» «

How to Work With a Prima Donna

On May 25th covering ,

Here’s an article of mine in the February Atlas Plugged.

How To Work With A Prima Donna

Michael Jolkovski, PhD

“Prima Donna” (Italian for Leading lady) and Diva are terms originally used to describe the temperamental and demanding tendencies of Opera stars, the rock stars of the 18th through the early 20th centuries. The music may have changed but these demanding tendencies flourish in every medium and genre.

In my practice, I spend a lot of time with my musician clients discussing the problems of working with Prima Donnas — as well as trying to moderate their own career-killing Prima Donna tendencies. I help Prima Donnas create a trusted bond with their closest working partners where the diva act is not needed, even if they have to put it back on when they go outside.

WHY ARE SO MANY Prima Donnas in music?

Musicians aren’t the only insecure people in the world and up to a point, narcissism can be an asset. It can be the source of charisma and that elusive star quality that helps to fill a big stage. After all, it takes a lot of confidence to expect people to listen to you play and sing night after night. A rock-n-roll attitude can help you to armor yourself against the slings & arrows of the audience.

Taking a superior attitude is one way to protect yourself. If it works for you, fine. When it keeps musicians from really working together or forming relationships that sustain them — then it’s a problem.


“You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” Carly Simon lamented on her hit “You’re so vain”. The song, rumored to be about Mick Jagger (among other divas) illustrates how a Prima Donna’s sense of uniqueness and entitlement is evident just by the way they walk.

Musicians often carry themselves with attitude, but a Prima Donna goes beyond having swagger and confidence. A true Prima Donna believes in their own specialness and treats others with entitlement, and will make the lives of others a living hell by throwing tantrums to insist that their special demands are met.

A classic Prima Donna is arrogant, vain, high-maintenance, demanding, petulant, and entitled. The entitlement can help them rationalize exploiting and manipulating others. This is especially destructive in bands. A prima donna is by definition not a team player, and will often unrealistically expect to live a lifestyle that hasn’t yet been earned. Alcohol and drugs tend to make all of this this much worse.

We’re talking about a high degree of narcissism, which is the psychoanalytic word for vanity. Everybody has some narcissism: it’s what makes for healthy self-esteem. Like blood pressure or sex drive, there is such a thing as too little or too much. A highly narcissistic person can be like a blimp: inflated, impractical, expensive, thin- skinned, fragile, and in need of a large crew to keep them going. The tabloid press or VH1’s Behind the Music are good places to see Hindenburg-type crashes if you like to see that kind of thing.

One practical thing you should know about narcissism in its various unpleasant manifestations is that it ebbs and flows. When someone is feeling dissed, belittled, insulted and humiliated, they tend to react badly. This applies to everyone, even if those of use who are more on the narcissistic side tend to react more badly, with more arrogance, etc.

When this happens, you can realize this person is reacting like a cornered animal. Poking them with a stick won’t get the results you want. You want them to calm down, and the way to attain this is to help them feel appreciated and admired. This is why the stereotyped Hollywood agent or band manager is always doling out flattery — to try to get their Prima Donna stars into a mood where they are all happy and purring so something can get done.

And face it, if you’re working with a band for any length of time, everyone will get a chance to make an ass of themselves. This includes you. So letting people save face by giving them a little time and support to recover when they’re will help you sooner or later.

If your Prima Donna, in the right mood, can sincerely apologize, laugh at himself or herself, admit flaws, and have genuine concern for others, there’s hope they’re not a hard-core pathological narcissist. If not, you’re in for a rough ride.

WHY PUT UP WITH A Prima Donna?

Just because you’re paranoid, the joke goes, doesn’t mean they’re not really after you. By the same token — just because you’re a narcissistic Prima Donna doesn’t mean you’re not special. Some people are so remarkably gifted they are worth working with even despite these obnoxious personal characteristics.

If you are in a band with someone so outrageously talented and charismatic that they truly are the next Prince, Dylan, Bowie, Patti Smith, Hendrix, and Cobain rolled into one, you might be willing to put up with some extra irritation for the privilege. But it won’t do you any good to work with someone like this if the band — or you — don’t survive.

It can amount to making a deal with them, either implied or spelled out. For example, if they are a visionary and you can help them deal with the nitty-gritty reality, it can work out for everybody. So long as you don’t kill them and they don’t discard you like a burrito wrapper when they grow weary of your company.

Difficult as they can be, I have sympathy and respect for these people who are often gifted and who create art that enriches us all. The industry and the weird conditions of fame tend to push people into becoming prima donnas to keep themselves intact.

Famous people sometimes need to grow a hard crust because of all of the hands reaching out to grab a piece of them. I respect anybody who can make a life for themselves under those conditions.


Lucky you. You are working with a Prima Donna. Here are some pointers.

Know when you’ve had enough. Decide how far you’re willing to go to accommodate the Prima Donna, and don’t go beyond it.

Just like the grizzly bear, a dangerous Prima Donna in attack mode is probably just frightened.

Monitor your own reactions. Rage is a good sign you’re at your limit. If the Prima Donna takes an attitude of lofty superiority and treats others as scum, be sure you have extremely thick skin.

Be cool, honey bunny. Don’t retaliate, don’t react. If they are expecting you to be their servant, just point out the reality that you have your own stuff to look after, and they are free to hire a personal assistant if they want to spend their money that way. Don’t argue with their tantrums. Just shrug and let ‘em know it won’t work on you.

Feed the beast: Just like the van needs gas, your Prima Donna bandmate requires a certain amount of admiration and praise. This is part of the Prima Donna high-maintenance plan. It costs nothing to supply if you can stand it. It helps if you believe they deserve it.

Set limits on deadly behavior: The sense of entitlement can grow like a tumor if unchecked. If the lead singer thinks he’s too special to help with loadout, it can split the band. If the singer wants to negotiate for the privilege (for example sharing publishing revenues more generously) that’s another matter.

You’re on their side: “I’d love you to have this, but we’re not in a position to afford it yet”. Let them know that the insufficiently fluffy latte they’re throwing a fit about is not a personal affront, it’s just business.

Step out of the reality distortion field once in a while. Your Prima Donna friend might think he’s going to take the world by storm, but half the Baristas in L.A. used to think the same thing — and the other half still think so. Do your own thinking and get some outside opinions.

Build a firewall: You have to protect yourself if you’re dealing with someone who can be exploitative. It is a narcissistic / Prima Donna trait to feel entitled to grab all of the credit and revenue and to deny that anyone else made any contribution. A written band agreement developed by a competent attorney can be your friend. That way, the money isn’t split up based on anyone’s feelings — it’s just spelled out.

You may have to cut ‘em loose. Sometimes life is too short.


It’s a fantastic relief to be able to let go of that superior business — the world is a lot less lonely that way. Some perspective can help, as can a sense of humor about yourself. Maturity is not a bad thing. A competent psychoanalyst can help. I’m just saying.


Psychologist & former pro musician, Dr. Mike Jolkovski spends his days helping musicians and other bizness entrepreneurs successfully navigate group dynamics, avoid self-destruction & thrive. He’s currently doing research on conflict, power & ego in bands for an upcoming book. Take the survey or email your stories, experiences & opinions at mj@workingthroughmusic.com.

2 Responses

Subscribe to the comments RSS feed of this post Comments feed


Jul 17 at 16:21


This is hilarious and pertinent to prima donnas in all walks of life — business, the PTA and any group projects.

Leave a Reply

Formatting: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> .