Diana Ross made several notable television appearances in late 1995-early 1996, while promoting her Motown release Take Me Higher. These ranged from non-singing (a lengthy interview on BET’s “Video Soul”) to single-song performances (an energetic performance of the title track on “Late Show With David Letterman) to the biggest mini-concert of them all, her Super Bowl XXX Halftime spectacular. She also picked up a few televised honors, like gaining induction into the Soul Train Hall Of Fame and winning a Soul Train Heritage Award. These were all strong showings for the singer; she looked fantastic, sounded great, and seemed to be more energetic and focused on her music than she’d been in years…
…and then there was the World Music Awards.
Diana’s performance on this early 1996 awards show surely ranks among her strangest not just of the period, but of her career. Broadcast from Monte Carlo, Monaco (under the leadership of Albert II, Prince of Monaco), the World Music Awards were created in 1989 and, according to the official website, “are presented on sales merit and voted by the public on the internet. There is no jury involved and the Awards truly reflect the most popular artists as they are determined by the actual fans who vote and buy the records.” Superstars like Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson were constant “winners” during the 1990s; Jackson won a record-setting five awards in 1996.
Because that year’s show really belonged to Jackson, it made perfect sense that arguably his greatest inspiration was also honored that night. Miss Ross received the Legend Award at the ’96 World Music Awards, a citation “created to honour top recording artists who have made outstanding contributions to the Music Industry.” In his introduction of the award, Prince Albert II commented, “She continues to produce new and exciting material that connects with fans of all ages. Her music speaks for itself.” And thus, a perfect opportunity for Diana’s music to do just that, with the artist appearing on stage to perform a medley of hits from her Supremes days to her then-current video release, “I Will Survive,” before being given the trophy.
Performing solo on a stage decorated with a neon sign declaring, “Diana The Legend,” the singer is revealed by a sudden spotlight…and those expecting the familiar mass of curly hair and draped gown are in for a shock. The fashion icon is instead wearing a short, shaggy blonde wig and casual red pantsuit. Miss Ross would later explain the look during an interview with David Letterman, saying, “We were sitting there from twelve o’clock to late evening, everybody was getting bored and tired…And so we were playing back there in makeup and wigs, and I put this little blonde wig on, and I don’t know if I could ever live with that again!” Certainly if anyone’s earned the right to play around with fashion it’s Diana Ross; the pantsuit, but the way, is one she’d been using on her tour as the “encore” look. However, the Harlow-esque platinum hair sends an immediate message to the audience — this is not your typical “Diana Ross performance” — and it’s definitely not a moment to be taken seriously.
The medley Diana performs here is, in a word, messy. It’s basically the same one that she used for her Super Bowl halftime show; the backing track moves from quick snippets of Supremes hits (“Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Baby Love,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love”) to two big RCA hits (“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and “Chain Reaction”). She’s in good voice as she begins, especially on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” on which she displays some vocal power and wails some nice sustained notes. That said, she seems pretty unfocused; she constantly plays with the collar of her red jacket, and is often far behind the beat of the music, to the point of totally flubbing the beginning to “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It happens again during “Why Do Fools…,” the singer again gets lost in the music; she even stops singing for a moment in order to find her place. She breezes through “Chain Reaction” by relying less on singing and more on posing; the audience doesn’t seem to mind, and a few people even stand in their seats. Next comes a majorly truncated performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” during which the singer walks into the audience and even sits on Michael Jackson’s lap (the singer was sitting in the front row, next to country/pop star Shania Twain). This is the moment for which the appearance is most remembered; Diana coos “If you need me…call me…” to Jackson, who giggles into his hand like a little boy. It’s a cute exchange, and a nice reminder of the deep bond shared by the two performers (the clip of Diana in Jackson’s lap would get lots of play in the news coverage following Jackson’s untimely death). From here, Diana moves through the audience, even allowing her friend and famed choreographer Debbie Allen to sing a line of the song.
Miss Ross ends her performance with “I Will Survive” — she’d recently released a video for the song, and though it was never officially selected as a single, it perhaps became the most recognizable song from Take Me Higher (the diva continues to perform it in concert to this day). She belts out the song nicely, again displaying some vocal muscle, although she again shows a lack of focus when she accidentally begins singing a verse instead of the song’s finale. In any case, the audience is on its feet, clapping along and dancing, and seems suitably swept up in the performance of the legend. Finally, Price Albert joins the singer on stage, handing off the Legend Award, in what becomes the most awkward moment of the entire appearance; Diana giggles and poses while the Prince is speaking, and then jokingly asks “Is it over now? My life?” instead of actually making a speech! It’s actually hard to watch; it’s so bizarre for Diana, who generally shows a classy reserve when getting an award. And you have to wonder what the Prince was thinking as Diana wiggled her hips next to him!
In her subsequent appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” (performing “I Will Survive” and participating in a skit, displaying her rarely acknowledged gift for comedy and willingness to poke fun at herself), Miss Ross seemed to want to forget her appearance on the World Music Awards. When Letterman brings it up, Diana begins laughing and tries to change the subject, saying “I’d rather talk about the way we were…the last time,” referring to her previous appearance on Letterman’s show. She finally explains the wig decision (again, ending it with ” I don’t know if I could ever live with that again!”) before quickly moving on — although Letterman manages to roll a quick clip, which he sarcastically proclaims a “magic moment.” It might not be a magic one, but it’s certainly a memorable moment in a career of memorable television appearances!