Saturday, 12 January 2013

Audrey Hepburn and why I wouldn't want to be an icon

This is the most well-known picture of Audrey Hepburn. 

I don't think it looks very much like her, except for the eyes. I don't know if it's because she barely ever made that face, or if that cigarette holder seemed too fancy for her or if the photo has been tampered with. Probably a combination thereof. This photo is the symbol of the dehumanization and misconstruction Audrey has gone through in the last 20 years. And she hasn't been the only one. 

Icons are unreal images created from individuals who embodied an abstract ideal, an element or a sentiment. Audrey Hepburn embodied elegance. Marilyn Monroe embodied sex. Lucille Ball embodied laughter. But, since no human being is single-faceted, these women obviously have other sides to their personalities and their lives. However, those sides are more often than not, overlooked in favor of the preservation of the iconic image. This is the problem that I'm here to discuss. 

This post will be mostly focused on Audrey, because I've already written about Marilyn and because despite Lucy's enormous fanbase and undoubted iconic status, she has not been completely stripped of the best part of her like Audrey has. 

The pictures you saw above are of what these women embody. The pictures below are of who they were.

Lucille: shy, laughing, serious and nervous. 
I absolutely adore this set. I think it shows most of Lucy's facets and certainly the ones that weren't remembered. First and foremost, she looks adult in all these pictures, as opposed to the child-like character that Lucy Ricardo became. Lucille was mature, intelligent and professional. In the first picture, Lucy is shy. No one really describes a comedian of such standing as shy, but what Lucy was was very much used to show business. She was an experienced professional who knew what she had to do and how to do it. But in any interview, her endearing shyness comes off clearly. On the second picture, she is laughing. Lucy was not a funny person by default, but she was always surrounded by funny people. She was above all, an optimist. She had faith and that gave her all the happiness she needed. On the third picture, she is serious. Lucy was a tough boss, intolerant to unprofessionalism and with hands of steel to handle her production company. She was proud, firm and smart. And on the last one, she is nervous. Lucy had twenty years of failure in Hollywood behind her back. Her talent was not recognized immediately. It led her to question it for the rest of her life and gave her a humility that most performers with her level of achievement (if there are that many) lack. Mostly, what Lucy Ball had and Lucy Ricardo erased from history can in one word be described as depth.

Norma Jeane Baker, an innocent child catapulted into adulthood and stardom
What happened to Marilyn was the opposite of what happened to Lucy. While Lucy was portrayed as childish and innocent but was actually mature and serious, Marilyn was portrayed as adult and erotic, but was actually experiencing the infantile emotions she should've felt in her robbed childhood. Most people are not familiar with Marilyn's struggle with foster homes, an unknown father and a mentally unstable family. Audiences of the time were so busy sexualizing her image that they never stopped to think about the fact that she married at 16 to escape yet another foster home, and used to dodge her husband's attempts to maintain physical contact because of her extreme shyness and sexual innocence. Marilyn fought a lifelong battle with her own mind and her own history and all Hollywood did to help her was turn her into an erotic object and underestimate her feelings. I am not the least bit surprised that she became addicted to drugs and possibly overdosed or committed suicide at age 36.

Audrey with the children to whom she dedicated her life and to whom she left most of her earthly posessions
Audrey was one of the very few people in the world whose outer beauty caused an even greater beauty inside to be all but forgotten. She stood for goodness. That is the unbearably simple truth of it: Audrey was a good person. consistently. There was no meanness about her. She almost never acted as to hurt others, always to help. Angel, saint, compassionate, all these words apply, but they complicate what is actually very simple - and mind you, achievable - she was a good person. That goodness was the key to her personality. It allowed her to rise above unspeakable tragedy in her past, it allowed her to keep fighting. It allowed her to have hope, and that allowed her to have strength, and thus a chain of wonderful characteristics unraveled. In the sung words of Fred Astaire, in one of her best movies, Funny Face: “You fill the air with smiles.” Audrey was all about goodness and positiveness. What i find irresistible about her is a certain sadness in her eyes, that her son Sean very well described in his book "An Elegant Spirit". That sadness was deeply personal. It was her personal tragedies that scarred her forever, but, her goodness of spirit allowed her to overlook that and keep that ever present smile on her face. She made others happy to make herself happy, and thus living for others, she lived on herself.

Then why is this the only legacy she seems to have left?

