Dead Cool: Madame Blavatsky

Fabulous lunatic Madame Blavatsky was a con artist, a mystic, and the founder of the Theosophist Society. Simon Doonan says she’s just the woman we need at the start of a new decade.

Mary Evans Picture Library/Everett Collection

2010? What fresh hell will the next decade bring? Don’t give yourself a bloody migraine trying to predict the future scandals and slut-fests. Simply join hands with the living and summon up the spirit of Madame Blavatsky!

Fantasist, fabulist, spiritualist, Theosophist and all-round bullshit artist, Madame Blavatsky was as savvy as L. Ron Hubbard and as batty as Anne Heche, circa 2001. Born in the Ukraine in 1831, Helena Petrovna Hahn inherited a vivid imagination from her romance novelist mother and a massively bossy disposition from her colonel dad. Tantrum-prone and suffering from delusions of wizardry, little Helena wielded power over the local serfs by claiming to control "the Russalkas," the malevolent green-haired nymphs who populated the Russian countryside. In a gesture that recalls the evil daughter in the movie The Bad Seed, little Helena unleashed the Russalkas upon an adversarial playmate, commanding them to tickle him to death. He drowned the same day.

The next time you are downward dogging, give a thought to that ballsy broad from the Ukraine. Give her spirit a shout out or two.

Though she may have had special powers, she was no looker. This did not, however, stop her from snagging, at the age of 17, an older geezer named Blavatsky. Together they embarked upon a 10-year, life-changing, mystical globe trot-athon. Accounts vary as to what Madame B. was up to during this period. She claimed she was riding circus horses, fighting wars, and penetrating Tibetan spirituality. Others claim she was grifting her way round the globe and learning the magical tricks which would soon catapult her to lucrative spiritual superstardom. Either way, Madame returned from her travels with the creepy ability to do crazy shit like levitating tables, producing rapping noises in remote parts of her house, causing pianos to tinkle in empty rooms and calling the wind to blow out oil lamps. Always useful.

In 1873 she packed up her bag of tricks and sailed to New York City, where she basically invented the whole notion of contemporary “spirituality” and became the superstar clairvoyant du jour. A chunky white Slavic version of the Whoopi Goldberg character in the movie Ghost, she tapped into the Victorian obsession with death and all things ghostly and made a bang-up career for herself.

In 1875 she founded the now-famous Theosophist Society, a universal fraternity devoted to unleashing the latent woo-woo potential of the human race which is still active today. Spiritual authority came to Madame via dead holy men, "The Mahatmas," via whom she channeled massive unreadable texts which she published as Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, among others. She was anti-science: Attendees to Madame Blavatsky’s séances and soirees were treated to the sight of a taxidermied baboon lurking in the entryway clutching a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

At various points in her career, she was busted for fakery and for plagiarism. Her worst moment came when some associates, a Mr. and Mrs. Coulomb, ratted on her, revealing all the trap-door tricks of her side-show Mahatmas and her “apparitions.”

The cool thing about La Blavatsky was not the fact that she made a living scaring the crap out of people by pretending to bring their relatives back from the dead. No, the cool thing is that, along with all the creepy bonkers extortionate stuff, Madame B and her Theosophism propelled groovy new concepts like racial equality and brotherly love into the brutality of the Victorian Imperialist Industrialist Age. She also popularized ideas about karma and positive thinking and—hello!—YOGA!

The next time you are downward dogging, give a thought to that ballsy broad from the Ukraine. Give her spirit a shout out or two. Caution: If you fail to respect Madame B, her ghost may rise from the grave and command the Russalkas to tickle you to death!

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Writer, fashion commentator and window-dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative Simon Says column in The New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks , a memoir entitled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide entitled Eccentric Glamour to be published in paperback in mid-April. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People . A comedy TV series, Beautiful People , produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.