It's easy to get lost in the swirl around Diana.
There's the symbol, the history, the hair rising up from her scalp in a proud, sooty fountain. Diana Ross long ago moved from mere success to the status of a classic--a statue of divadom ossified by time and memory.
Last month, as if to remind us of the trappings of fame and ego, there was an ugly incident at Heathrow Airport in which Ross retaliated against a security guard after a routine frisking. The event left her repeatedly defending her temper when she would much rather talk about her new album.
But on Saturday night, as this year's honoree of Black Entertainment Television's Walk of Fame award, Ross was back to doing what she loves--performing. She descended from her pedestal and ventured into a sea of people, boogieing with tuxedoed men, hugging screeching women, even parking her sequined fanny on an occasional lap. She gave her audience three decades' worth of music, five speedy costume changes in 50 minutes and the blend of aloofness and charm she is known for.
"I really sort of feel like I want you to know me," she told her audience from the stage at BET headquarters in Northeast Washington. "I don't know if you really know me."
Who knows Diana Ross? Ever since the Supremes became Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1967, she has been known as the one who pushed harder, who worked longer, who wanted it more. By all accounts, there was little room for warmth and fuzziness in the poise-and-discipline teachings of Berry Gordy's Motown machine. The question of her true nature has arisen again since she flashed into the news again last month after the Heathrow incident.
Attempting to board the Concorde to return home after a spin in Europe to promote her latest album, "Every Day Is a New Day," Ross was frisked by hand after setting off a metal detector. Frustrated by the invasiveness of the procedure and by the fact that her complaints went ignored, she says, she retaliated by touching the security guard's chest in a see-how-you-like-it demonstration. Ross was detained by police for five hours, and she claims that every inch of her belongings was searched.
At a news conference Friday arranged in honor of the BET award, Ross spoke of the incident as a human rights violation.
"I have always taught my children . . . that if somebody touches you inappropriately, you let somebody know," Ross said. "My daughter even said that, 'Mom, you're really lucky you're Diana Ross, because people heard about this.' "
Hmmm. Maybe not. For better or worse, the airport incident was a stark example of what can go wrong in the universe of diva. Ross's armor--her glamour and her presence--were stripped in the most raw way. She was treated as if she were . . . ordinary.
"They knew who she was," said Joan Fonseca, an investment banker and one of many Ross admirers at the performance who expressed outrage about the airport officials who crossed Ross's path. "This is a mother, she's working. . . . This is mainstream Hollywood."
But far more important than that small glimpse of scandal is what Ross symbolized to a generation of contemporaries, said those attending Saturday's event, which benefited the United Negro College Fund to the tune of $300,000. Ross is "glamour, sophistication, fashion," said Debra L. Lee, president and chief operating officer of BET. Lee recalls listening to Supremes 45s as a teenager in North Carolina and feeling that Ross stood as "an incentive that there was a different kind of life."
Ross was not the first black singer to captivate hearts and earn the diva label. But the Supremes' love-laden pop crossed racial boundaries and embodied the sweeter side of an era laden with bitter racial strife.
Back in the '60s, the sound of Diana Ross and the Supremes "was the other side of what was happening in the country," said Othello Mahone, interim director for the District's Department of Housing and Community Development. "It was innocence."
Not only did Ross make it, but she looked good getting there. And at 55, she still looks good. Doe-eyed and froth-haired, with a smile so bright it could leave traces like a Fourth of July sparkler, Ross is more voluptuous these days than was her skinny teen self.
And despite her recent split from Norwegian millionaire Arne Naess, Ross's life has been surprisingly unscathed by scandal. No drugs, no jail terms. The worst she's been accused of is excessive shopping and a domineering personality that some say has led her to step on others in an ambitious climb to the top.
In contrast to, say, the gritty and troubled life of Billie Holiday, Ross "was the first black singer that we experienced [who] was really a diva and never got off track," said Carolyn Jordan, executive director of the National Credit Union administration.
Saturday evening Ross took the audience down the decades-long track. She first offered a medley of her Supremes hits, as if to get the requisite oldies over with so she could sing what she enjoyed: songs from her solo career mixed with covers, including an energetic "I Will Survive." She also plugged her new sound with a video single off her latest album; against an urban backdrop, it showed Ross in leather and a '90s-style Afro, wailing about (what else?) love. The video tableau seemed inconsistent with the sequined lady of glamour onstage.
"It's new! It's hot! It's young!" Ross cooed to the audience after the video ended.
But if Ross is driven to stay current, many at Saturday's performance said her reach is far greater and more permanent than the here and now.
"She's always said she was going to be a superstar, and she has achieved superstar fame," said Mary Wright, a research analyst for the Library of Congress who grew up in Ross's hometown of Detroit. "Diana is Diana. She's in a class by herself."