The untold truth of Barbra Streisand

She's been charming the world with her voice since the 1960s, but how well do you really know Barbra Streisand? From her humble beginnings to her meteoric success, and later, her struggles in Hollywood, here's a closer look at the legendary career of Hollywood's favorite funny girl.

She grew up very poor

Although she's one of the richest and most famous celebrities in the world today, Streisand began her life as a poor kid in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I grew up in Williamsburg until I was 7, and that was a $40-a-month apartment," Streisand told Oprah. "I lived in one room with my mother, in the same bed, and my brother had a foldaway cot in the same room." Streisand and her family later moved to the projects, which she considered "hotsie totsie" at the time. Those experiences stuck with her throughout her life. "When you grow up poor, you're always poor in a sense," she told host Oprah Winfrey.

Despite her humble beginnings, Streisand has some fond memories of childhood. "I love the fact that we didn't have any money," she told W magazine in 2016, recalling a doll she made from a hot water bottle. "I love the fact that one has to use one's own imagination to have toys or whatever."

Her mother was jealous of her

Streisand's father, Emanuel Streisand, died when she was just 15 months old, leaving her to be raised by her mother, Diana.

According to a 1996 interview with The New York Times, Streisand said her mother "had a beautiful voice, like a soprano voice" but never became a singer because "she was always too shy." Their relationship, she added, grew fraught, due in part to her mother's brash, no-nonsense parenting style that continued as a teenage Streisand began to make a name for herself performing at nightclubs in Manhattan.

"When I was 18, I sang at Bon Soir, and when my mother came to see me her comment was: 'Your voice is very thin. You need eggs in your milk to make your voice stronger,”' Streisand told the Times. ”She said she didn't want me to get a swelled head. I sure didn't have a swelled head. I had to go out into the world and prove I was something and I would be remembered in some way.”

Speaking to NPR in 2012, Streisand claimed that her mother, who "couldn't quite understand how [she] had the courage to stand out there and sing [in public]," was actually jealous of her. "I didn't realize it till one Christmas night, when people were giving me presents and [my mother] kind of went off a bit and started getting very emotional about, 'Why aren't you giving me presents? I'm her mother. I'm the mother,' that kind of thing," she said. "It was the first time I realized she was actually jealous of me. And that was hard to take, I must say."

She wasn't a big fan of performing live theater

Streisand quickly made a name for herself on Broadway thanks to her role in the 1961 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which earned her a Tony nomination. Her performance paved the way for her starring role in the iconic 1964 musical Funny Girl, a role she would later reprise in 1968 in her big-screen debut. But despite her immediate success on the Great White Way, Streisand wasn't exactly a huge fan of performing in live theater.

"After awhile, I really didn't like having to do eight shows a week," she told W magazine in 2016. "That's why I've always wanted to be in the movies, because I thought, once you get the scene right, you never have to do it again. And then you could go to your own opening night, which you could never do when you're on the stage!" she said with a laugh.

She continued, "I liked doing Funny Girl, but not 1,000 times; literally, I had to play [the role] 1,000 times. And since I'm a kind of anal-retentive perfectionist, I would give notes after each performance—even [on] the last night, because I couldn't stand if the silk flowers had too much dust on them. I would get disconcerted with the fact that they should look as fresh as they could possibly be."

Judy Garland gave her some wise words of advice

During her meteoric rise to fame, Streisand made a still-talked-about appearance on The Judy Garland Show in 1963, the same year she released The Barbra Streisand Album, which won the Grammy for album of the year.

Following the show, during which they sang an awe-inspiring mash-up of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," Garland occasionally visited Streisand to give her advice. "She came to my apartment in New York, and she said to me, 'Don't let them do to you what they did to me,'" Streisand told The New York Times in 2016. "I didn't know what she meant then. I was just getting started."

Of course, the tenacious Streisand would go on to have a different experience in Hollywood than Garland, and yet, speaking to NPR in 2016, Streisand said she felt she grew to understand Garland. "I can remember it distinctly... She was holding my hand and I thought, 'Gee, she seems nervous.' At that time, I wasn't nervous. I was still very young, I think, about to do Funny Girl, and now, when I think back on it, I think, 'Oh, my God, I know exactly what she's feeling.'"

Streisand continued, "It's like, as you get older and people are kind of looking for you to fail more, I think—not people, not the audience—but, you know, critics or producers or whatever. And I just felt her. I felt her anxiety... Part of me is much more relaxed than I've ever been, less frightened, less anxious. On the other hand, it's a coming-of-age-thing, and she was much younger than I am... It's a dichotomy. It's hard to explain... You wonder, 'Well, do I give it up? Do I retire? Or do I get more in before my time is up?'"

She didn't immediately fit in with Hollywood

From an outsider's perspective, Streisand's transition from the stage to screen was met with remarkable success. Her very first movie role in Funny Girl (1968) won her the Academy Award for best actress.

But as she tells it, not all of Hollywood welcomed her with open arms. "You see, I committed a sin when I came to Hollywood [in 1967] because I came with a contract for three pictures, and I had never had a screen test," she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "So if there is such a thing as envy or jealousy, everybody was like, 'Huh? Who is she?' I wasn't a proven factor. Nobody knew what I would look like onscreen or anything like that." 

She continued, "[Producer] Ray Stark held a party for me, and Marlon Brando was there, and I think John Wayne and all these movie stars, directors and producers were there. I was late because I was scared. I sat in a corner, and I wasn't charming."

