…Her choices for guest stars began with long-time buddy Michael Jackson. “To me, he’s like a child of mine. ..”
February 25, 1981
Diana Ross In the Driver’s Seat
By Stacy Jenel Smith
HOLLYWOOD – As the song says, “I’m Comin’ Out.”
For the first time in her professional life, Diana Ross is sitting in the driver’s seat – and she makes it clear, “I really like that position.”
Her hotel bungalow has the look of a command post: table tops littered with coffee cups, stacks of papers and slides taken at her recent Los Angeles Forum concert, recording and video equipment, a projector and screen dominate the living room.
After a late night of watching the editing of her CBS March 2 “Diana” special – the first of her TV outings that Diana has produced herself – she walks through the morning light into the room looking wide awake and full of bubbling energy, smartly attired in an electric purple blouse and jacket with black pants tucked into studded black suede boots.
Asked about her new executive producer title, she looks toward the ceiling with a wide grin and chuckles, “Ohhh yes. A – it’s real exciting.
“It just means I’m the one who make the decisions, that I’m responsible for whatever happens. I feel like I’m learning a lot about TV this way. It’s an important position. For the last 15 years, I haven’t been in that position. I haven’t taken the responsibility. I felt there was a reason for this – that I’m starting to be more responsible.
“I think if you’re going to hand over control of something to someone else, you should be willing to hand it over completely. If you’re going to complain about how they’re handling it, maybe you should be doing it yourself.”
As for Diana, “I’m taking my life and handling it.”
For the last 15 years, the singing superstar’s name has seemed inextricably linked with those of the Motown record company and of its founder – her “Henry Higgins” – Berry Gordy. From the days when she and her fellow Supremes became the No. 2 record-selling group of the ’60s (behind The Beatles), through her first solo successes, her acclaimed acting debut in “Lady Sings the Blues,” her marriage to and divorce from Bob Silberstein, Diana has been protected, cared for and – to an ever decreasing degree – had her decisions made by Gordy’s Motown.
Now, “I’m not under contract with anyone,” she says. And as to whether she’s re-sign with the company, she shrugs and smiles. A beat passes. “I don’t know.”
Diana spent her Christmas vacation working on preparations for her special. “I went to Aspen with the kids (daughters Rhonda, 9, Tracee, 8, and Chudney, 5). While they were skiing, I was staying in making a lot of notes and calls. You see, this time I had to worry about making the business deals too.”
Her new managerial outlook extended into the production of the show. “When we were going overtime, a part of me was thinking in terms of, ‘How much is this costing?’ The executive producer was thinking in numbers. The other part of me was thinking, ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be in a position where I can help employ all these people?’
“I took a lot of time deciding on the people I wanted to work with,” she continues, quickly ebulliently. “See that stack of tapes over there? I watched them all to help me decide. I called a lot of people to ask who they thought a good director would be and Steve Binder’s name came up a lot. He sent me a tape with some of his things and in the middle of it I saw this FACE and these TEETH coming at me. I said, ‘Hey! Those are my teeth!’ I hadn’t realized it, but we’d worked together years ago on the ‘Tammy’ show. He put that on the tape to see if I’d remember. Do you remember that show? It was the start of rock ‘n’ roll. The Beach Boys were on, the Rolling Stones when Mick Jagger was just starting his…(she does a silent imitation of Jagger jiggle)…thing.”
Her choices for guest stars began with long-time buddy Michael Jackson. “To me, he’s like a child of mine. I feel the same way about Stevie Wonder. As soon as I found out about the special I asked Michael if he’d be on and he said yes. He just sent me six platinum records of his, with a note that says, ‘To my inspiration.’
“I’d like the young kids in the TV audience to understand that we really do have a close relationship. The young kids don’t know how I started them (The Jackson 5) in the business, brought them out here and that they lived with me for awhile.
“Michael and Quincy (Jones, who’s also featured on the special) and I did ‘The Wiz’ together. Quincy also produced Michael’s latest album which is such a success. We’re trying to figure out how Michael, Quincy and I could do an album together. I think that’s a very good idea. I want to push that one through.”
