October 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The cold war is over, and the superpowers are speaking. Yes, it’s true: After years of sniping and snickering, Whitney and Mariah have recorded their first duet.

Last August, in a dimly lit New York studio, two of the largest-selling female singers of all time laid down their arms and lent their deluxe lungs to ”When You Believe,” a tear-jerking ballad for DreamWorks’ upcoming animated opus, The Prince of Egypt. Until that historic moment, Houston and Carey were reportedly incapable of sharing an area code. But there they were, cordially splitting a song. A month later, they did it again, sharing a stage — in matching dresses — at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. Had the world gone mad?! Or was this harmonic convergence just further proof that we’re witnessing the dawn of the new diva?

Everywhere you look, divas are in the driver’s seat: big divas, little divas, French-Canadian divas, even interior-decorating divas. This year’s biggest U.S. single is ”The Boy Is Mine,” a glossy ode to catfighting that’s elevated Brandy and Monica to the diva nation (as has their infamous — if entirely fictitious — backstage catfight at the MTV Awards). VH1’s Divas is the highest-rated program in the channel’s history, spreading diva-liciousness to 15.5 million viewers. On Oct. 6, with operatic occasion, Epic Records is releasing VH1 Divas Live, a five-headed salute to diva-versity starring — in alphabetical order (since, according to In & Out screenwriter and diva aficionado Paul Rudnick, divas must never be ranked ”or they’ll stop eating!”) Aretha, Celine, Gloria, Mariah, and Shania.

There are daytime divas on TV like the indefatigable Oprah Winfrey. Or Barbara Walters, grande dame of The View, that unintentionally irresistible smorgasbord of girl talk. Diva emeritus Diana Ross is developing the movie she was born to make, a new version of the saucy 1981 French film Diva. And, in the interest of equal rights, we should point out that divas don’t always wear decolletage. Watch Charlton Heston act. Behold Elton John. And don’t neglect Marilyn Manson, currently the No. 1 divo in the land.

Of course, divas have been around for millennia. But they seemed dangerously in decline for most of this decade, overshadowed by a natural enemy: the supermodel. Today, alas, Naomi and Kate are passe, and divas again have the floor. ”Is this the biggest group of divas ever?” muses Epic Records’ diva-like president Polly Anthony. ”Let’s just say, if the shoe fits — wear it.”

The D word actually dates back to ”Casta diva,” an 1831 aria from Bellini’s Norma. ”It used to mean ‘chaste goddess,”’ explains Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon and The Queen’s Throat, academic looks at the diva-deluged subjects of Jackie Onassis and opera. ”Today we use it to describe temperament instead of vocal gifts. [I think] the nadir of the term is when somebody like Martha Stewart is called a diva based on her entrepreneurial skills.” Or her way with a glue gun.

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