Dalida’s extraordinary life story begins in the Cairo suburbs, where she grew up in total anonymity as the young daughter of a bourgeois immigrant family. After being crowned Miss Egypt at the age of 19, Dalida went on to launch a singing career, scoring a phenomenal hit with the song "Bambino". In the course of her 30-year career Dalida became an enormous international star, ending up as the Maria Callas of the "variété" world. The immensely popular diva, who died a tragic death in 1987, has now become a cult figure for a whole new generation of fans who were not even born when Mademoiselle Bambino first rocketed to fame in the 1950’s.
Dalida began life as Yolanda Gigliotti. She was born in Cairo on 17 January 1933, her Italian grandparents having emigrated to Egypt at the turn of the century. Yolanda and her two brothers, Orlando and Bruno, grew up in a creative musical environment as their father, Pietro, worked as a violinist at the Cairo Opera House. Meanwhile their mother, Giuseppina, busied herself about the family home set in the Choubra district, a lively part of town where Arabs and Westerners lived side by side in perfect harmony.
Yolanda grew up in a happy home environment but her childhood was marred by the serious eye problems which affected her from an early age. She suffered an eye infection as a 10-month old baby and the infection gradually worsened so that by the age of 4, the young girl had already undergone two serious operations. Yolanda had to wear glasses from her earliest childhood and as she grew up she developed a complex about her looks, believing her glasses made her extremely ugly. By the age of 13 Yolanda had had enough. One day in a fit of pique she hurled her glasses out of the window, preferring to see the world as a blur rather than spoil her appearance any longer.
Growing up in Cairo, Yolanda experienced a perfectly ordinary childhood for a young girl born into a bourgeois immigrant family. She attended a local Catholic school run by nuns, spent her weekends with friends hanging out in the Choubra neighbourhood and became involved in the school drama club where she soon proved herself to be a talented performer.
Yolanda’s eyes still bothered her during her teenage years and she was obliged to undergo another operation. But by now Yolanda had metamorphosed from the ugly bespectacled duckling of her childhood days into a beautiful young woman. This instilled Yolanda with new confidence and in 1951 she secretly entered a local beauty contest. When her family discovered photos of Yolanda and the other contestants in the swimsuit parade they were utterly scandalised. But the situation finally calmed down and Yolanda returned to being the quiet studious girl destined for a secretarial career - or so everybody thought !
In fact the beauty contest had given Yolanda a glimpse of a lifestyle for which she secretly yearned. Fascinated by the Hollywood starlets of the day and longing to become involved in the world of glamour, Yolanda soon abandoned the idea of secretarial college and went out to get a job instead, working as a model in the couture house Donna.
Miss Egypt 1954
In 1954 Yolanda went on to enter another beauty contest, this time participating in the Miss Egypt pageant. After winning the contest and being crowned as Miss Egypt, the doors of the Cairo film industry (the Egyptian version of Hollywood) opened wide before her. Cast as a sultry brunette vamp, Dalida was soon spotted by the French director Marc de Gastyne. Yolanda, who had by now changed her name to the more glamourous-sounding Dalida, began to dream of launching a career in Paris. But her family were reluctant about her leaving Egypt. They were unable to stop her, however, and on Christmas Day 1954 Miss Egypt jetted off to start a new life in the French capital.
In fact Dalida’s new life in Paris was far from being the glamourous social whirl she had expected. Lonely and isolated in a big city several degrees colder than Cairo, Dalida struggled to get by on her meagre savings. But Dalida was determined things would change. She began taking singing lessons with a music teacher, who had a reputation for being an absolute tyrant but whose teaching methods obviously worked. After a few months of lessons he sent Dalida off to audition for a cabaret on the Champs Elysées. Despite the fact that she rolled her "r"s in a most exaggerated way, Dalida displayed great professionalism and she was hired as a singer on the spot. After several months working in this cabaret Dalida graduated to a slightly more upmarket club, la Villa d'Este, where she was introduced to the audience as the "Fastest Rising New Star on the French Music Scene". This was slightly peremptory considering that the young singer did not even have a recording contract at the time.
