At first entertainment legend Diahann Carroll doesn’t understand when I say that a showdown scene in her 2008 memoir between her and her late mother made me think she could have been any number of queer people I know.
“What do you mean by that?” she asks, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Let’s go to the memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go, where Carroll writes, “Sexuality is such a glorious part of the human experience,” letting loose in middle age on a mother who would have had her believe otherwise. “You tried to teach me it was a sin. Do you have any idea the kind of impact this has had on my life?”
Once the parallels to the far-too-typical queer experience are drawn, Carroll, 73, gets it.
“The situation that is created between the child and the parent is so important,” she says. “The message that comes from parent to child sets up their entire life.”
In this case, a gorgeous-on-the-outside-tumultuous-on-the-inside life led by a proudly vain woman so severely lacking in relationship skills that, “at age 50 I realized I still had no idea how to express my feelings to a man.”
Indeed, to the tune of four marriages and multiple relationships, including boldfacers like the renowned broadcaster Sir David Frost and the singer Vic Damone.
However unintended, such relatable cred made Carroll an ideal headliner for a Mar 21 gala at The Four Seasons in Yorkville, celebrating the completed renovations of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood’s beloved and iconic 519 Community Centre.
Carroll , who shone through a flawless performance, says she was thrilled to star in a night honouring a community centre that arguably serves Canada’s most diverse clientele. “The work that gets done there for a community that can be so marginalized is just tremendous.”
The Academy Award nominee also identifies with marginalization. One of the very first performers to visibly move diversity in entertainment to the mainstream, Carroll’s racial barrier shattering is by now mythic. The first black actress to win a best actress Tony for her performance in No Strings written expressly for her, she followed this by being the first black actress to star in her own TV sitcom, Julia. Carroll spent much of the ’80s as television’s first black bitch, the jet-set Dominique Devereaux, on the soap Dynasty, and won Sunset Boulevard producers over — to the great chagrin of a protesting Andrew Lloyd Webber — who cast her as (all together now) the first black Norma Desmond. She played the crazed silent film star for about a year here in Toronto.
Carroll acknowledges that the façade of fabulousness of her glittering bio dilutes a grimmer reality, namely her enormous behind-the-scenes struggle for equality.
“I could have made bigger issues of it all,” she says. “But I never belaboured it unless I was forced into a situation, because it was a negative. And a negative is not going to take you forward. But the negatives were,” Carroll pauses, “overwhelming to say the least.”
As she details candidly in The Legs Are the Last to Go, regardless of how far she climbed, daily she fought — or sometimes just tolerated — shocking prejudice, even while playing leading roles.
Which makes her subsequent Regan-era request that the creators of Dynasty write her character as though “she were a rich, white man” even more delicious, if you like a little comeuppance with your underdog. Carroll laughingly recalls the catfight and diamond days going barb-for-barb with Joan Collins’ high-camp villainess Alexis as among the most light-hearted of her career. “Hair, wardrobe and makeup were the real stars of that show, you know.”
On the whole such superficiality and artifice not only made for halcyon days for Carroll but were key to flat-out saving the worst of many of them. She declares herself “wiser, but not wizened,” and remains unapologetic for the vanity, flaunting her two appearances on the International Best Dressed List. The first sentence of her memoir says it all: “It was a clear spring evening in New York not long ago, and I looked absolutely divine.”
And why not be narcissistic? When you’ve been spoon-fed bullshit about sex and love, grow up to become relationship-challenged while at the same time leading a life where some consider you less than equal, what other choice do you have but to just show it, work it, strut it?
Some days, life lived on the fringe makes it so that a fabulous exterior is all you have to hang onto.