I’m D’yan Forest and I’m 82 years old. I’d like to put that out there right away, in case I don’t make it to the end of the story.
I grew up in Boston and after college I married a nice Jewish boy named Irwin Cohen. However, Irwin didn’t turn out to be a great husband—he didn’t know how to please a woman. That wouldn’t have mattered except the woman he needed to please was me. We divorced in 1963, and I went to Paris. I had taken singing lessons since 1953 in college, performing every now and then, but never professionally. Paris was my chance to become a professional performer. So I studied singing at L’École de musique, and mime with Jacques Le Coq. In the evenings, I went to see the nightlife and frequented several nightclub cabarets. One of them, called Elle et Lui, was in Montparnasse not far from my dormitory.
Elle et Lui had a singer from Corsica named Maria Vincent, who became a celebrity when her drug dealer husband was brutally and publicly murdered, shot down in the street. Today, she’d be a reality TV star—like Kim Kardashian—but back then you had to have an act, and boy did she have an act.
I met Maria after her show. I told her I was a cabaret singer in Boston and asked if I could try out a song during her show the next week. She said “oui” and that I could open for her in the club!
On the night of my big debut, I was in the dressing room, a big bundle of nerves as I watched a bunch of chorus girls at their dressing tables. I’d never seen more stunning women in my life. Every one of them was statuesque and their hair, their nails, their long, long legs—all perfectly gorgeous. They were all talking about their dates after the previous night’s show. I had never heard such frank language in my life. (Remember, I’m from Boston, and Paris was a different world.) I’m staring and staring at them, jealous of their looks and wishing I could be even one hundredth as beautiful as they were. Then, one of them stood up directly in front of me and… adjusted herself. She was either the most well-endowed woman I’d ever seen—or she was a he! Mon Dieu! They all were guys!!!
What a revelation this was. In Boston in the 60s, we didn’t even know about these things. My education in Paris was just beginning.
Finally, my set was ready to begin. I knew this was my big chance, so I picked a song that couldn’t go wrong. It was from a new musical in the states that was all over TV and pop culture, and every American knew the song; I was going to be a hit! The big moment came when the emcee said, “Mesdames et monsieurs, please welcome Paree’s newest singing star—Diana Shulman!” (That was my real name then.)
I nervously went to the piano, and played and sang “Hello Dolly”.
WELL HELLO, DOLLY,
IT’S SO NICE TO HAVE YOU BACK WHERE YOU BELONG
YOU’RE LOOKING SWELL, DOLLY,
WE CAN TELL, DOLLY,
YOU’RE STILL GLOWIN’… YOU’RE STILL… CROWIN’…
YOU’RE STILL GOIN’ STRONG…
The audience looked at me like I had two heads. Clearly they had never heard the song and could care less who the hell Dolly was, but I soldiered on.
GOLLY GEE, FELLAS
FIND HER A VACANT KNEE, FELLAS
DOLLY’LL NEVER GO AWAY
(Weaker) DOLLY’LL NEVER… GO AWAY
DOLLY’LL NEVER –
A guy in the crowd yelled, “Go away!” Without thinking, I immediately yelled back, “Fous le camp! No foulez moi, foulez-vous!” (A phrase I had learned to tell the French men who were bothering me on the street, meaning “f**k off!”)
There was no applause, nothing. I ran backstage and even the drag queens were silent. When drag queens stop talking—that’s serious.
I was gathering my things when Maria came rushing in, “Ma Cherie, zare eez a second show!” “A second show?!” I gasped. “You’re not going to fire me?!” “Non, non, Cherie,” she oozed. “But zees time, peek a different f**king song!” Which I did. I choose “Allouette” and I even had the audience sing with me and point to tête, yeux, nez, and bouche as they were mentioned in the song.
ALOUETTE, GENTILLE ALOUETTE
ALOUETTE, JE TE PLUMERAI
JE TE PLUMERAI LA TETE
JE TE PLUMERAI LA TETE
ET LA TETE, ET LA TETE
I was a huge success and brought down the house. Even the drag queens were impressed, and when drag queens are impressed, you’re a success!
And that’s how I got my first job 54 years ago.
For the next few years, I played and sang in every café and cabaret that would have me and I managed to scrape together a living… nearly. When I returned to America, I made a good living for many years, and still do, as a French Chanteuse. I’ve done many wonderful shows around the world, over the years but I’ll never forget that Maria Vincent in the Elle Et Lui nightclub started my wonderful French career. Who knew?