THE SKINNY LITTLE BITCH PROJECT: Hattie Jacques Carry’s On
The Skinny Little Bitch Project is a biweekly feature dedicated to examining the role of weight in celebrity culture and the impact of size in one woman’s daily life. The entries may be triggering should you suffer from an ED or body image issues. For more info on the project, or to read it from the beginning, please go here. This is not a health plan we are endorsing, we do not promote dieting and hope this project will increase awareness. Please read at your own risk.
Josephine Edwina Jacques led a very different sort of life than our last Skinny Little Bitch celebrity of the week, Judy Garland. Her career was a very different one, as well, and the legacy she’d leave behind an altogether singular thing. While Garland’s weight and her looks were primal driving focuses in her life and career, they were seen as things to improve through cosmetics endeavors and the strictures of constant pharmaceutical-backed dieting. In stark comparison, Jacques’s looks, in particular her weight, were the crux on which her career were made – she was a well-beloved character actor who did “funny fat woman” like no one had done before. But even as thus, she could not escape the public scrutiny and criticism that dogged her as a celebrity, and a woman of a size. To combat this near constant onslaught of seemingly permissible mockery, the already asthmatic Ms. Jacques, smoked herself ill, engaged in a toxic, love affair which ended her marriage, and eventually alienated herself from her life-long comedy partner, Eric Sykes.
If you aren’t English, you may very well never have heard of her. Even if you are English, the name Josephine Jacques might not be familiar – to BBC listeners and fans of the popular Carry On film series whose heyday was in the 1970s, and Sykes, she was known as Hattie Jacques (you guys for totally racist reasons…she maaaay have donned black face and members of her theatre company started calling her Hattie…as in Hattie McDaniel – eeps!). While Garland was reared for stage and screen by a patented stage mother from hell, Jacques’s background was different and also not. While her mother was an actress of sorts (think that time your mom played a nun in a production of the Sound of Music at a church…oh my god did your mom ever do that? Mine didn’t and I have never been more sad about something not being true); her father was a pilot who died when Hattie was young, much as Garland’s own father passed away while she was still in adolescence. But Jacques wasn’t working that stage with a trio of sisters, no, she was getting herself educated sort of, and then being hell-of-active during World War II! Nursing! Welding! Her positive demeanor and Kentish sense of can-do spirit driving her! (Ha ha, I made up that people from Kent have can-do spirit, Kent Readers verify or refute in the comments.)
With this demeanor combined with her innate grace and charisma, she landed her first gig with London’s Player’s Theatre when she was 20, and already girl was proving something I say time and time again – size ain’t nothing but a thang, kids! This woman could sing, and dance, and effin’ move! While perceived to be “overweight”, she was unbelievably light on her feet! It was a bitter pill for her to swallow that in spite of years of training, she would never be taken seriously by other dancers, by ballerinas in particular, among whose ranks she longed to be counted. Still, her natural charm endeared her to nearly everyone who crossed her path, making her transition from theatre actress to radio performer to film star–one of those unspoken and inevitable ascents. Comedian and performer Eric Sykes was one of those wowed by Hattie and they quickly formed the partnership that would make her career a thing of legacy and legend.
But even as her star was in the ascendent, Hattie carried with her a mountain of insecurity that she kept well-hidden behind her aura of bravado. While she was a loved performer, who did not want for romantic attention, she harbored fears of abandonment and cringed at the monikers that the public attached to her in relation to her size. Her romantic past before her marriage was not with blemish or incident. While still working as a nurse during the war, Hattie had begun dating an America soldier (holy hot as hell, Batman.) and all reports indicate that they were engaged – Hattie would later say he went missing in action, leaving her heartbroken. However it was revealed after her death that the man in question was alive and well and living with a wife, Stateside. Whatever romantic damage this affair caused in the long term is unknown, however Hattie is on record as saying that his appreciation of her size was an added charge to the relationship, and well needed panacea for a girl who had been teased by her peers and family from an early age.
Even today, Hattie’s sexuality is a thing worthy of mockery in the media – go look at this article in the best bad newspaper in existence, the Daily Mail, if you don’t believe me. In the Carry On films, Jacques played the character of Matron (“Ooh Matron” was like a catchphrase on par with “Did I Do That?” back in the day…the English day.) An overweight battleax whose lusty streak was often the punchline of the joke. What was funny on screen was detestable in life, and when it eventually came to light that Hattie’s marriage to her husband the actor John Le Meursier ended, not, as had been thought at the time, because of his own infidelity, but because Hattie had taken up with a dead-sexy, cockney truck driver who was younger than her by enough years to be called her boy-toy, it was major gossip – to be fat, funny, and harmless is one thing, but to be fat, and then have an affair? That’s a stake burning offense – whereas when you’re a thin celebrity, it’s just another setting on the spin cycle of self-protection and promotion.
The actress Tilda Swinton briefly made headlines two years ago when it came to light that her husband and father of her children and she had stopped sleeping together, but were residing in the same home, and raising their children, along with Swinton’s newer, younger partner. While mildly titillating, it wasn’t battered about as being outre, in large part due to Swinton’s public perception as a lithe, androgynous woman of great talent and not a little weirdness – in a manner of speaking, such behavior was to be expected. But when you are a fat woman in the public eye, every move you make could be your last, so quick can their opinion swirl. In a way, it is not dissimilar from the reaction I get wearing a short skirt versus a thin woman wearing a skirt of the same length. What passes for work appropriate on her, on me is considered “too sexy”, not because I have boobs on my knees, but because there is simply more of me. So what’s good for Tilda is bad for Hattie, who with Le Mesurier’s blessing, invited in her not-so-secret secret lover John Schofield. When it became clear that this was not a temporary glitch, they decided to part ways, but did so as friends – hell, Hattie even set John up with the woman who would go on to become his next wife.
Hattie’s relationship with Schofield, however, was made of nowhere near as stout of stuff – after a short span of time, featuring abuse of alcohol and Hattie herself, he left her for another woman – because that is what those kinds of guys do, y’all! Lorry drivers, pfft. (Sexy lorry drivers, please verify or refute in the comments.) The end of this relationship marked the start of the decline in Hattie’s professional and personal life. Whatever had drawn her to Schofield – most likely a lifelong need to be reassured about her looks, about her worthiness – also destroyed her. She became depressed and ill enough that she couldn’t do film work because no company could afford to insure her. The rejection by Schofield and the seeming rejection by her public and her colleagues struck a woman who had a need to be accepted and loved to the very fiber of her being. Even if she had recovered physically, she would never have recovered mentally, the damage had already been done. Her next chapter could have been so exciting, and I don’t just mean her job – I would have loved to see her rally and figure out her own awesomeness, but she didn’t, and because of that we have been deprived of a possible killer role model for fat woman, and an astonishing talent.