The Most Inspiring "It" Girls of All Time
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Meet the Muses1 of 21
By R. Clifton Spargo, author of Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald
In Greek mythology, muses were goddesses, otherworldly women who inspired the mind. In recent history, muses have been real life women full of complexity, passion and, quite often, their own creative genius. From Zelda Fitzgerald, the original "It girl" muse, to Kate Moss, these muses emboldened great artists while remaining artistic forces in their own right.
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Admired for her bob and beautiful round-cheeked face displayed on magazine covers, Zelda Fitzgerald was the darling of the Jazz Age, vibrant, clever and prone to gorgeous, free-associative bouts of conversation. She also proved herself a talent extraordinaire on many fronts—ballet dancer, author, painter—a woman blessed (or cursed) with too many gifts.
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No writer ever made closer study of his beloved, even at the risk of plagiarizing her words. A young F. Scott Fitzgerald raided Zelda's diaries, pilfered love letters, read his own in-progress works aloud to her, even depended on her sketches to envision his most famous hero, Gatsby. Zelda's emotional breakdown in the 1930s nearly brought wife and husband to ruin, but their trials inspired one of literature's most wondrously sad love stories, Tender Is the Night.
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Gala Dali was an olive-skinned Russian beauty with high Slavic cheekbones and intense black eyes. A part of the surrealist movement of the 1920s and '30s, she was known as a brilliant experimental fashion designer, who dressed to show her curves and underscore the sexual pulse of everyday life. Her lovers? Paul Eluard (poet of surrealism); Max Ernst (German Dadaist and surrealist painter); André Breton (author of Surrealist Manifesto); and many, many more.
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Salvador Dalí began an affair with Gala while she was married to her first husband. Later, as Dalí's wife, she became his obsession, muse and collaborator. As his business manager, she urged him beyond surrealism, marketed him madly, and hastened his bizarre and often religious dreamscapes. Front and center in many a masterpiece, Gala appears as the Virgin in "The Madonna of Port Lligat" and as mythic muse in "Galatea of the Spheres."
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An avant-garde artist and activist, Yoko Ono was an icon of androgynous style—think clean lines, black clothing, men's jackets and funky hats. In a 1960s piece of performance art—recently rebooted as part of the exhibition "Off the Beaten Path"—she sits motionless as audience members snip off her clothing with oversize scissors, hence questioning our complicity in art, fashion, celebrity, voyeurism and violence in her becalmed silence.
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One of the most demonized women in rock—aside from maybe Courtney Love—Yoko Ono earned a tribute in a Roger Waters song: "Did you understand the music, Yoko, or was it all in vain?" John Lennon himself never entertained doubts about his true love and muse, and regretted failing to credit her co-writing of his inspired solo hit "Give Peace a Chance."
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In the 1960s, Edie Sedgwick helped popularize the fashion of the Youthquake movement. With her bleached blond hair, black leotards, skimpy dresses, and chandelier earrings, the stylish socialite and model inspired several of rock's greatest songs, including Bob Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "Like a Rolling Stone" (rumors linked her romantically to Dylan), as well as The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale."
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While Sedgwick held several musicians in her thrall, she was the ultimate muse to Andy Warhol. The avant-garde artist and filmmaker was so smitten with Sedgwick upon meeting her that he created bit parts for her in two in-progress films, then set to work on Poor Little Rich Girl as a proper vehicle for her physical charms. "One person in the '60s fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known," Warhol later said of her. "And the fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love."
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Famous for her beehive hairdos, babydoll lashes and shimmery gowns, Diana Ross fashioned herself into the music industry's ultimate diva. She scored 12 No. 1 Billboard hits with Motown's The Supremes. As a solo performer, she went on to score hits through the '70s, '80s and '90s.
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As founder of Motown records and the Detroit sound that pulsed the nation's soul, Berry Gordy advanced the careers of everyone from The Jackson 5 to Stevie Wonder, but none so successfully as The Supremes. Other Motown acts soon complained that his interest in Diana Ross was more than professional. Though Gordy denied it at first, he later admitted that he was madly in love with his greatest talent.
