Dalida: Montmartre's Tragic Superstar

Statue of Dalida in Montmartre │
Statue of Dalida in Montmartre │ | © Stefano Tranchini
Paul McQueen

The name Dalida might not mean much to anglophone ears but in France, there are few bigger. The 30-year career of this Egyptian-born, Italian-French polyglot singer and actress was filled with unparalleled achievements, memorialized in plays, films, documentaries, and no less than 50 biographies. But behind the success was personal trauma. Her suicide at her Montmartre home in 1987 made her the ultimate tragic diva.
Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti was born on January 13th, 1933, in Cairo, Egypt, where her father was primo violino at the opera. After a quiet, middle-class childhood, a 17-year-old Yolanda entered and won the Miss Ondine beauty pageant, which led to modeling and the Miss Egypt crown in 1954. She moved to Paris to become an actress on Christmas Eve that year and rechristened herself Dalida.

Finding only limited success in film, Dalida instead focused on her singing. She sang cabaret on the Champs-Elysées and booked a variety show at Bruno Coquatrix’s newly opened Olympia. Here she met Lucien Morisse (her future husband) and Eddie Barclay, who launched her career. Her 1956 release Bambino was a huge success in France, staying in the Top 10 for 46 weeks and selling over 300,000 copies, the first of more than 70 gold disc records.

Through the 1960s, Dalida sold out shows at the Olympia and embarked on international tours, her fame growing exponentially throughout Europe and Asia. In December 1968, she was awarded the Médaille de la Présidence de la République by General Charles de Gaulle and remains the only musician to have received it. That year, she was also given the Medal of the City of Paris, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the honorary title of Godmother of Montmartre’s Homeless Children.

In the early 1970s, Dalida remade her image as a singer of more profound, personal lyrics. When promoters were unsure of this new approach, she took control and hired venues herself. She was right. Her songs from this period, like ‘Je suis malade’, touched listeners with their frank vulnerability and remain her best-loved.

Dalida pioneered ethnic fusion hits like ‘Salma Ya Salama’, which was based on an Egyptian folk song about homesickness. As she often did, she recorded this track in Arabic, French, Italian, and German. Disco hits like ‘Monday, Tuesday…Laissez-moi danser’also helped solidify her status as a gay icon.

On the night of the first show of her 1981 tour, Dalida became the first singer to be awarded a diamond disc, a sign of recognition of the 86 million records she had sold. The high-selling tours and albums continued in her final years. In addition to 19 number one singles and innumerable Top ten and Top 20 hits, Dalida was famed for the intimacy of her performances and her respect for her fans.

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But where there were public highs there were crushing private lows.

The first major tragedy came with Luigi Tenco, an Italian singer to whom she was engaged. The couple competed at the Sanremo Festival and, following their elimination, Tenco shot himself in the head in their hotel room on January 27th, 1967. One month later, Dalida attempted suicide for the first time with a drug overdose at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Paris. She spent five days in a coma and several months physically recovering.

By the end of the year, she had also been left infertile by the botched termination of a pregnancy conceived with an 18-year-old student.

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In September 1970, Lucien Morisse, whom she had amicably divorced, shot himself in the head. Five years later, her friend Mark Brant, whose singing career she had nurtured, jumped off an apartment building in Paris. The fourth of her loved ones to commit suicide was Richard Chanfray, a former boyfriend, who gassed himself with his Renault 25 car in July 1983. The following year, Dalida unusually declined the Légion d’honneur.

On the night between May 2nd and 3rd, 1987, Dalida took an overdose of barbiturates. Her note simply read: ‘Life has become unbearable for me…Forgive me’. Her funeral was held at La Madeleine and she was buried at the Cimitière de Montmartre.

Since her death, Dalida has received numerous tributes. In 1987, the Monnaie de Paris issued a commemorative coin and ten years later a square in Montmartre was named in her honor. That year, she became just the third woman in France to have a statue erected in her honor, alongside Joan of Arc and Sarah Bernhardt. She also appeared on a limited edition stamp in 2001 and the 20th anniversary of her death was marked with an exhibition on her life at the town hall.

To this day, she is consistently ranked as someone who has had the greatest impact on French society and culture.

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