Why Diahann Carroll was my first girl crush

01:12 - Source: CNN
Remembering pioneering actress Diahann Carroll

Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

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Diahann Carroll is gone today– passed away at 84 from breast cancer, her publicist said. But for me she will forever be that beautiful, chocolate-brown princess I first saw performing scenes–with her glistening voice–from “Porgy and Bess,” with Sammy Davis Jr. on the premiere episode of “The Diahann Carroll Show,” back in 1976.

Wow. I was starstruck.

To my young eyes—and to the eyes of so many of my peers–Diahann Carroll was everything that a woman should be: smart, elegant, funny, and a career woman. Carroll had already shattered racial stereotypes on television with her starring role in the 1968 series “Julia,” on NBC. She played a widowed mother and nurse — a life I connected with because my father had also died.

As Julia, Carroll was the first black woman to star in a sitcom and not play a domestic worker. Huge, at the time. In fact, it’s hard to overstate what an important figure she was. In my working-class black neighborhood, men, women, children–we were all captivated by her. I loved watching my mother — the only woman I ever thought was more beautiful than Carroll — imitate the actress’s hairdos and outfits.

In Diahann Carroll, we recognized our own beauty.

My girlfriends and I pored for hours over Jet and Ebony magazines for photos and stories of Carroll’s latest glamorous adventures. So popular was she that Mattel made a Barbie doll of her “Julia” character. I got one for Christmas–still one of my favorite childhood memories. Together, Nurse Julia and I conquered the world, saving lives, dating beautiful men — but never Ken. In my world, Nurse Julia was a G.I. Joe girl.

Looking back, I’d call Diahann Carroll my first girl crush.

She was opening new doors for us and we all knew it. Changing the world in her own elegant way. Watching her so gracefully defy and upend racial and gender barriers in Hollywood made us envision new possibilities for ourselves.

But she did this for the reasons anybody might. In her second memoir, “The Legs Are the Last to Go” (2008), she explained: “Yes, I’m ambitious, a rampant careerist who is as dedicated and vain as any performer in the business. I don’t know if that will ever change.”

She starred in films, TV movies, on Broadway and in cabaret shows. (I’ve seen just about every film she ever starred in.) She was nominated for a best actress Oscar for 1974’s “Claudine”– a charming, romantic comedy and an annual must-watch for me. She played a widow living in Harlem with six children who was being wooed by James Earl Jones, a garbage collector. It was warm and it was real.

She won a Tony award for best lead actress in “No Strings” in 1962 (her character was half of an interracial romance, rare on Broadway), a Golden Globe for “Julia” in 1968 and was nominated repeatedly for the Emmy for a variety of TV roles.

My love affair with Carrol continued throughout her career, the “Dynasty” years on ABC in the 80s, when she played the sexy vixen Dominique Deveraux, then later when she was cast as Jane Burke on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

A busy life, to be sure, and Carroll writes later in her memoir about the all-too-common struggles career moms confront as they try to balance work, love and family, and her regrets about the time away from her daughter, Suzanne Kay Bamford, from the first of her four marriages. The two reconnected later in her life, and Carroll often spoke about finding joy in her relationship with her daughter and grandchildren. I’m happy she finally found her balance.

In her book, written when she was just over 70, she recounted with humor and humility the challenges of aging for an icon—even one who remained drop-dead gorgeous.

“All my life people have been trying to make me define myself racially, politically, and artistically,” she said. “Now they are just trying to place my face.”

Rest easy, Diahann Carroll, you were a phenomenal, beautiful woman. We won’t forget.