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Turning Points: Mark of Beauty

4 minute read
Diahann Carroll/Los Angeles As Told To Francine Russo

The success of the TV sitcom Julia in 1968 helped change the image of black Americans on television. I played a Vietnam War widow, a nurse, raising her child. Many were completely unaware of the black middle class, but I was raised in this community, and the Julias of this country were my family and friends. Some, both white and black, protested that we weren’t portraying black poverty–“telling it like it is” (a phrase I came to detest). But other blacks told me, “We’ve never seen images of ourselves before.” Actually, it’s an image of another kind that has concerned me most of my life: my own–and I’m not proud of that. In my business, there’s so much emphasis on beauty and glamour and having the perfect body. It was not until a life-altering event threatened my looks that I realized how shallow this is.

It happened six years ago. The phone rang and changed my life. My doctor was calling with what he said was good news. The lump detected by my mammogram was less than a centimeter, easy to treat. I asked, “Are you telling me I have cancer?” I was stunned and in denial, yet within hours I was struggling with my manager–and myself–over whether to go public. I dreaded the exposure. But my mammogram had probably saved my life (I’m now cancer free), and I believed that publicizing it would encourage other women to get tested.

At the time, I was getting divorced. As I lived through the fear and the regimen of radiation, I came to re-evaluate my life. I longed for a caring and supportive relationship that was above mere physicality. I thought how comforting it must be to have a marriage with history and meaningful texture, with children raised together–especially when you confront something as horrible as cancer. But I had never understood the sacrifices that were necessary for that kind of relationship. I was of the generation that wanted to have it all–love, career, children. When I was young, I felt so attractive and alluring that I thought, How could anyone not want to be with me? When I had a serious job, I would just move to a hotel. My priorities were clear–to my partners and to my child.

I regret that. But one must also be forgiving of oneself. I grew up on the values of the movies of my day. An impressionable child, I didn’t just watch them; I drank them. I doted on stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Robert Taylor, Cary Grant. They were “naughty,” and naughty was In. My entire life was influenced by their images–the temptress, the seductress, the bad guy onscreen. The messages I got were that relationships were flighty and based on physical beauty. My life became these movies.

Since my cancer, I have learned that reaching out to others–friends, my child, other cancer patients–is more fulfilling than the self-centered life I had lived. It is a minute-to-minute struggle, but in all my relationships, I have learned to be less demanding and judgmental, more giving. I am also touring the country as part of a national health campaign to help reduce the risk of heart disease.

A sort of fearlessness has also deepened my work. In Eve’s Bayou in 1997, I played a crazy old hag who practiced voodoo. With my face painted white, I was extremely unattractive. I had to work differently, dig deeper, when the tool I was used to relying on–my looks–was taken away. Before the cancer, I would never have allowed a director to destroy what I considered to be Diahann Carroll. But I felt replenished by the role.

Even now, though, it’s sometimes hard not to be attached to one’s looks. Recently a young woman approached me at an airport. “Oh, Ms. Carroll,” she said, “I remember when you used to be so beautiful.” I knew she said it lovingly, but ouch.

–As told to Francine Russo

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