But, fortunately Dalida’s big break was just around the corner. Bruno Coquatrix, who had just bought an old Paris cinema and was about to convert it into the legendary Olympia music-hall, was also presenting a famous radio show on Europe 1. Coquatrix’s programme "Numéros un de demain" (Tomorrow’s N°1s), was dedicated to unearthing new talents and Dalida was soon invited onto the show. Her performance of the song "Etrangère au Paradis" impressed two influential men in the French record industry. Lucien Morisse, the artistic director of Europe 1, and Eddy Barclay, owner of the famous Barclay label, were certain that Dalida was going to be one of tomorrow’s hottest n°1s.
Lucien Morisse promptly offered to step in and act as Dalida’s manager, and in 1955 Morisse’s young protégée recorded her début single "Madonna" on the Barclay label. This proved a relative success but it was Dalida’s second single, "Bambino", which would really launch the singer to fame. Thanks to Lucien Morisse, "Bambino" was played practically non-stop on Europe 1 and soon rocketed to the top of the French charts.
1956 proved to be a year of triumph for Dalida. She appeared at the famous Olympia as a support act for Charles Aznavour and brought the house down with her performance of "Bambino" which was greeted by thunderous applause and clamours for an encore. The public certainly got more of Dalida - her face was soon splashed over hundreds of French magazine covers. Dalida had certainly achieved her glamourous dreams of stardom . Indeed when she returned to the Olympia in September of that year thousands of fans jostled in front of the door, desperate to push to the front and catch a glimpse of their idol. Needless to say, sales of "Bambino" absolutely rocketed and on 17 September 1957 Dalida received her first gold disc ("Bambino" having sold over 300,000 copies).
By this time Lucien Morisse had become much more than a Pygmalion figure in the singer’s life. The pair had started a passionate affair, and rumours had started spreading like wildfire through the French music world because the artistic director of Europe 1 happened to be a married man.
Dalida’s second smash hit, "Gondolier", was released in 1957 in the run-up to Christmas. The following year Dalida was presented with Radio Monte Carlo’s Oscar (an award which the singer won seven years running !) After this success Dalida embarked upon an extensive tour, one of the highlights of which was her impressive performance at the Bobino club in Paris where the singer brought the house down with a set which included no less than ten hit singles. In 1959 Dalida set off on another tour, this time going back to her roots and playing a series of dates in Italy. The singer proved an enormous hit with the Italian public and her fame soon spread throughout the rest of Europe.
Dalida’s triumphant homecoming
After a brief but unsuccessful tour of the United States - where the singer did not turn out to be the headlining star that many critics had been predicting - Dalida returned to her homeland where she was given a truly royal welcome. Thousands of fans flocked to see Dalida in concert and the Egyptian press feted her in style, hailing her as "the Voice of the Century". Dalida also renewed ties with her family, although the international star soon discovered that many things had changed since her sudden departure.
After her phenomenal success in Cairo, Dalida returned to Paris where she went straight back into the studio to record a whole new string of hits under Lucien Morisse’s supervision. Meanwhile the couple carried on their affair outside working hours, but the passion of their early days had developed into a stormy and troubled relationship. Lucien Morisse had still not divorced from his wife and Dalida was getting tired of waiting for wedding bells to ring. After many long months of hesitation, the couple would finally get married in Paris on 8 April 1961.
Dalida flew the whole of her family over from Egypt for the wedding, then set off on tour the minute the celebrations were over. However, just a few weeks after her wedding Dalida arrived in Cannes to perform a concert and fell head over heels in love with a man named Jean Sobieski. This obviously threw the singer’s recent marriage into turmoil. Although Dalida recognised that she owed Lucien Morisse a huge debt for having helped her launch her career, the singer decided that the most important thing in life was her independence. At first Morisse refused to accept that Dalida could run off with someone else so soon after their marriage, but in the end he was forced to allow the headstrong Dalida her freedom.
