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April 18, 2015

The Last American Slaves

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How Not to Compliment a Black Girl

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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.
Tagged as: Berry Gordy, BerryGordy, Diana Ross The Supremes, Diana Rosss Birthday, DianaRosssBirthday, DianaRossTheSupremes, Michael Gonzales, MichaelGonzales
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