When you think “debutante ball,” several images probably spring to mind: fancy ballrooms, princess-like girls wearing gowns, white gloves and waltzing. These are all accurate, but they’re not nearly the whole story. Debutante balls, and the girls who participate in them, are far more complex.
The events look innocent enough on the surface. Etiquette and table manners never hurt anyone, right? But these balls go far deeper into our history than most people know. The details behind this exclusive event are finally coming to light, and what’s being revealed isn’t just alarming — it shows a part of society most of us have tried to forget.
“During your debut, everything and everybody is focused on you.” These are the words of Rachel Spross, a Texas teenager who knows first hand how one girl’s paradise is another girl’s nightmare…and you’ll find both kinds of girls at debutante balls.
The Princess Diaries/Buena Vista Pictures
Back in the 1800s, a debutante ball (also called “cotillion”) was a way for young women to put their social etiquette and manners on display. The core of being a “debutante” is in the very word: It’s all about a young woman “debuting” into society.
Little Women/Warner Bros.
In Reformation-era Europe, members of the upper-class feared that their unwed daughters would become spinsters. To prevent this from happening, British parents would fill their daughters’ schedules with formal events meant to “introduce” them to society…and to wealthy men.
No longer a little girl, you’re a young woman ready to be courted, and even married…quite a lot to handle, considering how a girl “debuts” at the same age she’s worrying about SATs and P.E. class. In this way, many people see debutante balls as antiquated…
Mean Girls/Paramount Pictures
Even some of the participants. “The focus, it seems, is on looks and family status,” said a debutante named Emma, in an interview with Bustle. “It’s hard to believe this thing still exists.” But it does, and how it works is far more complicated than it seems.
George Rose/Getty Images
A young debutante doesn’t just participate in a single ball. Instead, her calendar is filled with formal events and balls for months, and that’s not including all the training and etiquette lessons required to participate. And yes — it all costs money.
The Princess Diaries/Buena Vista Pictures
People associate these balls with wealth because they are, and always have been, rooted in white upper-class society. But it can’t be denied that debutante balls have changed over time, even if the young men and women participating in them look old-fashioned.
Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times
Debutante balls are caught between traditional and modern values. Some girls participate merely to make their high-society grandmothers happy, but others see it as something much more important. It’s not something they have to do, but something they want to do.
Though the balls look a lot like they did hundreds of years ago — elegant venues, a grand staircase for the girls to delicately stroll down, perfect up-dos, white elbow-length gloves — the reason behind the girls’ participation has changed. It’s no longer about marriageability.
“Many people still think that it’s a way for fathers to marry off their daughters, and that is simply not true,” Rachel claimed. But if it isn’t about looking poised and pretty for a potential suitor, then why wear the ball gown and heels at all?
The reason, ironically, goes back to why debutantes started in the first place: human connection. But instead of connecting with wealthy men for marriage purposes, the young women have another agenda. “’It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ seems to come up,” Rachel said.
See, it’s no longer about making a love connection, but a professional one — like a networking event with tulle. “Being a debutante is a great way to…learn and practice skills [you’ll] use for the rest of your life,” Rachel explained. This is especially true for Emma.
For her, it’s all about meeting men…just not for the usual reason. “The main thing I hope to gain is more business connections via meeting all the powerful men in Dallas,” Emma said. Of course, not every girl sees the balls as a business opportunity.
Beauty and the Beast/Walt Disney Pictures
In a modern world where women are still fighting for equality, these debutante balls can seem like a giant step back. This isn’t lost on the girls participating in them. “There are so many stereotypes that make the process dis-empowering for so many girls,” admitted Rachel.
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
There’s an assumption that a girl who participates in debutante balls isn’t just spoiled, but also image-obsessed and shallow — stereotypes that Rachel knows aren’t accurate. It can be empowering, she said, to embrace all the good and bad that comes along with debutante balls.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
After all, while some girls resent the balls and others use them as networking opportunities, others simply enjoy them for what, at their core, they are: a celebration of beauty and poise. Some girls like that the spotlight is directed solely at them.
