The 2010s saw the rise of social medial celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Bella Thorne, and Kim Kardashian. These savvy businesswomen have monetized their beauty, recognizing that their talents lie not in the traditional arts (drama, music, criticism) nor even the practical arts (as with, say, Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray). Instead, they have used social media and reality television to stimulate fandom and make millions.
One would be mistaken, though, to assume that these were the first generation of beauties to create careers based on the crafty distribution of their images. Nor is this the first generation to be accused of having a narcissistic preoccupation with their own images.
A century and a half before Tana, Kim, and Kylie snapchatted, tweeted, or posted anything onto Instagram, “professional beauties” of the Victorian era were using the social media of their day to transform themselves into celebrities. By staging public appearances and endorsing products, women of otherwise dubious talent were able to ditch their stodgy husbands and support themselves as they traveled the world and collected lovers.
Take Lillie Langtry, for example—the Scarlett Johansson of her day. In 1876, Lillie Langtry arrived in London from Jersey (the Channel island, not the state) as a nobody with a single dress. But by using the social media of the era—photography, painting, poetry, gossip, and the newspapers—she skyrocketed to celebrity and the high life, even becoming the Prince of Wales’ mistress for years.
As with Johansson, fascination with Langtry stemmed not from her acting acumen but from her looks and her love life. Nicknamed “the Jersey Lily,” Langtry became famous for being famous, leveraging public fascination to get stage roles, establish a touring company, and purchase lavish properties in the U.S. and Monaco.
The 19th-century forerunners of Snapchat and Instagram were called cartes-de-visite: 2.5 x 4 inch photographs mass-produced by the millions in photographers’ studios and widely circulated, becoming a global craze in the 1850s and ’60s. People collected these miniature photographs, traded them, displayed them, sold albums to hold them, and copied them. Cartes-de-visite, named in France after the formal visiting cards that they replaced, flew back and forth through a postal service that delivered mail multiple times a day, and became the bases of illustrations published in periodicals, advertisements, and artwork. A new photograph of Lillie Langtry, or other PBs (professional beauties) of the day, displayed in the window of a photographer’s studio generated crowds in the street.
Cartes-de-visite were not like passport photos. Savvy actresses and dancers carefully planned what they would wear, any props they might hold, and chose backdrops that complemented their personalities or current stage roles. Fans collected portraits of politicians, athletes, and worshipped the goddesses of the stage or music hall. Langtry basked in the public’s adoration even as she suffered from the comments of haters and trolls. One tabloid slut-shamed her in 1879, saying that she could not claim that there was anything legit in posing in “suggestive attitudes, to leer and wink and simulate smiles that can only be ranked one degree beneath lewdness.” The unnamed reporter continued:
"The daughter of a family who certainly cannot rank with the old and stable nobility of our country has, by some means, been raised to a fictitious popularity by means of the photographers’ camera and lens, and for what purpose? To be exposed in the window of shops with her name attached to the picture… to give ‘Arry and Hedward an opportunity of passing indecent remarks about her, and to disgust all respectable thinking women at the public exhibition she makes of her charms."
It sounds like she would have broken the internet had there been one. But actually, when we look at Langtry’s pictures today, tame by our standards, we can’t help responding to this writer, as Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan) might have: You need to calm down.
Pre-digital Gen Xers may characterize selfie culture as narcissistic, but millennials’ preoccupation with self-portraiture is nothing new. Selfie photographers might be interested in the case of Virginia Oldoini, an Italian countess who amassed an unusual collection of self-portraits and bedded the French Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s.
As with Lillie Langtry and other women of ambition in the 19th century, “the only portfolio Virginia had was her looks. Both Virginia and Lillie used beauty and fashion to gain entry to a glamorous elite. Having been denied schooling owing to their sex, these women surprised the elites of London and Paris with their wit and intelligence. George Bernard Shaw commented of Langtry, “She has no right to be intelligent, daring, and independent as well as lovely.” We might be surprised to learn, likewise, that Kim Kardashian is studying to pass the bar.
For Oldoini and Langtry, rocky affairs, divorces, and the losing game of female aging dogged their trajectories, but while the countess died depressed and alone in 1899, Langtry was celebrated in Britain and America for her Shakespearian and comedic stage roles, her extravagant investments, and her love life. She earned money by endorsing soap and wine from her own California vineyard (Scarlett has slung makeup, perfume, handbags, and more). Her autobiography was published in 1925. And for that matter, time has been kinder to Oldoini than her contemporaries were: her 433 selfies, staged with the help of Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, have been digitized by the Met.
Dr. Nicole Hudgins is an associate professor of history at the University of Baltimore. Her new book is called The Gender of Photography: How Masculine and Feminine Values Shaped Nineteenth Century Photography (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).