The marketing and exploitation of the female image as part of the fame trajectory – for good or for evil – has a very long tradition. I first encountered the detail of helpless blind-ambition of fame-hungry starlets, whilst researching my book the Fame Formula. The manipulative craft of the publicist can be detected in the shadowy recesses of the fame factory. Recently, the chatterati have been teeming around the various permutations of the Miley Cyrus ‘scandal’ and resulting stories for weeks, like it is something new. It isn’t.
Although individuals ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Charlotte Church have taken the story as an opportunity to highlight injustices in the music industry, the use of sexualised imagery to promote artists and celebrities is not an invention of the post-Free Love era.
One of the modern world’s first female superstars, Sarah Bernhardt – France’s darling of the belle époque – posed nude for photographers whilst she was still a teenager at the Conservatoire. It is purported that she later produced such portraits with Félix Nadar to be sent to potential employers in nineteenth century Parisian Theatre Land. When sensibilities got in the way – much like today – the use of skin-tight or sheer costume was always a possibility.
Bernhardt understood and utilised the power of the shareable story, and was very much in control of her brand; she crafted all kinds of fantastical rumours to ensure that she was always being talked about, but to detail them would make for another article entirely. Whatever she did, and however she did it, it worked: Bernhardt, born in 1844, has been referred to as “the most famous actress the world has ever known” as recently as 2007.
Another example of such image exploitation is one of the most talented dancers of the early twentieth century, Joséphine Baker, who often appeared scantily-clad or semi-nude on stage whilst performing erotic, technically complex dances, her signature being the banana dance, ‘twerking’ anyone? As well as being a magnificently talented performer, Baker played a key part in information-gathering on behalf of the Allies during World War Two and spoke out passionately in support of the Civil Rights movement in America. She is an interesting case, as it could be argued that she was exploited, placed, near-naked in a pastiche, phallic banana costume, upon her funeral – and yet, she was the only American-born woman to receive full French military honours.
Later in the 20th century, Lana Turner’s role in They Won’t Forget (1937) resulted in the coinage of the term ‘sweater girl’, setting a trend for tight-fitting attire over bullet-shaped bras aged just sixteen. Her ‘momager’ oversaw her career. Marrying eight times and having seven different husbands, as well as problems with alcoholism, Turner led a turbulent lifestyle. She appeared in just one leading role in 1969, only for the show to be cancelled midway through the series.
Norma Jean famously changed her name changed to Marilyn Monroe, and made her career breakthrough only after meeting the father of pin-up photography, Bruno Bernard in Palm Springs. Monroe faced controversy in 1952 when two nude photos from a 1949 photoshoot with Tom Kelley were featured in calendars and the media quickly picked up on the fact that the pictures resembled the actress.
Although commentators like Church argue that artists are “thrust into the limelight as child stars by a male-dominated music industry, with a juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality”, we cannot pretend that this is a new phenomenon. The lust for fame is driven by blind ambition by both parties, and in many cases, the decisions made by artists are made with the full consent of their nearest and dearest.
Perhaps the greatest change in the media environment since the days of Bernhardt, Baker, Turner and Monroe is that Warhol’s prophecy of 15 minutes (or more accurately in today’s terms, seconds) of fame has come true. No sooner has a star launched does it seem to turn into star dust. The lifelong fame experienced by yesterday’s stars is now all but an impossibility. Those who adequately – and actively – manage and develop their image, like Madonna, and even – to a certain extent – Courtney Love, manage to maintain their fame (and infamy), but for most of the glitterati, fame is fleeting – and it is precisely because of this fleetingness that such risqué promotional tactics become pernicious.
Even the most seasoned and experienced stars have fallen victim to the temptation of the nude or semi-nude selfie; the modern day microblog manifestation of this age-old promotional device, and a dangerous tool to be used with caution. Almost every generation of present stars, from Demi Moore and Courtney Love, to Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga have used it, some with greater success than others.
Sadly, puppet masters are paid to exploit naïve determination, and it seems that nobody has been able to escape from this entirely. Arguably, we need look no further than the Royal Family’s sweetheart, HRH Kate Middleton, and the recent media focus on her post-natal body to see just how deep the wound lies. If a Royal Princess finds herself conforming to chauvinistic media ideals of the male gaze, how can anyone else have hope to do otherwise.