An Old Tradition Continues
By Bill Dobbins
In his 1962 book THE IMAGE: Or, What Happened To The American Dream, historian Daniel Boorstin wrote about how “pseudo events” have taken the place of real events (and this was before the invention of the unreal “Realty TV Show) and was the first to publicize that “Heroes are famous for their deeds; celebrities are famous for being well known.” He didn’t know about Kim Kardashian, but he could have predicted her.
Kardashian is not a singer, not an actress, has not won the Nobel Peace Prize. She is very clearly famous for being well known. As are Paris Hilton and a number of modern celebrities. She has built her fame on her extremely good looks, shapely body and a huge amount of publicity and social networking. She is a viral celebrity. Fame for fame sake at this level would be virtually impossible in an age in which the Internet did not exist.
Of course, the idea of women being famous primarily for their looks with, at least for some, no talent necessarily involved, goes back a long way. Playwright Oscar Wilde was a big supporter of what were called “famous beauties” back in the late 19th century. These were women who became celebrities of the age based on their looks and the publicity they generated not necessarily for talent, although many of them were actresses of some ability. Others capitalized on their fame by simply appearing on stage with one pretext or another to sell tickets to their many fans.
The 1972 movie The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean involves a visit to the old west by Lillie Langtree, played by actress Ava Garner, who was reputedly the most beautiful of the famous beauties of her day. Known as the “Jersey Lillie,” the story goes that when Langtree was growing up on the island of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Island off Britain, a young army officer would see her working in the garden as he walked by. He eventually stopped and started talking to her and was totally smitten by her looks and personality. Eventually he went to her father and asked to marry her. He was totally embarrassed and had to transfer to another post when her father informed him that Lillie was only 12 years old.
The late 1900s was the period in which technology allowed newspapers and magazines to publish higher quality images – first illustrations and then photographs. It was also a time when photographic technology had also improved so that shooting dry plates and soon after film meant that more photos were being shot than ever. Much of the publicity that helped promote these women involved both illustration and photography, while a lot of the illustrations were themselves based on photographs.
In addition to Langtree, one of the most famous beauties in America was Lillian Russell, a vaudeville and music hall performer who has been called the first modern female celebrity in the US – although unlike many of the other female celebrities her fame was due in large part to her acting talent. She was also known for photos that were highly erotic for the time. For example, images of her would show her completely bare ankle! These were obviously much simpler times.
Lotta Crabtree had looks and personality that gave her success as an actress but she was a much more complex figure than that. Her facility with languages, finance and business allowed her to create an income of about $5000 week – a sum which back in the day was easily the equivalent of the earnings of a Kim Kardashian.
In the early 20th century, it was hard to miss images of Evelyn Nesbit. She was portrayed in photographs, illustrations, postcards and playing cards. She was involved in famous scandals. Times had changed since the time of Oscar Wilde so many of Nesbit’s photos were a lot sexier than had been permitted in the past. Images showing a lot of cleavage were widely circulated. She has sometimes been called America’s first pin-up girl.
Another famous beauty of the day was dancer Isadora Duncan, who was played in the 1967 movie Isadora by Vanessa Redgrave. The culture had really evolved by this point and Isadora had very few inhibitions when it came to showing her body. Her story is particularly bizarre because of the way she died. Isadora was fond of wearing long scarfs, she decided to go for a ride in an open Bugatti sports car, her scarf got tangled in the wheel and this killed her.
The 1920s was the beginning of what we know of as “mass media” and this changed the culture. Magazines could publish lush, full color photographs, Some of these were movie fan magazines which reinforced the star system being created by the movie studios. So the famous beauties of the day tended to be movie actresses like Mary Pickford, Great Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamar and later Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Bridget Bardot and so many more.
During the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, there was an emphasis on photography done with large format view cameras with lots of retouching in order to present movie stars in as glamorous a way as possible. The best of these studio photographers was George Hurrell and he is responsible for some of the most iconic star images of all time.
Oscar Wilde would not be surprised by the prevalence of celebrity based on beautiful looks. Nor would Daniel Boorstin. Nowadays, while major female celebrities often come from the ranks of movie and TV stars, the Internet has also allowed wome, often of no special accomplishment, to attract hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers on platforms like Twitter or Instagram.
The fact that photography has become so democratized by digital in general and the smart phone in particular has helped make all this happen. Back in the day glamor photos were done by professional photographers, usually using large format cameras. From the 1950s on we started to see more “lifestyle” types of images of celebrities, showing them at home or engaged in everyday activities. This has accelerated in modern times so that more photos have been shot in the past few years than in the first 100 years of photography all together.
The movies still create famous beauties from the ranks of stars like Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence. But there will also be more widely famous women like Kim Kardashian and even more women with millions of followers that are major celebrities – but only to a select audience. After all, with a potential audience of hundreds of millions of potential fans you don’t need a high percentage of them in order to become a genuine Famous Beauty.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
FEMALE PHYSIQUE SITE
Fan magazines were part of the studio publicity machine that helped to build and maintain Hollywood careers, particularly those of glamorous actresses. Nowadays, with print magazines going away, platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become major forces for promotion and publicity.