Dalida - European superstar singer; the first gay icon?

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday January 17, 2023
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Although she has a relatively small voice with limited range, it has been described as warm like the Mediterranean sun. Dalida also had a knack for selecting the best, most innovative songs and creating amazing musical arrangements to showcase them.

With over 170 million records sold worldwide, Dalida's first hit "Bambino" spent a record-breaking 39 weeks at #1 in 1956. (Michael Jackson's 37 weeks at #1 with "Thriller" is a close second.) The Diamond Disc (for 10 million records sold) was created for Dalida in 1981 (not Elton John, as commonly reported). Yet she remains almost unheard of in the English-speaking world.

Dalida in a TV song and dance number in the 1980s  

Born and raised in Egypt to Catholic parents from Serrastretta, Calabria (Italy), a town founded by Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Dalida married a Frenchman and lived out her life in Paris. She sang in 11 languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. Amazingly, each community proudly claims her as one of their own.

Since the days of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, there has been an Italian community in Egypt. Dalida's father, concertmaster of the Cairo Opera, was arrested by the Allies in 1940 for simply being a working-age Italian male (due to fears of Mussolini); he was held in Fayed concentration camp near Cairo and did forced labor for the duration of the war. He suffered severe PTSD and died of a brain aneurysm in 1945 shortly after returning.

The experience affected Dalida profoundly and this was perhaps why she repeatedly refused to enter the US market. Her only performances in the English-speaking world were New York City in 1978 and 1984, Los Angeles in1984 and 1986, and in London in '86.

Cultural gay icon
A 1988 poll run by Le Monde newspaper identified Dalida as having the second largest impact on French culture after Charles De Gaulle. When asked to be the face of Marianne, the female symbol of French Revolution, stamped on the money and official documents, she refused.

Ginni Gallan with Dalida on a French variety show  

Dalida became a gay icon in France with the groundbreaking 1973 song "Il Venait D'Avoir 19 Ans" ('He Had Just Turned 19'). This is the first song gays in Europe connected with, spurring something of a movement.

The song resulted from a real love affair she had in December 1967 with a 22-year-old Italian student whose baby she decided to abort, leaving her infertile. He seems to have been her most compatible partner, but she would not consider staying with him for fear of what her mother would say.

In the 1980s, Dalida candidly talked about her life, her spirituality, and that homosexuality is accepted in Egypt and should be accepted everywhere; audiences would go wild with applause.

In 1983, at age 50 Dalida performed the bossa nova "Paroles, Paroles" ("Words, Words") with several people including on French TV with 18-year-old singer Ginni Gallan, clad in tuxedos, putting a new twist on the popular song that could be considered the first-ever lesbian love song.

But it seems to have had negative personal consequences for both of them, who apparently never met again despite having much in common, as if determined to show it was only fiction.

Dalida developed serious eye problems and needed the same surgeries she had had as an infant. And Ginni Gallan, too young to have been thrust into that uproar, within months quit singing altogether.

life cut short
Dalida's life suddenly took a tragic direction in 1967 when she and her brother made the fateful decision to not renew their contract with the almighty Barclay Records, but to form their own company, Orlando Productions. From that very month, as they apparently vowed revenge, major things started going wrong in her life, including that three of her loves ostensibly committed suicide.

Mafia involvement was immediately suspected in the first suicide of her fiancé, Luigi Tenco, at a luxury hotel. Dalida found his body and was never the same again, according to her brother. One month later, she nearly successfully committed suicide.


Before 1967, Dalida's career was run by the notorious bluebeard Eddie Barclay (who married nine times; his name was originally Ruault), a producer, radio station owner; gambling addict Lucien Morisse (who briefly married to Dalida; his name was originally Trzesmienski); and venue owner, producer and alleged mafioso Bruno Coquatrix. Mr. Coquatrix was a frequent presence at Dalida's house and also managed Edith Piaf, who endured similar tragedies.

In her later years, Dalida started singing beautiful heartsick songs like "Je Suis Malade" ("I am Sick") and "Mourir sur Scene" ("To Die Onstage"), as she always became one with songs she performed, it seems to have pushed her deeper into depression.

The night she took her own life, May 2, 1987, she told everyone she was looking forward to going to the theater with industry insider, Michel, but he stood her up, leaving the question of whether she was finally driven to commit suicide.

In 1969 Dalida went to India to study yoga and meditation. She had decided to give up singing to pursue spiritual growth full time. Her guru convinced her not to, saying that singing was her God-given purpose on earth and that it expanded spiritual enlightenment for her as well as for the audience. Her spiritual and musical path, however, was cut short.

The 2017 drama biopic "Dalida" (in Italian with English subtitles) is available free online on Tubi TV.

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