The Greatest ‘It Girl’ Moments of All Time

This is my top ten list of great It Girl moments through history:

1. Marilyn Monroe singing the most mind numbing version of Happy Birthday imaginable, to the president of the United Sates, in front of the entire country.
2. Paulette Bonaparte (Napoleon’s little sister) posing naked for Canova. When shocked socialites asked her if she was uncomfortable doing it, she apparently replied, “Not at all, his studio is heated.”
3. Princess Di dancing with John Travolta at the White House.
4. Anne Boleyn getting Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry her. She did end up getting her head chopped off for it BUT she also changed the course of history and gave birth to Elizabeth I, arguably the greatest ruler in British History.
5. Brooke Shields bending over in those blue jeans and saying nothing comes between her and her Calvins. Wowwee.
6. Joan of Arc leading the French into battle.
7. Marlene Dietrich doing anything in a tux.
8. Ava Gardner peeing in the lobby of some ridiculously fancy hotel. Yes she really did this! I read about it in her biography; I just can’t remember the name of the hotel right now. She was never allowed back in the place, as you can imagine.
9. Cleopatra killing herself with an asp. (Okay it is possible that this is one that Shakespeare made up but it is good nonetheless.)
10. Audrey Hepburn’s profile.

All right I am sure I have missed some great ones. I have somehow managed to leave off Clara Bow, the actress for whom the term was so famously coined. Madonna was an ongoing It Girl phenomenon for so long it’s impossible to distill all that into one moment. It was apparently pretty sensational when Ingrid Bergman ran off with Roberto Rosselini but that’s more like marital discord than an It Moment. I liked it a lot when Drew Barrymore stood on David Letterman’s desk and flashed him, but I started thinking that I couldn’t have so many contemporary It Girls and I had to get some historical figures in there. Jackie Kennedy Onassis most certainly belongs on the list but her It Moments were so tragic you could hardly put them on a list of favorites. Also it is strange and odd to me that Julia Roberts and Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo didn’t make the list but the more I thought about it the more I thought well just being a great actress doesn’t make you an It Girl. Something else makes you an It Girl. Not that they didn’t have It, just that It didn’t make them It Girls. It made them Stars, which is different than being an It Girl, although many It Girls are also Stars (see Marilyn Monroe, above.)

Okay I’m spending a lot of time thinking about It Girls right now because as I think I’ve mentioned on this post last week, I wrote a novel about some normal girls who become It Girls. (It’s called Three Girls and Their Brother and it’s coming out on April 7 and I hope that you, dear reader, will buy it.) But the point is, because I wrote this novel everyone thinks that I actually know something about It Girls and so I’m getting a lot of requests, this month, to write about It Girls. I actually don’t know much about anything except what’s inside my own hapless brain. But I have some smart academically minded friends, one of whom pointed me fortuitously toward someone who does know a lot about It Girls: Joseph Roach, the author of the book It. I also have a standing one-click account on Amazon.com. After a few mishaps (everytime I clicked on “IT” a Stephen King novel showed up) I managed to get my hands on a copy of It.

Mr. Roach has a lot of interesting things to say about It Girls. He elegantly defines It as “secular magic,” and observes that the person who has It seems to hold a “precarious balance… between polarities like egoless self-confidence or unbiddable magnetism.” He quotes Eleanor Glyn, who blathered on about It incessantly in 1927, as being the kind of things cats are good at rather than dogs because dogs try to hard. “An air of perceived indifference counts heavily in the production of this special allure, which must appear to be exercised effortlessly or not at all,” Mr. Roach explains.

He also starts his introduction with the greatest quote about It that I have ever heard:

“I belonged to the Public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.” That came from Marilyn Monroe who as usual completely underestimated her own talent, her own beauty and her own intelligence, while she effortlessly zoomed in on something else that It seems to entail: a kind of nothingness, a floaty quality, a sense that the It Girl maybe belongs to Me even though I’ve never met her.

After thinking about this stuff way too much I finally became a little worried about the current crop of It Girls. Whenever I ask anyone who are the It Girls now, the same list gets recited back to me: Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan and the Olsen twins. And when I started to think about It, through history, even recent history, and when I started reading Mr. Roach’s excellent book about It? I thought you know, these girls aren’t really It Girls at all. They’re party girls who get in a lot of trouble and then get written about in slightly trashy magazines.

I would like to resurrect some sense of respect for the quality of It. As Marilyn so shrewdly observed, It has a lot to do with a kind of empty possibility upon which much can be projected. But endless possibility is not the same thing as nothing. And anyone who thinks that It Girls don’t have to have talent should go back to the top of this post, and read my list of the greats. It Girls can be awesome. And they are.