Seductress: Josephine Baker

Nothing inspires me more than strong, successful women, and this archetype isn’t limited to the male paradigm of power suits in a board room. I’m more interested in the role of the Seductress. Goddess women who have reached the top by breaking molds and embracing their sexual allure. But before going further, I want to address that I believe there is a big misconception about the term “seductress”.  Simply possessing the looks of a model or having bedded a lot of lovers does not qualify one as a bonafide enchantress. Instead, as cited by Betsey Prioleau, author of the highly-recommended book Seductress: “These sexy supremas, I discovered, are often without looks or youth, and seduce the best men with their strong personalities and an array of little-known love arts. They’re futuristic heroines who succeed in life and love.” 

Indeed! And I find this ilk of empowered, confident, accomplished women—who embrace rather than deny their sexuality (regardless of their looks or age)—to be perfectly inspiring to the pole dance community. Because of this, I look forward to doing a series of profiles on seductresses throughout history on the blog, and for this maiden post, have chosen the inimitable dancer,  singer, and enchantress: Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker was born out of wedlock in 1906 and into the impoverished, racist slums of St. Louis, Missouri. She dropped out of school at 13 and supported herself by waitressing and dancing on street corners, and by the age of 15, was twice divorced. Yet despite her dismal youth, she maintained an optimistic view about her potential—credited to the fairytales told to her by her grandmother as a young girl—and eventually headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. Here she performed in a number of clubs and Broadway reviews where she eventually became billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” Throughout it all, Baker remained driven and impassioned by her love of the stage and dance—which she performed with uninhibited erotic zeal. According to her sister, Margaret, she had "set out to conquer the world." (excerpt from Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker, Chris Chase)

Eventually, in 1925 she was offered a part in the Parisian production that would launch her into stardom: La Revue Negré.

“I wanted to seduce the whole capital.”

When the curtains rose, Baker “… hurtled onstage, rump gyrating, legs flying in a rip-the-roof Charleston. At the end she reappeared and unleashed ‘the frenzy of African Eros.’ Naked except for a hot pink feather between her thighs, she dry-humped and slithered around her male partner and collapsed in a torrential orgasmic spasm. She brought down the house.” (excerpt from Seductress by Betsey Prioleau)

“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”

She was an instant success and remained in Europe where she was immensely popular and her career thrived. Her exotic beauty and performance style earned her the nicknames "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess."

See her often imitated, but never duplicated, Banana Dance below:

She was open about her sexual desires and men found her irresistible, but not just because of her sexual authority. Her propensity for being socially engaging, humorous, honorable, and nurturing made her the complete package. In fact, Ernest Hemingway called her the “most sensational woman anybody ever saw.” Because of this, she received dozens of marriage proposals throughout her life, and an unfathomable forty thousand love letters in one year alone!

“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest . . . beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”

Baker attempted to return to the United States in 1936 but was met with resistance and blatant racism and returned to Paris in disgust. In 1937 she married a Frenchmen, therefore becoming a citizen. She went on to serve the French during World War II, not only by performing for the troops but by also working as an undercover correspondent (smuggling secret messages in her sheet music) and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.  Also an adamant civil rights activist, she refused to perform for segregated audiences.

“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Despite a couple of more failed marriages, financial strife, and the difficulties that come with raising a “rainbow tribe” of children and a menagerie of animals, Baker led an accomplished, exquisite life. She died in 1974 in bed surrounded by newspapers of glowing reviews of her performance in a revue celebrating her 50 years in show business, and continues to inspire and intrigue audiences with her captivating story to this day.

“People were crazy about Josephine, the women were not even jealous. How could you not like such a person? She was beauty itself.”
–René Lefevre

Learn more about Josephine Baker at her official website.