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List of sex symbols

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According to the BBC, "Marilyn Monroe is perhaps Hollywood's most enduring sex symbol."[1]

A sex symbol is a celebrity of any sex, typically an actor or actress, musician, supermodel, teen idol, sports star, or even a politician, noted for being widely regarded as sexually attractive. The term was first used in the mid-1950s in relation to the popularity of certain film stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Raquel Welch.[2]

Sex symbols by era[edit]

Before 1900[edit]

Person Year of
Hoppner, attributed - Mrs Mary Robinson as Perdita.jpg
Mary Robinson
1757 The Times's Deirdre Fernand said Mary Robinson was "the feminist sex symbol who scandalised England" by having affairs with the man who would become King George IV of the United Kingdom.[3]
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall (2).jpg
Lord Byron
1788 The scholar John Lauritsen wrote in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide that Lord Byron was "the reigning male sex symbol of the early 19th century".[4] His persona was nurtured by his "flamboyant lifestyle", his "sporadic personal beauty" where he oscillated between corpulence and gauntness, and his relationships with women.[4] Author Mo Rocca said that Lord Byron turned into a sex symbol in 1811 after he authored the lengthy poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage that featured an "intense brooding hero". Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married, read the poem and requested to see Lord Byron. The two were married to other people but began a "passionate affair that ended melodramatically" where the neglected Lady Caroline mailed Lord Byron some of her pubic hair accompanied by a note with the signature "Your Wild Antelope".[5]
Franz Liszt by Herman Biow- 1843.png
Franz Liszt
1811 Ivan Hewett called Liszt "the greatest sex symbol classical music has ever produced", which Hewett said "shows that looks are hardly the most important thing". As a youth, Liszt was very attractive, according to Hewett. Upon walking on the platform and soundlessly taking off his gloves, the women "swooned" over him. Although he had a wart on his face three decades later, women were still interested in him including one who pretended to be a male to travel through Europe following him.[6] Music professor Craig M. Wright found Liszt to be "the musical sex symbol of the Romantic era" who was "handsome, supremely talented, and equally self-confident".[7]
C Buchner - Lola Montez Guache 1847 (115).jpg
Lola Montez
1821 Irving Wallace and his coauthors wrote that Lola Montez was "the reigning sex symbol of her day" because her sensational theater acting captivated men and astonished women.[8] The scholar Mary C. Henderson said Montez was "the female sex symbol of her age" who "carved a notorious reputation on two continents" and had a short stint in theater performing the "Spider Dance". Montez had numerous fans even though she had a "notable lack of talent as an actress and dancer".[9]
Harvard Theatre Collection - Menken, Mazeppa, TCS 19.jpg
Adah Isaacs Menken
1835 Scholar Renée M. Sentilles noted that Menken was "a sex symbol who played male roles on stage".[10] In the 1860s, Menken did an excellent job attracting attention through her short skirts and short hair which disregarded societal standards. She depicted a fighter in the play Menken where in a closing scene her clothes came off, showing her with "flesh-colored tights". Naked, she was bound to a horse that was dispatched to the hinterlands. Although her New York audience was stunned, ticket sales did not suffer.[11] Author Justin Martin called Menken "one of the great sex symbols of the nineteenth century".[12] The Central States Speech Journal said Menken, who became "a sex symbol in a time of Victorian prudery", was "the Marilyn Monroe of her day". Menken was similar to Monroe in that she was "known more for her voluptuousness than for her acting ability".[13]
Harvard Theatre Collection - Sarah Bernhardt, La Princesse Lointaine, TC-2.jpg
Sarah Bernhardt
1844 The historian Judith Bowers wrote that Sarah Bernhardt was "the greatest female sex symbol the stage had ever known".[14] In his autobiography, the journalist Maurice de Waleffe said that around 1900, he was in his Sofia hotel room adjacent to a French couple who were on their honeymoon.[15] The woman said, "Make love to me as if I were Sarah Bernhardt!"[15] University of East Anglia reader Stephen Wilson commented that Waleffe's account demonstrated how Bernhardt had turned into a "popular sex symbol".[15]
Lilly Langtry, 1885.jpg
Lillie Langtry
1853 Critic Rosamund Marriott Watson, while writing under the pseudonym Graham R. Tomson, said that George du Maurier's illustrations of Lillie Langtry produced a "new standard of beauty", which was "modernist aesthetics meets sex symbol" according to scholar Paul L. Fortunato.[16] Langtry exercised every day, giving her a strong figure. Artists thought her face was "a model of classical beauty". She had an affair with the Prince of Wales at the time, who became Edward VII. Upon splitting up with her lover, she moved to the United States. People were stunned by her affairs and were captivated by her "poise, manners, and diction".[11]
Lillian Russell cph.3b20676.jpg
Lillian Russell
1860/1861 Scholar Brett Silverstein said Lillian Russell "may have been the most popular sex symbol this nation has ever known". Her performances in the 1880s to 1890s frequently were fully booked. Notable magazines routinely showcased her image. Gossip columnists repeatedly wrote in detail about her activities. When she was at the peak of her celebrity, a coal miner pulled the gun's trigger on a friend when the friend dared to say Russell was not the world's most attractive lady. A contemporary columnist said "She looks like Venus after her bath", while a The New York Times journalist about 50 years later said Russell was "the raging beauty of her period".[17]The Saturday Evening Post's Jeff Nilsson wrote that Russell was "admired for her full, statuesque figure, which was widely regarded as the ideal of feminine beauty".[11]

