“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
—Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz
She is Glitter Chic incarnate, a flash of furs and facets and long cars. She sings, dances and, at $1 million a movie, is one of the three priciest actresses in the world (the others: Streisand and Dunaway). President Carter asked her to entertain at his last birthday party, and publishing executive Jackie Onassis is pressing her to do an autobiography. But no Kansas-bred Dorothy, spun off to Oz by a whirlwind, could be as disoriented as Diana Ross today. It’s not the money or the fame that makes the lady suddenly sing the blues. She’s been used to all that since the ’60s, when her Supremes outsold every other group except the Beatles. The problem, she confesses ruefully at 34, is “growing up. I had a very difficult year. I had another child, I just got divorced, I moved to Manhattan. It’s the first time I’ve really been on my own,” says Diana, “and it’s not easy.”
Splitting from her husband of six years, Robert Silberstein, in 1977 was rough enough, but she also loosened a more ancient tie, the Gordy-an knot. Motown founder Berry Gordy, 49, took a street-corner songstress of 16 and, Svengali-like, fashioned her into the lady whom Diana’s close pal Cher calls “one of the great performers of our time.” “He did it all for me,” Diana says of Gordy. “He was father, mother, brother, sister, lover.” And she leaned heavily on the Motown machinery that has made her one of the most carefully protected celebrities anywhere. She followed the company from Detroit to L.A., let it make her decisions and was once Gordy’s lady. Even during her marriage she reportedly took him on family skiing vacations.
“My wife belongs to that company,” a bitter Silberstein said before their divorce. “She’s totally dominated by a man who never read a book in his life. I just can’t stand it anymore to hear them calling Stevie Wonder a genius. What happened to Freud?”
“I wanted it that way,” says Ross. “It was safe.” But after 18 years of non-self-actualization, est disciple Diana has put a coast between herself and Gordy, though Motown still produces her records and movies. “I’ve wanted this freedom of space for so long,” she states. “I feel like Dorothy. Suddenly, BOOM, I’m in a whole new world.”
It started with a phone call to Gordy at 4:30 a.m. She’d just heard that Motown was producing the film version of The Wiz, a “magical, strange and wonderful” musical she’d admired on the stage, and she wanted to be Dorothy. “Berry grunted and said, ‘Have you been drinking?’ ” Diana recalls. And although he said she was too old for the role (many critics have since agreed), she was firm. “It’s ageless,” Ross insists. “I thought it was right for my career.” With the passage of two weeks and one director, she had won and was preparing to head for the New York location (the Oz of the all-black adaptation).
She bought a copy of The Annotated Oz and began to underline it in Day-Glo pink. Then she put her 12-room Beverly Hills fortress on the market and moved her yellow Rolls and three daughters (Rhonda, 7, Tracee, 6, and Chudney, 3) to a co-op in Manhattan’s Sherry Netherland. “I sat in my empty apartment and looked out at the cars and people,” she remembers. “If I’d had time to think about it, it would have been very scary. Luckily, I was busy working.”
This was only her third movie, after having earned an Oscar nomination as Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues and done the rag-trade saga Mahogany in 1975. By reputation, Diana is a relentless worker. In The Wiz she did all her own stunt work, suffering broken fingernails, a leg injury (when clipped by the motorcycle of an Ozian monkey) and retina burns from gazing into the Wiz’s spotlight eyes. “I’m in a daze when I perform,” she shrugs. “I almost need somebody to hold me until I get back to my dressing room and reality.”
Her supporters on the set included Michael Jackson, 20, a protégé of Diana’s ever since his family Five began. “She’s so beautiful, inside and out,” he gushes, “and she can talk about anything: jewelry, hairstyles, est.” Then there was a new admirer, Wiz director Sidney Lumet, who declares that “watching Diana is like watching this supernova exploding—she’s stunning.” But, admirers aside, there’s no romance in her life. Diana hasn’t had a strong, steady pair of arms since the divorce. “I had a lovely marriage,” she says. “When you find someone that you can enjoy a lot of the same pleasures with—even if it’s sitting in front of the television late at night with a big sandwich—it’s terrific. Those pleasures I miss.”
