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Diva, diva, on the wall

Who's the fairest one of all? As Canada's top songstresses head south for the Grammys next week, we rate them on the quality that made Callas notorious and Whitney Houston rich.

Saturday, February 20, 1999

Western Arts Correspondent

Once a term reserved for rare and tempestuous talents like Maria Callas, the word diva has, in recent years, been tossed around so freely that it now applies to any female singer who can carry a tune in a bucket and squeeze into a slinky dress. Today, there are pop divas, soul divas, country divas, folk divas and alternadivas. Here a diva, there a diva, everywhere a diva diva. And there are, we are proud to say, a dazzling contingent of Canadian divas, led by Canada's four biggest pop stars: Celine Dion (la diva bilingue), Alanis Morissette (the Alternadiva), Shania Twain (the Country Diva) and Sarah McLachlan (the Sensitive New Age Diva). All four are international stars, all four have sold millions of records and all four are nominees for this year's Grammy Awards, which will be presented in Los Angeles next week.

Beyond that, though, the four have very little in common. Which begs the question: In these days, when even a clumsy teenaged poet like Jewel is called diva, what makes a diva a diva? The word, which first appeared in English in the 1880s, is rooted in the Latin divus, or god, so the standards should be high.

Certainly a dramatic voice is an essential part of the equation, something all four of our divas possess in varying degrees. Repertoire matters, too. While there is a school of thought that a diva should be an interpreter, too flighty to even bother herself with the drudgery of writing songs, singer-songwriter divas such as McLachlan, Morissette and Twain offer the frisson of confession. A distinctive and perhaps dramatic personal style is also important; a diva should look good and carry herself with a certain flair. A diva's life, however, should not be too easy; it helps to have a turbulent, if not tragic, romantic life or a fatal flaw. At the very least, a diva should be able to generate some gossip. If you're not willing to set tongues wagging by singing about fellatio in movie theatres (Morissette), by marrying your manager (Dion) or producer (Twain), or by playing a starring role in a messy lawsuit (McLachlan), then divadom is not for you.

And then there's that undefinable quality -- a combination of grace, ego, bad temper and good works that we might call divaness -- that separates the goddess from the girl with a good voice. But who is expert enough to make these distinctions? Who would judge a goddess? Opera folk generally don't have much time for pop music, so count them out. Pop critics, on the other hand, seem to have a deep-rooted animosity to the whole idea of divahood. You could burn Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey at the stake on a fire fuelled by the negative reviews they've received over the years.

After much meditation, it became clear: Who better to judge a diva than the men who aspire to divahood themselves? To that end, The Globe and Mail asked some of Canada's most glamorous and artistic drag queens to help us rank Canada's pop divas.

Our judges, like our divas, come from across Canada. Darrin Hagen is an Edmonton composer, actor and television host, beloved of fans of the Edmonton Fringe festival for his productions under the banner Guys In Disguise. Toronto's Christopher Peterson is perhaps Canada's best-known drag queen and, as fate would have it, was performing in a Key West club called Divas when he answered our call. La Reign and Marta Marta represent Montreal's House of Pride, creators of House Opera, a touring production they bill as the first transvestite opera.

The judges were asked to rate Celine, Shania, Alanis and Sarah in five categories, each worth 20 points: voice, repertoire, personal style, the personal drama of their lives or gossip worthiness, and that great intangible, divaness. The numbers, calculated scientifically on the back of an envelope, add up to what we'll call a Diva Quotient or DQ.


Born: Jan. 28, 1968, Halifax
Age: 31
Greatest Hits: Building a Mystery; Adia; Sweet Surrender.
Grammy nomination: Best female pop vocal performance (Adia).



