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April 23, 2014

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An Endless Love for Diana Ross Who Came. Saw. And Conquered

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In the seventies, my mother hated Diana Ross. Whenever the diva from Detroit, who turns sixty-seven today, appeared on television batting feathery false eyelashes and speaking in an affected voice, mom sucked her teeth and muttered, "I can't stand her; she thinks she's cute."

It wasn't until later on that I learned what served as the fuel to ignite the high disdain for a woman she never met: my mom's friendship with a Motown insider who shared shady gossip about working with Diana. At the time, I was too young to understand. In my innocent eyes, having introduced the world to the Jackson 5, as the Motown publicity department led us to believe, was reason enough to love Diana.

More than a decade later, when Diana moved to New York City and began hanging with painter Andy Warhol and his nightclubbing crew, I lovingly recalled seeing pictures of her in the gossip columns. Popping-up in paparazzi shots inside Studio 54 and on the cover of 'Interview,' she always looked glam while posing with the glitterati.

My fandom was untainted by Diana's supposed bad behavior. What did I care if she threw temper tantrums or tried to force the other Motown artists, who had known her since she was a funny-looking teenager from Brewster Projects, to address her as Miss Ross?

As a Harlem kid fascinated by Motor City boogie, bopping my head to Stevie Wonder and wanting to swoon like Smokey, I simply didn't understand the dirt that fueled mom's bête-noir. By default, since I usually shared her cultural taste, from B-movie horror flicks to the paintings of Picasso, my embrace of the musical and visual pizazz of Diana Ross became my first act of childhood rebellion.

Blaring WABC-AM before school, I secretly prayed that the disc jockey Harry Harrison played 'Touch Me in the Morning' or 'Last Time I Saw Him' (both from 1973) before it was time to leave the house. Much like her contemporaries Dionne Warwick and Marilyn McCoo (The 5th Dimension), the "penthouse soul" of Diana Ross was a whisper compared to roaring gospel-based sounds of Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner. But like silk flowing rhythmically across a woman's skin, there was something satisfying and comforting about the lightness of Diana's tone with its feathery texture.


Decades after The Supremes released 'Where Did Our Love Go' and 'Stop! In the Name of Love,' I'm reminded of watching Ed Sullivan's popular eponymous variety show religiously every Sunday night in hopes of getting a glimpse of her.

Her songs became imprints throughout my wonder years. The ghetto-centric swing of 'Love Child,' takes me back to my play sister Sylvia's ritual of writing out the risqué lyrics in her school notebook to pass the time when she was a child stuck in the hospital with rheumatic fever.

Released in 1968, the 'Love Child' was the title track from one of the first Motown releases to touch on social issues and one of their biggest sellers. The irony was, though Diana came from the same hood she was singing about, by then she was very far from that place. Thanks to the guidance of charm teacher Maxine Powell, she had transformed from rags (well, not literally) to pop royalty. After touring the world and meeting real monarchs, Diana got a taste of upward mobility from a view at the top. And there was no way she was going back to the 'hood. Instead, she embodied that "queenly" style and combined it with ruthless ambition to conquer the world.

Without question, she made more than a few enemies, especially with her old musical family including Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight and her own group members Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. But as Temptations singer Otis Williams once observed: "The rest of us was (sic) just singers. We could live with that, but Diana couldn't."
In the cramped rooms of the original Hitsville studios, the reported tensions between her and the rest of the Motown posse often boiled over. It didn't help that many felt Diana received special treatment (private dressing quarters at venues, better hotel rooms on the road and more press coverage in the magazines), because she was linked romantically to Berry Gordy.

Though they were involved (Berry is the biological father of her first daughter Rhonda), it is too simple to state that was the main reason for her success. Fact is, if the world hadn't loved her, Diana would've just been another overexposed pop tart.

But as I grew up, staring at her pristine image on the covers of 'Sepia,' 'Ebony,' 'Black Star' and 'Jet' magazines, always dressed in some wild-styled Michael Travis/Bob Mackie gown, she was, to me, the perfect pop creation. There was always a beaming smile, a twinkle in her eyes and the clothes, though too ornate for mere mortals, always placed her beyond reach.

As many folks who bad-mouthed the "big eyed skeleton," as my friend Nicki once called her, there were just as many who were inspired. In high school, I knew a young woman named Virgie who had a photographic shrine to Diana on her bedroom wall and swore she was, "...going to be a designer, just like Diana Ross in 'Mahogany' (1975)." Years later, many young black fashion designers would admit the movie, and Diana in particular, once (and for some, still) served as their creative muse.

Without a doubt, from kids playing dress-up in the mirror to the homosexual community who adopted her sleek Chic-produced single 'I'm Coming Out' (1980) as their personal anthem, Diana Ross unquestionably represented a freedom that comes with being one thing: fearless.

That's why the skinny diva with the big eyes is still a winner, baby.

Michael Gonzales is a renowned New York City-based entertainment writer.

In celebration of Diana's birthday, we reminisce about her life-and its impact-through photos. View our gallery below.

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