A Living Legend
Award-winning actress and director, the world's biggest-selling female recording artist—Barbra Streisand has nothing left to prove. But, she tells Roberta Obenia, that's no reason to stop.
Barbra Streisand is eating cake. We're in the penthouse of a chintzy New York hotel, and she is wearing a grey crepe suit by DKNY, a darker grey shirt and a matching knitted beret, reminiscent of her A Star is Born period. Her straight blonde hair falls below her shoulders and her eyes are the same pale, powerful hue as they are on screen. She looks impossibly young for a woman who will be 73 next month.
Sammy, the fluffy little white dog who is Barbra's constant companion, wants some of her coffee mocha cake, but isn't allowed. The whole family is on a diet. “We started it three days ago. I've lost half a pound and I won't lose anymore because of the cake,” she laughs.
The picture she paints family life is one of relaxed domesticity. She's found in James Brolin, her husband of 16 years, someone to make her happy after decades of high- profile relationships with famous, often troubled men including fellow actors Warren Beatty, Ryan O’NeaI and Don Johnson, and tennis ace Andre Agassi. Does she think she has always gone for a similar type? “AII my men are really attractive,” she nods. “There are some people who are very fortunate to he beautiful. My husband has a perfect forehead, a perfect jaw, perfect teeth, perfect nose. So even if he makes me angry sometimes, I still get a kick out of his symmetry!”
We are here to talk about her album of duets, Partners, on which Barbra sings with Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder, BiIIy Joel, Andrea Bocelli, John Legend, and Jason Gould — her son with the actor Elliott Gould.
“WeII, we sang together every night when I put him to sleep, so he learnt lots of songs as a child,” she smiles. “He is such an amazing human being and has become this incredible artist. No matter what he does, he is incredible.” Barbra brims with excitement — painting and singing with her only son is clearly thrilling for her. “When he brought me his recording of How Deep Is The Ocean (which they sing together on Partners), my jaw dropped. I said he had to come on tour with me.”
Born during World War Two, Barbra's controlling mother and unloving stepfather gave her little encouragement. Her real father, Emanuel, died at the age of 34 when she was only 15 months old. Blighted by acute headaches after a previous car crash, one day he went to hospital with a bad one and was given a fatal dose of morphine.
She lived with her family in Brooklyn, then a poor area of New York. “I never ventured out to Manhattan until I was 14,” she admits. But on leaving school, she attended drama college and sang in clubs to fund her studies. “l didn't want to be a singer,” she says, laughing. “I just took a job. And when I was 18 and singing in clubs, I hadn‘t experienced half of what I sang about, but I experienced it in my imagination. I never went to signing classes.”
Yet within a few short years she became the biggest-selling female recording artist in the world and Partners is a testament to her stellar success. “I have real attachments to many songs on my new album because they worked for me when I was climbing the ranks,” she says. “People was one of my first hits. To sing it with Stevie Wonder was extraordinary.”
She even performs a track with Elvis Presley, using an old recording of Love Me Tender. In real life they met in 1969. “I was giving myself a manicure when he came backstage to see me,” she says. “I was so shy, I didn't know what to do. I remember he had this big silver belt with jewels.”
She couldn't look into his eyes. “He was very sweet. I didn't get Elvis when he first became popular and then as the years went by, I found myself listening to and appreciating him,” she says. “He was the first person we approached to play opposite me in A Star Is Born. He had gained weight and was losing self-esteem. I flew to Las Vegas to talk to him and he wanted to do it, but his manager, the Colonel, wouldn't let him.”
She never got together with Elvis—but perhaps she was always seeking a father figure? She pauses. “No, although Pierre Trudeau (the former Canadian Prime Minister) had the most father-like quality because he was much older than me and I admired him,” she says. “I was only 29 but he was ready for marriage and I didn't want to give up my movie career. Not being allowed to rent in nice apartment buildings in New York because I was Jewish—there was so much prejudice then—made me want to go to California instead.”
Barbra's mother, Diana, was famously critical and unloving. “I think sometimes there are parents who don't really like themselves,” suggests Barbra. “They don't like their offspring either. My mother meant well. She loved me as best she could. She had dreams of her own and wanted to be a singer.”
So was she jealous of her own daughter? “Yes. And that was staggering for me to learn,” says Barbra. “She never praised me to my face, but I have a feeling she praised me to other people. And she wasn't a toucher. She never hugged me or said, 'I love you.'” Is Barbra affectionate? “More than my mother. Now I'm older I can do it.” She shakes her head. “I just couldn't please her. But I owe her my career. It was painful on the way up. I was always trying to prove to her I was worthy of being somebody.”
Yet the young Barbra's astonishing voice and stage presence didn't convince her mother. “When she first saw me sing, I didn't have money, so I went to thrift shops for outfits,” she says. “I was wearing a Victorian lace jacket that looked beautiful, and a white cotton skirt. I found shoes from the 1920s, made from pink satin, at the thrift shop. I thought this was a great outfit,” she smiles. “My mother said, 'Why are you singing in your underwear?'”
Thankfully, not everyone agreed. “On the block, I was known as the girl with the good voice and no father,” she says. “My mother motivated me to prove I was worth something.”
Still, for much of her career, Barbra attracted as much criticism as glory. The movies she directed — The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces — were not critically well received. And when she starred in and directed Yentl in 1983 — becoming the first woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Director — the reaction was hostile. Did she come to expect criticism because she grew up believing she could do nothing right? “Yes, I do think that is the case,” she says. “But I have learnt you have to cut off from people who don't nurture you or treat you with kindness. It took a long time for me to realise that.”
Now, she admits, she welcomes love and kindness, but it's taken her decades to feel she deserves it. “People who have two parents who love them are very lucky,” she says. “They are not left with a vacuum, a hole that has to be filled. And it's very hard to fill. You have to fill it with yourself.”
At what point did she feel she'd done that? Did she eventually realise she was beautiful? She looks self-conscious. “Even today ... I've got to know my face and, from certain angles, maybe I'm beautiful,” she says. “From others I think I'm horrible. I don't think it will ever change, because that's what I see.”
Now she's in her 70s, Barbra is finally writing her long-awaited autobiography. “I want to tell the truth,” she explains. “When people write about me and it's not the truth, it upsets me. If they say something about me that's true, I don't mind it.
“I have chapters in my notebook from years ago,” she laughs. “But I lose interest in telling the story of my life. I've lived it, I've done it, it's boring to me. I've gotten lazier as I get older. I used to work when I was not content. As I got happier and happier, I had less need to work.”
A lot of her happiness is down to James. They like to spend all Saturday in bed. “We do that more days a week than just Saturdays!” she laughs. “TV is so good these days. I love Homeland, so I watch shows and in between there's reading and I'm trying to write a bit.”
She loves to cook, too. “I can follow a recipe,” she says. “I love cookbooks,” she says. “I've taken a seven-and-a-half-hour flight with a thick cookbook and read it from cover to cover because I'm fascinated with how you can put two eggs and a cup of sugar together and you get a cake out of it.” TV chef is not the role for her, though. “I'm not organised in the kitchen,” she laughs.
What else makes her happy? “My friends, my family, my dog, my home, my view of the ocean, the constant changing of nature,” she says. “I don't have a desire for big things. I like giving away money, supporting things. I have the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Centre. Heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined.”
A remake of the musical Gypsy is rumoured, and it's clear this superstar has no plans to hang up her microphone. She smiles. “When I was a kid, I wanted to see my name in lights—but I sued to hide under the table,” she says. “Now, to see my name on a building is so rewarding.”
Long may we see this warm, funny girl's name in lights.