Hourglass Figures: Media Darlings/Targets Brenda Duff Frazier And Paris Hilton

by SUSANNAH LONG · April 21, 2010

Hush, you knew Paris Hilton was going to make an appearance in one of our Hourglass Figures features sooner or later. But we have a really good reason, promise. Three words: Brenda Duff Frazier.-

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Brenda Duff Frazier

June 9, 1921 – May 3, 1982

Aliases: Glamor Girl #1, Little Brenda

Brenda Duff Frazier was The American Debutante during the depression. Brenda was raised by a grandmother because of her parents' rampant alcoholism and vicious disputes - the two couldn't even agree on a name for their daughter, and so her mama called her "Little Brenda," and her papa called her "Diana."  Brenda's granny was a pathological social climber, and the girl spent her adolescence shuttling to every party her grandmama could find. Instructed to seek out photographers and pose as much as possible, Brenda was a full-fledged media star by the time she was a teenager, and her debut into society was as eagerly awaited as Britney Spears's 18th birthday.

Brenda's debut, 1938.

[Photo from New York Social Diary]

The coming out party itself was no picnic. Brenda suffered from stress-induced edema her entire life, and on the night of the ball her feet were badly swollen. To make matters worse, she was sniffling from a cold and running a fever. Who cares about that, though, when Brenda's debut made the cover of LIFE magazine?

Like many public figures, Brenda was a trendsetter. Her adoption of strapless gowns and of the "white face" look was a massive success: girls everywhere cast off their straps and sleeves and scrambled to copy her powdered skin, deep red lips, penciled eyebrows, and dark, smoothly styled hair. Brenda never abandoned her signature look. No reinvention for her! But beauty came at a price: she was plagued by neck pains and headaches from the rigid posture she maintained to prevent her hair from falling out of place.

As a young woman, Brenda's health was miserable, but she always looked glamorous. High five, Brenda!

More troublesome than health problems was the press's constant attention. They called Brenda a "Poor Little Rich Girl," dubbed her Glamour Girl #1, and coined the word "celebutante" just for her. Brenda was the paparazzi-hounded figurehead of"Publi-ciety," what the newspapers called the world of social rank, wealth, and media attention. Of course, Brenda courted news coverage herself, continuing to go to every event her grandmother shoved her way, and shooting ads for Woodbury Soap and Studebaker cars.

Brenda, as a true New Yorker, actually had no clue how to drive, but that didn't stop her from endorsing the Land Cruiser.

[Photo from Vintage Paper Ads]

Her grandmother was thrilled by Brenda's success, but other members of the family were more disapproving. Brenda's great-aunt, for example, lamented, "Brenda's being spoiled. I bemoan all this spectacular notoriety." In fact, Brenda had no real skills, and her later life was characterized by disappointment and loneliness. She found it hard to abandon her nights out at NYC's notorious El Morocco and the Stork Club, and even harder to shake her serious eating disorders. Two marriages (one to a footballer whose nickname was "Shipwreck," and one to a distant cousin of hers) ended in divorce, a lover was deported for brawling, and Brenda sunk into a hermit's life on Cape Cod.

In 1966, Diana Arbus shot a famous photograph of the faded socialite for Esquire magazine. In it, Brenda leans back in bed, weary and rough-looking, clutching a cigarette. The former Glamor Girl spent much of the remaining years of her life in that bed, smoking, popping pills, and sipping champagne. She died at age 60 from bone cancer.

[Photo originally printed in Esquire Magazine]

And now?

It's Paris Hilton FTW in terms of Brenda comparisons.

Brenda was raised in a Manhattan luxury hotel. Paris's clan owns luxury hotels. Brenda matriculated through tony NYC girls' schools. Paris attended Dwight (and then got her GED after dropping out, whatever). Like Brenda's gram, Paris's mom, Kathy, is a mega social climber - so much so that she hosted her own 2005 reality show, "I Want to Be a Hilton." However, it's undoubtedly Paris herself who has manipulated her own public image from an early age; despite her vapid image, she's far less passive than the young Brenda Frazier was.

In an echo of Brenda's aesthetic stasis, Paris's own style hasn't really changed in the time we've been bffs with her. She's still sticking close to the bleached blonde hair, heavy eye make-up, lots of skin, lots of glitter, and lots-lots-lots of pink that have become her signature. Furthermore, Paris has gone the Brenda marketing route and advertised Carl's Jr. burgers, although we doubt she eats them.

A still from the infamous Carl's Jr. writhe-fest; Paris's favored style.

Most significantly, Paris, like Brenda, has ushered in a new era of, well, publiciety. Was it really seven years ago that Miss Hilton's sex tape swamped the American zeitgeist? It seems like only yesterday that we watched nightvision footage and then tried to erase it from our browser history and our brains. Say what you will about her dating predilections, her questionable contributions to the cultural pantheon, and her kittenish voice, Paris has redefined how television and the media cover celebutantes. She's spawned Brenda Frazier-esque schadenfreude in the mainstream media, and has set the standard for reality shows. Without Brenda, there would be no Paris. And without Paris, there would be no Laguna Beach, no Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and, most terrible of all, no Living Lohan.

We're keeping our fingers crossed for you, Paris, especially since you've been lying semi-low recently. Don't take to your bed, and don't marry someone whose nickname is "Shipwreck." Also, take care of your health, dear. Like this:

You're not still doing that, right? We think that kid might have pinkeye. And you could get arrested. Again.