When I was a kid my sisters and I were unimpressed by the lack of interesting-looking Barbies. Unperturbed, we made our own version by dipping one in black paint, giving her a buzz cut, making her a hat from a bottle top dipped in glitter and christening her ‘Disco Barbie’ (political correctness was not invented until at least the ‘90s, sue me).
Disco Barbie was of course inspired by some of the bolshie female singers you’d get only in the ‘70s and ‘80s; people like Eartha Kitt, Tina Turner and Grace Jones. Exhibitionist ladies. Weird ladies. Ladies from outer space.
As to why three nerdy white girls growing up in suburban Melbourne would consider as role models the sort of strong, unapologetic black women gushed about by Beyoncé and her ilk, we’ll never know. All we knew was that we liked the cut of their collective jibs. What is it about awesome black ladies? Why are they ten times more hilar than everyone else?
In honour of these wacky and wonderful broads, I’ve compiled here a list of ten things you never knew about the greatest Catwoman there ever was, Eartha Kitt.
1. She never knew how old she was until a fan found her birth certificate.
Truly, she had a rotten childhood. She was born as Eartha Mae into a poor cotton farming family in South Carolina, and her German father left when she was quite young. Her mother (of African-American and Cherokee heritage) remarried, but her new stepfather rejected her because of the colour of her skin. Her mother left her in the care of a local family who also abused her for her mixed race background.
When she was eight she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt, and she had to find a part-time job to pay for her food and expenses while she went to school. After her aunt threw her out of the house, she decided to drop out of school and get a job as a seamstress, then in a factory, then a farm in Connecticut.
When she returned decades later to South Carolina in 1997 for a benefit gig at Benedict College the students were assigned a research project on her and found her birth certificate. She found she was actually born in 1927, and was given a copy of her birth certificate, along with a key to the town of North when she arrived in South Carolina to perform.
2. She got her first break from a woman on the street who was asking for directions
When she returned to New York as a 16 year old, she met a girl on the street who was lost and looking for directions. The girl was a dancer for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, a dance school with a style based on Afro-Caribbean folklore. She offered to introduce her, and persuaded her to take an audition. Eartha won a full scholarship and began to tour with the group, despite the director telling her she would never make a real dancer because her boobs were too big. She toured Mexico, Europe and South America and the U.S.
When she was in Paris, she was offered her first nightclub booking at Carroll’s, which soon led to singing as the main attraction at Le Perroquet, with songs in English, Spanish and French that she prepared with the help of the Cuban bandleader. She forgot the words to C’est Si Bon the first time she sang it, and ad-libbed things like ‘mink coat, big Cadillac’ etc, which soon became a mainstay of her act.
3. This clip, I Want to Be Evil is one of the funniest clips you’ll see.
Watch it till the end. She knows how to finish a song with lots of weirdness.
4. Orson Welles once called her ‘the most exciting woman in the world’.
She started to attract a lot of attention with her strange cabaret persona, and started to get some acting roles. Fellow eccentric Big O cast her as Helen of Troy in the 1957 play of Doctor Faustus, and as usual, liked to plant one on his leading ladies.
She said he got carried away when he reached the lines “Helen, is this the face that launched a thousand ships? Helen, make me a mortal with a kiss,” and just bit into her bottom lip. “The blood is seeping down my chin, and [Welles] has a hold of me so I can’t get away,” she said in one of her many autobiographies. “And when I ran into him afterwards, and asked, “why did you bite me?” He said, ‘I got excited.’”
She later denied having an affair with him.
5. Her US career took a nosedive during the Vietnam War when she said this to Lady Bird Johnson during a White House lunch: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”
Apparently Lady Bird burst into tears. I am in awe. As a result of this Eartha was unable to find work in the U.S., and her contracts were lost or cancelled. After 1968 she moved to Europe, where she worked for the next ten years. Her CIA file described her as “a sadistic nymphomaniac”.
6. She spoke in four languages and sang in seven, including French, Turkish and Spanish.
Check this out–I don’t know Turkish, but it sounds pretty good to me. Oh those Turks!
7. Her daughter’s name is Kitt!
She got it on with that bloke from the Revlon empire and was only married for five years (1960-1965), to Bill McDonald. Kitt McDonald was born in 1961 and managed Eartha’s career in her later years.
8. She studied dance with James Dean
The pic is from the early-1950s. She says, “That’s where Jamie and I always met downstairs from that studio to have coffee, to have our little tete-a-tete conversations.
“He was like my brother. He had something in him that he didn’t understand. He wanted to learn from me how to move on the stage the way I do, so I taught him how to control his body and how to let the words physically carry you from this point to that point. I was in a play and he’d just done his first film so we were both becoming known at that time. It was a good time.”
9. She appeared in Boomerang with Eddie Murphy in 1992.
She has not a great filmography, but did act alongside a certain O. Reed in Master of Dragonard Hill, a film now on my must-see list. Other films included Mark of the Hawk, St Louis Blues (with Nat King Cole), Anna Lucasta (with Sammy Davis Jr.) and Synanon. She was Catwoman to Adam Ward’s Batman for a year on telly. She took parts on Broadway in Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu, an all-black musical based on Kismet. She sang and danced all day till her ‘70s.
10. She was a total campaigner and an all-round legend!
Unwilling to contribute to the discrimination in American society, she decided that she would not perform before segregated audiences. This was a requirement in all her contracts. She was also a gay rights champion and publicly supported same-sex marriage. She performed with Bronski Beat. Monty Python did a sketch on her. The list goes on…
In about 2000, Harper’s Bazaar magazine asked her what she thought was great style. All she said was this: “Simplicity. I don’t have to have the biggest house or the biggest car or the longest mink, but quality of life is really glamorous.”
If I don’t resemble this when I’m 80, there’ll be hell to pay