Her answer to the old Supremes’ refrain Where Did Our Love Go?, she says, is that “everything seemed to be out of whack.” But her friends theorize, and Diana concedes, that it was difficult for Silberstein to be Mr. Ross. “She is almost barricaded by her stardom,” says Wiz writer Joel Schumacher. “A man has to make more money or be a wife.” (Silberstein, who’s managed Chaka Khan and Ron Wood, has lately also moved to New York and visits the children often.)
Diana now escapes with intimate dinners with director Lumet or boogying with proprietor Steve Rubell at Studio 54 (“lf I’m feeling really wild, I go there and dance till I am exhausted”). Once she attended a porn flick with fashionable haberdasher pal Danny Zarem. (That was only after disguising herself in an eight-foot muffler which made her look like “a mummy in sunglasses,” according to Zarem.) But those are escorts, not lovers. And her most frequent date these days is her current Motown manager, Shelly Berger. He helps her rehearse and plays blocks with the kids, but has a steady girlfriend himself. “Shelly and I are very comfortable together,” she explains. “I might forget he’s there and start to undress and—’Ah, excuse me!’ ” she giggles.
She still dreams of getting married again—to someone “understanding of my work, but maybe not involved in showbiz”—but “my priority,” she says, is the children. She gets up with them at 7 for the The Flintstones and breakfast before they go off to the same private school as the scions from the Houses of Redford, Sedaka and the like. Mom tries to be home when they return at 3. “I like to have dinner with them and then we relax and play together until bath time at 7:30. They love it when I’m alone and there’s no housekeeper,” she laughs. “We get junky and have popcorn and sit on the floor. I yell a lot, but I’m not strict. If I can give them quality attention when I’m with them, then when I’m not it seems to be okay.”
The girls, who have not yet seen The Wiz (they recently caught Lady Sings the Blues and pronounced it too sad), share one of the three bedrooms. The other is a playroom. “We bump into each other all the time,” Diana moans. “We’re living out of a suitcase. If I can make it to tomorrow, it will be better.”
Though unsure about where she wants to settle ultimately, Diana spends weekends scouting for a home in Connecticut. “I can live anywhere my work is,” she says. “But I keep imagining this piece of land and a nice warm house so I can invite my family for Christmas and have a big tree. My kids have never lived out in the country where they can have horses.” They spent the past Christmas in Detroit with their grandmother Ernestine, once a domestic, who takes care of the children when Diana is on the concert circuit or playing Vegas.
Ross won’t have a lot of time to look for her house—or, as she adds, “to feel sorry for myself.” She goes back into the studio to record her 16th solo album in February. After that she’s planning a 20-city tour. Since The Wiz she’s being courted to play the queen of the numbers racket in Tough Customers and the role of a star who falls in love with her bodyguard—à la Susan Ford and Patty Hearst—opposite Ryan O’Neal. “Everybody has some pain,” she says. “And if I have a lot of pain you know what I’m going to do with it? Use it in a movie when I have to show pain.”
As for the book Jackie O wants her to write, Diana would be more interested in doing a fashion or beauty work or a coffee-table collection of photographs and favorite passages she keeps in a notebook (her latest: Rudyard Kipling’s If). “I don’t really want to do a biography now unless they want a trilogy,” Diana laughs. “I feel that I’m just beginning—I’ve been around a long time, but I think of myself as a baby in this business.
“It’s really quite nice to take the responsibility for my life,” she continues, on what she hopes is Volume II. “If I make a mistake I don’t have to get mad at anybody.” But as she eases on down that road she remembers the wisdom of Oz: “I just want to have the brains to decide what is best for me, the courage to follow through with that decision, and I want to have the heart so I can understand and love all of it—whatever happens.” Then Diana Ross adds: “Home is like Glinda the Good Witch said at the end of the film—it’s knowing yourself.”