Even at 77, Diahann Carroll is still a diva, darling.
And not the kind of diva we love to hate. She’s simply the personification of fabulousness, and it drips in almost everything she says.
“My biggest project now is aging and handling that how it should be handled,” she deadpans. “It’s a lot to do. I want everyone to remember they heard it here. It’s coming your way too. Oh yes, darling. We have no control over it. You do it as best you can with as much dignity …”
Earlier this month, the third season of PBS’s Pioneers of Television premiered. Carroll was featured in the Primetime Soaps segment, which focused on the guilty-pleasure addictions that 1980s nighttime soaps like Dallas, Dynasty and Knots Landing gave us.
EBONY.com talks to Carroll about her iconic status, racism and why she will never stop learning.
EBONY: It’s fitting that you’re being toasted as a pioneer of television by PBS. Julia was something that Black folks hadn’t seen on TV before.
Diahann Carroll: I did feel that it was something that I had not seen in my childhood, and that was the star of a show being not only a woman, but a Black woman. I was very happy to be that representative. I felt that I could do it, and I liked to only try to do jobs that I feel I can do. So once that was established and we had the ratings and the approval of the American public, I felt very honored to have been able to present that the way we did at that time.
EBONY: Did you understand going in what you were about to do?
DC: No. I must be very honest with you. I was never, in my life really, a big television person. I felt it was a charming little show and that I loved the writing. I felt it would be somehow necessary. But I never thought that it would carry with it the kind of weight that it has, in terms of making a contribution into this country moving along with our acute racial problem.
EBONY: Your name comes up in copious amounts of stories, because before mid-season last year, we hadn’t seen a Black woman carry a show since yours. Now we have Kerry Washington in Scandal. Does it shock you that we saw that kind of fall off after your iconic role?
DC: Of course. I’m sure it shocked all of us. I know that it has a lot to do with politics, it has a lot to do with money. What product is going to be most saleable all over the world? Listen, I can’t fault the industry for that. They’re in the business to make money, they’re not in the business to make themselves humanitarians. I wish that, but it’s just not true.
EBONY: What do you think has to happen for us to see a level of consistency with regards to diversity on television?
DC: Make a special effort to understand what your life, professionally, is all about. As you do that, you begin to understand what the industry is all about. Where you fit and where you do not fit. It’s very difficult for an African-American woman, more so than a male. They’ve always tried to keep it a male industry, but we seem to fall back into that whenever we get into trouble with integration.
Integration now is very interesting because there are practically no shows with African-Americans on the networks, but we can find them on cable and so forth. It’s a different world than when I was coming along. I think a lot of the things that we’ve done in the past have definitely pushed us further down the road–employment, more exposure–but it’s a big challenge.
EBONY: We just inaugurated a Black president for the second time, but there still seems to be this struggle for Black folks in Hollywood. Why aren’t the two aligning?
DC: Anyone who feels that we have resolved the racist problems in this country… We’ve made some steps, but we certainly haven’t resolved it. If we’re foolish enough to think that an African-American president will resolve those, then we’re not thinking clearly. He’s a very, very committed man, and I’m very proud of him. But it would be great if more of us could become producers, and I think we’re trying to do that. So we’ll see where it goes over the next five years.
EBONY: What’s something that’s important about your legacy that you would love for people to focus on? We know you as a political activist and a groundbreaking actress, but what do you hope stands out?
DC: That’s hard to say because I was very fortunate and many things came to me. But I do know that if one door is not opening, we must try a different door, and not sit there and complain. Forget it and move on to something else. I also like that I see more young, Black Americans coming together to form their own corporations and make their own products. It’s a difficult place to be, but it was difficult for everyone who is involved in production and creation. It’s harder than being just there when the job is offered to you. Never stop. Never stop learning.