Imagine a musician that was so successful that her music charted in multiple countries, was beloved by mass audiences and intellectuals alike, and whose career survived three decades of cultural shifts and changes in taste. Very few musicians fit that description, but Dalida, one of the most successful French divas of all time, did all that and more. Despite her talent, unbearable tragedies filled Dalida’s life…and it all eventually led to an end so dark, it’s unforgettable.
Dalida’s beginnings foreshadowed her future as a star with incredible international appeal. On January 17, 1933, Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti—known to us as “Dalida”—was born to two Italian parents living in Cairo, Egypt. Her mom was a seamstress and the family breadwinner. Her dad, on the other hand, held a job that gained Dalida’s family a surprising amount of social status within their little community.
While Dalida’s mom brought in the cash, her dad’s job as the concertmaster of the Khedivial Opera House earned their family the admiration of her neighbors. Thanks to her parents, Dalida and her two brothers had a mostly idyllic childhood that exposed them to a good education and a love for music…until a family tragedy turned Dalida’s gentle father into a complete monster.
In 1940, WWII turned Dalida’s life completely upside-down. Allied forces took her father and some other Italian men from their homes, and sent them to the Fayed prison camp near Cairo. For four years, young Dalida saw neither hide nor hair of her father and had practically zero knowledge of what went on inside the camp. Four years later, the Allies released Dalida’s father…and a year of horror began for Dalida.
Whatever happened inside the prison completely changed Dalida’s dad. He was no longer the loving figure that she remembered. Instead, he was cold and cruel. According to Dalida, “I hated him when he beat me, I hated him especially when he beat my mom and brothers". Only 11 years old, she fervently wished for her father to disappear from her life forever. Well, be careful what you wish for…
In 1945, Dalida’s family was struck by tragedy. Her father suffered a brain abscess that killed him. Their grief was tempered by gratitude that they no longer had to put up with him. Now freed of her dad, Dalida went on to live her life as a normal teen—for the most part. As she approached her teen years, she developed a passion for acting that her mom disapproved of.
That didn’t stop Dalida, though! Eventually, she got her chance at stardom, and it got her in a world of trouble.
Shortly after landing a safe (but probably boring) job at a pharmaceutical company, Dalida’s best friend convinced her to join Miss Ondine, a minor Cairo beauty pageant. Dalida, as excited as she probably was, hesitated. If her mom found out, she was toast. Her friend eventually convinced her to join—after all, it was just for fun. There was no way her mom would find out about it, unless Dalida did something crazy like win the entire competition… Right?
Okay, so Dalida didn’t actually win the competition, but she did place second, which completely shocked her. The news of her second-place win, along with a photograph of her, ended up in two major Egyptian newspapers. Awesome, right? Well, not if you’re trying to hide the fact that you joined a pageant from your mom! Eventually, her mom saw the articles featuring Dalida, and she made sure to punish her daughter for her act of teenage rebellion.
Dalida’s mom didn’t just send her to her room or ground her for a week. No, Dalida’s punishment was much, much worse. Dalida’s mom sat her down and forcibly cut the teen’s hair short, changing the girl’s looks and likely making it much more difficult for her to enter any future pageants. Dalida was tenacious though; she wasn’t going to let something as small as a bad haircut get in the way of her dreams.
Although her actions were extreme, Dalida’s mom wasn’t immune to having her mind changed. Sometime after the haircutting incident, her views of pageants and modeling softened. Dalida seized this chance to leave her job at the pharmaceutical company and pursue a modeling career with Donna, a Cairo-based fashion house. She must’ve been pretty darn good at her job too, because when she turned 21, she hit her first major career milestone.
On her 21st birthday, Dalida got her mom’s blessing to enter the 1954 Miss Egypt competition. Unlike her last pageant experience, Dalida planned to take home the crown, and she did it in the most daring way possible. When she stepped onto the stage, she appeared in a sensational panther-print bikini that blew away the judges. Dalida won the Miss Egypt title with flying colors, but ironically, the title ended up being the least important thing she got out of the pageant.
The truly important thing that Dalida got out of the Miss Egypt competition was the opportunity to become an actress. During the competition, her victory caught the eye of three film directors. Marco de Gastyne offered her a role in The Mask of Tutankhamun, and Niazi Mostafa gave her the leading role in A Glass and a C*garette. The third offered her a long-term, steady acting contract, but shockingly, she turned him down. Dalida actually had bigger plans in mind.
Gastyne, who probably saw immense star potential in Dalida, advised her to relocate to Paris in order to expand her opportunities. Dalida took this advice to heart. On Christmas Day of 1954, Dalida arrived in Paris and roomed with a friend of Gastyne’s. The glittering lights of Paris must’ve made anything seem possible to Dalida, but reality quickly brought her crashing back down to Earth.
