I’m a huge fan of Mae West. It’s shocking to me when I meet someone who has no idea who she is or worse, sees her as some kind of joke.
Today, with Instagram Reels, YouTube Channels, and Viral TikToks, people spend so much time entertaining each other that there’s little time to learn about legends of the past.
In my day there were only a few TV channels and no cable yet, so even as kids, we were well-versed in the classics. Not by choice, there just wasn’t that much else to choose from. Other than Saturday morning cartoons, you basically watched what the grown-ups wanted to see. Mae West was still alive when I was growing up and was iconic and infused in cartoons and many other media forms. A few years ago, I even studied her and dressed as her and wrote modern jokes in her style for a comedy show.
Why She’s Important For Women
I recently watched a documentary that came out last year on PBS called Mae West: Dirty Blonde. Even though she might not be considered a feminist in that I don’t know that she did what she did for all women. I think it was mainly for herself. But she was a Leo like me so I get it. Still, her pure guts and determination and what she was able to accomplish is inspiring as hell and should be celebrated and remembered.
Some Facts You May Not Know About This Goddess:
- She began her onstage career at the age of five and was still performing in her 80s.
She wrote her own plays and films. Yes, all those amazing one-liners are hers.
She insisted that she oversaw costumes, direction, and casting including background actors.
- She basically discovered Cary Grant. He was already signed to the studio but they were only using him for tests. She saw him walking halfway down the block on the Paramount lot and just knew he was special. She said if he can talk, I want him as my leading man.
- In 1935 she was the highest-paid woman in America and the second-highest paid person in America.
- Her films were so popular they pulled Paramount Pictures out of bankruptcy.
- She wasn’t in her first film until she was in her 40s.
- Mae West was only 5’ tall so she wore shoes like these 8 ½” platforms on and offstage which may have contributed to her signature strut.
Twice, Mae West Had A Major Career Pivot By Asking Herself “What Do Women Want?”
When West was writing and performing on Broadway she noticed 80% of her audience was men. She tended to write characters who were overtly sexual and naughty. She asked herself, “How do I get women in here? What do they want to see?” So her next play was about a wealthy, wisecracking woman in the 1890’s with an hourglass figure and dripping in diamonds. Full glam instead of sleaze. This was in the 1920s when the modern clothing style for women was loose and shapeless and minimalistic. Mae West created a character with Diamond Lil that was over-the-top Maximalism. Her character was powerful, independently wealthy, overtly sexual, confident, and yet good-hearted and relatable. At 35 years old, Mae West found the magic formula for “Mae West”.
In her 60’s, she once again asked herself “What do women want from me?” In the 1950s and ’60s, Las Vegas was in its prime. But the entertainment there was all geared toward men. From 1954-1959 Mae West changed that. She created an act where she swanned about onstage in glamorous clothes and jewels with oiled-up male bodybuilders posing all around her like Greek statues while she sang and danced and made her famous cheeky one-liners and double entendres. It was a hit.
I honestly feel personally responsible for making sure legends like Mae West aren’t forgotten or just reduced to campy drag caricature. I mean she was a caricature in a way even in her own day. But she was also a trailblazing, feminine, glamorous, rule-breaking, ball-busting, unapologetic powerhouse. Hmm…maybe I should do a TikTok on it.