Marilyn Monroe 50 Years Later, Her Star Power Shines On04-08-2012
And there are plans for much more – thanks to the purchase in late 2010 of Monroe's estate, which includes among other things her name and image – by Authentic Brands Group and its partner, NECA. The company's CEO, Jamie Salter, says he aims to upgrade the Marilyn brand by moving away from cheap souvenirs and developing Marilyn-themed cosmetic lines, spas and salons, sportswear, swimwear, footwear, handbags and more. There are even plans for – wait for it – the inevitable Marilyn Monroe reality show, in which young women would compete to become a new Hollywood icon.
But just what is the secret of Marilyn's enduring appeal? It depends on whom you ask – and that's fitting, really, because Marilyn, more than other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people. There was, most simply, Marilyn the actress – a Marilyn that often got lost in all the hype, despite her desperate aspirations to be taken seriously. Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know Marilyn "as an image and an icon," but not as an actress. Monroe showed off her dramatic chops in "The Misfits," for example, and "Bus Stop." But she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in that classic pink gown; as the sensuous but ditzy Girl in "The Seven Year Itch"; and as sexy band singer Sugar Kane in "Some Like it Hot."
"Marilyn just leaps off the screen," says Maltin. "She has a luminosity that transcends everything else."
Still, an entire younger generation is enamored of her for something completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor in chief of Lucky magazine, which draws women in their 20s and 30s. "I think most women under 40 haven't seen her movies," Holley says. "For them, she's a style type – the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that."
Christopher Nickens agrees. "Marilyn was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal," says the co-author of the recently released "Marilyn in Fashion," a rare look at Monroe's influence in that field. Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life, with elegance. Though she wasn't seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Nickens thinks Marilyn shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. "They didn't follow trends," he says. "It's about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence."
Confidence isn't necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. In that Elton John song, "Candle in the Wind," she's a beautiful innocent victimized by a terrible Hollywood machine – people who "whispered into your brain" and "set you on the treadmill" and "made you change your name."
That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimized as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse. But a victim of Hollywood? Monroe's latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star "was a constructed image" – one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair (Norma Jeane was a brunette), to the makeup, that breathy voice, and the famous "wiggle walk."
And her dumb blonde screen image? Nothing like her, says Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. "She was extremely intelligent."
But why has Marilyn's appeal only gotten stronger? "First of all, she died very young," says Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life. "She's conceivably the most photographed person of the 20th century," says Banner. The author's third reason is more cynical: "There's a lot of people making money off her," she says. Which brings us back to Salter, whose company is also using social networking to court a young consumer base for the Marilyn brand.
On Facebook, Marilyn has three million-plus fans, 70 percent of them under the age of 24. She also has some 53,000 Twitter followers. Salter's brand vision? "To seduce the world with products that capture the iconic personality, style, glamour and elegance of the legendary actress," according to the promotional materials.
"Look at what Marilyn was," Salter says in a telephone interview. "She's a total fashion icon. She invented the red carpet. She knew her brand."
"I've got the best model in the whole world."
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