USA Today Review: Divas Live '99...

Divas unite to save the music

By Elysa Gardner, Special for USA TODAY

NEW YORK — It apparently takes more than talent, charisma and attitude to be a diva. Judging by the scene that unfolded at the Beacon Theater on Tuesday night for VH1's Divas Live '99, one also needs a lot of closet space.

This second annual event, which benefits VH1 Save the Music, an education-based charity, and will be rebroadcast throughout the week, was an eclectic pop concert on the surface. Headliners were Whitney Houston, Cher, Tina Turner and Brandy, with guests LeAnn Rimes, Mary J. Blige, Faith Hill and self-styled male diva Elton John.

Backstage, though, the proceedings were more like an exclusive fashion show. Celebrity beauties such as Elizabeth Hurley and Claudia Schiffer sashayed by as the singers changed into flashy, mercilessly form-fitting get-ups, from Turner's gravity-defying little black dress to Houston's slick red-leather pantsuit.

Even Rimes, the baby diva at 16, sported no fewer than three outfits. Asked how much time she had taken to get ready, Rimes said, "A couple of hours — not too long."

Brandy, the second-youngest artist and the most demurely dressed, in a pair of long, beaded gowns, also pleaded guilty to power primping: "I had to go to the spa, get my nails done — the whole girly-girl thing."

Granted, the performers were faced with plenty of sartorial competition — and not just from mannequins such as Schiffer, who showed up in a bustier made of straw and a wraparound skirt that resembled a pink blanket, causing an observer to liken it to a picnic in a dress. Celebrity attendees included such arbiters of style as domestic diva Martha Stewart, couture diva Donatella Versace and entrepreneurial diva Donald Trump.

Ashley Judd, who appeared on the program, managed to stand out even in this crowd, modeling two frilly dresses with full skirts, her head crowned with tulips and daffodils. "It's something I've done since I was a little girl," Judd said of the flowers. "I look back at old pictures ... and I'm sprouting."

Other stars attempted to pinpoint exactly what — aside from a fabulous wardrobe — defines a diva. "A diva is somebody who knows what she wants and can go for it," said the preternaturally cheerful Brandy, who was accompanied by her parents.

"I think they don't want any other girls around onstage — them broads want to be alone," offered Saturday Night Live regular Molly Shannon, who, with castmates Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, satirized Shania Twain, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, respectively, in skits televised between songs.

"I think of opera divas, like Maria Callas," Sarah Michelle Gellar said. Alas, there were to be no arias in this concert — unless you counted the energetically promoted selections from Elton John's new reworking of Aida, including the single Written in the Stars, his duet with Rimes, whose tangy, resonant vocals were unaffected by her palpable (and somewhat endearing) nervousness.

This year's diva-fest was longer on such crowd-pleasing collaborations than its predecessor. John also teamed with Turner, with whom he will be touring this summer, for a feisty The Bitch Is Back — an apt selection, given that the two reportedly had a tiff during rehearsals. Turner then was joined by Cher, who proclaimed herself "the Lazarus of pop music," on Proud Mary.

Cher's performance of her effects-laden hit Believe caused many to speculate that it was lip-synced, but her publicist said Wednesday that Cher "sang all her songs live." Later, hip-hop ingenue Brandy and country siren Hill made an appealing odd couple, covering the Bryan Adams chestnut (Everything I Do) I Do It for You.

The evening's most aggressively virtuoso performance, though, came from Houston, who delivered her monster hit I Will Always Love You with a creamy perfection that transcended the song's banality. Houston also did duets with Blige and two surprise guests, rapper Treach and soulstress Chaka Khan: I'm Every Woman, a hit for both Khan and Houston, closed the show. In a Kathie Lee Gifford-esque flourish, Houston showcased daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who sat onstage holding a microphone and looking awestruck.

At a party after the show, Houston's mother, Cissy — a diva herself — was asked if she thought her granddaughter would follow in Whitney's footsteps. "Probably," she replied. "She's very conscientious." LeAnn, start looking over your shoulder.



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