How one early 20th-century performer defanged her fat-shamers
Amy Schumer's recent film "I Feel Pretty" takes on the outsize role body weight and physical attractiveness play in self-esteem. The only way for a woman to feel comfortable above a size zero, the film seems to be saying, is to be knocked unconscious and magically wake up with a newfound sense of confidence.
This dynamic, unfortunately, has been playing out for decades. But as I explain in my new biography, "Red Hot Mama," one overweight woman who rose to fame in the 1920s - singer and comedienne Sophie Tucker - was at the forefront of pushing back against her critics and championing her fuller figure.
Dreams of the big stage
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish in 1886 to Jewish parents in what is present-day Ukraine. Persecution of Jews in the late 19th Century led her family to flee for the U.S., where they settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and operated a kosher restaurant.
As a child, Tucker would entertain patrons by singing. Popular vaudevillians and Yiddish performers, from Bertha Kalich to Jacob Adler, dined at the restaurant and would critique Tucker's performances and dispense advice.
While honing her craft, Tucker decided she wanted to be a star and was determined to move to New York. But Tucker wasn't like most young starlets of the time. By the time she was 13, she weighed 145 pounds. And conforming to the pressures most Jewish daughters faced at the turn of the century, she ended up getting married and having a baby boy in her late teens.
Still, she craved a career as a headliner.
When she was around the age of 20, Tucker left her husband and child, moved to New York and slowly worked her way up. Told by one manager that she was too "fat and ugly" to perform as herself, she, like many of the era's Jewish entertainers, began her career in blackface.
But audiences loved her, and over time impresarios such as Florenz Ziegfeld noticed her. She shed her blackface and started performing the latest hits of famous songwriter Irving Berlin, getting gigs at vaudeville's leading theaters under the guidance of her agent, William Morris.
'I don't want to lose weight'
Tucker was initially insecure about her looks. Noticing audiences lavishing praise on slender starlets like Lillian Lorraine, Tucker wondered if she was simply "a big gal with a big voice ... miles away from making any impression."
Yet she realized that because she was not traditionally beautiful, she could get away with a candor that other women could not. While her routines contained bawdy tales of sex and romance, she also incorporated material about her weight. As she proclaimed in her 1929 recording, "I Don't Want to Get Thin,"
"I don't want to lose weight / The boys tell me I'm great / And my sweetheart loves me just the way I am."
As her weight became a part of her signature brand, famous figures such as Eddie Cantor, George Jessel and Ed Sullivan would poke fun at both her stubbornness and her girth. Jessel, for example, once told an audience that "covering Sophie takes a lot of covering."
Tucker did more than just deflect the ridicule: She pushed women to defend their size.
In 1923, she wrote in the Los Angeles Times that she was hoping to organize a fat women's club, explaining that she wanted to help women "laugh and eat without feeling conscience stricken." For Tucker, members of her club simply had to swear to see the "beauty of a double chin."
She was keen to note that men loved her girth.
"All the married men who run after me have skinny wives at home," she assured listeners.
An unusual combination of maternal and sexy, Tucker was able to stay in the limelight for over five decades, moving through vaudeville, radio, movies, cabarets, Broadway and television. In 1952, she jokingly ran for president, doling out flyers and buttons to audiences. In her campaign song, "Sophie Tucker for President," she promised to be a champion for women:
"You men have been running the U.S.A. / For years you've had full sway / I think it's a crime and just about time / That we women had our way."
Tucker was no expert on relationships. Married and divorced three times, her romantic troubles were most likely connected to her fame, not her weight. Men found it difficult to cope with Tucker's success and ambition.
While Tucker used her divorces as part of her comedy routine, the "fat lady" jokes never disappeared. Famously, Paul McCartney declared in 1963 that the Beatles favorite group was "Sophie Tucker." Big enough to be deemed "a group," Tucker's figure was still a subject of derision - even when she was almost 80 years old.
Though Tucker's weight fluctuated throughout her life, she had the courage to defend her choice to defy an unattainable body type - a stance, it seems, that more and more women today are taking.
When a misguided fan recently assumed actress Drew Barrymore was expecting - and Barrymore pointedly responded, "I'm not pregnant, I'm fat" - we can hear the defiant ghost of Sophie Tucker.
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.