How Jayne Mansfield set the blueprint for today’s modern reality stars

Through her carefully-crafted persona and infamous publicity stunts, she was truly the first example of an A-lister famous for being famous.

Marta Djordjevic

When Barbara Walters interviewed the Kardashian family for her “10 Most Fascinating People in 2011” list, she declared that they were “famous for being famous” before proceeding to note their lack of talents in the entertainment scope. Fast-forward over a decade later, and the reality TV clan parlayed their apparent absence of real artistry into a full-fledged empire. But the Kardashians weren’t the first stars to climb to the top of the A-list with nothing but fame and determination to aid them – that honour should perhaps go to Jayne Mansfield, the blueprint for modern reality stars today.

Considered by many contemporaries to be a cheap imitation of Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield played up her persona of a dumb blonde to the masses, letting her iconic measurements do most of the talking while she coyly purred her way through interviews. What many of her fans at the time didn’t know was that this was all for show. Roger Ebert claimed Mansfield had an IQ of over 160, while she also spoke an impressive five different languages, some that she’d utilise later on in her career.

Manufactured personas were nothing new during Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Hispanic Rita Hayworth underwent a name change and a painful process known as electrolysis to change her hairline, while even Monroe herself came to Tinseltown as the brown-haired Norma Jeane Mortenson. By the time Mansfield landed her first major film role in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, the Golden Age of Hollywood was already nearing its final years, and the blonde sex symbol knew what she had to do. “The real stars are not good actors or actresses,” she once cooed. “They’re personalities.”

Born Vera Jayne Palmer on 19 April, 1933, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Mansfield’s famous last name was actually acquired from first husband, Paul Mansfield, whom she married a few months before her high school graduation in 1950. By 1954, with their daughter in tow, the ambitious celeb-to-be convinced her beau to move to Los Angeles with one goal in sight: stardom. While her marriage to Paul ended the following year (it would be her first of three divorces), Mansfield’s desire for the bright lights of Hollywood never faltered. Her unwavering confidence is what initially got her an interview with Paramount’s talent chief, Milt Lewis, too, merely by ringing up the studio and proclaiming, “I’m Jayne Mansfield, and I want to be a star.”

On top of schmoozing with industry executives, the secret to Mansfield’s success came through her tabloid scandals, many of which she orchestrated herself. Her most famous attention-grabbing stunt came in 1955, where the budding actress attended a press junket for Howard Hughes’ Underwater. Instructed by her agent to wear a risqué, red lamé swimsuit and mingle with the press as opposed to fellow stars, Mansfield grabbed their attention the best way she knew how: By diving into a pool and letting her suit tear open in the process. The moment became an iconic piece of Hollywood lore.

Mansfield’s willingness to talk to the press at any given time was echoed through Kim Kardashian’s own rise as influencer extraordinaire. In fact, in the 2000s, while Kardashian was still Paris Hilton’s assistant, the pair would text the paparazzi themselves before heading out in public to ensure they were the talk of the town. In a world before Instagram offered up real-time access to our favourite celebrities, the tabloids reigned supreme – something Mansfield and Kardashian both knew how to capitalise on.

Frank Tashlin’s musical comedy, The Girl Can’t Help It, solidified Mansfield’s spot on the A-list, utilising her greatest assets in a partnership made in heaven. Tashlin, who had a background as an animator of Warner Brothers cartoons, transformed his star into a comical pin-up, only bolstered by costume designer Charles LeMaire’s whacky creations. LeMaire played up Mansfield’s figure, adding tassels to her derrière, padding her hips, and equipping her with pointed, exaggerated bustiers.

The result? A deliciously campy parody of Hollywood’s glamour girls. Outdoing even Monroe’s trademark breathy drawl, Mansfield’s delivery as a sexpot is masterful and nuanced, adding an air of intelligence to her character. She’s in on the joke, and the subsequent balancing act she pulls off is impressive. As Mansfield saunters from scene to scene, she looks otherworldly – and she’s in complete control of her image.

The Girl Can’t Help It was truly the apex of Mansfield’s rise as a Tinseltown great. Although her dream of becoming a star came true, the rest of Mansfield’s life wasn’t easy. She dealt with a steady stream of ridicule from the press for being too exhibitionistic and “unladylike”. Despite working steadily, Mansfield never quite achieved the status of a “serious” actress, and her life was sadly cut short in 1967, when she was involved in a fatal car accident on her way to New Orleans from Mississippi.

The tabloids had a field day with the starlet, spreading a false story that she was decapitated; dead or alive, the public was infatuated by rumours of the blonde icon. Kim Kardashian may have mastered the art of “famous for being famous,” but it was Jayne Mansfield who paved the way.

Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It will be released through The Criterion Collection on 19 April.

Published 18 Apr 2022

Tags: Jayne Mansfield Marilyn Monroe

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