She didn't realize her infamous Oscar dress was see-through

Speaking of the Oscars: while Streisand's performance in Funny Girl won over voters within the Academy, the awkward, see-through pantsuit she wore to the ceremony in 1969 didn't earn raves from fashion critics. In fact, to this day, the outfit still appears on lists of the worst Oscar ensembles ever.

Had Streisand known the pantsuit was see-through, she wouldn't have worn it in the first place. "That night, in my dressing room, I was choosing between two different outfits. One was lovely, but very conservative. And then there was the pantsuit with plastic sequins," she told W magazine in 2016. "I had no idea that when the lights hit that outfit, it would become transparent! I wanted a white collar and cuffs, which it had, and I wore my hair under my chin, because I thought to myself, I'm going to win two Oscars in my lifetime, and I'll be more conservative next time."

Streisand's prediction came true. She won a second Oscar in 1977 for the song "Evergreen," and, yes, the outfit she wore to that ceremony was much more conservative.

She developed a reputation for being difficult

Streisand has been accused of being difficult to work with, particularly as she transitioned from actress to director, beginning with 1983's Yentl. Streisand told The New York Times that she believes that reputation prompted directors such as Robert Zemeckis and Herbert Ross to turn down her third directorial effort, The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). 

Streisand has admitted to being tough and controlling, but following her experience with Yentl, she became an activist for women in film. She thinks the rumors that have plagued her are the result of sexism in Hollywood. "What does 'difficult' mean anyway?" she asked The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "If a man on a set says something—'I want to change this shot'—they do whatever he says. Now, if a woman asks ..."

"We're just measured by a different standard," she said. "He's 'committed.' She's 'obsessed.' It's been said that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Why can't that be true of a woman? 'Vanity' is another word they use for women. I saw it in a review of [Angelina Jolie Pitt's] By the Sea; I haven't seen the movie, but they call it her 'vanity production,' because she's doing the jobs I did. But [if a man does it,] it's 'how brilliant. He's multifaceted, he's multitalented, a multihyphenate.'"

She was deeply hurt when the Oscars snubbed her for Yentl

While the reasons Yentl did not receive Oscar nominations for best picture, best director and best actress were debated even in 1984, it reportedly did not change the fact that Streisand was hurt by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' cold shoulder that year.

"She was very disappointed," Streisand's collaborator of many years, Marilyn Bergman, told People magazine. "She's only human."

Although she downplayed her initial reaction, Streisand did admit in 2017 that getting snubbed by the Academy might explain why she waited so long to direct her second movie, The Prince of Tides (1991). "I must have been more hurt than I thought, because I didn't want to direct for years," she said (via Variety).

She fired Chris O'Donnell from The Prince of Tides

Although she once claimed that reports about her firing multiple people from her movies were wildly exaggerated, Streisand has axed at least one famous face in her career—at least according to actor Chris O'Donnell.

In 2016, the NCIS: Los Angeles star recalled an incident from his youth in which Streisand allegedly called his dorm room at Boston College to explain that he had been fired from The Prince of Tides. "It was very funny," he said. "It was sophomore year and I was living with some random people I didn't know very well and I hadn't told anyone I had been making films because I wanted to know everybody without being the guy who made the films," O'Donnell said on Watch What Happens Live. "So I'm at the library and I come home and my roommate goes, 'Oh hey, D, uh, Barbra Streisand called you.' I go, 'Okay man, thanks.' He goes, 'What's up with that?' And I go, 'What'd they say?' 'She's calling back tomorrow at 1 o'clock.' And so the entire hall was waiting to answer the phone."

Liza Minnelli helped her get over her stage fright

One of Streisand's most famous stories involves a concert in Central Park in which stage fright caused her to forget the lyrics to her songs in front of a crowd of 150,000.

With the exception of free fundraisers, Streisand did not perform in front of a crowd for 27 years. In fact, it took seeing Liza Minnelli perform in someone's living room to convince Streisand to start performing again. "I thought, 'My God, look how she gets up and sings in front of these people...with the lights on,'" she recalled on The Leonard Lopate Show (via Playbill) in April 2017. "I have to have blackness when I sing, so these arenas give me the blackness. I can't perform. I'm just very uncomfortable performing live."

She met James Brolin on a blind date

Streisand's love life has crossed paths with the likes of her first husband, actor Elliott Gould, with whom she has a son, along with actor and boxer Ryan O'Neal, and also former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

These days, she's happily married to actor James Brolin, whom she met in the '90s on a blind date. "I met him at a dinner and expected a bearded mountain-man type, and he had cut off all his hair and was clean-shaven," she told W magazine in 2016. "I asked him, 'Who screwed up your hair?' He later told me that's when he fell in love with me. My fella likes to hear the truth, which is unusual." 

The couple said "I do" in 1998.

She got Apple to change the way Siri says her name

With the exception of some (get it, Beyoncé!), people have had a difficult time correctly pronouncing Streisand's last name. Included on that list: Apple's "intelligent personal assistant," Siri. 

"She pronounces my name wrong," Streisand said during an interview with NPR in 2016. "Streisand with a soft S, like sand on the beach. I've been saying this for my whole career."

Streisand decided to do something about that. "I called the head of Apple, Tim Cook, and he delightfully agreed to have Siri change the pronunciation of my name, finally, with the next update... So let's see if that happens because I will be thrilled."

For the record: it happened. Behold, the power of Barbra Streisand.