My mom was the first person to tell me about Diahann Carroll. Carroll was on a tv show I was watching as a young girl in the 80s and I was mesmerized by her brown-skinned beauty. At that time it wasn’t very common to see women who looked like me on television…let alone looking so glamorous.
“Oh look!”, my mother exclaimed as she walked into the room and pointed to the tv. “Diahann Carroll! I love Diahann Carroll. You know she had the best show on tv when I was growing up. Julia.”
At the time my mother (who is white) knew I had the performer’s gene and casually said, “If you ever get the chance to watch Julia don’t miss it. She was so good. People said it would never work at the time but she proved them wrong. It was just a really good show. You need to know about that show.”
I eventually watched the show later in life, but at the time I couldn’t have cared less about what my mother was saying. That’s because the Diahann Carroll I was watching wasn’t the no-nonsense, bold, middle class nurse struggling to raise a family. The Diahann Carroll I was watching was a raging D-I-V-A with a killer wardrobe and black, icy eyes that looked at men like she wanted to consume them and be consumed by them all at once. This Diahann Carroll was on my favorite show…Dynasty. I could not look away.
Carroll’s “Dominique Deveraux” was the first time I’d ever seen a black woman on television be…well, a super bitch. The Hollywood Reporter ran an old interview with Carroll where she discussed her desire to play a “bitch”.
While recuperating after starring on Broadway in Agnes of God, Carroll had found herself digging Dynasty — “Isn’t this the biggest hoot?” she said — and lobbied producer Aaron Spelling for a role on his series.
“They’ve done everything [on the show]. They’ve done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they’re slowly inching their way toward interracial,” she recalled in a 1984 piece for People magazine. “I want to be wealthy and ruthless … I want to be the first black bitch on television.”
I fell in love with the professional career-woman that was Claire Huxtable. I relished the silliness of watching the fish-out-of-water story of The Jeffersons. I’d seen black lives represented on tv, but not like this. To me, watching Dominique Deveraux sashay in and out of her mansion in her designer gowns and dripping with diamonds, coldly staring down Krystle Carrington or matching Alexis Carrington’s snobby wit…to me that was empowerment.
I loved that this gorgeous black woman could be just another filthy rich bitch in an era when filthy rich bitches were all the rage. I loved that her race was hardly an issue…at least to this viewer. She was simply another beautiful woman. I was so deluged with how different I was from the people around me every day that to see a black woman casually occupying the same social strata as the white glamor queens of Hollywood was fascinating to me.
Carroll played the hell out of that role. She was unapologetic but even more than that she simply and confidently occupied the space she was in with no apologies and no politics. She taught me how me to own any room I walk into, that I belong wherever I am if I say I do. And that is fabulous, dahling!
I know Carroll’s contributions go far, far beyond a silly nighttime soap opera but that is what is so impressive about a talent like Diahann Carroll. She could bust the glass ceiling and the “black” ceiling and still bring all that gravitas to a role like Dominique Deveraux. She made me feel like I could be bitchy and beautiful one day too.
I’ve got one of those two things down so far.
Here’s to you, Ms.Carroll. Thank you for your wonderful spirit, dripping in diamonds. Rest in peace.