Women Behaving Badly: the allure of the Diva

Female celebrity meltdowns are depicted very differently from male ones – but is it such a bad thing to be a diva?

We've long argued that there is really no such thing as a 'guilty pleasure'. After all, if you felt that guilty about it, then it wouldn't be a pleasure - and if it's a truly, wholly pleasurable activity, then presumably you don't really give a toss about what anybody else thinks. And pure, unadulterated pleasure is how we both feel about international singing sensation and boundless warbler Mariah Carey. It is a love that will last until the end of time, transcending the occasional troughs that have marred an otherwise illustrious career. Yes, even Glitter.

Now that we've got that bombshell out of the way, we'd like to talk about divas. It is a label which, perhaps more than any other singer, has followed Mariah around like a slimy little paparazzo since the beginning of her career. As a term, its operatic origins have been relinquished in favour of its use as a moniker for any female singer who dares to forthrightly express an opinion on anything, ever. Granted, that opinion is more often than not related to the number of scented candles in one's dressing room (or, in the case of one particular rumour, a strong preference for only one colour of Smartie, thus presumably necessitating the employment of one lucky lackey whose job it was to filter out all the other Smarties colours in a hundred tubes). Nevertheless, the way in which stories about diva behaviour compare with coverage of male meltdowns does raise some important questions.

Lists featuring the top ten celebrity tantrums are often female-dominated, despite the fact that paps have documented male paddies on behalf of everyone from Russell Crowe (not impressed when the BBC cut his televised poem) to Alec Baldwin (numerous toys-out-of-pram offences, most notably calling his daughter a 'rude, thoughtless little pig' on a leaked voicemail) to Hugh Grant (baked bean brouhaha - we'll say no more). According to the media, male meltdowns are either comedy fodder, entirely justified on the basis of papparazzi harassment, or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, concerning spirals into mental illness. Where women are concerned, such distinctions are hardly made, and instead seem to fall under a group umbrella of 'diva behaviour' regardless of the underlying reasons. As recent coverage of Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan demonstrates, somehow, 'troubled' has become a euphemism for 'spoilt'. Meanwhile, alcoholism is a serious affliction in a man, but explained away as 'a tad unladylike' in his female counterpart.

But who is the 'classic diva', and why? In a world where examples of the media ridiculing 'women on the verge' abound, it's important that we distinguish bad behaviour from actual cause for concern, not only because failing to do so perpetuates a lack of understanding about mental illness, but also because tales of bad celebrity behavior are hilariously, cringingly entertaining (of which Reese Witherspoon's drunken don't-you-know-who-I-am footage is a prime example.) Yes, very bad behaviour should be condemned, especially if you're Trudie Styler and your reaction to your pregnant chef's inability to make you soup is reportedly, 'Who the fuck does she think she is?', in a bizarre reflection of the aforementioned Witherspoon incident. Proper Diva Behaviour, however, can probably be exemplified by Beyonce's recent attempt to remove some ugly pictures of herself 'from the internet'. We've all been there, B, and therein lies the nub of diva-ishness. The diva demand should be completely and utterly divorced from reality, but also, at some level, relatable in its audacity. Hence our sympathy with Mariah, who once reportedly insisted that she be lowered onto the GMTV sofa by members of her entourage. Fair play. After all, who would sit there of their own free will?

The other important facet of the diva is, of course, her apparent willingness to pit herself against other divas. Mariah's name has been sullied all over Twitter by that challenger to the throne, Nicki Minaj, but ultimately we all know that Carey has spent so much time being pitted against other divas already (see video) that we don't fancy Minaj's chances in the latest Mail-sponsored CELEBRITY CATFIGHT. Perhaps, like the girl Rhiannon's boyfriend overheard on the phone in a bar last week, things will go 'literally apeshit', which I think you'll agree is something we'd all like to see.

It should go without saying that the 'diva philosophy' plays directly into the narrative which asserts that in order to be successful, as a woman, one needs also to be a mega-bitch who hates other women. Space is limited at the top, the logic goes, and nobody wants too many kittens in showbiz; they'll have to get their claws out. So women 'throw tantrums' (because it's childlike); men 'fume' silently, or 'become enraged' with enough provocation, safe in the knowledge that there's room for them when they're done. Divas have probably gained an inflated sense of self from PMT-induced fervour; shirty men have 'complicated stories', and most likely 'psycho ex-wives' who drove them to it. In other words, male frustration is seen as personal and explicable in a myriad of ways, whereas female frustration should be seen as a veiled attempt to trample on her sisters, a cry for the continued attention of Daddy Media to the detriment of others.

Back when the diva *was* a temperamental opera singer who had to be pandered to because of her extraordinary talents, things were a little different. Her ilk were seen as fairly discerning, if dramatic, with little tolerance for incompetence in her peers; nowadays, her demands are seen as all the more impudent because of an altered definition. The 'celebrity diva' of the 21st century is a fairly replaceable pop-star, often of apparently questionable talent, with a trailer full of make-up artists and an eagle eye on the photographs of herself presently circulating in cyberspace. She is ridiculous because she is both high-maintenance and dispensable. The thrill of hearing about Naomi Campbell's latest altercation with airline staff lies in the knowledge that she's treading a much more dangerous line, not as the prima donna in an isolated theatre but on a global stage full of worthy competitors. At any moment, her star may fall, or indeed be knocked down by the girl behind her in a continuation of the diva circle of life (see Carey and Minaj.) The audience to modern-day 'diva behaviour' isn't just rolling its eyes; it's baying for her blood.

Clearly, it's unfair that the two-dimensional diva role lies at the female door, telling its same old celebrity magazine story about pigeonholing 'emotional women'. Still, many would argue that if the role is foisted upon you, why not play it? With all these myriad expectations, it's no wonder that Rihanna's taken to reclining on a white six-foot sofa surrounded by animal furs before she does another chorus of 'Rude Boy' at her latest venue. After all, it's clear that the myth of The Diva and its ardent subscribers aren't going to die out any day soon - and there will always be a few performers who just can't resist feeding the trolls.

Nicki Minaj, sitting on a cloud. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle