Bring back some good or bad memories

May 6, 2013

Rare Vintage Photos of Émilie Marie Bouchau and Her 14- (or 15- or 16-) Inch Waist

In the late 19th century, “tightlacing” among women was in vogue. Algerian-born Émilie Marie Bouchau, who went by the provocative stage name Polaire (“pole star”) was famous for her tiny, corsetted waist, which was reported to have a circumference no greater than 16 inches.

Decked out in black eye makeup, a nose ring, and corsets that gave her an incredible 15-inch waist, she earned praise for her exotic looks and talent.

But during a concert tour through New York in 1910, she was given a cruel sobriquet.

“Very unfairly and inaccurately, Willie Hammerstein [son of Oscar] billed Polaire as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ and offered prizes to women who, with the aid of corsets, could beat Polaire’s 15-inch waist,” states The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.

“In hindsight, it is difficult to comprehend how an actress noted in France for her beauty could be billed as ugly in the United States, but the description appears to have been based in large part on Polaire’s wearing a ring in her nose, a novelty with which American audiences were unfamiliar.”

On the other hand, perhaps Polaire was in on the joke.

A 1910 New York Times article states that she “frankly admits that she’s the ugliest woman in the world” and goes on to explain that her popularity “is said to be based on her willingness to accentuate her ugliness” by highlighting her long neck and “protruding” lips.

Whether the description helped or hurt her in New York is uncertain. Polaire’s run here appeared to be a success, and she returned to Manhattan at least once more, in 1913, before her popularity waned by World War I.

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