Barbra Streisand, star of stage and screen, insists she’s ‘certainly not a diva’

The Sunday Magazine23:30‘I’m certainly not a diva’: Barbra Streisand wants to set the record straight

Barbra Streisand says despite the fame and success, she’s just like the rest of us. After all, she’s also trying to keep up her Wordle streak.

The word game is part of a nightly routine that includes solitaire, then backgammon — if she’s still awake. But gin rummy, she says, is her favourite.

“The games free my mind, you know, from the day’s calamities, what’s going on in the world,” Streisand told The Sunday Magazine’s Piya Chattopadhyay in an exclusive Canadian broadcast interview.

“Otherwise, I couldn’t sleep.”

Across the 970-page tome that is her long-anticipated memoir, My Name is Barbra, the singer, actor and director, 81, opens up about her early life in New York — including the difficult relationship she had with her mother — the decades-long career that made her one of the most celebrated artists of the 21st century, and the misconceptions about her that continue to swirl.

Speaking with The Sunday Magazine’s Piya Chattopadhyay, Streisand says she is more comfortable producing shows than performing in them. (Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)

Throughout it all, she insists she is entirely ordinary — a shy girl from Brooklyn who would rather direct a show than star in it.

“I have, you know, girlfriends that we discuss clothes together, and then others who are philosophical and we cry together,” she said. 

“I am a regular person. I just happen to have a bit of talent that communicates — it communicates with people. What can I tell you?”

I’m certainly not a diva. What’s a diva, anyway?– Barbra Streisand

Career spanning over six decades

Streisand is one of few celebrities whose career has made her an EGOT — that is, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner — for her work across music, the stage and screen. 

Her career began at 17 when she entered a singing contest at a local gay bar in New York City. She soon made her way to Broadway, starring as the tenacious Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

By the ’70s, she was a certified Hollywood star, leading films like The Way We Were and A Star is Born. Eventually, she also focused her attention behind the camera, directing and starring in Yentl, the story of an Ashkenazi Jewish girl in Poland who lives as a boy to get an education.

Black and white photo. Streisand sits, pointing her finger, as photographers surround her.
Streisand surrounded by press photographers in 1966. In her memoir, Streisand recalls the first time she performed on stage — in a contest at a New York City gay bar. Today, she is one of the few artists to have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. (Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)

Streisand’s memoir has been years in the making. Publishers, she writes in the prologue, began asking for an autobiography 40 years ago. But she rejected them, saying she prefers living in the present — despite handwriting notes in pencil back in 1999.

“I’ve never relived my life before. I never listen to my music. I don’t watch my movies,” she told Chattopadhyay. 

When asked why now, Streisand says it’s because she couldn’t get two films off the ground. After 10 years of writing — much of it from her bed, she recalls — she hopes the book will finally put to rest the “negative” misconceptions about her.

“I’m certainly not a diva. What’s a diva, anyway? A diva is an opera singer who has an entourage following her, maybe, as I’ve seen in the movies whenever they portray divas.” 

“It’s just not me. I’m down to earth.”

Black and white photo. Streisand, wearing a fur hat and coat, sits in a car with her son on her lap.
Streisand pictured with her son, Jason Gould, in the United Kingdom, 1969. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

‘Jealous’ mother

The memoir begins eight years into Streisand’s life at a Jewish summer camp. She hated the place — it served “lousy” potatoes, she writes — and when her mother, Diana Rosen Streisand, came to visit, the young Streisand begged to be taken home. 

What’s revealed from there is the complicated relationship she shared with her mother, starting with the death of her father. 

My mother actually admitted not only was she jealous of me after I became famous, but she was even jealous of me as a baby.– Barbra Streisand

Emmanuel Streisand died when the performer was just 15 months old. Her mother, she recalls, never spoke of him.

“I would have loved to know more about him,” Streisand said. “I said to her, ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me about him?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t want you to miss him.’ You know, to me it was illogical.”

Streisand also chronicles what she describes as her mother’s jealous nature. 

For her 80th birthday, Streisand was given a painting her mother had commissioned years earlier. It came with a letter penned by her mother’s friend — “obviously a woman she confided in.”

“My mother actually admitted not only was she jealous of me after I became famous, but she was even jealous of me as a baby when my father came home … and he wouldn’t even take off his coat before he wanted to hold me,” Streisand said.

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That letter finally gave Streisand a glimpse into her early months — a period she wishes her mother herself had shared. But Streisand looks back on the relationship with compassion.

“I feel bad for her. As I say at the end of the book, she had a wonderful voice. My mother had a talent, she had a pretty face, but she never wanted me to go into show business,” Streisand said.

Courting the prime minister

Relationships are a thread that tie together Streisand’s life story. 

“To me, a happy life is having a family, a husband, children, my son, now grandchildren. I mean, that’s my happiness — friends who I love and whom they love me,” she said.

Streisand walks, holding Brolin's arm, in the White House
Streisand and husband James Brolin attend a state dinner hosted by former U.S. president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in Washington, D.C., in Jan. 11 2011. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Among her reflections is the short-lived romance, but life-long friendship, with former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

The pair dated in the late 1960s after meeting at the premiere of Funny Girl. 

“Trudeau was very dapper, intelligent, intense … kind of a combination of Albert Einstein and Napoleon (only taller). And he was doing important work. I was dazzled,” she writes in the book.

In a chapter titled “The Prime Minister,” Streisand recalls her courtship with Trudeau — the nervousness she felt when holding his hand the first time and, later, a date they had at her favourite Chinese restaurant in New York City.

Black-and-white photo. Streisand and Pierre Trudeau walk through a crowd of people.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, right, attends Manitoba Night at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, with Streisand on Jan. 28, 1970. The pair briefly dated, but remained lifelong friends until Trudeau’s death in 2000. (Chuck Mitchell/The Canadian Press)

“He had a great smile and cheekbones that could have been carved in marble. And it was nice to be with a man who had his own light shining on him, so I could stay in the shadows a bit,” she wrote.

But intimidated by the “intensity” of dating the leader of a country, she returned to Los Angeles, ending the relationship.

Bowing out

With her memoir finally out, Streisand says her time in the spotlight is also coming to an end, eager to spend time with family and friends instead.

She plans to continue philanthropic work. A foundation in her name supports several civic and social organizations, including those fighting climate change.

Woman stands at a podium
Streisand accepts and award onstage during 2019 Hollywood for Science Gala on February 21, 2019 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Streisand has been politically outspoken throughout her career. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability)

“I feel bad for the children, my grandchildren, because I don’t know what this world is going to look like in 20 years. I’m afraid of that,” she said.

But for now, Streisand is ready to be untethered from the demands of fame.

“I want to be free to do what I want to do each day until I can’t stand the boredom of it,” she said.

“And maybe I’ll never get bored. Who knows.”

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