1900s to 1920s[edit]

The early 20th century saw the emergence of cinematic stars in the silent film era.

Person Year of
Theda Bara 1921 Orval Hixon.jpg
Theda Bara
1885 Author Mary Flanagan wrote that Theda Bara was the "first cinematic sex symbol" whose "success as a sex symbol stems from her construction as a persona without a fixed personal history". Bara grew into Fox Film's largest star. Despite her being nearly 30 and having a background, for every one of her movie parts, Fox devised for her a new fake background related to the movie. Bara played the movie parts in press conferences that numbered in the hundreds. She would eat unusual fruits, stroke snakes, and wear furs and would create a "media stir". Reporters took part in the show by "print[ing] as fact obviously jumbled biographies".[18] Bara became the lead actress in the 1915 film A Fool There Was where she played a vampire, a role that gave her the nickname "The Vamp". Bara's depiction in the film influenced women to choose "a new exotic look" that included "bobbed hair, thick bangs, pale facial makeup, dark red lips, and eyes accented with kohl liner and thick mascara". She maintained very long fingernails that had "sharply pointed ends". As "vampish women were viewed as mysterious, aggressive, and seductive", author Victoria Sherrow said Bara was "the movies' first sex symbol".[19]

See also[edit]

Other articles of the topic Human sexuality : Outline of erotica and pornography
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  • Bombshell
  • Sex kitten


  1. "BBC World Service - Witness, The Death of Marilyn Monroe". BBC. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  2. Flexner & Soukhanov (1997), p. 373
  3. Fernand, Deidre (31 October 2004). "Mary, Queen of shocks". The Times. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Lauritsen, John (Jan–Feb 2011). "Lord Byron's Taste in Men". The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Vol. 18 no. 1. Archived from the original on 25 January 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  5. Rocca (2019), p. 310
  6. Hewett, Ivan (21 April 2005). "Who needs this when the classics are already bursting with sex?". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 30 June 2020. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  7. Wright (2008), p. 283
  8. Wallace et al. (2008), p. 152
  9. Henderson (1989), p. 51
  10. Sentilles (2003), p. 3
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Nilsson, Jeff (1 June 2017). "9 Sex Symbols Before Marilyn Monroe". The Saturday Evening Post. Archived from the original on 30 June 2020. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  12. Downing, Ben (5 September 2014). "Book Review: 'Rebel Souls' by Justin Martin". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 30 June 2020. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  13. Ritter, Charles C. (1963). "The Menken in Mephis". The Central States Speech Journal. 14. p. 92. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  14. Bowers (2007), p. 54
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Wilson (1982), p. 593
  16. Fortunato, Paul L. (Summer 2007). "Wildean Philosophy with a Needle and Thread: Consumer Fashion at the Origins of Modernist Aesthetics". College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies. Johns Hopkins University Press. 34 (3). doi:10.1353/lit.2007.0032. Retrieved 30 June 2020.
  17. Silverstein (1995), p. 13
  18. Flanagan (2007), p. 300
  19. Sherrow (2006), p. 49

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