What I find is that lately Audrey divides opinions: Half the people out there (mostly teenage girls and misinformed fashion-lovers) say they love her with all their hearts and cry every year on January 20th, but simply because of her contribution to fashion, glamour and elegance. Audrey was, indeed, a very beautiful, very elegant, and very well-carried woman, but trust me, this is the least important thing about her. Her legacy should be the difference she made in the lives of all the children she helped, of the Audrey Hepburn's Children's Fund, of what she represented in the life of her own kids, the courage with which she faced down cancer, in how hard she fought for love and how much she cherished it when she had it.

This is actually surprisingly well-colorized!

The other half seems to resent her because she is so famous for "no reason". She was not the strongest of actresses, not nearly the strongest of singers, hence the constant criticism of her allegedly undeserved fame. But Audrey is more than worthy of the fame she has and her example could do the world a lot of good if only it was as world-renowned as her fashion sense.

Audrey was my first favorite actress and I still have three pictures of her in my bedroom to remind me to be compassionate and kind to those who weren't as fortunate as I was. This is the legacy she left me

Now, I don't want y'all to confuse embodiment with typecasting. Typecasting is an actor focusing, voluntarily or otherwise, in a certain type of character. Many actors were typecast without having their personalities erased, namely Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn and many others. Embodiment, or the making of icons, obligatorily pertains to a dehumanization, an oblivion of one's personality in favor of preserving an image that if not unreal, is shallow at best. Lucille Ball is thought of as a goofy, sweet, child-like persona, when her reality was very far off. Katharine Hepburn is known as a very private, independent and proud actress, who happened to usually play powerful and/or intimidating women. Her typecast didn't erase her personality, it helped perpetualize it.

What a shame that so many amazing human beings who had so much to offer have been stripped of some of their quality in favor of a shallow and deceptive image. I urge you fans to join me in attempting to keep their reality alive and try to fight against these unrealistic stereotypes.

So long,


  1. loved this post Marcela, it's truly great. I share your opinion (which is the truth) about Audrey and Lucille. But I had no idea about Monroe's past, it's quite shocking.

  2. Hi Marcela, I agree with you all the way. These are three great women who have become lost in their iconic image and that is a great shame because there is so much more to them. A wondeful, thoughtful post.

  3. Amen! Even though Audrey is a fashion icon, she should be more recognized for her good work with children. Thanks for posting about this.

  4. Many people say they're fans of these and other great people from the past, like Chaplin, without knowing their body of work, lifestory and background, which are the things that make these people more remarkable.

  5. Sorry but this is stupid.. How exactly could Audrey's exact persona, or "reality", be communicated via photographs? And you say as if it's fact, that Audrey's fashion sense and such are the least important things about her. What's important to you might not be important to someone else.. it's completely up to the individual and what they find most important is the most important.. It's as if you're just trying to find something to complain about because Audrey has become popular with the younger generation and it bothers you... kind of like when a not-well-known band hits the mainstream and the fans from before they were popular get upset.. that's such an immature perspective,, in my opinion..

    However, this was well written.

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  7. I haven;'t gotten past your description of Lucille Ball, yet (and a premise you have made pertaining to Audrey Hepburn - - and Marilyn Monroe) and I'm already having to say that you must be very young and/or uninformed. And your interpretations of observable behavior are entirely off-target. First of all, Lucille Ball was/is a Hollywood legend, and was so from a very young age. The 'Lucy' you know from I Love Lucy, was Lucille Ball's third incarnation as a performer, who had been a *glamor girl*, first a dancer and showgirl, and then a major glamour star - - long before she married Desi Arnaz and became 'Lucy'. (Wasn't always a rehead, either; she did a stint as a blond). Look up some of the old pictures of Lucille Ball on your search engine; check her out in the 1930s! "Twenty years of failure behind her"?! You're way off on that. The woman was an icon long before the 'Lucy' show. She was doing that show when many of her peers were retiring. In that set of photos, I read her as tensely awaiting a point in a script that she's anticipating, to see if it "plays" the way it should, when the performers, whomever they are, hit their lines. She then reacts to the humorous aspect of the line in question playing very well. She's then being attentive to whatever else is being played out (obviously this is a rehersal of something) - - and is pleased: it 'works' for her; she's enjoying it. Haven't read further, but I must comment immediately on something you've said right off - - about Audrey Hepburn. Again, you need to look up photos of Hepburn as a very young girl and young woman, and realize that she started out as a bit of an ugly duckling, who was *turned into* a lovely swan, by the Hollywood studio system, that meticulously corrected and groomed its players, and created "stars" out of them; many of whom began - - as did Marilny Monroe, also - - as very plain people - - who happened to have what it took, including physical attributes that could be *worked* with - - with which to do that. Audrey Hepburn looked like her mother, who wasn't a good-looking woman. She started out with more of a nose than you apparently would recognize, which was observably worked on and altered twice, and she was snaggle-toothed, with, in the course of her performing career, three installments of new teeth, gradually correcting first the offending front side teeth, then all the teeth, and then all the teeth upgraded, several years later, with, probably some orthodonture involved, as the process moved along. Marilyn Monroe also had the same done to her, until she was perfected to the point of "personal best". (I even see something having been done to her chin/jaw; she might have had a slight malocclusion that was corrected - - and that's a major surgery). These women whom you assert were "stripped of their best parts" were, just the opposie, *bestowed* their "best parts", artificially, by the *artistry*, and on the dime, of the studios that created them.

