Long before there was Madonna or Beyoncé or Rihanna, there was Barbra. Sure, she has a last name—Streisand—but so what? Say "Barbra" on the moon and people will know who you mean.
Legend is not a term to be thrown around lightly, but here it fits. Consider the laundry list: She's won two Oscars, five Emmys, eight Grammys, and a Tony. Not to mention the Golden Globes, the Kennedy Center Honor, the American Film Institute Award, and the two Peabodys. She's America's best-selling female recording artist and the only woman in the top 10, and her album roster reads like the inventory at a jewelry store: 51 gold albums, 30 platinum albums, and 13 multiplatinum albums in the U.S. alone. And that's just the music. Go Netflix her endearing Funny Girl, her super-romantic The Way We Were, and her historic Yentl—she was the first woman to write, direct, produce, and star in her own film. (And then there's that little Fockers franchise, which owes a healthy portion of its laughs to her portrayal of a cringeworthy mother.) This year President Bill Clinton sang her praises at Lincoln Center's Film Society Awards, she gave her first-ever concert in Israel, and she saw the doors open on the cutting-edge research center for heart disease that she funded. "As a young woman I wanted nothing more than to see my name in lights," she says. "I couldn't have guessed how much more satisfying it would be to see my name in stainless steel on the building at Cedars-Sinai hospital that says 'The Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center.' "
It's quite a résumé. When asked how she stayed relevant for so long, she says: "It's funny, I was always kind of lazy. I didn't want this role; I didn't want that role. Some I turned down because I was having a love affair! I've always liked working really hard and then doing nothing in particular. So, consequently, I didn't overexpose myself; I guess I maintained a kind of mystery. I wasn't ambitious." Really? Not ambitious—a woman who became an actress-singer-director-writer-composer-producer-designer-author-photographer-activist? "OK," she says, laughing. "I was ambitious too. I'm a dichotomy."
The real magic about Barbra Streisand, of course, is this: She changed the rules. She pioneered a new kind of beauty when, in the early 1960s, against all advice, she refused to get a nose job—and became a leading lady anyway, both on screen and off. Today diversity is everywhere in the female-beauty orbit, from plus-size models to a tattooed Miss America contestant. A good case can be made that it all started with her.
Before she was Barbra, she was Barbara Joan Streisand (she cut the second a to be distinctive) from a housing project in Brooklyn. Her beloved father died when she was young. Her mother's second husband was no charmer, and the two never clicked. "He told me, 'You're not pretty enough to have ice cream,' " she says. "And my mother never defended me. I wasn't supported in that house." But she didn't listen. "My mother told me I should be a secretary, but I wanted to be an actress from when I was very young. Looking back I think it was maybe an escape," she says. "I just had a belief in myself." She wanted to see her name in lights (and her real name, Streisand—she wasn't changing it) and stopped at nothing until she did. She started a nightclub act in her teens. She auditioned for Broadway roles. She moved into a small apartment and got her first telephone, which excited her so much that she yelled out to a group of actors at an audition, "I've got a new phone! Somebody call me!" A young fellow actor, Elliott Gould, did. They married when she was 21, and she had their son, Jason, when she was 24.
Things really took off for Streisand in 1962 and 1963, with a role on Broadway and her debut record, The Barbra Streisand Album. And she did it her way. While friends "got fired for looking 'too ethnic,' " she says, Streisand refused to be cowed. "I didn't do what people said: 'Change your name, cap your teeth, change your clothes, cut your nose down.' My nose was part of my heritage, and if I had talent to sing and to act, why wasn't that enough?" The public agreed: She was an original.
For the next two decades, hit followed hit, with blockbusters like The Way We Were and A Star Is Born further cementing Streisand's It Girl status. By 1983 she had amassed more than enough clout to get Yentl, a seemingly noncommercial story of a Jewish girl who pretends to be a boy so she can get a religious education, to the screen. The film's success was a tribute to her feminism, and she's been fighting for women's causes ever since. Even the latest of her many philanthropic ventures— the heart center—grew out of her concern about gender inequality. "Heart disease is the number-one killer of women," she says passionately. "It kills more women than all the cancers combined. More women die from it than men do, but in the past 50 years most of the research has been done on men!" Streisand is working to right all of that. Says C. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., the center's director: "To have Barbra in your corner, backing you up...you cannot put a metric on it. She is seriously committed." Glee's Lea Michele, who had long idolized her, adds, "Not only has [Streisand] made her mark in this world for her talent; she's used her platform for better things. She's stood up for what she believes in. And that is incredibly inspiring."
Also inspiring is her happy second marriage to actor James Brolin. The two met when she was 54, editing her film The Mirror Has Two Faces and not looking for love. ("That's the trick," she advises.) Seventeen years later they're still going strong. They relax together, spending whole weekends reading in bed and driving down country roads to little inns in their truck. (You read that right: Barbra Streisand has a truck.) And they appreciate each other. "A wise man told me this the other day: 'If you diminish your partner, you diminish yourself,' " she says. "If you want to be happy, make the other person happy. Jim and I work very hard on our marriage."
Outtakes by Russell James