Gilmore Girls/Warner Bros. Television
“The main thing I have to do,” Emma told Bustle, “is show up and look pretty.” Despite the initial discomfort of being associated with something seen as “antiquated,” she found herself enjoying all of the attention. It’s nice, of course, to be admired.
mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
Other people value the balls simply for teaching girls how to carry themselves with strength and dignity. In this way, it makes sense that many girls who participate in debutante balls are also recognized for their contributions to society.
Some debutante balls focus on giving back to the community. Money isn’t just spent on gowns and etiquette lessons. When a table at a ball costs thousands of dollars alone, it’s usually because the proceeds are going to U.S. troops and other charitable organizations.
mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
At the end of the day, though, there’s just something about a beautiful dress, fancy shoes, and one dazzling night that makes a girl feel like Cinderella. For some girls, networking and opportunity are the tip of the debutante iceberg…
Cinderella/Walt Disney Productions
Sometimes, a girl just likes to dress up and feel fancy for a night — is that so wrong? After all, debutantes are pretty much a royal fantasy come to life, and very few people understand what that’s like…Italy’s most mysterious aristocrat among them.
The Other Boleyn Girl/Columbia Pictures
Virginia Oldoini was born in Florence in March of 1837. Known as the Countess of Castiglione, she wanted for nothing as a high-profile Italian aristocrat. She set out to make a name for herself from her earliest memories.
As a member of the Tuscan nobility, her aristocratic status led her to focus on only the finer things in life. Luckily for her, she was born with stunning good looks. Her long, wavy blonde hair and fair complexion meant she had no shortage of suitors.
The Duchess / Qwerty Films
The Countess was also known for her enchanting eyes. Reportedly, they would subtly change colors from emerald green to a blue-violet color. By the age of 17, she was betrothed to Francesco Verasis, then the Count of Castiglione.
As was customary at the time, he was much older than Virginia. With an age gap of nearly 12 years, the couple had a rocky beginning. The bride-to-be had an affair with a naval officer, and even after marriage, never shied away from doing what she wanted.
This made her a perfect recruit for her cousin, the Count di Cavour. Requesting her services as a spy, he planned to send her to charm the Parisian court of Napoleon III.
Juarez / Warner Bros
He implored his cousin to “succeed by any means you wish—but succeed!” Sure enough, Napoleon took an interest in the Countess, and before long, Virginia became his mistress. Although she lost her husband due to the affair, she gained much more.
The Duchess / Qwerty Productions
The Countess fed information to her connections in Italy while enjoying the charmed life in Napoleon’s court. However, her triumph didn’t last forever. She soon fell out of grace with Napoleon, though the reason remains a mystery.
For most of her life, the Countess was an accomplished photographer, often taking pictures that were risqué for the time — including photos of her bare feet. Sadly, the woman known for her beauty did not age gracefully. She spent her elderly years hiding in her apartment.
The Countess arranged to have the rooms painted black and every mirror removed, so as not to confront her aging and perceived loss of beauty. She would only leave her house under the cover of night in all black clothing to avoid being seen.
In 1899, she passed away at the age of sixty-two, having lived by her own rules. Her legacy inspired another powerful woman, Gloria Swanson, who was actually born the exact year The Countess passed. It was a passing-of-the-torch moment.
Swanson was one of a kind when she came on the scene. The American girl knew she wanted to be an actress from a young age, so she and her aunt visited the acting studio of Francis X. Bushman when she was just 15.
While touring the studio, she secured a role as an extra making $13.25 a week. This was the exact moment she decided school wasn’t for her and dropped out to pursue acting full time. It didn’t take long for her to realize that she wanted more than performing.
In 1925, Swanson became one of the first woman to ever join United Artists as an actress and producer. Integral in the hiring of key directors and actors, she had a hand in some of the most popular movies of the time.
Even so, her powerful role didn’t keep her off the screen. In 1928, she was one of three women receive a Best Actress nomination at the first-ever Academy Awards.
Swanson was larger than life and completely fearless. She acted alongside live lions without a second thought and bravely commanded a room full of men. But there was one thing that she struggled with throughout her life and career.
Gloria struggled with matters of the heart. She was married six times, divorced five times, and enjoyed number of high-profile affairs, including one with Joseph Kennedy. One of her husbands was even a french aristocrat named Henri de la Falaise.
John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum
Later in her career, Swanson took her reach beyond Hollywood. During World War II, she founded a company called Multiprises, which rescued Jewish scientists and inventors from Europe and brought them to the United States. They were quite successful.
In her 70s, Swanson wrote her autobiography for a sizable $1 million book deal. The legend got honest about her many affairs and marriages, even confessing to her affair with Joseph Kennedy after years of denial. Undoubtedly, she was a woman to be reckoned with.
In April of 1983, Swanson passed away at the age of 84. She left behind a legacy that would change the way women are viewed in Hollywood. Of course, one woman can’t do all the work. Others carried on her legacy.
Toronto History / Flickr
Born in Florida in 1941, Faye Dunaway attended Florida State University, University of Florida, and finally Boston University where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in theater.
In 1962, when she was 21, she caught the eye of Lloyd Richards in a production of The Crucible. This lead to her appearing as an understudy in the Broadway production A Man for all Seasons.
Museum of the City of New York
She met William Alfred when she was in his production of Hogan’s Goat. The Harvard professor became like a surrogate father to Dunaway. She said, “Bill Alfred has been without question the most important single figure in my lifetime.”
Vintage-Stars / Flickr
Her first screen role was in 1967, starring in The Happening. The film was generally well-received, but one critic did not approve of Dunaway’s performance. Roger Ebert sarcastically praised, “she exhibits a real neat trick of resting her cheek on the back of her hand.”
In the same year, she took a role in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown. Dunaway and Preminger did not get along at all. She claimed that he didn’t know “anything at all about the process of acting.” Dunaway never failed to speak her mind.
Hurry Sundown / Paramount Pictures
In fact, her experience with Preminger was so bad that she opted out of her six-picture contract with the director. “It would have been a kind of Chinese water torture to have been stuck in five more terrible movies,” she said of the situation.
canburak / Flickr
Later, Dunaway almost didn’t get her career-making role as Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde because costar Warren Beatty had concerns over her “extraordinary bone structure.” He thought she was too beautiful to play the role.
Holly Golightly / Flickr
When she did get the part, the director wanted her to lose weight to create a Depression-era look. She starved herself for weeks and lost 30 pounds to complete the desired effect.
Holly Golightly / Flickr
Today Bonnie and Clyde has a special place in film history, but at the time it was denounced for being far too graphic and glorifying murder. Still, it was popular among audiences and critics.
Bonnie and Clyde / Warner Bros.
Roger Ebert, her former critic, changed his mind about the actress once he saw Bonnie and Clyde. “Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, in the title roles, surpass anything they have done on the screen before, and establish themselves (somewhat to my surprise) as major actors.”
In 1962, Dunaway had a year-long affair with famous stand up comedian Lenny Bruce. She was 21 and he was 40, which may have been why it didn’t last that long.
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The actress always made it a point not to get romantically involved with costars, but in 1968 that changed. She met Marcello Mastroianni while filming A Place for Lovers and the two began an affair that lasted for two years.
Eli / Flickr
When she was with Mastroianni, Dunaway gave up many roles to spend time with her lover. The roles she did take were mostly lackluster, resulting in concerns over her never being able to repeat the success of Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie and Clyde / Warner Bros.
In her 1995 autobiography, she looked back with regret over her failed relationship with Matroianni saying, “He thought we would be like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, a love kept secret for a lifetime. Private and only belonging to the two of us.”
In 1972, Dunaway played a character that reminded her of herself. In Oklahoma Crude, she portrayed a strong woman caught in between ambition and love, as well as stubbornness and agreeableness. Ebert thought it was her best acting since Bonnie and Clyde.
