Seeing Diana Ross sitting in her Malibu, Calif., beach house, looking about 35 with her trim, feline figure and that hair that always looks like a fan is blowing on it, it’s hard to believe that she could have started in music more than 30 years ago. Born in Detroit in 1944, Ross grew up singing at family parties and in church. Her career kicked off in 1961 when she and her neighbors Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson changed their band name from the Primettes to the Supremes and signed to Motown. With their cool sexuality, accessible soul and coordinated outfits, the Supremes were the quintessential girl group. Songs like “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” helped define the Motown sound. From 1964 to 1967, 10 of their singles reached No. 1. Ross left the Supremes in 1970 and went on to solo superstardom. Her stream of hits evokes all the eras in which she’s been a musical force: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1970), “Love Hangover” (1976), “I’m Coming Out” (1980) and “Missing You” (1984). She’s also starred in the films “The Wiz,” “Mahogany” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” a Billie Holiday biopic that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
What did you feel like when your first record came out?
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Very excited. They didn’t have little stereos and things then, so you would have to sit outside and turn the car radio on and have it really loud so you could hear it on the street. Everybody sang in the neighborhood. I lived on the north side of town on the same street that Smokey [Robinson] lived on, and I used to watch them rehearse. When we first heard “Shop Around,” I went like, “If Smokey can make a record, I’d like to make a record.”
What did you do with your first royalty check?
I bought my mother a home. We moved out of the projects and moved into our own houses. Each of the girls [in the Supremes] all bought houses on the same street. It was a big deal.
What were the assumptions about women in rock back then?
We actually created an image for girl groups. I was brought up with people who lived with the golden rule. They had a lot of integrity, were clean-living people, caring about others and so on. And my first job was at Hudson’s department store, so I was very influenced by windows and fashion magazines. I went to Cass Technical High School and majored in costume design and fashion illustration. I’ve always been interested in fashion, cosmetics and makeup and hair, so the image that we created was very ladylike, very feminine.
Our image was really a reflection of beauty and glamour. The image onstage was always ladylike. Our movements were never bumping and grinding – it was very smooth and rhythmic [she sways her arms to demonstrate], and the music was the same. All of us were high-school graduates, so we spoke well. This is my upbringing –very respectful. People always ask me, “Why do they call you Miss Ross?” In Detroit anybody past a certain age were called Mr. and Mrs. You didn’t refer to them by their first names. As life went on and people started calling me Miss Ross, some people got so ruffled about that. But it was not a big thing as far as our upbringing.
Were there any advantages to being a woman in music?
It’s always been a struggle – more hard than an advantage. If I wanted to run Motown records right now, they wouldn’t look at me, because I’m a female and an artist. Sometimes even with lawyers it’s condescending. Rather than someone telling you what you can do, they’re so busy telling you what you can’t do. It’s like a little puppy that walks around and pisses on the flowers – someone constantly wants to piss on your dreams. It’s a fight. You just have to be willing to play the game with a sense of humor, with lightness about it, and get the work done. And mooove forward.
Did you ever feel pressure to act like one of the guys?
I didn’t ever feel like I had to be one of the guys. When I’m on the road – I travel with 33 men and about three girls – one of the things I make very clear to the girls is how they handle themselves. You can be a tart on the road or you can be a classy lady. Life on the road is hard because you spend so many hours away from home, you’re in a hotel room and you’re lonely, so you have to really, really stay in control.
Is there a difference between male and female fans?
Girls really believe in my music, and I guess they bring the guys along. I’ve had a big gay following all my career, which I love. “I Will Survive” – we did it up here on Sunset, and we had every gay group in L.A. out in the parade. RuPaul was on the stage with me singing. It was amazing, it was brilliant. And then at the end of the song, I dove into the audience. I just ran and jumped in the audience, and I was carried around by all the kids.
What is the perfect pop song?
I like songs that are positive and say something inspirational and make a difference in people’s lives. Songs like “Reach Out and Touch,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” I like songs with a melodic sound – something you can sing in the shower. A lot of the Motown records had this, especially in the early days. They really connected with your brain and they stuck there.
“It’s My Turn” made such a big difference at a time when women needed to make a stand for themselves. “I’m Coming Out” is still one of those messages, whether it’s for gays or whether it’s for women. When we wrote that song, [producer] Nile Rodgers came to me and said, “What do you want to sing about right now?” and I said, “I don’t know. I’m just coming out and everything’s upside down.” And that’s how the songs came about – “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” I just love this business. I don’t know if I could have chosen anything better to give my life to. I’m doing something I probably didn’t have to be paid to do.
Don’t tell them that.
I sing all the time. Music is a part of my being. Like when I’m walking, I walk with a rhythm. I carry myself as if there’s music inside. I can be on an elevator and I might hum a song or sing something, and someone might get off the elevator and say, “Thanks for this concert.” And I don’t even realize I’m humming.
How did having children add to your artistic life?
I’ve never gotten what they call a big head in this business because kids keep you balanced. They don’t care anything about celebrity Diana Ross onstage, the lights – all they care about is “Are you gonna be there in the night when I have a bad dream?” or “Who’s gonna be at home when I come home from school?”
How is your sexuality expressed onstage?
I feel very sexy. I’ve always been sexual. I haven’t given up on sex yet – that’s probably why I’ve got five kids. I like it a lot. It’s my form of intimacy in my personal relationships. I feel my femininity when I’m working. When I walk through audiences, I like to touch them and hold them, and they like to touch and hold me. “Reach Out and Touch” was all about that. I dress sensually. My boobs aren’t hanging out, but my dresses are very pretty. I’m pretty satisfied with who I am, and I think that shows.