It wasn't always like this. It all originated with the outstanding female opera singers whose vocal gifts were seemingly - you guessed it - divine. Voices that were gifts from God, which they may well have been, but there was probably a hell of a lot of hard work and discipline involved as well. The word first popped up in the English language some time in the 1880s, with regards to whom is unclear. A likely candidate is Adelina Patti, the Italian soprano born in 1843 who dominated the coloratura repertoire at Covent Garden for 23 years. She was incredibly beautiful and flirtatious and refused to go onstage until her (huge) fee was paid. She springs to mind first, simply because she was the eldest of a formidable group of women all considered bonafide divas of the "Golden Age", including Nellie Melba (born 1861) and Luisa Tetrazzini (born 1871). Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad and Rosa Ponselle were to come a bit later and similarly dazzle the opera world.
For these women, the word "diva" could only be complimentary, so brilliant and other-wordly were their talents. Whether or not they rubbed people up the wrong way is immaterial. Certainly Melba got on journalist Ezra Norton's goat, who started the (unfounded) rumours of her alcoholism in an open letter in the notorious Sunday scandal newspaper Truth. Apparently she didn't like sharing her curtain calls with the other singers - fair enough, Nellie. You are a legend. Mary Garden (born 1874) had feuds with musical colleagues but for me, in one wonderful, saucy anecdote, all is forgiven: an older man once asked her what was holding up her revealing, strapless gown, and she replied, "Two things, sir, your age, and my discretion." The best kind of diva, you see, has a quick and wicked sense of humour.
When we fast forward half a century and to the divas of the 20th century, Maria Callas certainly dominates the genre, for several reasons. First and foremost, her extraordinary vocal and dramatic ability; but her fiery temperament and sizzling sex life captured the public's imagination and made for fabulous gossip column fodder. She was dubbed "La Divina", because for many, she was the diva against whom all other divas would be measured. Although let's not forget "La Superba" (Renata Tebaldi), a terribly clever diva, who, according to Martin Mayer, "would maintain an image of not being a prima donna at all against a reality of absolutely always getting her own way." Then there's "La Stupenda", the incredible Joan Sutherland (I'm almost salivating when I think of her voice). If anyone was entitled to behave like an absolute diva, it was her - but she was known to be extremely down-to-earth, self-deprecating, incredibly warm and generous with her fans.
So when did "diva" become a bad word? Who can we point the finger at? Shall we talk Kathleen Battle for a minute? I mean, things must be pretty bad when fellow cast members and crew have T-shirts made up reading "I survived the Battle" following a production with her. The Met's general manager, Joseph Volpe, was at the end of his tether when he fired her in 1994 for her "unprofessional actions" that were "profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all cast members". Those she left behind on the production of La Fille du Regiment cheered when they heard the news.
Mention also must be made of Angela Gheorghiu, notorious for not showing up to rehearsals and for cancelling performances. Titilatingly, she also recommends having sex before performances to "relax the voice." This is the kind of diva we can't seem to get enough of - she's so naughty! Gheorghiu is described as "the last of the divas". What could that mean? Well, for one, no soprano can afford to be fired these days. They're all on their best behaviour, knowing how easily they could be replaced. Nor can they afford to damage their reputation. The minute word gets out that you're not easy to work with, the offers can dry up. Sure, Gheorghiu is still getting calls (because she's fabulous) but managers who hire her know there's the risk of her cancelling at last minute. In fact, Renee Fleming once joked that she could have a whole career just singing others' cancelled performances.
So if the headlines are true and Gheorghiu really is the last of the divas, it certainly doesn't mean that the word has gone into retirement - it crossed over into the popular music and cinema world a long time ago and hasn't budged. In the red corner, the best kind of a diva: Beyonce. She ticks all the boxes - a hands-on, disciplined perfectionist with extraordinary talent, mesmerising stage presence, the ability to charm interviewers with her impeccable Southern manners and carry herself elegantly at all times. She also reduces fans to quivering messes (Beyonce shouts at a crowd of 50,000 "I love you, Auckland!" and somehow you feel she's talking to you, specifically). Yes she has been accused of diva behaviour (well, her management has), but she has never needed to use the favoured diva expression, "Do you know who I am?" because actually, we all know who you are. A goddess. You too, Cher.
In the blue corner, you have performers like Madonna and Mariah Carey onto whom the word "diva" has been slapped in the worst sense. They are both musical icons, legends of my childhood, but there's something about their diva-ness that gets on everyone's nerves. Jennifer Lopez, dare I say it, grates most of all, because here is an imperious, demanding woman (if you believe the media) who doesn't have the vocal chops to excuse it. Obviously there's no competition when it comes to the diva we prefer but we need the outrageous ones to keep everything in balance. Thank goodness for supermodels, right?
HOW TO SPOT A REAL DIVA
* Her nails. (See: Barbra Streisand nailgate).
* Self confidence is not an issue. "I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears." - Leontyne Price.
* Knows how to shake things up. "If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle." - Hillary Clinton.
* Calls it like she sees it in a way that makes people love her more. "All you have to do is look crap on film and everyone thinks you're a brilliant actress. Actually, all you've done is look crap on film." - Helen Mirren.
* Accessorises. "Big girls need big diamonds." - Elizabeth Taylor
*Has a sense of humour. "Every singer eventually gets around to a Christmas disc." - Renee Fleming.
* Works hard. "There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills.
* Is a feminist. "The word feminism needs to be taken back. It needs to be reclaimed in a way that is inclusive of men." - Annie Lennox.
* Never has to ask, "do you know who I am?"