Oklahoma Crude / Columbia Pictures
But when Roman Polanski wanted to cast Dunaway in Chinatown, his producer warned him about her reputation for being hot tempered. The producer suggested Jane Fonda instead, but Polanski was adamant.
Polanski and Dunaway clashed repeatedly while filming, including one specific incident. Polanski pulled one of Dunaway’s hairs out of her head without permission because it was catching the light wrong. It did not end well.
At the time Dunaway described Polanksi as “sadistic,” but years later ,the two would only speak fondly of each other. She said that Chinatown was “possibly the best film [she] ever made.”
Jose Baixinho / Flickr
The same producer that expressed his doubts about Dunaway sang her praises after the release of Chinatown. “She has everything — beauty, talent, neurosis. She’s one of the great strange ones. She has witchery. She’s a femme fatale.”
Chinatown / Paramount Pictures
Still, everyone in Dunaway’s life cautioned her not to take the role in Network. She would portray a savage and uncaring woman woman that put her job over everything and many people thought there was a risk the audience would conflate her with her character.
Network / MGM
She took the role anyway, resulting in her winning an Oscar for Best Actress in 1977. A picture of her the morning after, lounging poolside after not sleeping since her win the night before, soon became iconic.
clascaris / Flickr
Warren Beatty and Dunaway reunited on the Oscar stage to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. They were tasked with announcing the Best Picture winner when Dunaway announced the wrong name. They redeemed themselves the next year!
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Now, Dunaway is one of only four actresses to win both a Razzie and an Academy award. Her performance in Mommie Dearest being the Razzie winner, and of course the Oscar for Network.
Mommie Dearest / Paramount Pictures
The reception of her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest was so negative that she still refuses to discuss the movie or her role to this day. To be fair, being Joan Crawford wasn’t easy. She had an extremely difficult life.
Nothing screams old-school Hollywood elite more than the name “Joan Crawford,” but it turns out that this was just her stage name. Her birth name, Lucille Fay LeSueur, just wouldn’t look the same in lights!
2. From the moment she was born, Joan only knew hardships. Her father abandoned both her and her mother who then married a man named Henry J. Cassin. Joan believed him to be her biological father for most of her childhood.
3. As a young girl, Joan loved to dance and twirl around her front porch…until the day she severely cut her foot on a broken milk bottle. She underwent foot surgery three times, but her dancing was never the same again.
4. Henry, Joan’s stepfather, abused Joan until she was sent to St. Agnes Academy in Kansas City. She stayed at the school as often as she could to avoid going home, and cooked and cleaned to cover the tuition.
5. Her first foray into the entertainment business was when she was cast in the chorus line of the Broadway show Innocent Eyes. By the end of 1924, she had officially signed a contract with MGM for $75 a week.
6. After a smattering of roles, Joan secured her big break in the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters. The movie was a huge success, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that Joan was the “best example of a flapper” in Hollywood.
7. The arrival of “talkies” threw much of Hollywood for a loop, but not Joan. Years before, in an effort to shed her Southwestern accent, she had taken elocution classes, which made her a go-to leading lady once sound was introduced to film.
8. It’s no secret that 1931 was the year of Joan. She starred in three of her most successful films with Clark Gable, who was dubbed the “king of Hollywood” at the time. Their on-screen chemistry was so palpable, many believe they were having a secret affair.
9. Though she was one of Hollywood’s favorite actresses in the 1920s and ’30s, the ’40s were another thing altogether. After a string of critical and commercial flops, Joan’s career started to go downhill, and it wouldn’t level out again until 1945.
10. Desperate for a comeback, Joan starred in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce — and the gamble paid off. The film is considered one of her best, and her role as the titular character helped her win her one and only Oscar.
11. With her sultry eyes and incredible talent, it’s no wonder Joan married (and divorced) many of Hollywood’s most eligible leading men: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1929, Franchot Tone in 1935, and Phillip Terry in 1942.