She’d also like to push through a film project. “I’d love to do a movie right away. I have three or four things in the air, but have no idea at all what I’ll be doing next. I feel I can take the time to pick and choose something I really care about, because I have my career of recording, concerts and TV, but I’d like to do a movie soon. ‘Tough Customers’ (in which she’d play the girlfriend of gangster Dutch Schultz) is in the works and the idea of my doing a movie about Josephine Baker is still very much alive. But you can’t just zap out a movie like in the old days. It costs too much.”
Discussing plans of a more personal sort, Diana laughs at reports of her marriage plans to KISS singer Gene Simmons. “No, no. It’s not that kind of relationship between Gene and I. He’s a very special person, but – no.
“I realized about five years ago,” she adds, “that you have to give up a lot in order to be in this business. One of the things is privacy. You find yourself fighting that, but it’s something people expect – to know what’s happening in your life. I don’t mind talking about myself. I have nothing to hide. It’s when people will take something that’s very important and treat it without regard for its importance that I mind. I think it’s the responsibility of the press and others to consider how important what they’re writing about really is.”
She’s thinking of her children especially, she says. “You see so many stories about performers’ children getting so messed up by being exposed to the press, to the world. I try to shield mine from that. It was easier when they were younger. Now that they’re getting bigger, they can see what’s going on – see me on TV, see the people I work with , see what it all means. I’ve decided to send them to boarding school when they’re a little older, where they’ll have lives apart from all this.
“We have a lot of honesty – no lies. Now and then they’ll ask me, ‘Mommy, why can’t you stay home?’ And I tell them, ‘Because I don’t want to stay home. I love what I do and I’m not going to feel guilty about it.’
“I do know my girls will all probably go into show business. That’s O.K. I think it’s the best game in town. I mean, what would I have done if I hadn’t gone into show business?”
She starts enumerating the possibilities, counting on her fingers as she goes. “Well, I took design, so I might have designed clothes. I went to beauty school, so I might have done your hair. I bussed dishes for awhile. Did you know that? Back in Detroit I was a bus girl. We wore little green and white dresses and nets on our hair and we couldn’t lean against the wall.” The room chimes with her laughter at the recollection.
She continues, more seriously, that her childhood didn’t offer much exposure to showbiz, with the exception of music. “My mother did have a job in a theater – cleaning,” she smiles. “I remember listening to radio shows. I was five or six when we got our first TV. I know when TV started, the rich people got it first and it came to the ghetto a while later.” She smiles and leans back. “The only star I knew of to look up to was Lena Horne, and I didn’t look up to her as a movie star. I knew her as a singing star.”
Now, countless little girls are looking up to Diana Ross, who seems to have done it all. What’s left to conquer?
“Oh, God! What’s so amazing is – that’s life out there! There’s so much more for me to learn. I’m always learning new things through my kids. I feel my move to New York has taught me so much. I discovered so much. I met doctors, lawyers. I now have girlfriends who are NOT involved with show business.
“I don’t want to get into making comparisons between New York and Los Angeles. I love California and I’d never give it up. But I’d gone through my divorce and I wanted to be in a place where I could be busy all the time and I moved. I go to the theater now, and I take the kids to museums and galleries. I met a guy who knows all about modern art. I didn’t know anything about modern art. I’ve known people who bought it as an investment, that’s all. But now I’ve found out about it.”
She nods emphatically that the divorce and the move have “opened me up.” And that they’re partly responsible for her new feelings of responsibility.
“If something’s successful, then it’s wonderful. If not, well … Do you know the poem, ‘If’? I always like to remember a line from that: ‘If you can treat those two imposters, success and failure, the same …’ I do the best I can, and whatever happens, try to treat it the same. This business can sweep you away. Look at this.” She holds up a slide of the masses of people engulfing the Forum, with herself in the center of it all bathed in the spotlight.
“But what helps me to keep it in perspective is the fact I left that and went home to bed alone.”