VH1's dueling divas belt it out for a good cause
By Donna Freydkin CNN Interactive Contributing Music Writer
(CNN) -- Who would have thought that so many egos -- er, divas -- could fit on one relatively small stage?
VH1's "Divas Live '99" broadcast, aired live on April 13 and rebroadcast through Sunday, April 18, had enough big names to make your head spin. And as a result of the star-studded lineup, as well as the relentless promotion of the show, the live telecast generated the cable network's highest ratings ever, eclipsing the stellar ratings of last year's show.
"The names performing this year are historical legends," Mark McIntire, vice president of marketing at VH1, commented in the frenzied days leading up to the broadcast. "But we're seeking a broad audience, so we're hitting both age spectrums."
The music cable channel packed the bill with headliners Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Cher and Brandy, and with guests Sir Elton John, LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, Mary J. Blige and Chaka Khan. With enough glitzy outfit changes to make the Oscars seem like a yard sale, the women -- and John -- preened, pranced and in some cases, gave truly inspired performances.
The show, now in its second year, raises money for VH1's "Save the Music" initiative to support music education in public schools around the country. And VH1 has learned that mixing star power with a good cause equals soaring ratings and big ad dollars. To date, the channel has raised $1 million for the foundation.
"There's a halo effect of being associated with rock 'n' roll, and great music," said McIntire. "That's a powerful drawing force for performers and advertisers."
With a lineup twice as large as last year's, expectations were high. But just to be on the safe side, VH1 spent the "Divas Week" leading up to the telecast airing such related programming as "Cher: Behind the Music" and "Tina Turner: Video Timeline." Perhaps that's why this year, almost twice as many households tuned in to the show as last year. "VH1 Divas Live" debuted last year with an A-list lineup -- Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan and Shania Twain -- and enough vocal brawn to transform the broadcast into a clash of soaring, overpowering voices. It became the then-highest rated single broadcast in VH1's history. And the "VH1 Divas Live" CD, released last fall, has since gone triple-platinum and is expected to raise at least $1.5 million for the program.
"The live element is the strongest part of the show," said VH1's McIntire. "The live energy is hard to duplicate. What you see on stage is the camaraderie of the talent coming together for a good cause, and that creates a really good energy."
Divas, part deux
So, what is exactly a diva?
"A diva is somebody who knows what she wants and can go for it," Brandy told USA Today.
By that yardstick, all the women -- and Sir John -- fit the bill. At least in theory. Houston, after all, has bagged no fewer than five Grammys, 21 American Music Awards, and sold more than 100 million copies of her albums to date. Turner, no slouch in the overcoming adversity category, dumped abusive husband and partner Ike in favor of a solo career that took its sweet time to come to fruition.
And thanks to the runaway success of her four albums -- all have gone platinum -- youthful diva Rimes (all of 16) has been making records since the ripe age of 12.
But in reality, fans may find that only Turner and Houston have the voices, charisma and larger-than-life personas to fill the much-hyped diva shoes (or, in this case, stilettos).
After a vigorous delivery of "Let's Stay Together," Turner -- her raspy saw of a voice eclipsed only by her still-fabulous legs -- catapulted into a frenzied rendition of "Proud Mary," accompanied by guest diva Elton John (with whom she'll be touring this summer) on piano.
She started out with the song's classic introduction, explaining why she never did it "nice and easy" and ended up bringing down the house -- which included audience members Susan Lucci, former teen queen Debbie Gibson, Donald Trump, Claudia Schiffer and Ashley Judd, who doubled as one of the hosts.
Cher, joining Turner on stage for the tail end of "Proud Mary," called herself the "Lazarus" of pop music and went on to execute an oddly perfect rendition of her left-of-field dance hit "Believe." She was out of breath, yet her voice was flawless, which spawned the inevitable questions of whether she lip-synced or sang live. Her publicist later said she sang every note.
John then did his thing, performing songs from his reworking of "Aida," along with his fail-proof crowd-pleaser "I'm Still Standing," and finally joining baby diva Rimes in an duet of "Written in the Stars." She, in turn, looking stunningly adult and endearingly nervous, delivered her smash "How Do I Live."
Houston and Blige oblige
But Houston and Blige stole the show with the most blazing diva showcase of the night. Houston went smooth and sultry, while soul sista Blige let loose into a gospel-tinged frenzy during their duet of Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way." Her myriad of tattoos proudly on display, Blige was a breath of gritty fresh air. Houston then reclaimed the spotlight with a heartfelt "I Will Always Love You."
And in the show's grand finale, Chaka Khan and Houston belted out "I'm Every Woman," Khan's original hit, which was later covered by Houston. Although they were joined on stage by the younger singers, Cher, John and Turner stayed away. Maybe they were being disdainful divas. Or maybe they were just bored.
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