Somebody got it twisted when they said Black girls and blonde hair don’t mix. It does—unequivocally—and that’s on Joyce Bryant, a Black woman who became an iconic entertainer for donning platinum tresses and form fitting dresses in the 1940s and 50s.
Having such a pristine voice was an innate talent, however, Bryant’s unique style was born out of a competitive nature of sorts. Not to be outdone by the illustrious Josephine Baker, Bryant colored her hair with silver radiator paint, and paired a silver, low-cut gown with a silver floor-length mink when she discovered the two would be performing on the same bill. According to Bryant, her look was so stunning that even Baker was impressed.
“She sort of smiled and tilted her head as if to say ‘touché.’” Bryant told ESSENCE in a 1978 interview.
The moment was a significant one in Bryant’s career. It solidified a trademark look that catapulted her into stardom, and marked the singer as a showstopping sex symbol, often compared to white blonde entertainers of her time. Bryant was referred to as the Black Marilyn Monroe, but many would beg to differ. Bryant had natural talent, and her career was underway when Monroe was “learning” to be an entertainer at FOX studios in 1946. Monroe didn’t become a household name until circa 1952. Thus, it is more fitting that Monroe was the white Joyce Bryant.
Other titles credited to Bryant were “The Belter,” “The Voice You’ll Always Remember,” “The Bronzed Blonde Bombshell” and rightfully so. With a four-and-a half octave range, her vocal ability was nothing to sneeze at. Over the course of her career, she mastered and sang across several genres: jazz, pop and opera. She was a highly sought after performer and vocal coach to a few powerhouse divas, including Jennifer Holliday and Phyllis Hyman.
Bryant lived up to the Bronzed Blonde Bombshell hype. Her curvy body, velvety skin and siren performance shaped her image. An assortment of semi-revealing, skin tight gowns by Zelda Wynn Valdes, an emerging African American dress designer, didn’t hurt. The glam and grandeur of Valdes’s gown complemented Bryant’s sexy silhouette and on stage sensuality. Each dress varied stylistically in color, material and imagination, but it was the infamous fishtail dress that transformed Bryant and outlined her body like a mermaid. It became her signature cut and style despite wardrobe difficulty. It is said that Bryant was “so tightly gowned that she had to be carried onstage.”
Jim Crow racism affected most aspects of Black of life, including the entertainment industry. Bryant’s bodacious beauty and audacious performance gave way to privilege her sienna brown skin may not have experienced otherwise. She performed primarily in white venues to white audiences and refused to play the race politics of the day. At the height of her success, Bryant was slated to perform at a Miami Beach Hotel and nightclub, where she would also stay as a guest. The venue had never hosted a Black performance, and certainly had not extended lodging services to Black people. The Ku Klux Klan threw a racial tantrum, sent violent threats and burned Bryant in effigy. However, in the spirit of Black women’s fearlessness, Bryant went on with the show, becoming the establishment’s first Black entertainer and bringing the house down.
“I had already decided I’m going to do my show … we already said, ‘whatever you’re going to do, do it.’” Bryant said in a YouTube interview.
Shortly after, Bryant exited stage left from entertainment and renewed her commitment to religion. She would reemerge in the 1970s as an opera singer. Before leaving, though, Bryant continued to break racial barriers in her industry and desegregated white venues that were the most notorious for racism against Black entertainers and Black audiences. With Black power and Black pride bursting at the seams of her fitted fashion, it is baffling that Bryant is considered a lost diva; so much so a long-awaited documentary that covers Bryant’s life is titled, The Lost Diva. Like anything else, particularly in Black spaces, IYKYK, and ICYMI, there are numerous references that show Bryant’s original flavor and influences—peep Tina Turner, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Keyshia Cole, Eve, Etta James. I bet they all know who the queen diva is, and we should, too. As Bryant’s Instagram profile reads: “I’m still alive, I’m not dead, I’m 93 years old, so don’t count me.”
Joyce Bryant is Black History and Black presence. Get to know her.
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