  8. Now I read your assertions about Marilyn Monroe. Whose history is well-known and documented very well in the book, 'Norma Jeane', by the way. And who, without the great luck to have had the opportunity to have been a Hollywood star, would have had a predictable continuation of the miserable life she'd had as a foster child and a nobody, and would probably have been running away from one pursuing slob after another, for the entirety of that miserable life, and would, *most likely*, have come to the same end as she did, only without all the glamour, opulence, and opportunity in between - - not to mention having been made "immortal". Norma Jeane Baker would have died in obscurity. Marilyn Monroe? Not bad! If you've gotta go, that's the way to do it, honey!

  9. Reading on, about Audrey Hepburn, I see that while you cast aspersions on old Hollywood, you have entirely bought into its presentation of Hepburn - - who is known to have slept with many of her (married) co-stars, had an affair with the married father of three, William Holden, and was about to break up his marriage until she learned that he could not father any more children, then dumped him, smoked, drank, was sexy and naughty and earthy and just as human as you and me. No; she wasn't a saint. She didn't have such a bad childhood (her mother was a baroness, and for most of the war and except for a brief period, Hepburn was spirited away from any trouble and sequestered in good schools where she was well-educated and well-cared for). If, in fact, there was anything that harmed the woman - - she was reportedly driven to two suicide attempts - - other than having married a control freak, it was having to live such a repressed life, in accordance with the image she was obliged to present, if she wanted to continue having he wonderful career she was given. No need to think it's all or nothing; there are people who, at the end of the day, with all their foibles, are kind, compassionate human beings. No need to sanctify. It's more interesting when people are perceived to be as dimensional as they were. Ironically, given your comments, Hepburn's famous quote was, "I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls". Now, if that's not a potenially damaging, superficial statement for you, maybe you need to think about that some more! Oh, yes; the most important thing about these women *was* that they embodied and exemplified the potential for change, improvement, invention, innovation, manifesting that in personal style, elegance, and grace - - and showed us what could be done with that. Inspirational! P.S. That isn't a "colorized" photo; that photo was always in color. Be well, be inspired, and - - don't forget, if you want to be lovely:

    1. Audrey Hepburn grew up during WWII in Holland, living in constant fear. Her father left the family early, absolutely devastating her, and she had to bear the Nazis killing her uncle and sending her stepbrother to a work camp. Food was so scarce that she sometimes couldn’t keep up her dance lessons because she was so weak from hunger and later had permanent health issues from this period of malnutrition. As a teenager, she helped the Resistance by carrying notes and messages hidden in socks.

    2. Audrey was married to Mel Ferrer for twelve years. He was said to be very controlling, keeping her phone number from managers and agents, telling her what films to perform in, and making business decisions for her. Rumors were so rampant that she even gave a Photoplay interview to dispel that her husband ran her career. Eventually Ferrer was tired of his wife’s fame overshadowing his own and the couple divorced.

      Audrey married Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, in 1969 and were married for 13 years. Andrea had frequent extramarital affairs, and Audrey stayed until she felt their son was old enough to cope with divorce.

      Audrey met actor Robert Wolders in 1980 and although never married, they were together until her death in 1993. In Wolders, Audrey finally had found the love and companionship she needed and they are considered one of the world’s great love stories.