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Barbra Streisand - Biography

American singer and actress Barbra is best known for her role in hit film, The Prince of Tides

Barbara Streisand in black suit
Phoebe Tatham
Content Writer
Updated: 23 November 2023
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"[Barbra] has a charming kind of arrogance the public loves," says director Peter Bogdanovich, who worked with the diva on 1972's What's Up, Doc?, "but the media and many people within the business don't. They're jealous."

Her early life

The notoriously perfectionist singer may have her share of detractors, but she also has a shelf full of accolades including two Oscars and a stack of hit records. Barbara Joan Streisand (she dropped the second "a" in 1957) was born on April 24, 1942, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish parents, Emmanuel and Diana Streisand. 

Her father died when she was just 15 months old. When she was 14 Barbra fell in love with the stage after seeing a production of The Diary Of Anne Frank, and later worked as an usher at the same Broadway theatres she'd eventually sell out as the star attraction. 

Her career

She landed a small role on Broadway in I Can Get It For You Wholesale when she was 19 and with one hysterical comic number Miss Marmelstein she managed to steal the show. 

And while the producers recognised her talent, even then she had a reputation for being tough. "I wasn't trying to be difficult," she later joked. "It just came naturally." In the early Sixties Barbra sang at the Bon Soir club in Greenwich Village for $125 a week and hooked up with manager Marty Erlichman.

Together they secured a record deal in which Barbra received unprecedented artistic control for an upstart in exchange for a lower salary. Her instincts proved right, however, and The Barbra Streisand album was an instant success. By the end of 1963 she had five albums in the Top 100 and nearly single-handedly fought the Beatles-led British invasion. Branching out into television with CBS, she was a producer from day one. 

Following the success of her Emmy Award-winning first TV special, My Name Is Barbra in which she sang a full 17 minutes before even acknowledging the audience Hollywood came calling. And while some Tinseltown executives found her unconventional looks a deterrent, calling her appearance "too special", Barbra proved them wrong by starring in the aptly titled Funny Girl, a screen adaptation of her Broadway hit, for which she scored a Best Actress Oscar.

More film work followed, as did celebrated albums, and in 1976 she starred in and executive-produced the blockbuster A Star Is Born. "That film was the beginning of Barbra's examining of her own power," says producer Jon Peters. "It was a discovery period for her. And she started to realize that she could do it, she could take control of her life." To those who know her well, Peters's remarks come as something of an understatement.

With her directorial debut Yentl in 1983 Barbra became the first woman to produce, direct, write and star in a featured film. She's also the first woman to win a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony. She's the best-selling female recording artist of all time, a noted philanthropist, an outspoken Democrat and a champion of AIDS research.

Long known for her stage fright, Barbra stayed away from the concert stage for more than 25 years. In 1994 she triumphantly returned to New York's Madison Square Garden and embarked upon a series of sell-out gigs in Los Angeles. In 1999 she staged a one-off New Year's Eve concert billed as a farewell performance at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. 

The show grossed nearly $15 million a stateside record. Then in 2000 she played both US coasts on her "farewell" tour, with best seats in the house going for a staggering $2,500 each. She continued to make movies, including 2004's Meet The Fockers - her first after an eight year break - and record albums, but it looked as though she had quit live performing for good.

"I've been working since I was 11. At 12, I was a waitress in a Chinese restaurant," she said on stage, speaking of her impending farwell. "Do you know what it's like schlepping across this stage in high heels? And the dieting I have to do to fit in this dress. Come on, I love to eat!" However, in 2006 the star announced she would in fact be returning to the stage in October for an American tour in an effort to raise money for causes close to her heart. 

The 20-date tour - her first live performance in six years and only the second national tour by Barbra in the four decades since she became the toast of Broadway - grossed £46.7 million. And despite her repeated "farewell"s, the singer embarked on her first European tour outside Britain in May 2007, visiting eight cities with her 58-piece orchestra. 

Her personal life

Barbra is now married to veteran actor James Brolin. It is the second time round for the singer who at age 21 wed Elliot Gould, her co-star in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. 

They had one son together, actor Jason Gould, on December 29, 1966. The couple divorced in 1971 and Barbra enjoyed a series of public romances with a range of eligible bachelors including Miami Vice actor Don Johnson and tennis heart-throb Andre Agassi before marrying Brolin in a cliff-top ceremony on July 1, 1998. 

Love her or not, there is no challenging Barbra's status as a legend. And, as one might have guessed, she has to have the last word on herself, saying: "I am simple, complex, generous, selfish, unattractive, beautiful, lazy, and driven."

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