April 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Cults of personality come cheap in America. On any given day, various sects might be camping out at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, purchasing commemorative porcelain plates at Graceland, or dragging out little black dresses and false eyelashes and lip-synching to Judy Garland’s ”The Man That Got Away” in Greenwich Village. These curious religions are born for many reasons, but usually the faithful are inspired by martyrdom and sacrifice, victimization and redemption-all the elements that make for high camp. And nothing stirs a true believer more than the possibility of a resurrection-a comeback tour, perhaps, or a sighting of Elvis at the local Burger King.

Barbra Streisand is a different sort of cult phenomenon, famously unique, but also uniquely famous. True, she’s a favorite of drag queens and an inspiration to ugly ducklings everywhere. But her cult depends not on camp or tragedy, nor on the gorier trappings of religion. Martyrdom? Streisand never heard of it. Sacrifice? Too hard on the nails. Her claim to Mount Olympus is her one miracle: the voice. My God, the voice. What confluence of flesh and blood, nerve and muscle, could produce such a thing? It is at once magnificent and hopefully naive, soaring as effortlessly as the breeze, and flowing as clearly as springwater; only its yearning seems human. So rare, it speaks to all ages and colors and sexes and classes. It is worth any price of admission.

”I first heard it when I was 12 years old,” says Kathie Lee Gifford, one of a handful of celebrities who have gone public with their Streisand fixation; she frequently discusses the diva on Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. ”I heard ‘People’ come on the radio, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I had tears sobbing down my face. And I wasn’t even in puberty at this point, so don’t think it was hormonal.”

But the pipes are golden in more ways than one. Like Frank Sinatra, Streisand has shrewdly bartered vocal talent for power and wealth. She acts. She directs. She collects. She politicks in the highest reaches of Washington. She is untouchable, an icon among icons.

”She’s God’s bell,” says aerobics/diet guru Richard Simmons, who has turned his obsession with Streisand into a second career. ”In the eighth grade I was 200 pounds. And I saw her emerge from not the most beautiful girl in the world to the most beautiful woman that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She helped my self-image.”

Simmons’ devotion is, in fact, typical of the Streisand worshiper-with the volume considerably turned up. He has offered, over and over, to cook her dinner. ”It’s not like I’m a stalker, like in Misery,” says Simmons. ”I’m an equal now. I’m worth just about as much as she is. I just don’t have all those farkakte Tiffany lamps.” So far, though, she has refused his invitations.

Indeed, she is aloof. She lacks vulnerability. She doesn’t seem, well, nice. And there are occasional lapses in judgment. For example: playing a high-priced hooker in Nuts, dating Don Johnson, recording a duet with Don Johnson, lighting herself like the Second Coming in The Prince of Tides. And can’t she find songs better than Andrew Lloyd Webber schlock?

Still, her fans seem willing to forgive her anything. ”Who are we to judge what she personally wants to sing?” says Simmons, slightly irritated. ”I’ve sort of become very protective. When she got divorced from Elliot Gould, I was always there with the reasons. I’ve sort of been that little guardian angel, and if anybody ever said anything negative about her, I certainly had to set them straight.”

Simmons covered Streisand’s New Year’s Eve concert in Vegas for The Tonight Show. To open her act, she appeared in spotlight at the top of a staircase, then stilled the cheering crowd with ”Everything’s as if We Never Said Goodbye,” from Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Shortly afterward, Simmons ended his report by breaking down in tears and disappearing into the ladies’ room (TV doesn’t get much better). But as he recalls the moment now, his voice doesn’t falter. It gets louder, stronger, as he bursts into Barbra’s opening number. ”I don’t know why I’m frightened,” he wails. ”I know my way around he-e-e- e-e-e-ere….” And he sings with the beautiful conviction of a choirboy moved by the spirit.

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