February is Black History Month and on the blog every Wednesday we have been celebrating iconic African American figures. This week, I am excited to share with you some amazing vintage African American pinup models and burlesque performers from days gone by. When people think ‘pinup’ or ‘burlesque’, they often envision people like Bettie Page and Dita Von Teese. Unfortunately, pinup and performative culture has been predominantly white-washed and in todays modern pinup world, there has been a greater push to give pinups of colour a larger platform and voice.
Back in the 50’s, many pinups of colour struggled to get recognition and modelling work due to their skin colour. In fact, most white people considered all African Americans as second-class citizens and not really a person at all. It wasn’t until the late 60’s that black voices began being heard and we moved towards a more unified society. Yes we are still on that journey today and we still have a long way to go. Regardless, its time to look back at some of the beautiful figures and give them the credit they deserve.
In a conscious effort to be a greater ally myself, I hope this months blog posts have been inspiring to you and also been a bit of a history lesson. If you are interested in this topic, I’d highly recommend the photo book, Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer. It is truly a work of art and a wonderful collection of unique and true vintage images.
Madeleine Sohji Jackson
Not much is known about the beautiful 1940’s exotic dancer Sohji. Her dancing was often described as “poetry in motion” and despite being very thin, she used her entire body in her movements and told a story with her dancing. In the musical “Jivin’ In Bebop” Sahji is one of the featured performers. Sohji always added class, sophistication and glamour to her performances and it is alleged that she married a musician.
Also, known as the Satin Doll, was an American burlesque dancer so began dancing in the 60’s after her work refused to promote her due to her skin colour and she continued performing well into the 70’s. Her stage name inspired by her friend and bandleader, Duke Ellington. Toni Elling never took off her panties in a performance or wore a g-string as she believed, “it is entertainment, yes, but the idea is to suggest what’s there, not throw off all your clothes and reveal everything. that’s why they call it strip-tease”. In 2016, she was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
Not much information could be found on Eleanor Joiner.
Lottie “the Body” Graves
This legendary American burlesque dancer performed from the late 1940’s up until the early 1980’s. Her nickname, “Lottie the Body” was bestowed upon her during her teenage years whilst working as a model but she later became known as the “Black Gypsy Rose Lee” and the “Gypsy Rose Lee of Detroit”. Being the legendary queen she was, she was best known for her support of other exotic dancers, entertainers and musicians. Her performance career took her all around the United States and included acts with famous singers, comedians, musicians and dancers such as Billie Holiday, Josephine Bakers, Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr.
Not much information could be found on Ernestine Terry.
Lahoma Willingham was 1/16 Chickasaw and was born into a family very active within their tribe. Lahoma was often referred to as “The Chickasaw Chick” and she soon became a popular burlesque performer during the 1950’s after a bumpy start to a dancing career. It is noted that Lahoma became of of the highest paid burlesque performers of her era and in 1951, her appearance at the Trocadero Theater in Philadelphia surpassed all previous attendance records.
Beginning her burlesque career in 1962, Miss Topsy is a burlesque legend who performed for over 27 years. There’s not a lot of information known about Miss Topsy and much information is guarded by Miss Topsy herself and her family. We do known that she was one of the first black women to healing outside of the United States and she broke box office records in Tokyo 1960. She was a huge hit in nightclubs in Paris, London and the Far East.
Also known as the “Sepia Sally Rand”, Jean Idelle was the first black exotic fan dancer and was an active performer from 1950 to 1963 where she performed internationally during a time of intense segregation. Her amazing fan dancing was an integral part of integrating white-only dance club and she was famed with breaking racial Barries long before the ciliv Right Act of 1964. in 2012, Idelle was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
Known as one of the most vivacious dancers in the United States, Marie Bryant was a legendary dancer, singer and choreographer. During her career, she even performed in four films and performed at the Cotton Club alongside Duke Ellington. Towards the end of her career, she taught dance to other icons such as Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
There are so many more iconic women I could have included in this list but I felt by cutting the list down it gave me room to share the rest at another time. I tried to keep the list even between pinup models and burlesque performers but many careers overlapped the two artistic mediums. If you are looking for more amazing performers of colour, check out Ethelyn Butler, Lady Ernestine and Mitzi Dore, If you are interested in further reading, I’d highly recommend the following blogs and sources:
Note: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts expressed are solely my own and not influenced in any way. There are no affiliate links and I do not benefit from any link clicks or purchases made.