Manners & Misdemeanors
How To Deal With Divas
Divas aren't always singers. But how do you spot them outside the stage? How are they made, and how do they fall from grace?
IMAGE NYPL Digital Collection
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The word diva” originates from the world of opera. It refers to the top-billed soprano who is also called the “Prima Donna” (or first lady, though not in the political sense). The expression “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” probably refers to the entry of a well-endowed diva in the last aria to signify the ending of the opera, a stirring performance characterized by high notes that stretch the vocal chords and enrapture the audience, just before the curtain falls. This tour de force ushers in repeated curtain calls. The number of curtain calls and bows taken at center stage after a coy retreat to the side, coaxed by sustained applause, is counted by critics as the indicator of a performer’s success.

This divine quality then refers to the celestial talent of the designated soprano, say a Maria Callas or a Kathleen Battle. The word itself, however, is somehow attached to the behavioral quirks of the diva and is no longer necessarily restricted to the operatic world.

"Diva" itself finds its root in Latin; its masculine form is Divus (or Deus) for God. This divine quality then refers to the celestial talent of the designated soprano, say a Maria Callas or a Kathleen Battle. The word itself, however, is somehow attached to the behavioral quirks of the diva and is no longer necessarily restricted to the operatic world.

It is the diva’s behavior, principally the arrogance and need to be pampered and given continuous attention beyond just star billing and perks, that defines this appellation. It is a right claimed by one whose performance attracts and delights audiences, sometimes bringing them to peaks of boisterous appreciation. Thus, diva behavior is also easily observed in rock stars, investment bankers (before subprime), and any other overweening personalities who feel that their very presence drives audiences and shareholders insane with pleasure.

Clearly, it is not only in vocal performances that divas thrive. My good friend Manny Pangilinan, a noted star performer himself in the corporate world, believes that “you can tell a good leader by how he manages divas.” He presumes not only that divas are sometimes worthy corporate additions but also that they need to be recruited.

This management maxim of our friend presumes that: a) there are indeed corporate divas, and b) they contribute significantly to the bottom line and must, therefore, be suffered or even richly rewarded and given the occasional stroking, even with their inability to exhibit courteous behavior each waking minute. They don’t have to be nice and say “sir.” It is clear what a diva does for an opera or rock band—she is the lead singer.

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But are divas recognizable in other walks of life? Outside the opera stage, how can you spot the diva who doesn’t sing?

It is the diva’s behavior, principally the arrogance and need to be pampered and given continuous attention beyond just star billing and perks, that defines this appellation.

A diva then consists of two parts which have to come together. These are talent and behavioral excesses. Just having talent without the irrational behavior and overbearing personality makes one merely a valued player, but not a diva. The other possibility of not having any talent at all but exhibiting occasional tantrums when water is served in a paper cup makes one merely obnoxious and easily dropped from the guest list or corporate board.

Here are a few examples where talent and insufferable behavior converge for the desired (but not desirable) diva effect.

It is permissible to lack talent but still display boorish antics to be regarded as a proper diva. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence, which cites, among others, verbal and numerical skills, overlooks the skills of social climbing. The ability to attach oneself to a powerful patron takes care of the talent portion. Then it’s just a case of being merely obnoxious to all the others to qualify for the diva title. Of course, the patron’s fall from grace, or equivalently, the climber’s fall from the patron’s grace puts paid to the first part of the combination.

Divas are unreasonable individuals. They are out to shift the paradigm, crack the glass ceiling, push the boundaries (or the envelope) and break the rules applicable to ordinary mortals. 

The legitimate diva constantly looks out for actual rivals or potential ones. These challengers are defined not necessarily as possible replacements for the diva but simply as receiving equal treatment and importance. The first rule of diva-hood is that the incumbent enjoys unique perks that apply only to her. Divas need to be above the rules and should always be considered for exceptional treatment. Standardizing pay and benefits to elevate others to diva status is considered a cause for a scene, a nasty one for the paymaster. If you give her a Jag, I need to get a helicopter.

Being reasonable is considered ordinary behavior. The diva believes that reasonable people do not change the world since they accept the current situation as they dutifully adapt to the environment, trying not to make waves or being difficult. (It’s all right, I can take economy.) Divas are unreasonable individuals. They are out to shift the paradigm, crack the glass ceiling, push the boundaries (or the envelope) and break the rules applicable to ordinary mortals. They are the purveyors of humiliation, not the victims. They give ulcers, not suffer them.

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How is a diva made?

Clearly, the diva has talents which make her a prodigy as a child. She wins competitions at an early age and racks up trophies which are prominently displayed in a shrine at home. Parents and relatives pamper the little princess and tell her she’s special and deserves only the best. From childhood, the future diva is given preferential treatment over her siblings and enjoys prerogatives not extended to the others. She can break plates and not be reprimanded. She can be late and even be disrespectful of elders without being reprimanded. Such deviant behavior is seen not as dysfunctional but as cute—look at the way she knits her eyebrows and drools when she’s upset.

The first rule of diva-hood is that the incumbent enjoys unique perks that apply only to her. Divas need to be above the rules and should always be considered for exceptional treatment.

This special treatment becomes expected through school and beyond. The rise of the diva is no different from the making of a bully. A coterie of classmates and later colleagues form a protective circle around the diva, announcing to the unwary how this royalty should be treated. And woe to the uninitiated who actually requires the diva to fall in line for anything or fill up a form! She just has to sit in one place as others do her work for her.

If the rise of the diva can be traced with little difficulty, so is her fall. We use the feminine pronoun here only for convenience as the diva can also be male, although even here he is not referred to as “divo” unless he happens to be in a singing quartet.

The rise of the diva is no different from the making of a bully.

How does a diva fall from grace?

The descent of a diva is often greeted with wild rejoicing, no different from the unseating of a long-reigning dictator or somebody finally standing up to a school bully. The decline of a previously feared diva can be swift. She loses her pulling power. Her latest movie or record is a box-office flop. Her protector falls from grace or is wiped out by a financial meltdown and must sell his private jet and yacht. Or, after a palace coup, she simply loses interest in continuing to be a diva (it can be pretty tiring) and just retires to anonymity. There may even be a new diva to take her place, younger, prettier and cheaper… for the time being.

Divas know when their reign is over.

They are relegated to a smaller dressing room or office. They are excluded from important meetings, especially those dealing with career plans and new organization charts. They don’t get any lavish gifts on their birthday—just a leatherette planner. Few remember to greet them or send roses, and there are definitely no full-page ads in the papers. There are no special tributes for their 20th year in show business with video greetings from network bosses and contemporaries who have gone on to a second career as proprietresses of small seafood stalls.

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If a diva does not possess extraordinary talent or drawing power, she has no business standing on a pedestal inhaling incense from the slaves.

They do not have to choose from among three simultaneous events which one to attend. New talents are being showcased in new shows. People stop whispering when they pass by and they all have a knowing smile and do not seem to exhibit fear and trembling when the diva looks their way.

Divas are said to mellow eventually. This is not the result of age, although the mellowing seems to coincide with the acquisition of a senior citizen card. It is a matter of losing the ability to intimidate because there is nothing to fear from a former bully when there is a new one roaming the hallways.

Why are divas even tolerated if they are so boorish and unreasonable?

If divas did not exist, we would have to invent them. The superstar is a necessary evil. She fills up the house when she performs. In the corporate world, she brings in the big bucks and the most important customers. She is the best doctor in the hospital, the best lawyer with the most cases won in a law firm, the biggest draw in an art exhibit.

If a diva does not possess extraordinary talent or drawing power, she has no business standing on a pedestal inhaling incense from the slaves.

Divas don’t always sing but they should always bring the house down, metaphorically speaking.

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A.R. Samson
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