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Polaire

In: Romi, Petite Histoire des Cafés Concerts, Ed. Chitry, 1950, S. 48

Polaire (1879-1939) was born in Algiers Emilie-Marie Bouchaud. As a girl she was naturally slender, endowed with the ''sinewy, muscular body of a little Arab'' and (as she expressed it herself) a ''rib-cage like a Spanish bolero.'' Starting in music-hall, she was launched into fame as a straight actress by her friends Willy and Colette in their play Claudine à Paris (1902). It was they who promoted her as a young girl's ethereal sexual ideal, encouraged her to tight-lace and publicised her waist as ''the envy of a fashionably corseted bee,'' etc.

Her supposed ugliness - her large hands, large feet, thick mouth and long nose - were flaunted by her promoters. Publicity photographs compared her profile with that of her pet pig, which wore a jewelled collar. Like a pig, she wore a nose-ring, announced (for her U.S. tour of 1913) as a ''protest against what the world calls refinement.'' She posed as an enemy of ''civilisation,'' and cultivated, on stage, a sensually barbaric style. She was considered in her time a fine performer. ''She fairly gloats over her perspiring passion - an untamed and untameable girl ... as an actress more barbaric than tragic'' (Archie Bell, ''The Ugliest Actress,'' The Green Book Magazine (Chicago), May 1914, pp.833-840). Her waspish waist is thus to be regarded not so much as a once-fashionable exaggeration but rather as a deliberately contrived barbarism.

For her first visit to the U.S. she was publicised as a kind of circus freak: ''The ugliest woman in Paris with the smallest waist in the world.'' An immense fuss was made over her waist measure. ''When she removed her black satin cloak last night, with a deliberate and tantalising delay appropriate to the revelation of such a famous physical peculiarity, the women present gasped sympathetically.'' Given away with the programme was a 14-inch rule marked with these words: ''This is Polaire's waist measure. What's yours?'' A song was written for her, starting ''When I started in music-hall, my waist fitted into a man's collar (''Quand j'débutais au music-hall, / Ma taille tenait dans un faux-col.''), a notion which inspired gallantries such as George Herriot's offer to buy her a diamond belt if she succeeded in demonstrating the claim with his collar. For her appearance at the London Coliseum in 1915, her publicity agent William Hammerstein put one of her 14 inch corsets on display in a show-case at the corner of the theatre, and announced the waist to the press ''as this gift of the gods.''

She was five foot three and a half inches tall, with a bust 38 and hips 34. Her waist was, according to her autobiography (Polaire par elle-même, 1933), supposedly natural, and she explained the less waspy effects visible in the photographs taken before she became famous as the result of padding to ''make her look more human.'' Her smallest publicised waist size in the early years (around 1902) was 41 and 42cm (16 1/4-16 1/2 inches); thereafter it varied, probably reflecting an actual physical increase, up to 48cm (19 inches, the figure noted in ''an unretouched photograph'' published in 1909). It is not clear how long she maintained the famous collar-size, and publicists evidently chose their own figure, with 14 the lowest. Her obituaries contain contradictory statements such as ''the exact measure was never established'' and ''she was officially measured in 1910 at 14 inches.''

The most evocative description of her performance is that of Jean Lorrain: ''Polaire! The agitating and agitated Polaire! The tiny slip of a woman that you know, with the waist slender to the point of pain, of screaming out loud, of breaking in two, in a spasmically tight bodice, the prettiest slimness'' And, under the aureole of an extravagant masher's hat, orange and plumed with iris leaves, the great voracious mouth [she put rouge on the gums and tongue], the immense black eyes, ringed, bruised, discoloured, the incandescence of her pupils, the bewildered nocturnal hair, the phosphorus, the sulphur, the red pepper of that ghoulish, Salome-like face, the agitating and agitated Polaire!

''What a devilish mimic, what a coffee-mill and what a belly-dancer'' Yellow skirt tucked high, gloved in open-work stockings, Polaire skips, flutters, wriggles, arches from the hips, the back, the belly, mimes every kind of shock, twists, coils, rears, twirls ... trembling like a stuck wasp, miaows, faints to what music and what words! The house, frozen with stupor, forgets to applaud ...''.


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