12. Surprisingly, Joan’s most newsworthy marriage came in 1955, when she married Alfred Steele. What made Alfred famous wasn’t his good looks or acting ability, but his business. He was the president of the Pepsi corporation, a title Joan briefly took after his death.
13. Joan is iconic for many reasons, but her style really stood out. Her signature shoulder pads, as designed by fashion designer Adrian, became so popular that Joan ended up starting a trend. The pronounced-shoulder look is now synonymous with the 1940s.
14. Along with a legendary acting career, Joan is notorious for her parenting skills. When her adopted daughter, Christina, suffered a ruptured ovarian tumor on the set of The Secret Storm, Joan “lovingly” offered to take over the role.
15. Mommie Dearest was a memoir-turned-film written by Joan’s daughter Christina. In the book, Christina described the emotional and physical abuse Joan inflicted upon her children, a claim that some of Joan’s friends disputed…but others corroborated.
16. Remember the iconic line from the movie version of Mommie Dearest? Joan’s insistence that there be “no wire hangers!” in her closet may have been true. She was not only a germophobe, but she meticulously organized everything and wrapped furniture in plastic.
17. Instead of starting a charity for a rare disease or social issue, Joan had more…constructive plans for her money. She reportedly covered the costs of over 390 plastic surgeries for people in Hollywood, though she denied doing so years later.
18. Joan wasn’t always the feuding, egotistical actress Hollywood makes her out to be. Apparently, she used to respond to every single fan letter she received with a personal, typewritten response and her own signature.
19. What else is Joan notorious for? Her decades-long feud with Bette Davis, of course! The American Film Institute named Joan the 10th Greatest Female Star of Classic Hollywood…but Bette was ranked #2. We wonder how Joan would’ve reacted!
20. Whose side are you on? Speaking of the duo’s legendary feud, Joan and Bette’s rivalry apparently started over the affections of Franchot Tone, Joan’s second husband. Bette once quipped that Joan “slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.”
21. Besides her acting and unconventional parenting skills, Joan was also known for her excessive drinking later in life. She became a recluse as she aged, and she died of a heart attack in her New York City apartment in 1977.
22. Bette and Joan’s feud came to a head when they filmed Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. The making of the movie was tumultuous, as each actress sabotaged the other’s performance. Still, it lives on as proof of how dazzling Joan could be. Joan’s not the only actress whose life behind the scenes rivaled her movies either…
The Wicked Witch of the West is one of cinema’s most infamous and influential villains. Her frightening legacy has spanned decades and will no doubt span many more. But said legacy wouldn’t have been birthed without the acting skills of Margaret Hamilton.
The Wizard of Oz
Believe it or not, the animated actor almost didn’t get cast to play the Wicked Witch of the West. Boy, how the beloved film would’ve been different if Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard hadn’t declined the role out of fear of appearing “too ugly.”
It’s no spoiler that Hamilton secured her role as the iconic green witch, but it wasn’t a sure shot at the time. In fact, Hamilton was originally a single mom and kindergarten teacher with a dream of taking her acting skills past small stage productions.
Hamilton had the exact experience necessary to nail the role in the now emblematic Hollywood film, as she had already exquisitely transformed into the witch in a Cleveland stage adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s renowned children’s book. But did she have “the look?”
Unfortunately, Hollywood is a brutal land ruled by superficial precedence. Hamilton, with her protruding nose and pointy chin, was told several times she’d need plastic surgery if she ever wanted her acting career to be taken seriously. Thankfully, she never listened.
After playing many small villainous roles in community theater, as well as in the 1935 films Way Down East and The Farmer Takes a Wife, Hamilton auditioned for The Wizard of Oz. When Sondergaard shockingly turned down the role, producer Mervyn LeRoy took a chance on Hamilton.
Considering Hamilton’s experience teaching five-year-olds, she knew a thing or two about how a child’s brain works; and she used that knowledge to perfect the frightfulness of her character. Her bewitching cackle didn’t hurt, either.
The Wizard of Oz
Most would agree that LeRoy made the right decision. Margaret Hamilton proved to be a standout luminary in the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film. Lamentably, everything comes with a price.
