Inspired by the growing number of black female leads on television and film? Thank trailblazing performer Diahann Carroll. Sixty years of striving and of stunning audiences have earned her a 1962 Tony for No Strings, the 1969 Golden Globe for the television series Julia (plus two subsequent nominations), a 1975 Oscar nomination for Best Actress in Claudine, 24 albums and six Emmy nominations—most recently for Grey’s Anatomy.
In a candid chat with The Glow Up, the legendary actress and singer born Carol Diahann Johnson tells us how she’s still glowing and going strong.
The Glow Up: Ms. Carroll, your look is timeless …
Diahann Carroll: Whenever you’re on television, there’s a responsibility to that. I worked with the masters of film, fashion and beauty. I took their words into my soul, like a kind of religion that I exhibited to the world to all of our benefit. To this day, it takes a great deal of time to do my makeup the way I feel comfortable. At 82, it’s still a part of what I do. I enjoy it.
TGU: You’ve always had a killer body.
DC: God gave me a nice body. It’s my goal to keep it that way—it dictates how I shop and what I eat.
TGU: What do you eat to stay beautiful?
DC: Stay away from fried foods and fatty foods. I allow myself melted ice cream in coffee for breakfast once a month. I just had one and it was delicious. I was off meat almost my entire life, but I’m learning that I need steak for energy.
TGU: Where did you gain your poise?
DC: I can’t imagine whom or what I would be had my parents not left the South. I can’t thank them enough for the sacrifices they made.
TGU: Tell me about your parents?
DC: As soon as my mother saw my father, she said, “Oh! I think I’m gonna marry that man.” That’s the reason I’ve been married four times, because I think it’s that easy … it really is not.
TGU: How did you make it through divorce?
DC: I told my mother I wanted to go to therapy. She said, “Diahann, that’s only for rich, white women, don’t you know that?” I said, “No. I thought the only thing you needed was desire and money.”
TGU: How do you pick yourself up and get back together?
DC: I had a mom and a pop who kept telling me that I was wonderful at a very early age. So when someone said to me, “Oh, you’re stuck up. Who do you think you are?” I’d say, “I know who I am, and I don’t mind being stuck up.”
TGU: Your characters have such dignity. Like Julia, who you played in the first TV series starring a black actress as a working professional.
DC: Hal Kanter, who created Julia, had also created The Amos ’N Andy Show. My mother never let me listen to it, which he was surprised to hear. I said, “You’re a white Southern man. What is there for my mother to be happy about that came out of your pen? Nothing. But you’re turning yourself around and exploring new territory with Julia—whether you enjoy it or not.” We ended up being wonderful friends.
DC: Really, she was just the everyday bitch.
TGU: And a boss.
DC: Speaking up gave her the power. The lovely thing that my father gave to me from the time I was a little girl was this kind of power. My father said to me, when I went to California to do Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, “This plane ticket and cash stays in your purse. If anything is making you uncomfortable, come home immediately.” I said, “Dad, I can’t do that.” He said, “Oh, you most assuredly can—just say ‘Taxi!’”
TGU: Did you ever have to do that?
DC: No, but I did tell them what I had in my purse. Women are coming forward and speaking up now. As a teen, I was even approached by my cousin at a family picnic. He asked me to go for a walk. When he got me alone, I knew it was trouble. When we returned to the area where our families were, the women that I thought would become very angry when they saw what he had tried to do—I had almost taken his eye out so everyone would know—when I saw their faces, they didn’t want to say that they knew. Boy, did that bring me down. The women wouldn’t stand up for me.
TGU: What else do you see young women doing now that you fought for all of your life?
DC: I see women CEOs in every area. I watch them in the workplace today, and sometimes, way down inside of me, I feel this feeling that “you had something to do with that, Miss Carol Diahann Johnson.”
TGU: What women did you look up to in business?
DC: Those who were kind enough to bring ballet to the ghetto. The performer Josephine Premice Fales. She was from a community that is all about being Haitian and black. That gives women such pride. Anything she felt I could benefit from, she would pull me out of school and make sure I got an appointment. I didn’t really realize, until later, what she had done for me.
TGU: What is your greatest extravagance?
DC: I feel just a little bit guilty … trying to get my grandchildren and my daughter to live with me. I don’t think I’m going to get that, but that’s what I want.