  • It just makes you want to slit your wrist and lie down in a vat of iodine. Can she get any more depressing? (14) -- Christopher Peterson
  • She has that sexy, ephemeral, goddess, lullabye voice. We love her! (20) -- House of Pride
  • I love her voice, but it's not as shimmery as Celine's. (17) -- Darrin Hagen


  • I think Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is a wonderful, strong, mature album and she get points on the sheer number of albums she's put out. (15) -- D.H.
  • I don't know what brought folk music back, but if I had my way, I'd go back to the 1960s and kill it for good. You can only tell us how depressing your life is so many times. (14) -- C.P.
  • She is creative, original, smart, strong, soft. She is our heroine. Her repertoire is original, so there's another 20. HoP STYLE 12.7 Well, she gets two points for the Birkenstocks and six points for the flower-print dress. But, then, she doesn't care about style and that's why her public loves her. (8) -- C.P.
  • She's a little too granola for my tastes. She's beautiful and I like her look, that sort of vulnerable, wounded-child look, but it's not the look of a diva. (10) -- D.H.
  • Her sense of style complements her personality, a smart 20. -- HoP.

DRAMA 17.3

  • Up until now she's had it too easy and there hasn't been that much drama in her life, but I think the trial and the Lilith Fair backlash will work to her advantage. She's gone through this ordeal and people have rallied around to support her. (12) -- D.H.
  • With Lilith Fair, she has to put up with 20 other divas. Backstage must be a major estrogen festival. (20) -- C.P.
  • She seems to learn from her life and turns it into art and does her art with her lover and friends. We give her 20 for the alternative-family approach. (20) -- HoP


  • From what I hear, she has her difficult moments. She's very demanding and she can be quite the diva. (15) -- C.P.
  • Like all the others, she has one problem in becoming a diva: She's still alive. A diva really should die tragically, like Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe or Janis Joplin, so your fans can imagine what might have been. (14) -- D.H.
  • She is a diva goddess. (20) -- HoP


Born: March 30, 1968, Charlemagne, Que.
Age: 30
Greatest hits: Seduces Me; All By Myself; Tell Him; My Heart Will Go On.
Grammy nominations: best pop album (Let's Talk About Love); best pop collaboration with vocals (I'm Your Angel).



  • What a voice! She's a bit tacky but we love her, so she gets a perfect 20 for lung power. -- House of Pride
  • She's really the Streisand of Canada, isn't she? (19) -- Christopher Peterson
  • Obviously a spectacular voice and, to her credit, she likes to show it off. (18) -- Darrin Hagen


  • Songs that you want to lip-sync or even sing. . . . But why do they feel so corny? (15) -- HoP
  • Sappy ballads have a place on the planet, otherwise who could make love? (17) -- C.P.
  • It's all just product. (10) -- D.H.

STYLE 13.3

  • She knows how to dress because she knows how to spend. Every diva should go to Versace and pay $100,00 for a gown. (18) -- C.P.
  • She needs a few dance classes or martial arts or something to give her things to do with her arms and fist, but she hires the best stylists and she does travel with her own makeup artist -- now that is smart. (12) -- HoP
  • She's always wearing these princess ball gowns, like she's heading off to some ridiculous cotillion. (10) -- D.H.

DRAMA 12.3

  • She's such an ice maiden. Every time there's a sniff of scandal -- when she makes a political statement or when there's talk of anorexia -- she just shuts it down. And if she has an opinion about anything, she's not telling any of us. What's wrong, Celine? (10) -- D.H.
  • Well, she married her Svengali and one day the spell will wear off and she'll realize she's sleeping with an old man. So, she's going to have some drama in the future. When you marry your father, you always do. (20) -- C.P.
  • She seems quite boring. (7) -- HoP


  • All in all, she is a diva. She works it. (18) -- HoP
  • I don't hear about her having fits. In fact, I hear she's magnificently nice, which isn't very diva-like at all. (5) -- C.P.
  • She's doing the princess thing, but it's so contrived that she seems like a robot. Then again, it is working. (12) -- D.H.


Born: June 1, 1974, Ottawa
Age: 24
Greatest hits: You Oughta Know; Hand in my Pocket; Ironic; You Learn; All I Really Want; Uninvited; Thank U.
Grammy nominations: best rock song (Uninvited); best female rock vocal performance (Uninvited).