Dalida spent her time in Paris meeting with directors and auditioning for movie roles. Each time, Dalida failed to get her foot in the door. After having a relatively easy start in Cairo, the rejections likely came as a bit of a shock for the budding starlet, but she wasn’t one to simply give up. By 1955, after a year of failing to secure movie roles, Dalida made a decision that drastically changed the course of her career, and her life.
Since acting was clearly getting her nowhere fast, Dalida pivoted to singing. Of course, sh had little to no experience singing professionally, but with the help of her roommate, she connected with a man named Roland Berger, a professor who agreed to train her seven days a week at a cheap price. And, well, let’s just say that Dalida definitely got what she paid for…
Dalida’s new vocal instructor was not a patient and understanding teacher. He was strict, and often yelled at her during lessons. Her reaction was chilling. She screamed right back at an even louder volume and often ended her lessons by slamming the door on the way out. Still, Dalida came back to train day after day for her vocal lessons, and eventually improved enough that her instructor took their lessons to the next level.
With her instructor’s blessing, Dalida began performing in a cabaret on Champs-Élysées. Her performance wowed another cabaret director named Jacques Paoli, who booked her for even more shows. Eventually, things began to snowball. Bruno Coquatrix, the director of the Olympia theater, invited her to perform at his singing contest Les numéros 1 de demain. There, a fateful encounter with two men launched Dalida into superstardom.
During Dalida’s performance, her voice (which Coquatrix described as “full of color and volume, and has all that men love: gentleness, sensuality, and eroticism”), caught the attention of Eddie Barclay (the owner of the largest recording house in France) and Lucien Morisse (the artistic director of a radio station called Europe 1). Enthralled by Dalida’s voice, Morisse personally handed her his business card after the show. Dalida’s road to diva status officially began.
A few days later, Dalida officially met with Morisse and Barclay. She sang for the two men in their office, proving that her talent was not just a fluke. Impressed, the duo signed Dalida on for a one-year contract on May 2, 1956. From there, things moved quickly. The following month, she recorded and released her first song, “Madona". It didn’t make a huge splash, but Dalida’s next song cemented her as the singing sensation of the century.
With Morisse’s help, Dalida released “Bambino” on October 28, 1956. The song quickly gained public interest, bolstered by Morisse’s heavy radio promotions. She watched the song rocket through the charts—it reached number one in Canada and Belgium, and stayed number one in France for a whopping 45 weeks, a record-breaking number! She became an overnight star, inadvertently changing the face of the music industry in some surprising—and undesirable—ways.
Dalida’s beauty and singing talent had a disturbing side effect. It started an era where a singer’s looks mattered as much as her voice. Coquatrix called Dalida the “first sex symbol of the song,” and her fans took his words to heart. In an effort to copy her looks, many of Dalida’s fans purchased Rimel products in droves, causing an explosion of demand for their makeup. Dalida’s sensuality hooked in male fans too, and this included a fan that was close to her heart.
In 1957, Dalida moved in with and dated one of her biggest fans and supporters of her work: Morisse, the man who plucked her from the stage of the singing contest all those months ago. With Morisse at her side, the duo began the hard work of promoting Dalida’s music and pushing her to new heights, alongside Coquatrix and Barclay. Now with a four-year music contract in hand, Dalida took to the stage.
On February 27, 1957, the 24-year-old Dalida held her first-ever concert at the Olympia. From there, her wildly successful concerts took the world by storm. She performed a successful series of concerts at the Bobino music hall, which led to the official establishment of her fan club—the first fan club ever created for a female artist. In the meantime, her songs continued to chart at number one, only to be knocked out of the rankings by… Herself.
Dalida’s next two songs, “Miguel” and “Tu n’as pas très bon caractère,” finally knocked “Bambino” out of the top spot of the charts, and it only served to highlight her impossible star power. Nothing could stop Dalida; her fame allowed her to experiment with her music and her image in ways that were very out-of-the-box. One experiment of hers actually managed to scandalize the public, and even caused some of her most devoted fans to raise their eyebrows.
Over Christmas of 1957, Dalida released a song entitled “Gondolier". Now, it wasn’t Dalida’s dreamy vocals or her use of exotic instrumentation that got her into trouble—it was her scandalous performance. While she was on stage, her dress’s shoulder strap fell down (gasp!). Some of the public clutched their pearls in horror, while others applauded her for bucking convention.
Either way, this wasn’t the last time Dalida appeared on screen.
