THE SKINNY LITTLE BITCH PROJECT: The White-Washing of Rita Hayworth
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.
Up until now, The Skinny Little Bitch Celebrity of the Week has explored the life and times of a woman whose weight has impacted her cultural impact and her personal life, very often to tragic ends. While we won’t be escaping tragedy today, we will be expanding the net of our project, as I promised to do early on. Because, as pervasive as the issue of weight and size is in Hollywood and beyond, it is not the defining feature when it comes to creating an image thought to be the most palatable to the public. It’s just one angle, really. There are others that flout everyday woman with just as great force. In our Monday installments, we will begin incorporating how changing physical attributes and presentation other than weight effects one woman’s daily life. (I promised tanning, I will not break this promise.) In keeping with the project’s evolution, we will be talking about how one woman completely changed her looks to the point of erasing her cultural identity.
Because Rita Hayworth wasn’t born Rita Hayworth. She was born Margarita Carmen Cansino to dancer parents in the heart of my favorite of the all boroughs – Brooklyn. Her folks were stage parents, who brought their own desires for fame at a level that was almost unachievable for any Latino to their daughter’s career. Hayworth, coming from hoofers, talks about her first experience with dancing, and how even though she didn’t like it very much, she didn’t want to upset her father, so she went ahead and did as she was told though icy fear gripped her belly and she hated it. AWESOME AND NORMAL. Fear of papa and a healthy family-prescribed obsession with becoming famous propelled her forward, and the girl was featured in a Warner Brothers flick before she was ten. When instant stardom wasn’t achieved, and money grew tight, her dad was all, “Alternative plan. We will dance together and people will think we are lovers and we won’t disillusion them about this and we will spend a lot of time dancing in Mexico so I can’t be arrested for child-slave-laboring you – OKAY?” and then they did. AWESOME AND NORMAL TAKE TWO! All this dancing with daddy meant that things like high school went by the wayside in favor of finding places where they could skirt around the fact that she was underage and dance for folks vacationing from Los Angeles – one of whom her father hoped, might notice Margarita’s gifts.
Because it was a different time, this scheme actually worked, and Hayworth was signed to Fox – where the white-washing began. While not quite going the full-Hayworth, the changes that had ostensibly started the moment her father asked her to play the role of wife or love instead of daughter, began on a larger scale, starting with her name. Margareta was shortened to Rita, and Carmen banished altogether. Even her last name didn’t seem right, and so she was rechristened Rita Consuelo, in a move to play up her heritage and garner more bit parts opposite stars like Latin sensation Carmen Del Rio. But it didn’t take, and after a couple of so far from noticeable flops Fox ditched the girl. Rita reacted in turn, running off with an agent manager type – the same age as her dad only this time she was paying the guy to take an active interest in transforming her and making her a star! AWESOME AND NORMAL THE THIRD! While her choice in marital partners might have been ill-advised, the dude did get her her the next contract – with Columbia.
The Columbia era started off for her much in the way the Fox era had – a string of roles as the ga-ga-gorgeous foreigner. But her husband cum manager and the folks at the studio saw more – they saw a big star, and in their mind in order for that star to be born, they had to make her cast-able in leading lady roles – which meant, they had make the girl like lilly-white. Her dark hair went ten kinds of red, and her hairline was zapped the hell out of! In addition, the studio spent dollars and money on publicity letting folks know that it was okay to like Rita, because she was trying so hard not to be a Spanish Dancer. Break. My. Heart. INTO A MILLION PIECES! THE MOST AWESOME AND NORMAL OF THEM ALL FOREVER RIGHT? Nowadays when a Latin actress quietly transforms herself into the whitest version of herself possible to the end of achieving super-stardom (Side-eye pointed your way, Jenny from the Block!) it’s at least not something to be proud of. It’s kept hush, hush, the shame of rejecting one’s own origins at least being acknowledge now. The weirdest thing about Rita’s transformation was how the studio promoted it – they let her public know that here was a talented, red-hot actress so eager to please her public that she was literally redesigning herself to gain their approval. She wasn’t the masturbatory fodder for WWII soldiers all over Europe for being pretty sexy – she was the original pin-up girl because she made it clear that was her goal and damned if she didn’t work for it!
Cosmetic enhancements weren’t the only public image gambit Hayworth took to assure her ascent – she was a photog’s dream, viewing herself as a commodity, never appearing with a hair out of place, makeup flawless, great clothes, a perfect pose, and a sweet smile. Though her era is typically romanticized as being paparazzi free, that simply wasn’t the case, and where there were paparazzi there were furious celebrities who wanted to be left the eff alone. But not Rita! She could have had her heart broken to pieces and still smiled for the birdie, no matter the personal cost. The paparazzi in turn rewarded her in the only way they could – silver-lining every broken marriage, extra-marital affair, baby conceived out of wed-lock, and affiliation with dudes who were totally technically not white. While more private celebrities paid the price at the hands of the poison pen for these sorts of crimes, Rita got away with it.
But she didn’t escape from everything, and her series of failed romantic relationships are heartbreaking to read about. The girl was more than just her looks, I mean, you don’t hold an known egomaniac’s attention for so long with just a pretty face, and she and Orson Welles seemed happy for a time and had a kid, yo! It seemed that in every man she met Rita was looking for that magical combination of romantic love and professional compatibility – forever striving for a false ideal created by her father in the earliest years of her career. Man, that made me sad. Let’s read a love letter from Orson Welles to Rita for a second:
Dearest Angel Girl:
…I suppose most of us are lonely in this big world, but we must fall tremendously in love to find it out. The cure is the discovery of our need for company — I mean company in the very special sense we’ve come to understand since we happened to each other — you and I. The pleasures of human experience are emptied away without that companionship — now that I’ve known it; without it joy is just an unendurable as sorrow. You are my life — my very life. Never imagine your hope approximates what you are to me. Beautiful, precious little baby — hurry up the sun! — make the days shorter till we meet. I love you, that’s all there is to it.
Apparently even though the marriage only lasted four years, Rita kepts Orson’s letters HIDDEN IN THE LINING OF HER MAKEUP CASE FOR LIKE DECADES! DECADES! I DIE! OH GOD, I’m sad again – let’s look at a picture of Orson Welles pretending he is a charging bull:
No amount of happy bull impressions can change the trajectory of her life, although oh, how I wish they could. Hayworth would marry and divorce a longish series of men – at one point literally marrying a prince - some of whom would steal all of her money, and also beat her. ISN’T LIFE AND THE SUBSEQUENT SICKNESS IT CAN BREED GRAND? Though her work in films like Gilda had secured her fame, the damage from living a life in the public, without flaw, and without a sense of true self took its toll and the beautiful just as she was Margarita eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s.