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Diahann Carroll Talks Of Love, Life And Those Legs

Diahann Carroll, who wrote a new book <em>The Legs Are The Last To Go</em>, says of her legs: "I am going to admit I'm very proud of them. They're holding up amazingly well."
Diahann Carroll, who wrote a new book The Legs Are The Last To Go, says of her legs: "I am going to admit I'm very proud of them. They're holding up amazingly well."

For more than 50 years, actress and singer Diahann Carroll has been breaking barriers. She was the first black woman to win a Tony for best actress, and the first black woman to star in her own TV show — while not playing a maid. As the title character in that sitcom, Julia, Carroll became the model for one of the first black Barbie dolls.

These days, Carroll is still elegant, still headstrong and still able to turn heads with those illustrious legs, though the title of her new memoir might suggest otherwise: The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way.

"I'm going to admit I'm very proud of them," Carroll says, laughing, in a conversation with NPR's Michele Norris. "They are holding up amazingly well."

The book's cover features Carroll in a director's chair, her legs crossed and outstretched. She looks relaxed, but the preparations for the photo shoot were anything but.

Carroll says she took a water pill and it "backfired" — her clothes wouldn't fit, and she couldn't zip or button any of them.

"I was almost twice the size the day that I took the pill," Carroll says. She also says she was "a little anxious about the body, as one is when people have been talking about your body for 50-some-odd years."

So instead, she put her photographer's shirt on, belted it and "pushed and pulled at it and we finally got the body shape that we wanted." But Carroll took it in stride — unlike how she might have reacted in the past.

"I remember the time when that would have been so traumatic for me, that I don't think I would have been able to do it," Carroll says.

It's about simplicity, she says.

'Youth Can Be Very, Very Threatening'

In the book, Carroll also talks about the difficulties she faced as a young, black artist thrust into the spotlight on Broadway.

She highlights a particular moment with actress Pearl Bailey, who was — at first — very supportive of Carroll and whom she calls "one of the biggest stars of our time."

In the show House of Flowers, Carroll was supposed to sing the song "Don't Like Goodbyes." But Bailey loved the song and wanted to sing it, Carroll says.

During the performance, the older actress was supposed to sing a few phrases of the song to Carroll, who was sitting on the floor next to her, and then turn Carroll's face downstage. Instead, Bailey turned Carroll's face upstage, away from the audience.

"It was one of the highest compliments and one of the most embarrassing moments in my life," Carroll says. "Yes, it was horrible."

She calls it a compliment because she says Bailey wanted the song to herself — and didn't want the audience to see Carroll's face because "somehow that was a threat to her."

"I've gotten older now and I understand it, very much so," Carroll says. "Youth can be very, very threatening. And I was very young."

On Romance And Career

Carroll, who was married several times and had a long love affair with actor Sidney Poitier, says the years have given her perspective on some of the choices she made in love and work.

"I'm a terrible romantic, just ridiculously so," Carroll says. "It's immature, my romanticism. It will not sustain a relationship. I know that now. I think I could have been a good wife at some point, but obviously I didn't need that as much as I need my work.

"I love my child — my daughter, Suzanne. And we've had a very rough time, a very, very rough time," Carroll says. "But once again, I had to come to terms with what it is that propelled me forward most of my life, and that's my work. And I think she's come to terms in some ways with that. Some of it she's forgiven me for, some she may never forgive me for. But I can't change it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Norris