While living her new passion with Sobieski to the full, Dalida never forgot her career for one moment. In December 1961, just as the Yéyé movement (French rock’n’roll) was sweeping through the country and attracting thousands of teenage fans in its wake, Dalida performed a triumphant series of concerts at the Olympia. This was the first time that Dalida had performed at the prestigious Parisian music-hall as the star act (she was supported by the young Richard Anthony on this occasion), but she proved a phenomenal hit with the French public. Dalida performed at the Olympia for an entire month, her show attracting over 2,000 music fans each night. The singer followed this incredible success with an extensive foreign tour which took her to Hong Kong and Vietnam (a country where Dalida was already a huge star).
Château life in Montmartre
In the summer of 1962 Dalida was back at the top of the charts with a new hit single "Petit Gonzalez" (which went on to become an absolute Dalida classic). This catchy song, more upbeat and modern than her previous hits, put the singer in touch with a whole new generation of teenage fans.
It was around this period that Dalida bought her famous château in Montmartre. Perched behind the Sacré Coeur on a hilltop offering the most breath-taking view of Paris, this mansion (which bore a striking resemblance to Sleeping Beauty’s fairytale castle) would provide a quiet refuge for the singer throughout the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Dalida’s divorce from Lucien Morisse had come through, leaving her free to pursue her affair with Jean Sobieski. However, shortly after moving into her new home the singer broke off her relationship with Sobieski. Shortly afterwards, in August 1964, Dalida underwent a radical change of image, metamorphosing from a sultry brunette into a blonde bombshell. Dalida’s new hairstyle coincided with her more sophisticated new musical style. (Meanwhile the singer sought to improve herself culturally, reading literature and art books).
On 3 September 1964 Dalida returned to the Olympia, this time confident of enjoying a tremendous reception from the audience. Dalida who had successfully survived the Yéyé craze of the early 60’s, was by now the most popular female singer on the French music scene. In 1965 she went on to score another phenomenal hit with "La danse de Zorba", a song based on the music of the Greek composer Théodorakis (renowned for writing the soundtrack of the legendary film "Zorba The Greek"). Yet, while Dalida’s career was going from strength to strength, the singer’s personal life was continuing to cause her problems. Dalida longed to get married again, but unfortunately there was a distinct lack of suitable lovers on the horizon and the singer would return to her fairytale home in Montmartre alone at night.
Dalida threw herself into her work, devoting herself to her recording sessions and gala performances. At the end of 1966 Dalida’s younger brother, Bruno, who had moved to Paris several years earlier to help his sister with her career, became Dalida’s manager. By this point Dalida’s career had become a real family affair, the singer’s cousin Rosy also having been called in to act as her secretary.
In October 1966 the Italian record label RCA introduced Dalida to a talented young songwriter by the name of Luigi Tenco. This passionate, headstrong young Italian made a great impression on the singer and the pair soon began spending a great deal of time together, working on a song for the San Remo music festival. (Dalida’s label had decided that as part of a new promotional campaign in Italy the singer should appear at this famous Italian song contest). Dalida and Luigi soon fell passionately in love and decided that they would both perform at San Remo, each performing their own version of the song "Ciao Amore".
The pressure was on when the couple performed at San Remo in January 1967. Dalida was a huge star in Italy, of course, but young Luigi Tenco was an absolute newcomer on the Italian music scene. Surrounded by a blaze of publicity, the couple caused even more of a stir when they announced their forthcoming marriage, set for April of that year. Unfortunately, the happy couple were never to make it up the aisle for the San Remo festival was to end in tragedy. Neither Dalida nor Luigi were awarded a prize at San Remo, and this sent Luigi into an absolute fury. Keyed up and under the influence of a fair amount of alcohol and tranquilisers, Luigi began insulting the members of the jury, claiming that the whole San Remo festival was corrupt. He retired to his hotel room immediately after this outburst, and later committed suicide in his room. Dalida was utterly devastated at Luigi’s death and a few months later the singer would swallow an entire bottle of barbiturates in an attempt to end her own life.
Dalida reinvents herself as Madonna
After this tragic episode, Dalida moved on to a whole new phase of her career, appearing on stage in a long white dress and re-inventing herself as a kind of Madonna figure. In the summer of 67 she resumed her live concerts, performing a series of dates across France. The singer remained immensely popular with the French public who turned out to see her in force, utterly devoted to "Saint Dalida" (as the French press had dubbed the singer).
Dalida’s personal renaissance continued off-stage. The singer continued to read voraciously, devouring books on philosophy and becoming a passionate devotee of Freud. Dalida also channelled an increasing amount of time and energy into practising yoga and meditation. Meanwhile Dalida’s singing career continued to go from strength to strength. The singer returned to Italy in the autumn of 67 to take part in a famous television show then made a triumphant comeback at the Olympia on 5 October. In the spring of 68 Dalida embarked upon another extensive international tour. Later that same year she received one of the ultimate accolades in Italy, winning the prestigious "Canzonissima" award.
The late 60’s were marked by a period of intense soul-searching, Dalida frequently flying off to India to follow the teachings of a guru. The singer also went into analysis with a Jungian psychiatrist in Paris. Yet, although Dalida began to spend an increasing amount of time probing her psyche, she did not once neglect her career. In August 1970 the singer set off on tour with Jacques Dutronc, scoring an enormous hit with her new single "Darladiladada". In the autumn she appeared on a television programme with Léo Ferré and went on to record his classic "Avec le temps". It was at this point that Dalida decided to revolutionise her repertoire, declaring that from now on she would only perform songs with meaningful poetic lyrics. Bruno Coquatrix, the legendary director of the Olympia, expressed severe doubts about Dalida’s new choice of songs and began to hesitate about booking her for a show. Irritated by the delay, Dalida hired the Olympia herself for a three-week run. It was with great trepidation that the singer took to the stage of the Olympia at the end of 1971. Her former manager and Pygmalion Lucien Morisse was no longer there to support her (Morisse had also committed suicide in September 1970) and Dalida appeared to have some reservations about her new repertoire. Dalida needn’t have worried, her appearance on stage at the Olympia was greeted with thunderous applause and her three-week run at the legendary Paris music-hall would prove to be phenomenally successful.
The famous duet with Alain Delon
By 1972 Dalida appeared to have acquired a new-found serenity both on and off stage. Later that year she would go into the studio with her old friend Alain Delon to record the classic duet "Parole Parole" (the French adaptation of a well-known Italian song). When the duet was released as a single in the spring of 73, it shot straight to the top of the French charts and also rocketed to the n°1 spot in Japan (where Delon was already a major star).
The early 70’s proved to be an immensely successful period in Dalida’s career. The singer’s professional renaissance echoed a new development in her personal life, the arrival of a new admirer in the form of Richard Chanfray. Chanfray, who preferred to be known as the Count of Saint Germain appears to have been something of an imposter as far as his title was concerned, but his devotion to Dalida certainly boosted the singer’s confidence and gave her a new taste for life. It was at this point that Dalida’s stage image underwent another radical change, as the singer metamorphosed from white-robed Madonna into a glamourous and very feminine "Hollywood" star. The arrival of Richard Chanfray in Dalida’s life soon put an end to the singer’s trips to India and her earnest quest for spirituality.