The Wizard of Oz
While Judy Garland, who famously played Dorothy, harmed herself on set via excessive intake of barbiturates and amphetamines (which she was encouraged to take), Hamilton faced the dangers of her character’s dangerous stunts. Yes, she was her own stunt double.
The Wizard of Oz
One particular scene displayed the Wicked Witch escaping from Munchkinland in a scorching ball of fire. It was planned for Hamilton to drop down into a trap door before the fire spread onstage; however, a mishap caused to her to flail around, desperate to stay alive.
The Wizard of Oz
With her broom ablaze, set assistants rushed to rescue her, but they arrived a bit too late. Hamilton endured the pain of second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hand. Clearly, the entertainment industry’s safety procedures weren’t up to par back then.
Though the fire was halted, sadly, the crisis didn’t end there. See, Hamilton’s memorable green face makeup was copper-based, which could be fatal upon entering the bloodstream (nobody knew anything about safety in 1939). Since Hamilton had freshly exposed burns, it was a matter of beating the clock.
The Wizard of Oz
As crew members rapidly removed her makeup with rubbing alcohol, which no doubt seeped into her burns, the pain must’ve been insufferable. Hamilton required six long weeks to recover from the calamity, and when filming resumed, she wore green gloves to cover up scarring on her hands.
The Wizard of Oz
Hamilton was a good sport, as she refused to demand compensation for her injuries (though that was mostly out of fear of being deemed a Hollywood leper). After the nightmare debacle, producers did tame down the stunts on Hamilton’s behalf.
The Wizard of Oz
Though it took several years for The Wizard of Oz to reach its undeniable cult status, Hamilton’s mere 12 minutes of screen time made her a bonafide star. One little boy in particular couldn’t wait to meet his hero, the Wicked Witch of the West.
In 1969, Wizard of Oz oracle Paul Miles Schneider met Margaret Hamilton when he was just six years old, years after she melted into a pool at Dorothy’s feet. As an adult, he has fond memories of Hamilton’s warm personality.
Since Schneider’s grandfather was an executive at Warner Brothers, he had connections to set up a meeting with Hamilton. The two met backstage of the Lincoln Center revival of Oklahoma!, as Hamilton had revisited stage acting.
The New York Times
Schneider recalled having asked Hamilton a slew of questions, to which she answered patiently. “She did not treat me like a little kid, even at the age of 6,” he sweetly said. “She treated kids like people.”
Paul Miles Schneider
Though an adult Schneider wondered if Hamilton simply attempted to ease her sour reputation after scaring millions of children, their meeting led to a surprisingly personal intertwining. She kindly mailed the little one a signed postcard and agreed to be his pen pal for a school assignment. Aw.
Paul Miles Schneider
Film critic Ryan Jay also vouched for Hamilton’s endearing charisma, having reported “Everyone described her as so sweet and so approachable and so kind in her demeanor and personality. People of all ages wouldn’t believe it was really her until they asked her to do the cackle.”
Hamilton proved to be many things besides simply kind, as she was also understanding and empathetic. The not-so-wicked witch visited the cherished Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1975, sharing her personal analysis of the Wicked Witch of the West.
“[The Wicked Witch of the West] is also is what we sometimes refer to as ‘frustrated’ — she’s very unhappy because she never gets what she wants, Mr. Rogers. Most of us get something…that witch has never got what she wanted,” Hamilton said.
Mr. Roger’s Neigborhood
Despite all of her efforts to humanize the infamous witch, Hamilton eventually turned down offers to reprise her role, as she didn’t wish to perturb even more generations of children. The curse of having portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West followed Hamilton up until her death in 1985.
Hamilton had a fruitful acting career, having performed in 75 films and plays, yet she somehow made time to show her love for children. Whether it was her efforts as a Sunday school teacher, or her position on the Beverly Hills Board of Education, she adored working with children.
Though Margaret Hamilton may have struck fear in the world’s most vulnerable kids time and time again, she unquestionably touched their hearts, too. If she ever were to “get you, my pretty,” it most likely would have been to give you a warm hug.
