It was a life marked by the longing for love: the life of Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti. Under her stage name Dalida, she became world famous.
She sang in no less than ten languages and was admired by a wide audience.
Her image: the “Madonna”. There were critics who compared Dalida to a beauty from ancient Egypt.
But who was Iolanda Gigliotti?
On the trail of her dreams
“I live near the Champs-Elysées, the most beautiful boulevard in the world, in an elegant neighborhood full of shop windows.”
These were Dalida’s words in a letter to her family when she first moved away from them. She grew up in Egypt, the only girl in a family of three children.
It was her father who first introduced Dalida to music: he was the concertmaster at the Cairo Opera.
But music was not Dalida’s only passion: she loved the cinema and show business. Her idol was Rita Hayworth: Dalida followed her dreams…
In 1954, Iolanda became “Miss Egypt”: it was a long road. First, she had to convince her family that she wanted to enter a world that had little to do with family life in Egypt. Dalida knew she was made for the world.
French director Marc de Gastyne made a film about ancient Egypt, “The Mask of Tutankhamun.” Dalida plays a spy – a short role, but her first film role.
In Marc de Gastyne, Iolanda had found an impresario: He was convinced that she should go to Paris….
New life in Paris
No sooner said than done: on December 25, 1954, Iolanda set off for Paris: Although she knew she could have signed a five-year contract with the Egyptian studio „Zarpanelli“, she left her home country.
In Paris, life was not easy: even though she kept in touch with her manager, there was no sign that a great career was ahead of her. Paris is not Cairo: in Paris, Edith Piaf, Gloria Lasso and Jacqueline François ruled the stages.
“It was still fashionable for simple girls in plain black dresses to stand motionless behind their bulky microphones, moving only their hands,” as Catherine Rihoit and Dalida’s brother Orlando write in their biography of Dalida.
La Villa d’Este
Chanson singers like Edith Piaf came from the time of the Second World War: they were the singers who reminded the soldiers of their girlfriends in the Fatherland. That’s where the simplicity of this generation of singers came from: the soldiers’ girlfriends were rarely glamorously dressed women.
In the fifties, it was time for a new generation of female singers.
Although acting was Dalida’s great dream, she chose another form of entertainment: cabaret. She took singing lessons from an authoritarian singing teacher – there was a heated relationship between the two. But the singing lessons paid off: she was hired by the renowned cabaret Villa d’Este.
At this point in her career, she bore the stage name “Dalila” – in reference to the Old Testament. At the Villa d’Este, Iolanda met the writer and scriptwriter Albert Machard. He advised her to change her stage name to Dalida: Now Iolanda had a unique name. A name that would go around the world with her singing.
Dalida soon felt the fame of Villa d’Este: she was once visited by King Farouk of Egypt. He learned that an Egyptian woman had become the new star of the Villa d’Este…
The decisive day
On April 9, 1956, a competition for amateurs was held at the Olympia: “Les Numéros 1 de demain” (engl.: “The Number One Singers of Tomorrow). Dalida participated with the song Etrangère au paradis (engl.: Stranger In Paradise) – one of Gloria Lasso’s signature tunes. She risked being compared to Gloria Lasso. And she survived the comparison: she convinced Lucien Morisse, the program director of the radio station Europe 1, of her talent. The meeting of the two was a “coincidence”: a few hours before the competition, music publisher Eddie Barclay and Lucien Morisse were playing the drinking game 421. They couldn’t decide what to do in the afternoon and let the outcome of the game decide. Lucien wanted to visit Bruno Coquatrix, the owner of the Olympia, and listen to the contestants. Barclay wanted to go to the movies.
There is only one word that describes Dalida career after her meeting with Lucien Morisse: Success.
“Bruno Coquatrix is my success. Eddie Barclay is my money. Lucien Morisse is my heart.”
This is Dalida’s opinion about the beginning of her career.
The search for new managers was successful – now there was a new search: the perfect chanson had to be found for Dalida.
In October 1956, six months after the contest, Lucien Morisse had a revelation: he had discovered the Neapolitan song Guaglione: for France, he had chosen the French translation of the song, Bambino. Dalida recorded the song overnight and Morisse had it played around the clock on Europe 1. So it was only a matter of time before the record became a box office hit and everyone who listened to the radio took notice of Dalida: 1956 was the long-awaited year of success for Dalida.
After her phenomenal success, she took the stage at the Olympia as the opening act for Charles Aznavour – it was not to be the last time she performed at the legendary Olympia…
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Catherine Rihoit avec Orlando: “Dalida — Mon frère, tu écriras mes mémoires”, 2016 Plon and the movie “Dalida” by Lisa Azuelos.
Cover picture: Dalida in 1967 in San Remo, Public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons