For two hours and five dollars, you can live a modest fairy tale in downtown Washington.
No glass slippers and no prince, but for the duration of rush hour and the cost of a cab ride, you can be a diva: a woman who wouldn't stand for a numbingly workaday life in the District, the sort of lady you see looking glossy and dramatic in Vogue centerfolds, having electric-blue cocktails in Carrie Bradshaw's New York.
Here, at a diva-training workshop on a Thursday in June, you can learn to be extraordinary.
Here, everyone is welcome, for a nominal fee.
Here, the tiaras are so shiny you can't tell they're plastic, and there's so much gold-colored pixie dust in the air you could sneeze -- but you don't. Because a diva wouldn't. It's just not done, at least, not here, where a woman who calls herself "Cupcake" is methodically instructing half a dozen paying customers in the art of being glossy and dramatic, if only on the inside.
To the uncalibrated eye, the whole thing may seem like an illusion -- regular women gathered in an apartment building rec room making a studied effort at being spectacular. Cupcake is really just Courtney Lebedeff, 23, by day the publisher of a government newsletter that lists federal job opportunities. The six women are training to join the Urban Divas, a 500-member group that has hosted kickball games and happy hours since Lebedeff founded the group last August. The pixie dust is glitter from CVS, and the workshop is delivered, pretty much verbatim, from a book.
But if you trust Lebedeff, which you must if you're going to accomplish anything tonight, this is far from an activity for women whose very participation in it disqualifies them from being divas. To think that, for one evening, anyone can feel as glamorous and glorious and uncommon as a diva, can wrap a black boa around her polyblend pantsuit and see herself as Cinderella, all for the price of a mop . . .
It is a beautiful thought.
Perhaps, not so deep down, it is every American woman's thought.
The participants -- software company employees, office workers, graduate students chewing softly on barbecued potato chips -- look at Lebedeff expectantly and wait to be transformed.
The word "diva" used to mean opera singer. A diva wore sequined dresses, had a killer voice and an even more deadly sense of entitlement. Being one meant you were allowed to throw tantrums. It meant you could legitimately demand whatever brand of spring water you wanted and someone would have to run and get it for you because, or so it seemed, the whole world hinged on your every expression -- of talent, hysteria, thirst.
In more recent times, the word came to mean not much more than scandal-prone celebrity -- the likes of Paris Hilton and Courtney Love, women who became known as divas not because of musical ability but because they are bottle blondes whose peroxide seems to have sunk in too deep. (Love, in a more lucid moment, once told a reporter: "I don't mean to be a diva, but some days you wake up and you're Barbra Streisand.")
Today, "diva" is a noun roughly equivalent to "female."
These days, anyone can sit in an apartment building rec room with glitter caught in her hair, talking quietly with a handful of other mild-mannered women, and call herself a diva -- and no one will argue.
Contemporary divadom is about practical things, such as prioritizing work and play and taking time each day to consider your strengths and weaknesses. It is about mantras, known in Lebedeff's workshop as "diva declarations." But really it is about an era of do-it-yourself esteem, where empowerment is in the epithets. Keep telling yourself you're successful, and eventually you will be. Call yourself a diva, and -- poof! -- so you are.
As a society, we've decided to be utilitarian with our accolades. Certain types mourn the commonizing of elite words, but for every Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lamented the corruption of language, there is a Tire King or a Superstar Chef who is improving the bottom line by letting people feel they have access to the best of the best.
James Boyd White, a professor of law and English at the University of Michigan and author of "When Words Lose Their Meaning," says Americans speak in a "thin discourse in which terms often pop up, spread and change very fast." Emerson, if he were a pop culture critic today, might use this to explain how we acquired our latest mass malapropism, the diva.
Lebedeff, working to help overextended women find their inner diva, might call him a cynic.
Queens for a Day
Six women sit on tall barstools opposite a mirror and try not to stare. It is a rainy summer evening, and entering the room, one has that insta-flu feeling of passing from a warm downpour into too much air conditioning. Some make scarves of their ostrich-feather boas, the mid-priced kind with Mylar ribbons woven in. Others, in navy trouser socks after a long day of work in heels, fiddle with an espresso machine.