VOICE 15.3

  • Well, it's really like hiccupping and yodeling at the same time, isn't it. (15) -- C.P.
  • I like her heartfelt irony, clever tongue, bitchy whiny screeching. Vocally, she pushes it, sometimes a bit hard, but we give her a 14 for effort. -- HoP
  • Like Sarah, she has more attitude but not as spectacular a voice as Celine. (17) -- D.H.


  • Ironic is very interesting even though nothing in that song is ironic. A fly in your chardonnay is not ironic, it's disgusting. (20) -- C.P.
  • Jagged Little Pill is monumental. I like the new one, too, but Jagged Little Pill inspired so many imitators that she clearly had to take a new approach with her second one. (12) -- D.H.
  • She writes her own songs and we like originality. We give her 18. -- HoP

STYLE 13.3

  • She got an angry hippy look and all the young girls in Strathcona [a trendy Edmonton district] are wearing it now. It's not exactly glamorous, but it is a very individual style. (10) -- D.H.
  • In her last video she was wearing her birthday suit with little fuzzy patches over her, well, you know. I think she and Marilyn Manson are heading down the same road -- hopefully to the clothing store. (16) -- C.P.
  • Her sense of style on her first album was very Canadian. Now it is very minimal. She makes a good Eve. (14) -- HoP

DRAMA 10.3

  • She's got that Tori Amos thing, where the record company tried to make her into a binky pop girl and she came back with a heart full of a rage. She reinvented herself, which is something all divas must do. (15) -- D.H.
  • You don't hear much about her and if she doesn't have a scandal soon, we're going to forget her. (5) -- C.P.
  • Her personal life in her songs sounds very depressing, but we all can relate to being fucked over. (11) -- HoP


  • She's my idea of a 1990s diva. She's not so much defined by a tragic flaw but by the fact that she recognizes her rage and acts on it. (15) -- D.H.
  • I'm afraid none of these nineties women have big dramatic lives. I'll give her 2. -- C.P.
  • She is kicking ass but she is still a divette. (18) -- HoP


Born: Aug. 28, 1965, Windsor, Ont.
Age: 33
Greatest hits: Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under; Any Man of Mine; Rock this Country.
Grammy nominations: best album (Come On Over); best country album (Come On Over); album of the year (Come On Over); record of the year (You're Still the One); song of the year (You're Still the One); best female country vocal performance (You're Still the One); best country song (You're Still the One).


VOICE 10.6

  • Has she got a voice? Didn't she used to work Holiday Inns? Well, it's a pretty voice. (12) -- C.P.
  • That country-pop twang gets her a 15. (15) -- HoP
  • She sings easy music in an easy manner. There's nothing very impressive. (5) -- D.H.


  • Not that memorable or meaningful or even that danceable. And where are the house mixes? (10) -- HoP
  • When you combine pop music and country music, you end up taking out what's interesting about both of them for fear of offending anyone. (5) -- D.H.
  • Well, she's certainly turned country music on its ear. (18) -- C.P.

STYLE 15.7

  • Her look is easily duplicated by any drag queens. And if you've got that, you're No. 1 in my books. It's the Nashville Tramp look -- it's tight pants, navel showing, boobs pushed up and three wigs. I think she's the Cher of the nineties. (20) -- C.P.
  • She's a sex kitten, but, girlfriend, a belly button is not a career. (10) -- D.H.
  • She looks gooood and she knows how to work her curves. (17) -- HoP

DRAMA 14.7

  • Another one who married her Svengali, but she really doesn't have any drama about her. One day, though, she's going to realize that cheesecake is her friend and then that belly button is going to be a lot closer to the camera. (7) -- C.P.
  • I gave full marks because she's overcome a tragic flaw: She has no talent. (20) -- D.H.
  • We don't know too much about [her personal life], so she must have a way with those paparazzi. You go, girl! (17) -- HoP


  • She has no charisma; they have to bring in line dancers for her videos or they'd just look like shampoo commercials with her flipping her hair. (5) -- D.H.
  • You don't hear that she's difficult to work with. These poor Canadian girls never want to rock the boat. (4) C.P.
  • Divaness? She is gorgeous and seems so nice. What the hell. (17) -- HoP

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