Born Carol Diahann Johnson, Diahann Carroll grew up in New York City. Though she started her career as a model for Ebony magazine when she was just fifteen years old, Carroll would go on to achieve fame as a popular and award winning singer and actress. She aggressively pursued a career in entertainment, performing in public whenever possible and entering small talent competitions. Her success in such contests provided Carroll with the opportunity to appear on radio and television, increasing her exposure and her skill as an entertainer. As a result of her early successes, Carroll was able to get an agent and manager by the time she was eighteen years old.
Carroll was soon singing regularly in New York nightclubs. Her captivating appearances in small clubs helped Carroll to get work in films and larger theater productions. She debuted on Broadway with Pearl Bailey in House of Flowers, a play adapted from a short story by Truman Capote. Carroll received a Tony nomination for her performance. Songs she sang in House of Flowers, including “House of Flowers” and “A Sleepin’ Bee,” became signature songs that Carroll would perform regularly throughout her career.
In 1968, after many years of success on stage and screen, Carroll became the first African-American woman to star in a weekly television series. The series, Julia, was popular with audiences but it was attacked by critics as racist, unrealistic, and degrading to African Americans; Julia, a middle class single mother whose glamorous apartment and wardrobe were entirely out of reach for most middle class African Americans, was an idealized “Doris-Day-in-blackface.”1 In the midst of the contentious public debate, Carroll asked to be released from her contract after just two years. Though short-lived and controversial, Julia was a groundbreaking television show and an important part of Carroll’s career.
When Carroll returned to television in 1984, she joined the cast of Dynasty, a popular evening soap opera; she was the first African-American woman to star in such a show. Carroll’s character, the villainous millionaire Dominique Deveraux, was praised by some as one of a growing number of African-American television roles that differed “from the mainly comic roles that have been more typical for blacks” and thus “[helped] to change perceptions about blacks by both whites and blacks”2 in the entertainment industry. Though it might be argued that Dominique Deveraux represented a different kind of negative representation of African-American women, Carroll called the role “a dream come true, . . . a worldwide successful television series without all the pain and criticism of Julia.”3
Throughout her successful career, Carroll has faced many trials in her personal life including several failed marriages and relationships, a controversial affair with Sydney Poitier, and a bout with breast cancer. In spite of the difficulties and disappointments off stage, Carroll has been highly praised as a versatile actress who can successfully play a range of roles—from her Oscar nominated portrayal of a welfare mother in Claudine, to her portrayals of glamorous women like Dominique Deveraux. Her many awards offer evidence of her skills as a performer. Carroll is the winner of a Tony award and an NAACP Image award for best actress; her work has received Oscar and Emmy nominations, and she has been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.