1974, Gigi l'amoroso
In 1973 a young French songwriter by the name of Pascal Sevran penned a song for Dalida entitled "Il venait d'avoir 18 ans". Dalida was rather hesitant about the song but, albeit somewhat reluctantly, the singer went into the studio at the end of the year to record it as her next single. Dalida’s doubts about the song proved to be totally unfounded. Indeed, shortly after its release, "Il venait d'avoir 18 ans" shot straight to n°1 in nine different countries (including Germany where the single sold a staggering 3 and a half million copies !) On 15 January 1974 Dalida returned to the Olympia where she performed a brand new song entitled "Gigi L’Amoroso". This highly original song, which lasted a full 7 and a half minutes and featured a mix of vocals and spoken lyrics, was to become the most famous hit of Dalida’s entire career. Indeed, "Gigi L’Amoroso" was to prove an international best-seller, shooting to n° 1 in no less than twelve countries around the world.
Following the phenomenal success of "Gigi L’Amoroso" Dalida embarked upon an extensive tour of Japan, then at the end of 1974 the singer set off for Quebec. Dalida would return to Quebec for another successful concert tour a few months later, before flying off to Germany where she had by now become a huge star. In February 1975 Dalida was honoured in France, music critics presenting her with the prestigious Prix de l'Académie du disque français. Dalida then went on to score another huge success with her cover of Rina Ketty’s 1938 hit "J'attendrai" (which she had listened to as a young girl growing up in Egypt). The following year Dalida went back into the studio to record an entire album of cover versions, adding her own inimitable touch to famous French classics such as "La vie en rose".
The 70’s proved to be an ideal time for Dalida’s career. There was a veritable craze for television "variété" shows and the singer soon found herself performing practically non-stop on French TV and flying off to appear on new "variété" shows all over the world. This provided an ideal way for Dalida to maintain her worldwide popularity without having to perform exhausting concert tours.
Meanwhile Dalida’s immense popularity in Arab countries continued unabated. (The fact that Dalida had been born in Cairo meant that the Arab public felt a special affinity with the European star). Dalida returned to Egypt on several occasions in the 70’s and she also spent a great deal of time travelling around Lebanon. The singer’s frequent trips to her homeland eventually gave her the idea of singing in Arabic and in 1978 she recorded a cover version of the traditional Egyptian folk song "Salma Ya Salama". Released in France and the Middle East, "Salma Ya Salama" proved to be a phenomenal success and Dalida ended up recording the song in no less than seven different languages.
1978 - Dalida triumphs in New York
Later that same year Dalida would change labels, leaving Sonopress to sign a new recording deal with Carrère. This new phase of the singer's career coincided with the release of another major hit "Génération 78", a catchy Dalida medley which was greatly influenced by the 70's disco craze. Throughout her career Dalida showed herself to be a true survivor, adapting her musical style to all the latest trends and hanging on to her international stardom with tenacity. The Americans were particularly impressed by Dalida’s long career and her Hollywood-style glamour and on 29 November 1978 the singer was invited to perform in New York at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Dalida brought the house down with her magical performance, the crowd erupting into thunderous applause at the end of the singer’s updated version of the 20s music-hall favourite "The Lambeth Walk". The American press showered the European star with rave reviews as well, hailing her show as a veritable masterpiece.
Following the immense success of her American show, Dalida returned to France where she went straight back into the recording studio to begin work on her new material. By the summer of 1979 Dalida was back at the top of the French charts with "Monday Tuesday", a new hit which found Dalida successfully tuning into the disco vogue once again. Dalida returned to Egypt in June of that year, delighting her Egyptian fans by performing in her mother tongue for the very first time. (By this point Dalida had recorded a second highly successful single in Arabic, entitled "Helwa Ya Baladi"). Dalida’s return to her homeland was surrounded by a blaze of publicity. Thousands of Egyptian fans lined the streets to welcome Dalida back to Cairo and President Sadat himself turned out to greet the singer. After a series of concerts in Egypt Dalida set off on a highly successful tour of the United Arab Emirates.
