The Nude News is back from not-so-sunny Florida! Once again we are for the birds. Along with our gorgeous feathered friends–blue herons, art deco anhingas, motherly storks, dive bomber pelicans–we have chattered away the winter on the edge of the Everglades. Birds have their secret flirting, matings, and their raucous squawky fits, but unlike humans they can’t take off their outer garments, their shell. We will never know the naked truth about bird land. So, come spring, we have returned to New York, center of the gossiping universe. We have some naughty nude tales to tell. Let’s start with royalty. It happened a summer ago but it still tickles us.
Prince William, handsome, twenty-eight, second in line to the British throne, attended a party for a charity that helps the homeless. A young woman of eighteen was introduced to the prince, to tell how the organization helped her off the streets. Shy, she could only stammer. William leaned forward, smiled, and said, “Don’t worry . . . just imagine me naked.” Tall, slender, a sportsman and rescue helicopter pilot, William resembles his father Charles, Prince of Wales, rather more than his mother, the legendary Princess Di. However, he seems to have inherited something of the latter’s charm. The young woman told reporters, “I imagined him naked, of course.” She immediately felt at ease, chatted with the prince and hoped to meet him again. Hmm.
William reversed an old public speaker’s trick: If you are intimidated by a distinguished live audience, or an interviewer and his/her TV cameras, just imagine the lot in the buff. The fear is gone and you feel cozy, or at least on the same level. This is the power of imagination. All forms of seduction make use of the leverage of imagination: the striptease most obviously, beginning in ancient times with Salome and her dance of the seven veils. The historian Josephus tells us that Salome (her name derived from shalom, Hebrew for “peace”) was the daughter of Herodias who divorced her husband and married his brother, King Herod of Galilee, who ruled as a Roman puppet. Salome, then, was both Herod’s stepdaughter and niece. The king lusted after her, while her mother used her for revenge on John the Baptist, who had denounced her divorce and remarriage.
Salome is represented in dozens of guises–paintings, movies, novels, opera–but what did she do to drive King Herod so wild that, according to the Gospel of Mark, he burst out, “Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee . . . unto the half of my kingdom.” The king was eating and drinking with his officials on his birthday, when Salome began to dance, to lasciviously contort her body, to slowly, rhythmically remove one by one the veils covering her assets. It was not merely the spectacle of her quivering bosom, heaving belly, rounded thighs tossed in the old man’s face, but what lies beyond that dissolved his will: the promised pleasures of flesh spiced by sin. It is not what Salome delivered that counts but what Herod imagined he might gain–bliss–and would lose–care, grief, restraint. Salome embodies, as did the naked Eve before Adam, the root of seduction and thrust.
The lush Rita Hayworth in her 1953 movie Salome performs our favorite portrayal of the Biblical stripper. Minus six of the veils–as nude as the Production Code allowed–she glides up a row of steps to fling herself at the feet of Herod, played by Charles Laughton, who oozes lust. Rita glows while Herod imagines bedroom delights. Then, goaded on by her mother, she demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod, frightened, complies to save face, still hoping to possess Salome, which he never will. His imagination exacts his damnation. What of Salome? She married Herod’s son and gave birth to three boys. And what of Rita? In that fiction called real life she married, unhappily, Prince Aly Khan, best known for his two signature remarks: “Wine for everyone!” and “Where are the girls?”
Sometimes it is the dancer who must pay.
Adah Isaacs Menken (1835 – 1868) became known as The Naked Lady during the American Civil War. She was born “a colored girl from New Orleans” (NAACP’s The Crisis) and married upwardly mobile. Her third husband (out of five) was the world heavyweight, bareknuckle boxing champion, and to the Union, he was a national hero. He deserted a pregnant Adah, she lost the child and attempted suicide, and the affair became an international front-page scandal, which trumped news about the war. Recovering, Adah played the Cossack prince Mazeppa, a freedom fighter leading his tribe against the oppressive Russian Tsar. She toured the country to great success, from a Broadway theater to California’s Gold Coast. The role of Mazeppa, previously played by a male actor, was dangerous, and other actresses who imitated Adah were maimed or killed. In the crucial scene Mazeppa is captured by enemy soldiers, stripped naked, and strapped to “an untamed steed,” then sent into the mountains to perish.
In fact, the horse was trained by Adah, the mountains were a four-story stage set–enough to make a fall from the narrow ramp perilous–and Adah wore a sheer body stocking as well as a tiny garment at the crotch. The latter was compared to a diaper by cub reporter Mark Twain, who covered Adah’s triumphal tour of the West. In the glare of the footlights and the charge up the mountain, past effects such as waterfalls and attacking wolves, Adah appeared naked to the audience. Here is sexuality spiced by real danger. Adah packed in the crowds, made more money than any performer before her, and sooner rather than later paid with her life. She died at the height of her fame, only thirty-three, broke in a garret in Paris. Longfellow wrote her a last love poem as she expired. The Naked Lady has since been immortalized in opera, film, and novels.