In late 1958, Dalida finally got the chance to revive an old dream of hers: to become a film star. She first appeared in a mystery film called Rapt au deuxième bureau as, fittingly enough, a singer-spy. She then appeared with Barclay in Brigade des moeurs as herself. Her film career didn’t come anywhere close to being as successful as her singing career though, which became obvious when her fame finally broke through the borders of France.
By 1959, Dalida was so popular that she took her shows outside of France. Her concerts in Egypt, Italy, and Germany constantly sold out, prompting her to record songs in other languages, including: Italian, German, Spanish, English, Arabic, Flemish, Japanese, and Hebrew. The only place that eluded her was America, but ironically, the blame for that may lie with Dalida herself.
As Dalida’s fame grew, many players in the music industry looking to rake in the cash got in touch with her. For example, on December 26, 1958, Norman Granz, the manager for Ella Fitzgerald, offered to launch her career in the States. Dalida refused since she already had a solid fan base in France, and perhaps because she wanted to stay true to Morisse, her lover and current manager. Before long, she came to regret that decision.
By 1960, Dalida was truly on top of the world. In the span of just a couple of years, she broke record after record, received numerous accolades, and became an artist that changed how the industry operated. In June 1960, her song “Am Tag als der Regen kam” was so popular that the music industry invented the term “summer hit” in order to describe its popularity. But when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go…down.
In France, a new style of pop music emerged: yé-yé. This style was dominated by young females singing cute, upbeat songs. Dalida, who saw yé-yé singers rise to stardom only to quickly disappear from the public eye, dismissed yé-yé as a fad… At first. As more yé-yé singers emerged and threatened her position as France’s top star, Dalida realized she needed to change. And, well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
In September, Dalida made a smart, if drastic change to her image. She released a French cover of the American hit, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” entitled, “Itsi Bitsi petit Bikini". It quickly became one of Dalida’s signature songs and was France’s first big yé-yé hit. In addition, the silly, upbeat song injected a fresh wave of young listeners to her (already huge) fanbase. Only one thing in her life managed to top this huge accomplishment.
In 1961, Dalida married the man that started her career and took her to the stars: Lucien Morisse. This must’ve been a joyful time for her; in between completing a world tour and creating a record-breaking Christmas album (yes, really!), she managed to tie the knot with the man of her dreams. To her fans, Dalida was living the life, but they had no idea that trouble brewed beneath that veneer of perfection.
Just a few months into their marriage, the true state of Dalida’s relationship with Lucien went public. Dalida’s marriage was anything but a happily ever after. In fact, Dalida was having an affair with a French actor and painter named Jean Sobieski. Dalida’s new husband quickly filed for a divorce and her critics immediately dog-piled her with scathing remarks regarding her affair. At this point, it seemed like Dalida’s life could go in any direction.
The combination of her recent divorce and the emergence of new yé-yé stars caused Dalida’s critics to predict the “end and downfall of Dalida,” but they couldn’t have been more wrong. In February of 1961, Dalida started another year-long world tour, which started in Teheran in front of the Iranian royal family and ended in the Olympia. The remarks from her critics did little to put a dent in concert attendees… But one particular song did land the songstress in hot water.
The next year, Dalida took her show to Vietnam, where she caused the country quite a bit of trouble. In Saigon, Dalida’s popularity led to widespread traffic issues during the day of her performance—but that wasn’t the worst part. When she began singing her recent hit, “La Leçon de Twist,” local authorities stopped the show since the song had taken on a political edge in the country. From there, something unthinkable happened to Dalida: her popularity began to dip.
In 1964, Dalida released several songs that didn’t do nearly as well as her other hits. “Ce coin de terre,” “Ne t’en fais pas pour ça,” and “Chaque instant de” suffered from poor marketing, and only managed to squeak into the top twenty. This signaled another change for Dalida. She recorded and released “Amore scusami,” a sentimental pop ballad that was completely outside of her comfort zone. She nervously waited for her fans’ responses…
“Amore scusami” swiftly took over the charts and re-ignited Dalida’s popularity. She quickly released an album of the same name, which sold so well that the music industry needed to invent a new album certification for Dalida: platinum. To top it all off, Dalida found love once again with an Italian singer-songwriter named Luigi Tenco.
This time, Dalida intended to keep her romance (and eventual engagement) a well-guarded secret—until a tragic event forced her to go public with her relationship.
In 1967, Dalida and Tenco competed in the Sanremo Music Festival, where the couple sang “Ciao amore, ciao". Dalida’s interpretation of the song led to a standing ovation, but Tenco’s interpretation was an utter disaster. Thanks to a combination of stage fright and booze, her beau delivered a less-than-impressive version of the song, and the judges eliminated them. Completely humiliated, Dalida’s lover did something that completely devastated her.