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Patti Smith moved to NYC on bus fare money, slept on the streets, shared apartments and aspirations with drug-addled geniuses such as writer and musician Jim Carroll. Outfitted in tight leather pants contoured to boyish hips and handcrafted jewelry, she commanded the stage at the city's downtown punk rock clubs. On the jacket art of the 1975 punk classic Horses, she dresses like a guy, jacket tossed over her shoulder.
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Patti Smith was there when Robert Mapplethorpe discovered photography. She was his lover, model, and after he embraced his homosexuality, lifelong friend. "Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph," she recalled in her 2010 memoir Just Kids, "and I with how to be the photograph." Today, mention of Mapplethorpe brings to mind S&M themes and his controversial "Perfect Moment" exhibition, following his death from AIDS, but Smith's Mapplethorpe was achingly innocent, "a good boy trying to be bad."
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A fashion designer and icon, Loulou de la Falaise pioneered "Left Bank bohemian chic" in Paris in the 1970s. Long before unpredictability became, well, so predictable in the fashion world, there was Loulou, celebrated for her brocades, her velvets, all the fabulous and sometimes awkward-in-scale jewelry, and even (not that we approve) a monkey-fur bolero.
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The man soon to reign as the world's most renowned designer was overwhelmed by the glamour of de la Falaise. When Yves Saint Laurent brought her on board at his salon, her role was undefined but their collaboration brought great success in the world of haute couture. Whatever you do, though, don't call her a muse. "A muse is someone who looks glamorous but is quite passive," she once insisted, "whereas I was very hard-working."
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An unorthodox beauty, Rossy de Palma has been described as Picasso-esque in appearance, full-bodied and sensual, hair tied up to accentuate her long, angular face. This Spanish actress started out as a singer before earning fame on the silver screen. As a fashion icon, she inspired Jean-Paul Gaultier, and caught the eye of American filmmaker Robert Altman.
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Pedro Almodóvar discovered Rossy de Palma in a café in 1986 and cast her in his Woody Allen-esque breakthrough hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and roughly half a dozen films thereafter. Rossy's unconventional beauty suited Almodóvar’s frenzied, high-camp cinematographic style, which pilfers Hollywood melodrama in grandly tragicomic themes as old—and as Spanish—as Don Quixote.
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Most renowned as a sculptor, Rachel Feinstein debuted on the art scene in 1994 and was soon celebrated for her controversial work. Her personal fashion runs often to the fantastical, displayed in themed, free-flowing dresses. Her artistic style runs to the baroque, riffing on themes from religious iconography (she's explored crucifixions and Puritanical motifs) to Disneyfied renderings of traditional fantasy lore.
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As contemporary American painters go, not many produce works that command as much attention and money as John Currin's. His figurative paintings of scantly clad women tend toward the satirical and provocatively sexual. After falling in love with Rachel Feinstein in the mid-1990s, who thereafter appeared in his work, the art took a less sardonic turn. He felt released, in his own words, "from the petty things in my own personality."
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With her rail-thin, angular limbs, limp hair and wide-set eyes, Kate Moss embodied the waifish anti-supermodel look of the '90s. She partied infamously throughout the aughts, but possessed enough staying power as a fashion icon that even today she can't leave the house in a new pair of jeans without starting a trend.
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Pete Doherty honed an ethereal jazz-crooning vocal style. He also developed a bad drug habit that effectively dissolved his band, The Libertines, the princes of the post-punk revival. Doherty took up with Moss in 2005 while constituting his next act, The Babyshambles, and the troubled glam couple soon fell into a cocaine scandal. The song "What Katy Did Next" is written for Moss (the similarly titled Libertines hit isn't). Moss sang a hauntingly thin line of melody on "La Belle et la Bête" in 2008.
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