Though unaware of it, today’s Lady Gaga–not yet queen but a princess of pop–is one of Adah Menken’s lineal descendants. From the Roman Diana, goddess of both childbirth and virginity, to the 19th century’s royal courtesan Lola Montez and following her Adah Menken, who acknowledged Lola, from Hollywood’s blondest Jean Harlow to diamond-friendly Marilyn Monroe, to Madonna who acknowledged Marilyn, and again to Princess Diana, a woman is crowned by her epoch. As The Love Goddess, her looks, smile, style, temperament, and body may be worshipped but are no longer her own. She is owned by the crowd. She will be adored, desired, if lucky loved, but stripped naked by the omnipresent media that feeds the public maw. Finally, her insatiable fans will eat the Goddess alive.
Lola did a spider dance that drove the men from Paris to Sydney wild. Today it might seem ridiculous, or worse, harmless. Adah, dressed as a sport, began on the New York stage performing song, dance, and repartee in The French Spy. Marilyn, singing about diamonds, shimmied and shook her world-class curves. There was never the slightest doubt about her sex. Those who have come after, including Madonna who credits Marilyn as her inspiration, and certainly Gaga, cultivate their androgyny. Perhaps, our collective imagination has grown jaded, and it takes a more kinky experience to awaken it. And the audience has changed: The wannabe goddess is appealing not to males, not to grownups at all, but to teenage girls. She is what they hope to become: famous. Not even rich–for men, money and sex are joined at the hip, that’s why Marilyn sang about diamonds–but for today’s media-crazed teenage chicks, fame is the object. A figure whose sexuality is both blatant and twisted, a tarty advertisement, who is literally a fame monster, has become their role model.
Gaga acknowledges her debt to Madonna, and both come from proper Italian American families. Madonna’s Material Girl video was a remake of sorts of Marilyn’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The arc of the Goddess is continuous but ever changing, and Madonna is the incarnation of a bitch goddess. She has been contrary from the start, but in an ambiguous way, cleverly employing Catholic symbols and references in her songs, the most obvious being “Like a Virgin.” She also employed style (we won’t call it fashion) effectively, such as her trademark bustier. Shmuel Boteach, author of Hating Women (2005), credited Madonna with erasing the line between music and pornography. He wrote, “Before Madonna, it was possible for women more famous for their voices than their cleavage to emerge as music superstars. But in the post-Madonna universe, even highly original performers such as Janet Jackson now feel the pressure to expose their bodies on national television to sell albums.” Oh no, Shmuel, taking it off goes much further back. Recent pop nudity has been rather limited, consisting mainly of breasts and thighs, rather like the chicken counter at the supermarket. Mid-Victorian Adah Menken showed more and better.
The mature Madonna, acting motherly in both the philanthropic and adoptive sense, appears to us more attractive than her earlier, combative version. Perhaps Gaga will mature as well, but we doubt it. Rather homely under her plastered-on makeup, she wallows in ugliness in her songs. The line “I want your ugly; I want your disease” in “Bad Romance,” one of her top hits, says it all. Gaga’s presentations feature tidbits such as “He ate my heart” and “Take a bite of my bad-girl meat,” as well as denigrating an injury or handicap: “I can’t believe how you slurred at me with your half-wired broken jaw.” We might say the same about her singing. Gaga is not loath to use four-letter words in cursing at her audience, including the teenage girls who idolize her. We tag her the wretch goddess.
A piece in the British Telegraph caught our eye recently. Gaga had posed topless for the cover of a music magazine, and he asked his readers why they supposed she had done it. He ranged through the possible answers: money, attention, so-called empowerment, just plain fun. But to quote Gaga on another occasion: “I don’t give a f*** about money. What am I going to do with a condo and a car? I can’t drive.” She is already getting the attention she craves, and if she ever had fun we would be surprised. The readers who responded, mostly male, were not attracted by Gaga or her tits. They used euphemisms for breasts new to us, including “hooters,” “kajungas,” and “bazookas.” Our own suggestion about her motive comes from Gaga, the line from “So Happy I Could Die”: “I touch myself, can’t get enough.” Like any adolescent, Gaga’s object of desire is herself.
When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he risked his life to become the first man to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, he famously replied, “Because it is there.” In Gaga’s case, she posed topless to prove she is here. Only by seeing herself on the cover of a magazine or in a video or on a TV monitor can she believe in the existence of Lady Gaga. She is a dreamed-up entity that, however, leaves nothing to the imagination of her audience. She is naked all right.
Nude News’ next outing will be to explore nudity and politics–stay tuned.