The next evening, Dalida walked into their shared hotel room and made an absolutely disturbing discovery. She found Tenco’s body, along with a suicide note. In the note, Tenco explained that he took his own life due to the judges’ decision to eliminate him from the festival (although some suspect that the Mafia might have been involved). Either way, his passing was a major blow to Dalida, and it took a toll on the singer’s psyche.
That same year, Dalida had a brief relationship with a 22 year-old college student that resulted in a pregnancy. She secretly found a doctor willing to perform an abortion, but in a horrific twist, the doctor botched the procedure, leaving her infertile. This tragedy, combined with the loss of Tenco, caused Dalida’s mental health to spiral downward. Her next actions were downright chilling.
On February 7, 1967, Dalida put on a performance that unsettled all those that knew of her relationship with Tenco. She performed “Parlez moi de lui” in honor of Tenco—but there was an even more disturbing twist. She did it while wearing the dress she had on when she stumbled upon his body. 19 days later, Dalida shocked the world by attempting to take her own life.
She ended up in the hospital, where she spent five days in a coma. Her career screeched to a halt, but that wasn’t the end of her misfortunes.
Dalida slowly recovered, and even made a tearful television appearance on June 8, 1968, where she sang “Les grilles de ma maison". From there, the next two years were fairly successful ones for Dalida, but 1970 brought a fresh tragedy to the songstress. Morisse, her ex-husband with whom she was still friendly with, took his own life at the age of 41.
It was another deep blow to Dalida—so much so that her music took on an eerie change.
During the beginning of the 1970s, Dalida’s songs became less romantic—and more like a cry for help. Her raw anguish shone through in her vocals, which drew fans in like never before. In late 1972, she released “Paroles, paroles,” a song about hollow words and hollow promises, along with “Je suis malade” (“I am sick” in English) in June.
Her melancholy songs foreshadowed the diva’s sense of deep despair, and a disturbing event only made things worse.
In that same year, Dalida fell in love with a man named Richard Chanfray. He was a media personality, and unfortunately for her, he was also completely off his rocker. He claimed to be the Count of Saint-Germain, a real historical figure that frequented the court of Louis XV. Yes, you read that right. Chanfray further claimed he was 17,000 years old.
Dalida’s relationship with this man was a strange one, but it’s nothing compared to what was happening to her music.
In 1973, Dalida released a shocking single called “Il venait d’avoir 18 ans,” which translates to “He had just turned 18". The song made the charts in many countries, but the story behind the song is a disturbing one. Many speculate that the song was about her affair with the 22-year-old college student that ended in her infertility. From here, Dalida’s life grew increasingly darker.
In 1975, a close personal friend of hers named Mike Brant leapt out of a Paris apartment building. The news destroyed Dalida; Brant opened many of her shows in the past, and was a promising new singer in the French music scene. She tried to push on, but in 1977, a crazed fan tried (and failed) to abduct her with a hammer while on tour in Canada. With so much personal tragedy weighing her down, it’s no surprise that she began crying out for help.
In 1980, Dalida’s music took yet another ominous turn. She began singing “Je suis malade” more and more often, along with other slower, moodier songs. In 1983, she released another song chillingly named “Mourir sur scène,” which translates to “To die on stage". The song was another huge hit, but it marked another sharp emotional decline for Dalida. Then, her lover did something that pulled Dalida into the deepest pits of despair.
In July 1983, Chanfray took his own life—and the way he did it was unforgettably grisly. He did it by inhaling the exhaust from his car. At this point, Dalida and Chanfray weren't dating, but his passing likely had a profound effect on the poor singer. By the beginning of 1984, her personal issues made it hard for her to concentrate on her career.
The diva was slowing down, and a medical issue nearly put her career at a standstill.
In 1985, Dalida’s eye problems—an issue she contracted from an infection she had as a kid—came back to haunt her. Due to her eye problems, she could not be in front of stage lights for long, which greatly harmed her ability to perform live. She endured two major surgeries to correct the problem, but it did little to boost her career or her mental health. The end drew near for our intrepid songstress.
Throughout 1986, Dalida’s career went into decline. Two of the songs she released that year (“Le temps d’aimer” and “Le Vénitien de Levallois”) failed to chart. Otherwise, she spent her days at home by herself, or out with friends in an attempt to distract herself from her inner demons. She recycled her older hits during her concerts in lieu of releasing more new songs, but by 1987, it was clear that Dalida needed help. Sadly, help did not reach her in time.
On the evening of May 2, 1987, a severely depressed Dalida took her own life by overdosing on barbiturates. She left a simple and devastating note behind that read, “Life is unbearable for me. Forgive me". They buried her at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris, France, and her fans remember her for the sprawling musical legacy that she left behind. The music world lost Dalida much too early, but this amazing diva continues to live on through her songs.
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