Tonight, a title once reserved for belters of Aretha Franklin's ilk will be liberally interpreted and warmly applied to these women, among them 46-year-old Josette Bailey, an employee at a software design company; 28-year-old Nancy Bratton, a soft-spoken graphic designer; and 26-year-old Bridget Plante, a party planner who is going through the workshop a second time just for fun. Everyone here has given herself a "diva name" for the evening. Lebedeff chose "Cupcake," she explains, because friends say she is cute and sweet. Bailey chooses "Travel," because she likes to. Bratton chooses "Artsy," because she is. Plante chooses "Party" because, well, just because.
The group is here for Diva Workshop One, and Lebedeff hopes they will continue with the whole Urban Diva regimen. This is one of many diva posses that have cropped up around the country over the past year, spreading a gospel of indulgence and strength. To give oneself entirely over to the Urban Diva fantasy is tempting and affordable: The Pearl Package, the lowest tier of membership, costs $25 annually and enables one to post thoughts on the Diva Blog and to attend all diva events. The highest level of membership, $50 more, entitles one to a feather boa of her choosing.
Lebedeff launches into tonight's lesson, "Defining the Diva in You," with a deceptively simple question: What is a diva?
She says it is something intangible that lives "in the reflection of the way we laugh, in the color we paint our nails, how our favorite outfit makes us feel, how our relationships are going, a secret that our best friend just told us. She's a delicate flower, a force to be reckoned with, a quiet subtle presence here to guide us through all the twists and turns and peaks and valleys."
To help figure out what that means, first there is the diva collage.
One woman pastes a picture of Cher onto her sheet of paper, "because to me, she is the ultimate diva." Another chooses to clip out an example of her favorite clothing designer. Another picks a light fixture that is especially "snazzy." One by one, the women present their work to the group. Common themes emerge: Strong is sexy; blond, beautiful; self-love, never having to say I'm sorry. "Before you go to bed at night," Lebedeff instructs, "look at this collage and allow it to help you dream about what you desire."
The trick here is nuance. Throughout the evening, the divas in training eat cookies and hone their identities by speculating what a diva would and wouldn't do in everyday life: loud sneezing, no; ostentatious pampering, yes; being too hard on yourself, no; chandeliers, yes; extravagant spending, no; being able to afford one's own diamonds, yes; flip-flops, no; glass slippers, yes; sad, no; happy, yes; critical, no; inclusive, yes. The daydream is in the definitions.
They fill out diva index cards as if studying for a midterm: one good trait on one pink card; one bad one on white. They complete pie charts, dividing up a circle according to how they divide up their day: 75 percent work, draws one; 30 percent chores and errands, draws another; each leaves a hairline sliver for "fun." Afterward, it's time to evaluate everyone's degree of diva:
"As you look at your life right now," Lebedeff begins plaintively, "is your vantage point from atop the diva's castle balcony basking in the sun with a babe-alicious tan and a juicy cocktail, enjoying uninhibited fun and festivity? Or do you feel trapped way down in the dungeon?"
At which point, a woman walks in, interrupting the proceedings. It's May Chan, who lives in the building and interrupted once before to chill champagne in the rec room refrigerator. She had looked around bewildered, asked what was going on, and shrugged when told. Now she has come back for the bottles. The divas are working on their last exercise of self-discovery -- writing Diva Declarations on strips of colored paper and taping them to their shirts for a group photo.
"When you say 'diva party,' " Chan says, perplexed, "I expect to hear singing."
Lebedeff, who smiles a lot, smiles again.
The room is crickets-silent. The only noise is Crayola against construction paper.
The New Age divas, who have heard this question before, look up from writing "I am beautiful" and "I am strong" long enough to let out a chorus of "no" -- there is no singing in this Washington fairy tale. And there is no real glamour either. But there are snacks and goody bags and exercises that help suspend reality for a couple of hours after a long day at the office. For a group of women who work too hard and sleep too little and just want to call themselves divas for the night, that is its own kind of everyday miracle.