabled divas of opera to retain their otherworldly power as they continue to shape and create new roles with creativity, emotion, and passion. Among these seminal performances have been Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) as Lucia (1961), Leontyne Price as Aida (1966) and Jessye Norman (1945 – 2019) as Ariadne (1985), to name but a few.

Costume worn by Joan Sutherland as Lucia in Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera, 1959, London, England. Museum no. S.1089:1 to 10-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Outside the world of opera, one of the most prolific and iconic Middle Eastern vocalists of all time is Fairuz (Nouhad Wadie' Haddad), known as 'The Soul of Lebanon'. Her musical career, which began in 1950, spans six decades. Widely recognised as the greatest living Arab diva, Fairuz has performed across the world, from the Damascus Opera House to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, demonstrating that the global term 'diva' can cross cultures, genres and continents, and that an exceptional voice can enable the diva to command an international fanbase.

The diva has also negotiated her place in rock, pop and country. Dolly Parton, who rose to fame as a singer and songwriter, is an astute businesswoman, while Barbra Streisand became the ultimate interdisciplinary artist, pushing boundaries on stage, in her recordings and in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Both artists overcame obstacles to redefine perceptions of the diva, as popular music provided women with a new platform and new audiences. Aretha Franklin and Joan Baez gave the diva voice for change, while in the 1970s Cher, Tina Turner and others broke free from their partnerships to forge new identities and careers, working with visionary fashion designers such as Bob Mackie to construct iconic stage personas.

The transformation of the diva continued into the 1980s with highly creative artists such as Grace Jones and Madonna emerging to express their sexuality and constantly reinvent their public personas. Often drawing from performers of the past, rising star Madonna was hailed as the diva of music and dance. The liberation and transformation of the diva continued apace with male performers Elton John, Freddie Mercury and Prince. They demonstrated how the concept of the diva is fluid and could be harnessed and channelled on and off stage to create experimental new spaces in which male stars could express femininity and be as showstopping as their female counterparts.

'Bicycle John', rock and pop costume worn by Sir Elton John, designed by Bill Whitten, about 1974, UK. Museum no. S.231 to S.233&A-1977. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I kept pushing the live show, trying to make it more over-the-top and outrageous – I started employing professional costume designers and egging them to do whatever they wanted, no matter how insane; more feathers, more sequins, brighter colours, bigger platforms.

Elton John, 2019

Meanwhile, Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux established themselves as the archetypal pop-punk and goth divas respectively. As if to soundtrack it all, 'soul diva' Aretha Franklin recorded 'Sisters are Doing It for Themselves' with Annie Lennox, providing a cross-generational soundtrack for girl power.

In the 1990s and beyond, the diva has broken into newer musical genres, such as hip-hop and rap with Missy Elliott and Ms Lauryn Hill. These disruptive and empowered divas are trailblazers who use their voice, lyrics, image and identity to challenge the status quo – socially, culturally and politically. Singer, songwriter and dancer P!nk began performing aged 14 in 1995, adopting her stage-name with ambition and flair. The artist continues to push boundaries on and off stage, stretching the limits through acrobatic stage performances and shattering expectations with her bold style and rebellious spirit.

Poster for Vanity Fair magazine, April 1991, featuring Madonna with the cover line 'Who can justify her love?', the video for which was widely banned for its sexually explicit content. Museum no. E.1082-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

By the new millennium the term diva has become widely used to describe all-encompassing powerful singers 'with attitude' from a variety of genres. The media often choose to dwell on the diva's behaviour and to portray their careers and creativity in a negative light, reinforcing diva clichés. Journalists describe global megastars such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna as 'out of control', 'scary' or 'outrageous' rather than focusing on their artistry and exceptional talent. As a result, the modern diva must constantly challenge public perceptions and find new ways to own the term.

As well as re-imagining traditional media like film, video and stage, liberated divas of the 21st century also draw on new technologies and media, from Instagram and TikTok to immersive audio and mixed reality, bringing them closer to their fans. After Priyanka Chopra was crowned Miss World in the 2000s her career saw a meteoric rise across disciplines. She become a leading lady in Bollywood and in Hollywood, a style icon, singer, tech entrepreneur, producer and philanthropist.

I am an artist and I have the ability and the free will to choose the way the world will envision me. Don't ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can't be exactly who you are.

Lady Gaga

The ultimate multifaceted artist, Lady Gaga thrives in a constantly evolving creative universe, channelling her vision into scenography in both the virtual and the physical realms. Gaga seamlessly shifts between different worlds, from award-winning Hollywood blockbusters to metamorphic stage productions.

Lizzo wearing faux-ermine dress with 'Don't Be a Drag Just Be a Queen' sash by Viktor&Rolf, New York City, 2021. Photograph: Gotham/GC Images/Getty Images

Staying true to yourself is the mantra of multitalented diva Lizzo, who champions body positivity and is a vocal proponent of self-love, encouraging fans to celebrate themselves as they are. This spirit is also exemplified by global phenomenon Rihanna. Today's divas are reclaiming their inner goddesses, engaging audiences across many arenas, from the Super Bowl to the catwalk, from politics to the boardroom, from motherhood to the high street.

In the 2019 documentary film Homecoming, Beyoncé draws inspiration from a range of Black intellectuals and leaders, including Audre Lorde, continuing to use her global platform as an artist to elevate the female voice and champion Black empowerment. From her 2013 song 'Flawless', which samples Chimamanda Nogizi Adichie's We Should All be Feminists to 'Formation', an anthem for Black power and resilience, Beyoncé shows the world how a diva is a leader and a game-changer – assertive and courageous.

Divas throughout history are a creation and a fantasy, by turns intriguing, complex, exuberant, delicate and political, but always individual, self-made, enduring and creative. As we redefine the diva today and reassess the performer's legacy, we must shift the negative to the positive: the unpredictable becomes creative, the aggressive becomes powerful, the self-obsessed is worshipped, the materialist is an entrepreneur, the narcissist is self-aware, the control-freak is a perfectionist, the rebel is a game-changer and the exhibitionist is an artist.

Today the diva continues to be seen from myriad perspectives. The term is constantly being redefined and reclaimed by the performers themselves, their fans and wider society. Female stars in our own time engage overtly with the idea of the diva in songs, concept albums and creative style. Annie Lennox owned the term in her debut studio album, Diva, in 1992; in 2009 Beyoncé declared in an eponymous R&B song that the diva is a female version of a hustler; and in 2018 contenders in the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race competed to impersonate divas from Diana Ross to Cher. The diva concept can be playful and entertaining as well as a symbol of empowerment and strength for women and for a variety of marginalised and disenfranchised groups: the duality of many divas – their struggles and expressive femininity alongside their powerful sense of self – is often admired by LGBTQ+ communities.

Powerful aspects of the diva that continue to shape our conceptions today have evolved from the challenges and triumphs of their predecessors. Together they create a constellation of idols and worshippers in this majestic and powerful Divadom.

This article is an edited extract from Kate Bailey's introductory essay: Redefining the Diva in exhibition catalog DIVA.