To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re looking at the life and career of one of the twentieth century’s most influential beauty and glamour icons: dancer, singer, actress, and activist Josephine Baker. She has been called the Beyonce of her day, and her trademark look is still referenced by stars like Rihanna. Wanna learn more? Here are 6 reasons why she’s one of our Upkeep Icons.
She escaped a difficult childhood to chase her dreams
Josephine Baker was born in St Louis Missouri in 1906, during the era of Jim Crow. Her family was impoverished, and she had to get her first job at eight years old to help the family make ends meet. As you can imagine, anyone who hires an eight year old to be a live-in maid is not going to be the best employer. Then, after dropping out of school and working as a waitress, she was married off at just thirteen years of age. She overcame these incredibly difficult circumstances–including leaving her husband–to chase her dream of being a dancer, eventually moving to New York during the Harlem Renaissance to work as a chorus line dancer on Broadway. Her story shows that you are not defined by the worst things that happened to you, and that it’s possible to change your life for the better–even if the only person who believes that is you.
Josephine Baker moved to a different country at just nineteen years old
In 1925, Josephine moved to Paris to star in a dance revue at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. She was just nineteen years old, and she was moving to a completely new place and starting over. It was in Paris that she became a full blown star. And she discovered the freedom and comfort of living in a place without racially prejudiced laws. Rather than being discriminated against for the color of her skin, Josephine found that she was celebrated for it. France was her new home, and she later became a citizen.
She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture.
In 1927, just two years after she moved to Paris, her star was rising so fast that she started getting offers to star in movies. She made history in Siren of the Tropics by being the first Black woman to star in a major movie. It was a French silent film that ran in theaters for eight months, an exceptionally long run that showed how popular she was. Today we would find much of the content dated–Baker’s character is an exoticized stereotype. Still, there’s no denying that Josephine blazed a trail for others to follow. (She also decided that moviemaking wasn’t for her, preferring the stage instead.)
She had once-in-a-century levels of charisma and charm
In her heyday in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, Baker was one of the most famous celebrities in the entire world. And sure, one reason for this was probably the fact that she often danced nearly nude, which was incredibly provocative at the time. But what made her a star was not the scandalous nature of her performances, or her talents as a singer and dancer. One of her fellow dancers coined the phrase “the Josephine Baker effect” to describe the megawatt charisma that kept audiences in rapt attention night after night. She made every single person in the audience feel as if she were singing and dancing just for them. She enchanted and inspired everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Jean Cocteau to Pablo Picasso.
She aided the French resistance as an unofficial spy
Josephine was recruited to join French intelligence agency Deuxieme Bureau in 1939. At the time, the bureau was so underfunded they couldn’t even pay her, but counterintelligence chief Jacques Atbey approached her and asked if she could be a spy and help the French Resistance. She agreed, even though joining the French Resistance would have been especially dangerous for a Black woman to do at the time. Plus, she’d been so outspoken against fascism that she’d already caught the attention of the bad guys at the very top of the German regime. But Josephine stood up for what she believed in, so she said yes and became an ‘honorable correspondent’ (aka a spy). Josephine used her numerous connections–and the “Josephine Baker effect”--to wheedle information out of German and Italian officials about the war. She wrote down what she learned in invisible ink on her music sheets and even on the skin of her arm. She was able to warn the Allies that Mussolini planned to side with the Germans when they declared war–a critical piece of intelligence that altered the course of the war. For her service, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Using your wits and charm to pull one over on the bad guys? That’s icon status for sure.
She was a civil rights activist for many years
When Josephine returned back to the United States, she was appalled to face discrimination all over the country. As a result, she often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which sometimes forced club owners to integrate audiences when she performed. Her influence helped integrate live audiences at venues in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was still very segregated during the mid-century. Her activism was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with whom she worked for many years. And in 1963, she was one of the few women who spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Here’s a choice quote from that speech:
"You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Josephine Baker had a profound influence on art and culture, and she continues to inspire people to this day. Dancer, singer, beauty icon, film star, spy, and activist–we are completely in awe of her multifaceted life!