Marilyn Monroe, 1926
Source: Flickr/Gerard Stolk (vers l'Été )
Fashions change, but 50 years after Monroe's death, we still see her as the confident, curvy woman she portrayed herself to be. But being a sex symbol at that time was not easy. She sometimes had a hard time being taken seriously as an actress. When she first moved to New York, she announced her intentions to form a production company, something that was virtually unheard of for an actress, and expressed interest in making one of Dostoevsky's novels into a film.
"Do you even know how to spell, Dostoevsky, Marilyn?" a reporter asked.
"Have you read the book?" she replied.
Although she died at a tragically young age, Monroe undeniably set a new standard for sexy, not just with her signature look, but for her ability to work at a time when being that person had real personal consequences.
Ursula Andress in "Dr. No."
Ursula Andress was - and many argue still is - the ultimate Bond girl. In the 1962 Bond movie "Dr. No," Andress plays a shell diver named Honey Ryder, who Bond first sees walking up from the ocean in a white bikini. This scene has gone down as one of the sexiest in film history. Her figure is quite different from the stick thin and fragile frames so popular in Hollywood today. She is sturdy, curvaceous and carries herself with supreme confidence. That's undoubtedly what captured the world's eye. Now 78, she is still bright and beautiful, and even makes an occasional appearance in Hollywood.
Bettie Page in 1932
If Marilyn set a new standard for sexy, Bettie Page set a new standard for racy - at least to the public eye. Hailing from Tennessee, Page took advantage of her God-given curves and took it to a whole new level by posing for pinups that involved spanking, bondage and a burlesque aesthetic, the kind of fetish stuff few models at the time had the nerve to portray. In fact, she celebrated sexuality and inspired other women to do the same. She described her career as such:
"I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It's just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous." (Learn about why some women get into the sex industry in Exotic Dancers: They Aren't Who You Think They Are.)
Brigitte Bardot, 1961
Born in Paris, France, it was in America where Bardot would enjoy her greatest success as an actress, singer and fashion model. With her grace (she was a ballet dancer early in life) beauty and curves, she became a sex symbol for men, but she had an impact on women as well, popularizing the bikini and the beehive hairstyle, not to mention gingham-patterned clothes. Plus, she had an undeniably sexy 1970s spirit of free sexuality.
After appearing in more than 40 films, she retired to pursue animal and political activism in 1973.
Rita was the queen of glamor and sexiness in the 1940s. She is most remembered for "Gilda," where she plays a sultry, alluring femme fatale (if not the quintessential femme fatale). Her career as a film actress, dancer and model spanned 61 films over 37 years and earned her a mention as one of the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Film Stars of all time. She was beautiful and quick-witted, but although she was known as the "Love Goddess," she struggled with shyness, and once famously said, "men would fall in love with Gilda but awaken with me."
Like Marilyn Monroe, she struggled to be taken seriously as an actress. In her later years, she suffered from alcoholism and Alzheimer's. But like Monroe, when Hayworth was onscreen, everyone else just faded into the background.
Source: Flickr/Jen Gallardo
With striking features and notorious violet eyes, Elizabeth Taylor began her film career early at 12 years old with "National Velvet." She quickly developed a stellar film career and became the sweetheart of American cinema. She played roles a variety of roles, but they had one thing in common: a red-hot sex appeal that leaped off the screen. Even off screen, her personality was larger-than-life, and she embraced it all. She was known for her partying, her dalliances with men (from movie stars to a bullfighter to a prince), and later in life, her charity work. Though reckless, Taylor had a special quality of being true to herself. She didn’t seem to need the admiration of others to drive her. Add this self-confidence to her beauty and she became irresistible.
These women were held up as sex symbols because of their beauty, but despite their pretty faces, their personal lives were far from perfect. They were hard. Sometimes messy. They were real. Even so, we still see them as sexy. Or maybe we see them as sexy because of those things. After all, a great pair of legs might go a long way (at least in some circles), but real sexiness is strength, and it shines from the inside out.