Looking back at the troubled life of legendary Egyptian-born crossover star Dalida

With a film about Dalida out this week in the UAE, we look at the triumphs and tragedies of the singer’s life, and why she is still so fondly remembered 30 years after her death.

Dalida’s songs include both happy and soulful tunes. Photo by Galuschka / ullstein bild via Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

She was one of the Arab world’s first crossover stars – but Dalida’s success came at a heavy price, with more than its share of despair. Tragedy followed the Egyptian-born Italian-French singer, culminating in her suicide on May 3, 1987.

“Forgive me, life has become unbearable for me,” was her final message, scrawled in French.

A multifaceted talent, Dalida recorded songs in seven language, including Arabic, French, Italian and English, which are still covered by modern stars and remixed.

"She is unique, a pioneer in multicultural productions," says Yasser Al Gergawi, director of cultural events in the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. "I personally love all her songs. Whatever language she sang in, she still had that Arabic identity and Arabic style of singing." As the 30th anniversary of her death approaches, a biopic, titled Dalida, arrives in UAE cinemas on Thursday (February 9).

Written, directed and co-produced by Lisa Azuelos – who consulted Dalida’s brother, Orlando, during production – and starring Sveva Alviti in the title role, the film aims to portray the singer’s complex and troubled life.

Born Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Cairo on January 17, 1933, Dalida came from a middle-class Italian family who had emigrated to Egypt for work.

Her father, Pietro, was the principal violinist for the Cairo Opera, and her mother, Giuseppina, a seamstress.

While her tall, slender figure and good looks helped her land work as a model and minor roles in Egyptian movies, Dalida shot to fame came when she won the Miss Egypt crown in 1954, and came to the attention of french film director Marco de Gastyne.

He cast her in his 1955 film Le Masque de Toutankhamon, and persuaded her to move to Paris.

The move was not immediately successful. Dalida struggled to find her footing in the cut-throat environment of the French film industry. To make ends meet, she sang in cabarets on the Champs-Elysées, and in a variety show at Bruno Coquatrix’s newly opened Olympia theatre.

It was there where she met Lucien Morisse, who would become her husband, granting her French citizenship.

She also met Eddie Barclay there, who helped to launch her career. He played a major role in her 1956 single, Bambino, which was a huge success in France, spending 46 weeks in the top 10 and selling more than 300,000 copies. It was the first of Dalida's more than 70 gold-disc records.

She subsequently attracted a string of high-profile male admirers, including legendary actors Alain Delon and Omar Sharief, and singers such as Charles Aznavour and pop star Claude François.

Dubai resident Catherine Gaudeau, who co-runs events company French Emotion, was a teenager working for François when she encountered Dalida.

“I met her in 1969 on a TV set in Paris when I was just 16 years old,” she says, recalling how the two singers, both born in Egypt, bonded over their shared life experiences and homeland.

“They often spoke of Egypt, of their childhood memories, and they loved oriental cuisine and were hospitable and warm to their fans,” she says.

Gaudeau remembers Dalida as being elegant and charismatic, with the ability to brighten up any room she was in.

"She joked around and had a great sense of humour," she says. "Some evenings, we would do a parody of the Gigi L'amoroso and it was lots of fun.

“But there was one topic she would often mention and be sad about: not being a mother, not having children.”

A botched abortion in her 30s, after getting pregnant during a romance with a student, left her unable to have children. Several of her relationships were tragic. In 1967, her partner at the time, Italian singer Luigi Tenco, to whom she was engaged, committed suicide after their duet Ciao Amore Ciao (Bye Love, Bye) failed to qualify for the San Remo Festival.

This was the first of a string of suicides by those close to her: her ex-husband Lucien Morisse, to whom she had been married from 1956 to 1961 and with whom she remained friendly, in 1970; her friend, singer Mike Brant, in 1975; and her former romantic partner Richard Chanfray, in 1983.

She was heart-broken over these deaths, and Gaudeau says it was this deep, hidden sadness that gave Dalida’s songs such a soulful quality.

“Dalida’s songs have lasted because they are hip and happy and very danceable, and the sadder more melodic ones stay in your heart,” she says.

Dalida released more than 45 studio albums, plus dozens of compilations. Her best-known songs include the melodic Je suis malade, disco hits Laissez-moi danser, Besame Mucho and Mourir sur scène.

But in this the region, her Arabic songs from the 1970s – including Helwa Ya Balady (based on an Egyptian folk song), Salama ya Salama and Aghani Aghani – are the most beloved.

Lebanese singers Grace Deeb and Elissa have covered Helwa Ya Balady in recent years, while international singers, including Belgian-Canadian Lara Fabian and Canadian Celine Dion, recorded versions of Il venait d'avoir 18 ans (2009) and Paroles paroles (1996).

Most of the love for Dalida, however, originates from her genuine affection for the Arab world. “I feel at home here,” she would often tell the Egyptian press.

Her concerts in the region included performances in Egypt and Lebanon, were always peppered with her trademark cry of “mabsoteen?”, which translates as “are you happy?” Given what we now know about her own sadness, this takes on an eerie quality in hindsight.

Dalida will be in cinemas from Thursday