Egypt’s legendary songstress Dalida would have turned 90 this month, and while her light has since departed, her impression on fashion and music endures.
Singing has its own energy, but for the Egypt-born and French-Italian chanteuse Dalida, her interpretations were uniquely nuanced. At once ebullient and raspy, they brought forth the disquieting hums of a heavy life. When once asked of her own purpose, she answered, “To help others (through song) by sharing my life and my torments.” With a career traversing three decades, she managed to do just this. Singing in numerous languages, among them Arabic, French, and Italian, she connected with people across oceans. When performing in Egypt, the late songstress was known to often ask her public, “Mabsoteen?” – “Are you happy?” Dalida would have turned 90 this month – and if her memory still lingers in our shared cultural consciousness, it is a testament to a woman who gave in abundance. To her art, to her loves, and to life itself.
Reflecting on the artist that was Dalida, Egyptian mezzo-soprano Farrah El Dibany, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, says of her influence, “To me, Dalida represents a woman with so much talent, that it was beyond her. There are so many songs that she sang in parallel to incidents happening in her life. And she was always smiling despite all the sadness inside of her. This made her music and singing even deeper.” Extending her classic repertoire to cover songs such as Dalida’s Histoire d’un amour among others, she shares, “I think the thing that inspired me the most was her honesty on stage. The way she expressed herself when singing was genuine – and this is what moved me. The way she articulated the lyrics of the songs taught me a lot. I’m more connected to the lyrics and to the true emotion behind them now. I am more connected to my own feelings and emotions when I sing because of Dalida. Because she was connected to her inner self. This is rare to find.”
Dalida’s album covers
Dalida left her mark on each generation. Stylistically, it seems she also embraced every decade she encountered. From a sultry brunette in the late 50s, she was a golden-haired star in the years that followed. Throughout her time in Paris, Dalida swayed between casual looks and extravagant pieces. Everything from a Moorish corset and gilet by Yves Saint Laurent, to full leather ensembles by Jean-Claude Jitrois, who once claimed dressing Dalida was “like dressing the stars for the Cannes Film Festival.”
Born Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti, Dalida was raised in Cairo. She was nurtured by a family with predominant artistic sensibilities. Her father achieved the position of premier violinist at Cairo’s Opera House, while her mother was a seamstress. After being crowned Miss Egypt in 1954, she landed her first movie role using the stage name “Delila,” in homage to Hedy Lamarr’s character in the Hollywood classic, Samson and Delilah. She later altered it to “Dalida” after moving to Paris in late 1954. To support herself in the new city, Dalida began to sing in cabarets, where her talent was inevitably discovered. In January of 1957, her title song Bambino became one of her most popular, bringing with it overnight success. French newspaper Le Figaro revisited the impact of the event, noting “A launch that announced what will happen in the coming decades … the debut of modern times, where the singer is more important than the song itself.” Natacha Atlas comments of Dalida, “Her bilingual approach to music in general, singing in both Arabic and French, was inspiring. She was a natural born globehopping nomadic star, glamorous, continental and Egypt-born at the same time so she had a wonderful open mind keen to express all these multifaceted things she grew up with.”
Dalida’s fame grew exponentially throughout the 60s; she sold out shows at the famed concert hall l’Olympia – initially opening for Charles Aznavour – and embarked on international tours. She also garnered numerous awards, including the Medal of the City of Paris, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the honorary title of Godmother of Montmartre’s Homeless Children. If her genre would later dwell in the melancholic, the events of her personal life would serve to echo this further.
In the summer of 1966, while on tour in Rome, Dalida was introduced to the misunderstood genius of Italian music that was Luigi Tenco. As somewhat of a tortured soul himself, the two would fall for one another, instantaneously. Soon after, it appeared the couple would be a natural fit for the Sanremo Music Festival in January of 1967. There, they performed one of Tenco’s compositions, Ciao Amore, Ciao. Though Dalida’s performance was highly acclaimed, they were nevertheless eliminated from the competition. This had a devastating effect on Tenco, who woefully committed suicide by gunshot the following evening. His body was found by Dalida, who would in turn struggle with depression. She later attempted suicide herself, ending up in a coma for five days. Amid considerable press speculation, her career would be put on hold.
When the singer finally reappeared on the public scene in the summer of 1967, she made a number of TV appearances, debuting more profound, soulful material, evoking her loss. In December of that same year, she became pregnant following a brief romance and underwent an abortion. This left her unable to conceive, which further contributed to her fragile mental health. As a sensitive soul, who engaged in a lifelong search to understand others, just as herself, she once famously stated, “When people say, ‘I love you,’ what they mean is, ‘love me.’”
Now fully established as a living legend, Dalida and her brother Orlando founded a record label. This would give her greater control over her own music. Her comeback show in Paris would relaunch her career. In the mid-1970s, she took another risk and released a disco single, J’attendrai – she was the first mainstream French artist to do so. When the song rose to number one, it would become the precursor to the disco scene in France, which she effectively launched, singlehandedly. She could ignite audiences with the thrill of her up-tempo hits, just as she could bring them (and herself) to tears each time she performed Je suis malade. All through to the 80s, her shows were as elaborate as they were spectacular. Her public, ever evolving.
Despite the trauma of her personal life, her career was a tale of endless achievements. Dalida filled out venues worldwide and sold records in vast numbers. She even made a reappearance on the silver screen, notably in renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s 1986 release, The Sixth Day. Some of her most beloved songs were also in Arabic, like Salma Ya Salama, or her own love letter to Egypt, Helwa Ya Baladi, where she reminisces, “Memories of all the past, My sweet country! My heart is full of stories. Remember, my country? My first love was in my country. I can never forget it.” Dalida ultimately released over 45 studio albums, prolonging her myriad of concerts all over. Though her life was touched by tragedy, her melodious hymns continue to enchant. In her own words, “I went through life without looking at it. I know what my life is. My husband, that is the public. The songs, those are my children.” Forever charged with the undertones of her ardor, her voice remains suspended in time.
An icon brought to life
Regional designers reimagine Dalida’s strong, fierce style in various powerful illustrations for Vogue Arabia.
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia