From opera to the queen of pop, music hall to Hollywood's hall of fame – everyone has their favourite diva. Spanning the 19th century to now, we've highlighted some of the most iconic divas and created a playlist. Did your diva make the list?
How to add your song to our DIVA playlist
- Use this link to open the Spotify app on your device (collaboration not available on web player)
- Click on the Join playlist button
- On the playlist page, click on + Add to this playlist
- Search for the song you would like to add to the playlist
- When you have found your song, click on the circle with the plus sign to the right of the song to add to the DIVA playlist
Thanks for adding your diva song!
Early prima donnas
Adelina Patti was one of the first 19th century opera singers to channel her success and fame into financial independence and control over her career, at a time when women were still expected to fulfil the role of wife and mother. Patti used her earnings to build her own theatre at the castle she owned and lived in, Craig-y-nos in Wales.
Victorian drama queens
The Victorian era saw the diva expand from the opera stage to the theatre. Ellen Terry was a media sensation in her heyday. Her unconventional life (by Victorian standards) caused media attention, while on stage she was celebrated for being Britain's pre-eminent interpreter of Shakespearean roles. Few recordings of her work remain, although we can listen to her as Juliet in the potion scene (act 4, scene 3) in a 1911 production of Romeo and Juliet, one of her most celebrated roles.
Performers on the dramatic stage began to enjoy freedom and careers unavailable to the majority of women. Marie Lloyd was the popular working-class performer whose banter and risqué repertoire made her a favourite with her predominantly working-class audiences. Hers was an inclusive entertainment for an 'everyman' audience, driven by the belief that levity could lighten the load of a hard life.
Dancers and showgirls
Loie Fuller's Serpentine dance was seminal in the development of modern dance. Her freedom of expression and natural movements, which did not rely on classical technique, mirrored burgeoning shifts in societal attitudes towards women. Fuller's loose costume and pioneering stage lighting techniques inspired early film makers and artists of the Art Nouveau movement.
Italian silent movie stars such as Lyda Borelli saw the diva jump from stage to screen. Behind the camera Lois Weber was a force to be reckoned with – now hailed as a pioneering filmmaker. Weber transitioned from acting to directing, and was the first woman to establish her own independent film studio. Her uncompromising films often dealt with hard-hitting 'women's issues' and her 1916 work Where Are My Children, co-directed with Phillips Smalley, shone a light on the birth control and abortion debates of the day.
During Hollywood's Golden Age, female stars continued the upward climb towards equality. We begin to see a shift here, with the term 'diva' taking on the derogatory associations it carried for decades afterwards – pushy, demanding, ostentatious and delusional. Bette Davis was one of Hollywood's most outspoken stars, and her very public lawsuit against Warner Brothers, in an effort to wrestle artistic fulfilment from an inflexible contract, saw her labelled as difficult for the remainder of her career. Davis discussed the case candidly on a 1970s talk show.
Despite changing meanings, the word diva is still intrinsically linked to opera stars. In contrast to our 19th century opera divas whose success enable personal freedom, contemporary opera stars have used their voices to speak truth to power, fighting against collective inequality. Marian Anderson was the first African-American opera performer to sing with New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera, and her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 became a critical moment in race relations in the US.
Run the world
Contemporary pop divas such has Beyoncé have become the ultimate cultural power players – global platforms, armies of loyal fans and the power and freedom that the magical combination of talent, success and wealth allow. Defining popular culture, this is the modern diva.
I want to break free
The pop music landscape is fertile ground on which to explore identity and expression – in terms of vocals, lyrics, looks and performance, stars such as Grace Jones and Lil Nas X have pushed against the limitations of traditional representation, expanding definitions of what the diva can embody. Likewise, Lizzo has been an outspoken champion of self-worth and body acceptance, advocating for a push against normalised beauty standards.
Nina Simone was a vocal and committed advocate for Civil Rights, her music going beyond entertainment and being a powerful tool of empowerment and protest. Encouraging the Black youth of America to interrogate their cultures and ancestry, Simone was committed to stimulating pride in themselves, their identities and their Blackness.
Being a solo star can be a lonely space to inhabit. Although surrounded by a team, and an audience, and fans, they are ultimately alone on the stage. In her later career, Dusty Springfield reflected on the difficulties of operating within the music business as a solo female performer.
Four decades into her career the 'Queen of Pop', Madonna, remains one of the most significant cultural figures of our times. Inventive, chameleonic, zeitgeist-defining and provocative, her creativity and attitude have earned her legions of fans, as well as her fair share of detractors. At Billboard's Women in Music 2016, Madonna gave an impassioned speech touching on the difficulties of navigating fame, the press and the music industry as a woman.
A star is born
Mariah Carey is a star who perhaps best embodies the tropes of the larger-than-life diva persona of the modern era. Talented, excessive, particular, flamboyant, camp, and possessed of a tongue-in-cheek relationship with her public perception and the media.