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Issue Date: November 4, 2007

In this article:
Lili St. Cyr's 50 years of influence


Dancing queen

Lili St. Cyr shimmied her way to fame and fortune.

But once her star faded, she fell into obscurity. Now, the author of "Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique" dishes on the burlesque dancer's surprisingly wide influence on pop culture over the last 50 years.

By Kelly DiNardo

Lili St. Cyr book cover
A new biography profiles Lili St. Cyr, a burlesque dancer in the '40s and '50s who inspired the likes of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.

In the Broadway musical Pal Joey, reporter Melba Snyder sings about meeting a Gypsy Rose Lee-esque character who skewers her competition in song. "Zip! My artistic taste is classic and dear," she sings. "Zip! Who the hell is Lili St. Cyr?"

Who is she? Try the most influential burlesque dancer in the second half of the 20th century. And, as I reveal in my just-out biography, "Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique," her hip-swiveling ways swayed pop-culture sirens for decades to come.

St. Cyr shimmied across the country with inventive routines well-suited for the posh nightclubs in which she performed. She amassed legions of famous fans, including Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan. Her notoriety and fame brought financial and commercial successes, with roles in movies like Howard Hughes' "Son of Sinbad" and Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead."

"I had never seen a more beautiful woman," says journalist Mike Wallace, who interviewed her in 1957 after watching her perform. "She was absolutely glorious to look at." Fifty years later, he says the interview remains one of the more interesting ones he has conducted.

St. Cyr died in 1999. A recluse during the two decades before her death, she has become largely unknown. Yet, her elegant dance moves and va-va-voom appeal influenced pop culture and its icons for half a century. Read on:

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Decade 50s 60s 70s 80s 90s
Icon Marilyn Monroe Anais Nin "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" Madonna Dita Von Teese
Claim to fame Movie star and 20th-century sex symbol Writer known for her sensual works Cult classic 1975 film Singer, actress and author Reigning burlesque queen
Link to Lili Monroe studied St. Cyr, attending several of her shows and examining proof sheets from the dancer's sessions with their shared photographer, Bruno Bernard. Nin saw St. Cyr perform several times and once brought "Forbidden Planet" composers Louis and Bebe Barron to a show. Janet, played by actress Susan Sarandon, splashes around a pool singing "Don't Dream It," which ends with "God bless Lili St. Cyr." Madonna donned a black bustier from St. Cyr's lingerie store for the promotional materials for her 1989 album, "Like A Prayer," and her shelved Pepsi ad. Von Teese credits St. Cyr as one of her inspirations and pays homage to her in a re-creation of St. Cyr's famous bubble bath routine.
Lili's impact "Her curiosity was strictly of a professional nature, as she apparently wanted to refine the waddling walk," Bernard has noted. "Marilyn was an expert mimic ... [and] her study of Lili St. Cyr put her in good stead." "She uses her body with enormous grace and skill, to invite, to expose, to suggest, to respond, but it is always a gift, an offering," Nin once wrote. "She is a great artist. She is never vulgar." "The element of playfulness that Lili had -- the scenes she would create -- really speak to the play people find in 'Rocky Horror,'" says Jo Weldon, who runs a burlesque school. "Madonna is part of what sparked the new burlesque movement," says Michelle Baldwin, author of Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind. "She was doing things that were shocking, revealing and high glamour." "Lili St. Cyr was one of the most glamorous and most revered striptease artists of all time," says Von Teese, who kick-started the neo-burlesque movement in the '90s.

Frequent USA WEEKEND contributor Kelly DiNardo writes our annual babies report.

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