Yes, Margaret Hamilton’s iconic portrayal of the Wicked Witch came at a price, but Judy Garland paid a heftier price subsequent to donning that pair of sparkly, red slippers. The pressure of Garland’s stardom weighed on her heavily, perhaps too heavily.
The Wizard of Oz
Frances Ethel Gumm was born on June 22, 10, 1922 in Minnesota. The youngest daughter of two vaudevillians, she was meant to entertain and loved singing and dancing from a very young age. No one who knew her doubted she would be a star someday…
Her showbiz debut came when she and her older sisters formed a singing group called The Gumm Sisters. While they performed mostly at their father’s own theater, they gained a fair amount of attention, and one important businessman took a particular interest in Frances…
Film producer, and co-founder of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Louis B. Mayer asked to hear Frances sing. He instantly fell in love with her voice and asked if he could work with her, to which Mr. and Mrs. Gumm agreed without hesitation.
Thus, Judy Garland was born. But just because Louis Mayer liked her didn’t mean she had an easy time working at MGM studios. Casting directors and film producers all across Hollywood deemed her too ugly for film and turned her away.
Nevertheless, in 1936, Judy booked her first feature film, Pigskin Parade. While her performance left the cinematic bigshots wanting for nothing, they called her a “pig in pigtails,” insinuating she needed to lose weight and change her appearance to meet Hollywood standards.
Things were looking up for Judy when she booked her most iconic role: Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz. Her performance of “Over The Rainbow” touched hearts in all corners of the world, and it quickly became her signature song. But that wasn’t the only impact the movie had on her life.
Her career skyrocketed, and while this kept producers off her back for a while, it also paced her in a spotlight that no young teen could handle.
Behind the scenes, she was given drugs for weight loss, drugs for depression, and drugs to help her sleep. She quickly developed an addiction and became severely depressed, feeling isolated and unworthy.
Gerald Clarke, the author of her biography, stated that on top of all the criticism about her appearance, she was suffering from sexual harassment during her time at MGM. In her unfinished memoir, she wrote: “Don’t think they all didn’t try.”
At the age of 19, after having had several public relationships, Judy married songwriter David Rose, who was 12 years her senior. While Judy thought she finally found happiness, David seemed to regret his commitment from the get-go. He was the first of five husbands.
Still, not long after they wed, Judy became pregnant with David’s child. He didn’t want to have any children yet and urged her to have an abortion because becoming a young mother would “ruin the image of her innocence.” Heartbroken, she agreed, even though the procedure was illegal at the time.
If her mental health wasn’t in pieces by then, being pressured into having an abortion did the trick. Traumatized by the procedure, the harassment, and her time as a child star, Judy had breakdown after breakdown and was constantly in and out of mental hospitals.
So she finally walked away from MGM studios, much to the despair of Louis B. Mayer, who claimed he’d “fallen in love with her.” She wanted a break from her work, from the public, and from the criticism. She wanted to maybe even find love again.
And she did, in the form of director Vincente Minnelli. The two married, and she gave birth to her first child, Liza. It seemed as if becoming a mother gave Judy some relief from the chaos of her life, but of course, it brought on its own difficulties.
After she and Minelli divorced, Judy faced serious financial problems. She wasn’t working anymore, and now she had a family to support. It didn’t help that her agent stole from her and that her third husband gambled her savings away. Thankfully, she had a little help.
Her daughter Liza Minnelli had gained her own piece of fame and was now supporting her mother financially, but still, it was never enough. When Judy was feeling well enough, she sang in dingy bars for only $100 per night. But her stars were about to change once more.
Things seemed to finally look up when she returned to star in the movie A Star Is Born in 1954. She gave the role her all, and it restocked her bank account… but she lost the Oscar for Best Actress to Grace Kelly that year.
Giving up on the big screen for good, Judy returned to singing in clubs, where she met her last husband Mickey Deans. For a second, she seemed happy, but three months later, he would find her body in the bathroom of their London home.
