You can tell a lot about a gay person by their diva of choice. To subscribe to one particular cultural icon is to use them as a means to show the world who you really are, or at least who you aspire to be on your best days.
Beyonce exudes fierceness and an aura of being that girl at a party that everyone wants to know but is too intimidatingly cool to approach, and her fans want to be that too. Diana Ross is an emblem of retro glamour and elegance; Lady Gaga is cool and off-kilter, fitting in both at a modern art gallery or basement circuit party— just fill in the blank with your chosen celebrity and what they are known for and you can tell what their fans long to be.
But what does it mean to align oneself with Barbra Streisand; the very template of the modern diva of today? There’s the unrelenting perfectionism, an offbeat charm, enough chutzpah to make all of Brooklyn jealous, and a bit of an inflated sense of self-importance, no doubt. These are certainly what I first attached to when my Streisand obsession started, especially the ego if I’m being honest.
Beneath all these typical diva characteristics, however, is a fragile core that you don’t normally get to see in the usual bulletproof personalities. Streisand makes this clear within the first few lines of her epic, nearly 1000-page memoir, My Name is Barbra, by reading off early criticisms of her appearance instead of rattling off her accomplishments. Reviews would compare her to an “amiable anteater” with “scarab-shaped” eyes, and stories of how her mother deemed her too ugly to become an actress and thought she’d do better as a secretary.
As insecurities are often wont to do, these feelings of inadequacy always bubble to the top. You can see it in the very first scene of Funny Girl, when Barbra as Fanny Brice stares herself down in the mirror, backstage in an empty theatre. She peers out from behind the collar of her leopard print coat and mutters, “Hello, gorgeous,” with a smirk. Does she really think of herself as gorgeous, or does she just need to tell herself that when no one else will?
For as historic and highly revered a legend as Streisand is, even she can never beat her self-consciousness. You can see it in A Star is Born when her heavily permed Esther Hoffman character aspires to become a rockstar but continues to tether herself to John Norman’s self-destructive alcoholism. Even over thirty years into her career, insecurities and ugly-duckling syndrome are the crux of The Mirror Has Two Faces, when Barbra plays the homely college professor Rose Morgan who runs away from the romance she craves for the easier, accessible comforts of Hostess snowballs she stows away in her sock drawer.
When I bear witness to Barbra Streisand, watching her movies or listening to her sing, of course I want the power she has. I want to command an entire room’s attention with just one flick of a manicured finger, for people to want me and not even understand their attraction. I want to take my flaws and then put them front and center for people to fawn over, just like how Barbra brandishes her profile on every album cover and movie poster even after years of being called ugly and undesirable. Not only do I want to want those things, but I want to be able to let myself have them; not settling for just a piece of sky, but for everything and more.
A legacy like Streisand’s is untouchable, and should feel out of grasp besides the lucky few who can feasibly achieve such a level of notoriety. She is the very definition of a superstar; a chart-topping recording artist, a box office darling, a groundbreaking director, and an enduring cultural figure over the last six decades. But even with all that and dozens of awards to her name, Streisand is still more apt to refer to herself as “just some Jewish girl from Brooklyn” before identifying with any of her many prestigious titles.
Even though I’ve never recorded an album, sold out a stadium, or produced a best-selling movie, there is still an odd kinship I feel towards Streisand. I see us as two people whose motivations center around proving detractors wrong, even when we are both of our own biggest critics. I see two people who are done with compromises that don’t serve our dreams. I see someone to align myself with to show that even my biggest insecurities can be fuel for something much bigger than me.
We’re often told that aspiring towards greatness is a fool’s errand; that while ambition and drive are honorable qualities to have, you should still be prepared to settle in life. That you can have some of your dreams, but you can never have it all. The pressure is compounded especially for queer people who often need to prioritize simply surviving before they get the chance to actually focus on their aspirations.
But when I see Barbra Streisand on screen or let her voice fill my eardrums, I am reminded that no matter how comfortable I am, how much I do or do not have, how big of an ego people say I have, or how “good enough” works for other people, it is not a crime to ask for more. That the simple act of wanting something is enough to say you deserve it, and that I deserve it too.
I adopted a new coping mechanism in the early stages of the pandemic that was, in fairness, much healthier than other options. I would wake up every morning and stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, tilting my head in every direction to get the full view of my face in the powdery, incandescent light. Even on my worst days when I couldn’t stand the figure staring back at me, I would muster up the energy to whisper to myself, “Hello, gorgeous,” just like the opening scene of Funny Girl. There are plenty of days where this is the only kind thing I can say about myself, but the ritual is a great starting point to remind myself that I can feel gorgeous if I want to. I am entitled to it.