Diana Ross and the Supremes

Though the world knows her as Diana, Ross was actually named Diane at birth. A typo led to her name being recorded as Diana in official records, but close friends still refer to her as Diane. Ross was even listed as “Diane Ross” on some early Supremes records.

Diana Ross has demonstrated to be one of America’s most enduring entertainers. As a singer and an actress, she has maintained a consistent level of success and continues to record hit albums and sell out concert tours around the world.

Those who witnessed her rise to fame might say that she could be shrewd, selfish, and even cutthroat in her pursuit of the spotlight. Diana Ross may have made a few enemies, but she also has an awful lot of fans. Here are 42 supreme facts about Diana Ross.

Diana Ross was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1944. She was the second of six children to Fred and Ernestine Ross. Diana was not the only gifted member of her large family: her older sister, Barbara, would go on to become the first African-American woman to be named dean of a medical school.

Ross grew up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects. Times were hard, but Ross had some extremely talented neighbors: they included Smokey Robinson and her future Supremes bandmates Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown, and Mary Wilson. Whatever was going on between the walls of those apartment buildings, we want some of it.

As a teenager, Ross formed a singing group called the Primettes with neighborhood friends Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown, and Mary Wilson. The group was meant as a sister act to a male singing group, the Primes. They weren’t without some drama: McGlown was replaced by Betty Martin, but Martin then quit herself, leaving the Primettes to carry on as a trio.

The Primettes were a popular live act with teenagers around Detroit, and had even won a couple of talent competitions. Ross was able to convince her friend Smokey Robinson to audition the Primettes for a record label he was helping to run. The name of his label will probably sound a little familiar to you: Motown.

Yet while Robinson was impressed, Motown president Berry Gordy believed the group was too young, and invited them to audition again later. From 1965 until 1971, Ross had a romantic relationship with Motown Records president Berry Gordy. She was pregnant with Gordy’s child when she married music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein in January 1971. Silberstein agreed to raise the child—Ross’s first—as his own. Silberstein and Ross had two more children together before divorcing in 1977.

Ross married Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess Jr. in 1986. Ross and Naess had two children together before divorcing in 2000. While Ross seemed to hold out hope for a reconciliation (she called Naess “the true love of her life”), but their love was doomed to a heartbreaking end: Naess died while mountain climbing in 2004.

At 16, Ross signed with Motown Records—but not as a singer. She actually worked as a secretary when she first started. Motown president Gordy wanted to support Ross and her group, but he still felt they were too young to sign to a record deal, so he enlisted her to file papers around the Motown offices. Hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

The Primettes continued to hang out at Motown headquarters—”Hitsville, U.S.A.”—after school, and even volunteered their services as back-up singers, unwilling to give up on their dream. Their persistence paid off and paid them back tenfold: Gordy finally relented to their demands and signed the girl group to a record deal in 1961.

The Primettes were renamed the Supremes in 1961. Florence Ballard chose the name from a list of offered to her by a Motown executive, picking “Supremes” because it was the only name that didn’t end in “-ette.” But not everyone was happy with the choice: In fact, Diana Ross herself absolutely hated the band name.

The Supremes were not an instant success. In fact, they were known around Hitsville as “the no-hit Supremes.” Their fortunes seemed to change when Gordy decided that Ross should be the lead singer, rather than the girls sharing lead duties. The group finally hit number one with the Ross-led “Where Did Our Love Go?” in 1964.

The Supremes would go on to have 11 more number one singles throughout the 1960s.

As the leader of the Supremes, Ross garnered much more attention than either Ballard or Wilson. This caused a lot of strife between the hungry young woman, and Ballard eventually left the group out of frustration and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. But Ross’s star wouldn’t stop rising: In 1967, the group was officially renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes.

While Ross did receive top billing with the Supremes, in reality, the name change had little to do with the dynamics of the group itself. Rather, Gordy realized that, by providing a solo act with a group, he could charge venues double for a performance. Other Motown groups like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles went through similar name changes around this time.

By 1969, tensions had mounted to a breaking point within the Supremes, and with Gordy’s encouragement, Ross embarked on a solo career. Ross left the group and was replaced by Jean Tyrell. The Supremes would continue to perform without Ross until 1977, with Mary Wilson being the only original member left in the group. The Supremes’ final number one with Ross, “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was originally planned as Ross’s debut solo single. None of the other Supremes appear on the recording.

Ross released her self-titled solo debut in 1970, and immediately hit number one with her legendary rendition of the Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Because of the single’s success, however, the album was renamed Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and the name Diana Ross was reserved for her 1975 album.

Ross was publicly credited with discovering the Jackson 5, and was used to introduce them in major public appearances. Their debut album was even titled Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. But there’s a dark secret to this fact: In reality, Ross had nothing to do with the Jacksons signing to Motown, a fact she now freely admits.

