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Diana Ross: Supreme Icon

Diana Ross, legendary Motown lead singer-turned-superstar, conquered the ’60s music charts and later the silver screen with her amazing voice, acting talent, beauty and style. As she celebrates her longevity in entertainment and her 75th birthday, the phenomenal Ms. Ross reflects on fame, family and finding true self-fulfillment.

By Miles Marshall Lewis
Photo: Randee St. Nicholas

EBONY Magazine Spring 2019

Midway through this year’s Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the legendary Diana Ross performed a musical tribute to herself in honor of her upcoming 75th birthday. Introduced by adorable 9-year-old grandson Raif-Henok Emmanuel Kendrick, she emerged in a flowing red satin ballgown and commanded the stage like she’s commanded so many others since the late ’60s heyday of The Supremes.

Kicking off with “The Best Years of My Life,” she eventually descended the stage to walk through the audience, traded a verse of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” with Jaden Smith, and generally held everybody spellbound. Earlier, J.Lo presented a medley of Motown songs in tribute to the label that launched the Supremes. Ross, however, honored herself in song.

Photo: Randee St. Nicholas

Who else could fill the shoes of the world’s most iconic diva?

“Happy birthday to me!” she declared in the airy voice so familiar to so many millions. Longtime friends Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson smiled widely, on their feet with applause and approval like the rest of the Grammy crowd.

March 26 is the actual birthday of Diana Ross, and approximately 2,000 movie theaters across the world celebrated by airing Diana Ross: Her Life, Love and Legacy, a remaster of the renowned Central Park concert film documenting her July 1983 shows on the Great Lawn. The screening—including unseen footage and special messages from the extended Ross family—capped off celebrations that included Diamond Diana, a Las Vegas residency in February. (She will return to Vegas and appear at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in June.) When fans metaphorically give Ms. Ross her flowers for over 56 years in music, she gives them right back by continuing to inspire and entertain.

Would Michelle Obama sell out stadiums if Diana Ross hadn’t been there first? Would Beyoncé? Oprah Winfrey once said Diana Ross “was magical to me, because I had never seen Black women on television, or anywhere for that matter, who conveyed such glamour and such grace.” Ever since 1964’s “Where Did Our Love Go,” scores more have felt the same.

The voice behind such familiar hits as “Love Hangover,” “Upside Down,” “Muscles,” “I’m Coming Out,” “Endless Love” and dozens others will tell anyone that her greatest accomplishment is her children: Rhonda Ross, Tracee Ellis Ross, Chudney Ross, Ross Naess and Evan Ross. Consider that her achievements include an Oscar nomination for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues; celebrated roles in The Wiz and Mahogany; and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama … well, it’s obvious that family must mean a lot to her. In an exclusive EBONY interview, we celebrate Ross as she shares memories of her Central Park concert, her renowned status as a style icon and the joys of motherhood. The superstar’s children also speak candidly on the lifelong inspiration of their world-famous mom.

EBONY: For a generation that wasn’t yet born for your 1983 Central Park show, can you explain why it was so groundbreaking?

Diana Ross: It’s hard to explain when magic happens. I have always done my best to follow my guidance, learning to let go and allow God to direct my life, having faith that it will all work perfectly. And it did.

EBONY: Fans must continue to approach you all these years later about their amazing time at the Central Park concert.

Ross: Yes, it was definitely a moment in their lives and mine. Mostly, the people [who] were there in Central Park have grown up with me. They now have their own children and families and have shared those memories with them. There is a moment where I almost fell off the stage! It was amazing, and I kept singing. As I think on that now, it’s unbelievable.

EBONY: What do you hear from them most often?

Ross: I mostly hear from the audience that they all had their own special personal experience of the day. Joy, joy, joy—and it didn’t matter whether it was raining or if we had been in the hot summer heat. Everyone had an incredible time.

EBONY: And what is your greatest memory of both shows?

Ross: My greatest memory has to do with the audience. It was breathtaking to see all those incredible people at the performances—on both days. There was every age, every color and every gender. All of those hearts beating with my heart! It seemed as if the whole world was in the park on those days.

EBONY: The Supremes were practically the first group to understand the importance of glamour in the pop sphere. Solo, you’ve had relationships with Tom Ford, Bob Mackie and others. Please talk about the incorporation of aspirational high fashion in your image and brand over the years.

Ross: I feel I am a designer at heart, and I have always liked creating. My mother was a seamstress, and I learned to sew and re-create the clothes that I [would wear]. There were always hand-me-downs that I would just remake to fit me. I had a lot of odd jobs while in [Cass Technical] high school, and I worked at Hudson’s department store designing window displays.

EBONY: With iconic roles in Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany and The Wiz, is there anything that would inspire you to take up a Hollywood role again?

Ross: [A] good positive story.

EBONY: Your career has been an influence to generations of singers. Any advice you may have shared with other aspiring artists about success?

Ross: Fame is not a career. Making good music, making inspiring films, creating memorable art and enjoying your life in the process makes for a good life.

EBONY: Michelle Obama has citied you as a major influence, and in 2016, you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What did that honor mean to you?

Ross: I appreciate this honor so very much, and I am grateful that I am able to make a stand for freedom.

EBONY: What do you love most about being a mother? What do you love most about being a grandmother?

Ross: I love my children and grandchildren more than anything. They are a blessing in my life, and I am truly, truly thankful to just look at them and be in their presence.

EBONY: Do you give your children career advice, and if so, what do you tell them?

Ross: If they ask for my advice, that’s when I give it. Otherwise, I allow them to follow their hearts.

EBONY: What do you have most in common with each of your children?

Ross: I feel I have raised good and compassionate children with integrity about their lives and how they live [them].

EBONY: Is there a single greatest lesson you taught your children that makes you feel like “mission accomplished” when you look back on being a mother?

Ross: As a parent, I do my best to be a good example. Are they happy? Are they taking care of themselves and their [families]? Are they compassionate and respectful of others? Are they following their passion?

“I feel I have raised good and compassionate children with integrity about their lives …”

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