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“Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from” Mae West, born Mary Jane West, was to her core an entertainer, drawn to the stage from a young age at church socials and, ironically, going on to become a bawdy Vaudeville sex symbol, the subject of endless censorship. Aside from her artistic contributions to the world of stage, cinema and music, we should appreciate Mae West’s role as a symbol of freedom and joie de vivre, as someone who defied the shackles of censorship and laughed in the face of boundaries. West’s first starring role on Broadway was in the controversial play Sex, which she had also written, produced and directed. The play, along with its star, became notorious, causing city officials to raid the theatre and arrest the cast, prosecuting West for “corrupting the morals of youth”. What more perfect way of rocketing a reasonably unknown actress to stardom? The media attention served only to enhance her career, and as she herself said, she made a lot of money out of censorship. Far from withdrawing from the risqué in life and theatre, Mae West went on to pen The Drag, which dealt with themes of homosexuality. The Society for the Prevention of Vice ensured that the play never opened. West proved from early in her career that she wanted to deal with the elephants in the auditorium, to bring to light the things that censorship made taboo. She was an early supporter of the Women’s Liberation Movement, as well as being an advocate of gay rights, and outspoken against persecution in many areas. Later in her career, when one of her many boyfriends, an African-American boxer named William Jones, was turned from her apartment building by the management on the basis of his race, she solved the problem by swiftly buying the building. Suffice it to say, she was content to use unorthodox methods to combat discrimination. By the 1930s, West’s career had skyrocketed, and her hard work earned her status as the eighth-largest box office draw, and soon after the second-highest paid person in the entire United States, pipped to the post only by William Randolph Hearst. Whilst modern feminism obsesses over the pay gap, here stands a woman who, with sheer audacity and determination, forced her way up among the ‘male, pale and stale’ at the top of the ladder. Her success and prominence is said to have saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and her continued confrontation of hypocrisy in her works was made only more effective by her status as a public figure. The modern reader may not agree with reaching the pinnacle of success based on great shoes and a nice wiggle, but Mae West should be inspiring as a woman who did not allow the precepts of her age to hold her back, rather used them to her advantage. As such let us laud her not simply as a stage and screen starlet, but as a shrewd businesswoman, a pusher of envelopes and mistress of every aspect of her field, reminding us that “you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”. Aside from all of the other controversial themes West liked to throw light on, homosexuality, religion, hypocrisy, there is one salacious issue that shaped her public image. It is clear even from a cursory glance at Google, that Mae West will most be remembered from her stream of wisecracks, quips and puns, most of which are concerned in some way with sex and relationships. Sex and sensuality was an integral part of her career and was the reason she was both appealing and notorious. Mae West had strings of boyfriends, various romantic entanglements and the odd rumoured marriage, but her life was not defined by her romances. West kept her personal life just that, barely even living with husband Frank Szatkus, who for a long time she did not admit to being married to. Her life was not defined by the men in it, and her celebrity and sexuality were very much her own. West reminds us that we don’t have to publicly ‘put a ring on it’ to be valid. Without the need to define her sexuality through her relationships, West was free to push the censorship rules in this area as much as any other. What has struck me most about Mae West, more so than her youthful sensuality, was the fact that she remained sexy right up until her death at 87. Some may look at this with a cynical eye, but let the former Mr California toy boy she lived with until the end stand as proof that she did not allow her age to dampen her spirits. Billy Wilder, having attempted to cast West as an older woman, soon learnt his lesson, claiming that you “only had to talk to her to find out that she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she had ever been”. She may not have maintained her sexual appeal in the same form in which she possessed it when she was young, but Mae West should inspire us to feel sexy despite those saggy bits, reminding us that it is only when we give up on our sexuality that others do. Mae West was a risqué pioneer, a woman willing to upset the authorities for the sake of making people laugh. She was a sex symbol and a star, her name used to this day as a euphemism for breasts, her lips immortalised by Dali, proud of her body right to the end with no man allowed to own or define her sexuality. More than this, however, West had her head screwed on. She took on the business of show and carved out a rather substantial place for herself in the world. No one is perfect, and as she said herself, she was “no model lady. A model’s just an interpretation of the real thing”, she had her flaws, her difficulties, her wobbly bits, and yet she stands iconic in history. Mae west is inspiration for all those of us who want to defy expectations, reach the top, be in control of our sexuality, and do it all to a hearty round of applause. By Jessica Bird

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