In all, Ross has five children. Several have followed Ross into show business, most notably Tracee Ellis Ross, star of the TV shows Girlfriends and Black-ish. Her daughter Rhonda and her son Evan are musicians as well, and have opened for Ross on her tours.

After going solo, Ross also branched out into acting. She made her film debut as legendary jazz diva Billie Holliday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Ross astounded critics with her first performance and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Ross’s next film, Mahogany, was directed by her old lover Berry Gordy himself. However, it was far from a success. Unhappy with Gordys direction, Ross left the set before shooting had finished, and many scenes feature Gordys secretary as a stand-in. Mahogany was unpopular with critics, who accused Gordy of “squandering” Diana Ross.

Ross did design her own costumes for Mahogany, allowing her to flex some of her creative muscles. In fact, very few people know that before launching her musical career, Ross studied design, cosmetology, and pattern making at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, and even had dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

In 1978, Ross famously starred as Dorothy in The Wiz, a popular musical re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz set in New York City. Featuring a predominantly black cast and crew, The Wiz also co-starred Ross’s former protégé, Michael Jackson. Though it was a commercial flop when it came out, it remains a cult classic among many viewers.

Ross signed with RCA Records in 1980. The signing marked the end of her time with Motown Records as well as with Motown president Berry Gordy, who simply could not match the enormous seven-year, $140 million contract RCA was offering. It was, at the time, the largest recording contract ever signed by a female artist.

Ross’s final single with Motown was a duet with Lionel Richie. “Endless Love” spent nine weeks at number one in 1981, making it the most successful duet of all time and the best-selling single of Ross’s career.

In the end, however, Ross couldn’t stay away from her home label for too long. After modest success with RCA, Ross returned to Motown in 1988. Gordy had since sold his company to MCA Records. Ross’s contract included shares in the company, making her a part-owner of Motown. Pretty good for someone who started out as a secretary.

In 1983, Ross performed a free concert in Central Park to raise money for the construction of a playground in the park. While the concert was free, merchandise and memorabilia were being sold at the event. Rain started mid-way through Ross’s performance, destroying much of the merchandise and forcing Ross to leave the stage.

Ross returned the following afternoon, however, and paid for the playground out of her own pocket. To this day, the Diana Ross Playground sits at Central Park West, across from Ross’s apartment.

The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988; they were the first girl group to be inducted. Ross, however, did not attend the ceremony: she refused to share a stage with Mary Wilson.

Ross was entered into the Guinness Book of Records in 1993. Astonishingly, as a solo artist and as a member of the Supremes, Ross sold more than 100 million albums, collecting 70 hit singles along the way. In case you didn’t know, that makes her the most successful female musical artist of all-time.

Despite 12 nominations (and decades of critical and commercial success), Diana Ross did not receive her first Grammy Award until 2012. Ross was given the award for Lifetime Achievement. In her autobiography Secrets of a Sparrow, Ross revealed that she suffered from anorexia, which she attributes to the pressures placed on her and the other Supremes by Motown executives. The 2006 film Dream Girls was, in part, inspired by Diana Ross and the Supremes. A proxy of Ross, Deena Jones, was played by Beyoncé. Like Ross, Beyoncé rose to stardom as the leader of a teenaged girl group before embarking on a successful solo career. Pop-singer Ashlee Simpson (Jessica’s sister) is married to Ross’s son Evan, making her Ross’s daughter-in-law. In honor of Ross’s musical achievements, McNally Smith University awards the Diana Ross Performance Scholarship to one Bachelor of Music student each year. The scholarship is good for all four years of the program. These days Ross continues to record and perform. In fact, Ross has hit the number one on Billboard’s Dance charts three times since 2017. The singles—remixes of Ross’s classic hits by Eric Kupper—were taken from Ross’s most recent album, Diamond Diana. In the early days, Ross took advantage of the Supremes’ low billing in Motown concerts. Because they were usually on earlier in the performance, Ross would go into the audience and study the remaining acts’ dance routines. She would usually learn the routines, teach them to the rest of the Supremes, and perform them at the following concert, stealing the thunder from the bigger acts. Obviously, this infuriated the more established acts. Florence Ballard passed away in 1976. Ross showed up for the funeral to pay respects to her old band mate, but the tragedy wasn’t over. Throngs of mourning Supremes fans booed her as she exited her limo: Ballard had fallen on hard times since being ousted from the Supremes, and many fans blamed Ross for Ballard’s exit from the group. In 1999, Diana Ross organized a Supremes reunion tour, inviting all former Supremes to join her. There was just one problem: Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, Jean Tyrell, and Susaye Greene all declined. The Supremes did eventually appear onstage as a trio, but Ross was joined by Lynda Laurence and Scherie Payne, two singers who joined the group years after Ross left. The Return to Love tour failed to build much interest and was quickly canceled.