Celebrating the black divas from Diana Ross and the Supremes to Missy Elliot, Mary J. Blige and Lil' Kim

Wednesday, June 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Fur and Fendi, Gucci jeans - it doesn't take much these days to be a diva.

Once reserved for the most illustrious of female singers, the term "diva" has devolved into a tag that describes just about any pop singer who can afford to flaunt some flashy (even trashy) style.

Missy, Mariah and Mary J., Lauryn, Foxy and Lil' Kim: These are the divas of the moment.

But those desiring true diva-dom stop at D. As in Diana. Diana Ross.

"Miss Ross is the closest thing we have to black royalty," says Dallas fashion designer Anthony Mark Hankins. "She is a diva. There is no other."

Perhaps the term diva should be restricted, suggests Dr. Mollie Johnson-Williams, a stylish Dallasite who has viewed Ms. Ross as a role model for many years.

"When you look at the word 'diva,' it means a distinguished female singer, but I take it a step further," she says. "It is also a woman of extraordinary talent, beauty, class and style. That high-fashion style, and a style that uniquely sets . . . [Diana] apart, encompasses a diva."

A diva is not merely someone who sings in a sequined dress. A diva has attitude.

"You know you're a diva when you do the Super Bowl and you fly into the stadium in a helicopter and you're hanging by one arm," Mr. Hankins says, referring to Ms. Ross' halftime appearance at the 1996 Super Bowl. "Did you see when she came down? I screamed. Her hair was flowing. You know you're a diva when you're not afraid of heights."

He resolved to become a designer after seeing Ms. Ross play one in the 1975 film Mahogany.

"When they laughed at her gowns in Mahogany, I cried," he says. "Diana gives you drama. And she sets trends. When she was in Lady Sings the Blues, wearing those mermaid dresses, then everybody was wearing those mermaid dresses. When she was in The Wiz, everybody cut their hair."

Her style-setting days date from the beginning of her career with the Supremes.

"She was the first sister girl to go over to France and bring back the designers, although it was Berry Gordy [the Motown Records founder] who really got her on the right track," Mr. Hankins says. "And Diana is strictly couture - nothing off the rack."

Her high style predates, and most certainly inspires, the current crop of Versace-lovin' divas. Lauryn Hill in embroidered Gucci jeans . . . Lil' Kim and Mary J. Blige gilded to the hilt in Mac cosmetic ads . . . Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott swaddled in fur . . . TLC on the cover of Mademoiselle . . . Mariah Carey spilling out of a beaded Ungaro halter bra . . . or Foxy Brown in Vogue, wearing a hot pink fur jacket and a skimpy neon-turquoise bikini encrusted with jewels: Could any of these women beat Ms. Ross?

"They go to Versace and want to wear it from the top of their head to the soles of their feet," Mr. Hankins says. "Ms. Ross is quali-tay. She'll come out with vintage classic pieces, her hair refined, and her makeup will be the best. She's flawless."

The modern-day diva has come of age in a different era, one in which sexuality is flaunted and subtlety disdained. Their flamboyance accompanies a revival of '80s-style consumption, says Emil Wilbekin, editor of Vibe magazine.

"In the '90s, we got very minimal, but I think we're starting to see a resurgence of glamour and beauty, and with all that comes the new diva," he says. "The Internet and e-commerce is like Wall Street was in the '80s. There's a lot more wealth at a younger age. People are hitting their stride in their early '20s, when they're fresh out of college or they didn't even go. Or they have a great record deal and they're millionaires."

What do they do with all that money? Show it off.

"They're 'flossing': showing off your wealth, your prosperity, not being humble about it," he says. "You wear platinum and diamonds and leather and Versace and Gucci and you have a driver and a Land Rover. You roll into parties and everyone's dressed to the nines."

Most of the new divas come from the world of hip-hop, whose street style went high-dollar as the performers became flush.

"Now we're starting to see Versace, sexy dresses, more glitter, more fur and snakeskin, brighter color makeup and Farrah Fawcett hair," Mr. Wilbekin says.

Ah, but the line between diva and "ghetto fabulous" is not so very fine, Mr. Hankins says.

"Leather does not make you a diva," he says. "You can wear all the crosses you want. With ghetto fabulous, you're still holding on to - can I say it? - a Colt 45. You haven't graduated to Dom Perignon. You're still rough around the edges. You haven't gone to charm school. Ghetto fabulous is when you haven't met the Queen of England. You haven't been asked to sing for the President. You haven't been to dinner at the White House. You haven't been asked to sit front row at an Yves Saint Laurent fashion show. Armani has not asked you to wear his dress."

Of course, Ms. Ross belongs in diva territory.

"She is the epitome of glamour and class," says Dr. Johnson-Williams, a former vice president of student affairs at Paul Quinn College who's now a motivational speaker.

"She's an inspiration, and I've heard so many people say that - Oprah Winfrey and Star Jones and so many others of us who feel the same way. She inspired us all with the beautiful gowns and the voice."

And the import extends far beyond nice clothes.

"Her appeal crosses all racial, cultural, socioeconomic backgrounds and levels," she says. "And coming from a very poverty-stricken background, from the Brewster Projects in Detroit, her story is motivational, not only to those individuals who might want to enter the entertainment world, but to talented young people everywhere. It says that if you are determined and focused and motivated, you can break through."