The infamous Judy Garland overdosed on barbiturates — sedatives prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders. It was 1969, and she had just turned 47. She was, however, not forgotten: 20,000 people lined up in the streets of New York for her memorial service.
While many superstars (like Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, and Bette Davis) grieved and spoke of her talent, it was Judy’s Oz costar Ray Bolger, a.k.a. the Scarecrow, who summed her troubles up perfectly: “She just plain wore out.”
While Judy felt alone in life, she wasn’t alone in her stresses: fame has worn down more than a handful of Hollywood’s greatest talents over the years. Even the strong-willed don’t always thrive under the spotlight.
Not unlike Judy, Barbra Streisand was also known for her acting, singing, and songwriting. And just like the Oz actress, she didn’t have an easy career, nor a simple life. She fought every day.
Born into a Jewish family from Brooklyn, New York, in the early ’40s, young Barbra grew up smack dab in the middle of the entertainment and business world. Still, she felt lightyears away from it all as her family was not well off.
Her parents both worked at a school, but her father died when Babs was only a baby. Without him, the family suffered huge financial stresses — something that would come back into play once Barbra’s career took off.
As a young girl, she attended public school in Brooklyn, where developed an interest in acting. While she may have dreamed of being recognized for her acting chops, her neighbors praised her stunning singing voice.
Despite a flubbed audition with MGM records (at age 9!) she recovered gracefully. At age 13, she recorded a demo tape, starting her career much sooner than most people would’ve imagined.
When she graduated from high school, it was time for Barbra to make a difficult choice: stay with her family and get a job to support them, or leave them behind and follow her dreams of being in the spotlight?
No more than a week later, she moved into an apartment in Manhattan, ready to pursue an entertainment career. She started as an usher for The Sound of Music, but the director of the show encouraged her to keep auditioning.
In September of 1960, she opened for comedian Phyllis Diller at the Bon Soir nightclub. This was important on two fronts: it was her first paid gig and she got to practice humorous banter in between songs.
Since she was still auditioning for Broadway roles, she finally got cast for the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962. Although her part was small, she earned a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actress and instantly broke through in the industry.
Fast forward to the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Barbra Streisand was becoming a household name. Opportunities in the film, theater, and music industries appeared left and right. She even tied with Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress!
From 1969 through 1980, Streisand appeared on the list of Top Ten Money-Making Stars ten different times, and she was frequently the only woman on the list. Her highest-earning project? The 1976 remake of A Star Is Born of course.
Meanwhile, Barbra was also working on her career as a pop singer and stealing hearts across the globe. Her debut album, The Barbra Streisand Album, peaked in the top 10 and won her 3 Grammy Awards. It didn’t stop there.
As Barbra continued to shoot movies, record award-winning albums, appear on countless TV shows, and made millions on millions, her family grew bitter. After all, her mother had worked hard to keep a roof over her head, and Barbra left her in the dust.
“I think sometimes there are parents who don’t really like themselves,” Streisand said. “They don’t like their offspring either. My mother meant well. She loved me as best she could. She had dreams of her own, and she wanted to be a singer.”
Still, that may be exactly what drove Barbra to succeed the way she did. “I just couldn’t please her. But I owe her my career. It was painful on the way up. I was always trying to prove to her that I was worthy of being somebody.”
In an attempt to be the mom that her own mother wasn’t, Barbra fully supports her only child’s career in any way that she can. Her son, Jason – whose father is Elliott Gould – took after both parents and became an artist, writer, and film director.
“We sang together every night when I put him to sleep, so he knew lots of songs as a baby,” Barbra said. “I never heard him sing again until he was 15. I heard him hum through a closed door, and I said, ‘Jason, that is the most beautiful hum.”’
After getting remarried in 1998 to her current husband, James Brolin, Barbra finally felt as loved as she deserved. “People who have two parents who love them are very lucky. They are not left with a hole to fill. And it’s very hard to fill. You have to fill it with yourself eventually.”
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