1980 - Dalida brings a touch of Broadway to Paris
Dalida, now at the very height of her fame, ushered in the 80’s with a spectacular Broadway-style show in Paris. The singer’s mega-concert at the Palais des Sports (5 - 20 January 1980) was a veritable extravaganza - involving twelve complete costume changes! Dalida appeared on stage in a glitter of sequins and feathers, surrounded by a troupe of 11 dancers and a group of 13 musicians. The singer’s specially choreographed stage show, which lasted more than two hours, drove audiences wild and Dalida performed her 18 concerts to capacity audiences every night. Following her Paris triumph, the singer set off on an extensive national tour which lasted into the autumn.
But while Dalida’s career continued to go from strength to strength, her personal life was soon in turmoil once again after the break-up of yet another relationship. Following an extremely painful split from Richard Chanfray, Dalida threw herself into her work with a vengeance, trying to forget this new unhappiness. In March 1981 Dalida adapted the spectacular show she had performed at the Palais des Sports and took it to the Olympia. On the evening of her première at the Olympia Dalida was presented with one of the ultimate accolades in the music business, receiving a diamond disc for having sold over 80 million albums in the course of her career. (The singer already had an impressive collection of awards including 55 gold discs for her work recorded in seven different languages). After her phenomenal success at the Olympia, the indefatigable Dalida set off on another tour.
The following two years in the singer’s career were dominated by her much-publicised support of the new French president François Mitterrand. Dalida’s support of Mitterrand, which was much more personal than political, soon began to attract a great deal of adverse publicity for the singer. Indeed in the spring of 1982 a scandal threatened to blow up in the press and Dalida decided it was time to distance herself from the whole affair. The singer thus set off on an extensive world tour which kept her away from the French capital for the next twelve months.
When Dalida returned to France in April 1983 she went straight into the studio to record a brand new album (which featured two of her best-known classics, "Mourir sur scène" and "Lucas"). The whispering campaign against the singer had calmed down by now and Dalida’s popularity in France was as great as ever, but the ‘Mitterrand affair’ left the singer feeling wounded and betrayed.
Just as Dalida was recovering from her betrayal at the hands of the French press, the singer received another blow. On 20 July 1983 she learnt that her former lover Richard Chanfray had committed suicide in Saint Tropez. Devastated by Chanfray’s death, Dalida appeared to lose all enthusiasm for her work and sank into a sudden lethargy. The singer began to suffer a severe crisis of confidence and would also suffer moments of memory loss.
In spite of these personal problems, Dalida set off on tour again in 1984, much to the delight of her fans who had started complaining that the singer’s live performances were becoming all too rare. She followed this tour with a series of concerts in Saudi Arabia. The following year Dalida was forced to interrupt her career to undergo two major eye operations.
In 1986 Dalida’s career took an unexpected turn when the famous Egyptian director Youssef Chahine offered her a leading role in his new film "Le Sixième jour" (an adaptation of a novel by Andrée Chédid). Dalida’s cinema experience had been limited to minor film roles up to this point and she relished the idea of proving her acting talent with Chahine, all the more so as she was beginning to grow rather tired of her singing career at this point. Shooting on "Le Sixième jour" proved to be long and arduous but Dalida, a true professional in all circumstances, gave her all. When the film appeared on general release critics wrote highly flattering reviews of Dalida, praising her performance as a young grandmother in "Le Sixième jour" and predicting that she would go on to become one of Egypt’s greatest actresses. These reviews touched Dalida immensely, reassuring her that it was possible to change the direction of her career.
However, nothing appeared to change in the star’s private life. Dalida’s history of blighted love affairs continued and she soon began a secret relationship with a doctor. This affair was to end in tears just like all the others, but this time Dalida appeared unable to overcome her disappointment and climb out of her depression. On 3 May 1987 Dalida decided to put an end to her life.
Dalida, who became an internationally famous diva in her lifetime, has been transformed into a veritable cult figure following her tragic death. Throughout her career Dalida sought comfort from the melodramas of her personal life in the arms of her adoring fans, famously declaring "my public offers me the face of Love". Today, Dalida’s memory lives on in Paris, where one of the main squares in Montmartre has been named after her.