Like any other young girl growing up, I looked up to Marilyn Monroe as the idol of beauty. Her perfect hair, her perfect smile, her soft voice, that sense of mystery her eyes reflected. She was the essence of what being a woman meant, all bottled up into one perfect looking model of femininity.
I never thought much about the influence Marilyn Monroe had on my definition of femininity until I had a photography job at a Marilyn Monroe spa. I was there to photograph the opening of this new spa location, and between the guests, the food, the drinks and the music just like in Susan Vega’s song, Marilyn’s face watched us from the walls. I was drawn into her photographs, all beautiful, perfectly depicting this ideal symbol of femininity. As oppose to my childhood when I only saw her outer beauty, now the mystery in her eyes pulled me in. It was almost like she was asking me to come in behind the perfect façade and meet the real Marilyn Monroe.
Just as I was thinking that, Marilyn in the flesh came walking out into the spa, working the crowds, her presence so strong everyone stopped what they were doing to follow her outside and watch her perform “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” to the delight of the audience.
I have seen a few Marilyn impersonators over my career, but nothing like the quality Kelley, this Marilyn, brought to the most famous sex symbol in the world. It was as if she was channeling the real Marilyn. Right then and there I knew I wanted to get her into my photography studio for a photo shoot.
Having no idea of what I was going to do or what I wanted to photograph, when Kelley agreed to come to the studio I started researching Marilyn Monroe.
Knowing that before she was Marilyn Monroe she was Norma Jean. I searched to see what Norma Jean looked like. Coming across one of her earlier photographs, there she was: young, happy – and with a head full of brown curls, a cute smile revealing teeth that are not so perfect and playfully holding a camera. She looked nothing like Marilyn Monroe. She looked like, well, many cute Jewish girls next door, and could easily be mistaken for one of them. In fact, she reminded me of someone. Me. She reminded me of myself when I was 15. Before my TV show at 16. Before I became known. It was unbelievable, and made me even more curious about the mystery behind those eyes of the iconic Marilyn – how did she go from Norma Jean to being the world’s most known sex symbol?
First thing I learned is that the name Marilyn Monroe was given to her by the studios. In fact, when she first took on the name she had to ask how to spell it when she had to sign autographs. That tidbit of knowledge made me smile. Amusing enough as it is, it’s even funnier as I cannot seem to be able to spell the name Marilyn Monroe either. Every time I type it into this blog article the red spell check lines appear. On the other hand the name Norma Jean comes out naturally.
While researching online I came across a series of black and white photographs that stood out from the rest of the glamorized Marilyn Monroe photos. It was a black and white series shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt – the legendary life magazine photographers. Captured in 1953 at Marilyn’s back yard. As only good photographers can do in these photographs Alfred created portraits of her soul. Marilyn, wearing a black turtle neck, seems comfortable in her own skin. These are the only photos I ever seen of her looking real. Vulnerable. And a little sad. These are the only photos I ever seen of Marilyn where I could see Norma Jean’s soul reflected through her eyes.
I knew that is what I wanted to capture in my studio. I called Kelley and asked her to bring nothing but a black turtle neck.
When Kelley sat in front of my camera, Marilyn wig on and the black turtle neck, we started talking about Marilyn.
It was incredible to watch how our conversation was bringing Marilyn to life through Kelley right in front of my camera. Being the committed professional that she is, and such a sensitive soul, Kelley was able to follow my directions and at one point of the shoot I felt like it was Marilyn herself sitting in front of me, reminiscing on her days as Norma Jean.
She told me that despite her world fame she was always very lonely. She told me about people she trusted manipulating and using her to their benefit. She told me how she had no idea she was going to become so famous, as no other actress before her ever got to be sp famous, and she felt she was not truly prepared for the pressures that came with the fame.
That venerability, that sadness in her eyes that Alfred caught so many years ago – there it was in her eyes reflecting through my lens. We did it Kelley and me – we brought Norma Jean back to life.
I was a little embarrassed, but share with Kelley that the night before the shoot I dreamed about Marilyn. I don’t remember my dreams often, but this one was clear and concise. Marilyn said to me: “You and I have more In common than you think”. In my dream I looked at her puzzled, “Really?” I asked. She just smiled her mysterious smile and shook her head yes. “You’ll find out” she said.
Kelley and I looked at each other shaking our heads; we didn’t know what it could be. We laughed it off and kept photographing. Only later, when we were almost done with the shoot Kelley said: “You know, she really just wanted to be a mother. She had to get abortions 6 times. All the other actresses did as well back then, because they were considered to be owned by the studios. When she was finally ready to get pregnant her body couldn’t hold the pregnancy.” I was tearing up behind the camera. There it was. The answer to my dream, Marilyn was right, I did find out what we had in common. I never imagined her wanting to be mother, as many people who meet me can’t imagine I never became a mother because I could not, not because I didn’t want to.
As we were wrapping up Kelley told me how when Marilyn died she still owed money on her house. It seemed everyone was making money on the iconic Marilyn – except her. “But she was just starting to take control of her own life” said Kelley “right before she died she started making changes, she started planning her future and deciding what to do next that would benefit her first. And then she was found dead.”
I named this blog post “I Am Norma Jean” in honor of this strong, uncompromising woman. This woman who until recently, like the rest of the world, I could only see her outer beauty. Thinking forward, my wish is that every young woman who finds out about the iconic Marilyn Monroe – is also taught about Norma Jean. Norma Jean, the face behind the façade. The lonely soul that just wanted to be loved. The woman who came from nothing, took her destiny in her own hands and despite her fears – kept bettering herself. Learning from her mistakes and making changes as she was walking life’s path. Because without Norma Jean – who she was, her personality, and the actions she took – Marilyn Monroe would not exist.
- We are currently looking for a space to exhibit these portraits seen here and more from the photo project “I Am Norma Jean. If you are interested in sponsoring the exhibit please contact Rinat at firstname.lastname@example.org.