America gave birth to the popular stereotype of the bosomy dumb blonde through the likes of Marie Wilson and Dagmar. But it was a British bombshell known as Sabrina who carried the image to its ultimate extension, and indeed epitomised the absurd and wonderful sex symbols of the 1950s.
Everything about Sabrina was manufactured - her heavy makeup, platinum hair, long eyelashes, and stop-at-nothing publicity. Everything, that is, except one of the most extraordinary figures (41-19-36) ever immortalized by pinup photographers. In the absence of any known ability other than a genius for self-promotion, she came to rely entirely upon these remarkable attributes for her fame and fortune. They proved sufficient to make her a phenomenon that could not have occurred in any other decade.
From Invalid to Blonde Bombshell
Norma Ann Sykes was born in approximately 1936 in the northern industrial town of Blackpool.
[Not quite: she was born in Stockport and later moved to Blackpool as a teenager - Ed.]
A junior swimming champion at the age of twelve, young Norma was subsequently struck by polio and was hospitalized for two years in Manchester. A leg operation nearly proved serious enough to require amputation; doctors feared she would be crippled for life. But she gritted her teeth and embarked on a stringent regimen of exercise.
Once back on her feet, the newly blossomed sixteen-year-old set out for London. After working for a time as a waitress, Norma decided to give cheesecake modeling a try. Initially rejected by Britain's foremost glamour photographers for being too voluptuous, her fortunes changed after a diet that resulted in a wasplike waist. Very quickly, the teenager's curves, classically British peaches-and-cream complexion, and natural beauty made her a popular model for the pocket-sized men's magazines widely distributed in England during this period such as Spick and Span.
It was in January 1955 that the famous British comedian Arthur Askey opened the door to stardom for Norma. He needed a stunning girl to appear on his TV show Before Your Very Eyes, and later related the dream he had of an unbelievably voluptuous blonde who was destined to fulfil this role. When his press agent brought Norma to his attention on the cover of the magazine Picture Post, he quickly realized that she was the dream come to life. She was hired before even meeting the comedian. Askey dubbed her Sabrina - no last name - after a seventeenth-century poem by Milton and the Audrey Hepburn movie character of the same name.
Askey's gimmick for his new blonde was an old-time burlesque routine: every time she would open her mouth to speak, the band would begin playing, the stagehands would start to loudly shift the scenery props, etc. The night before her debut, the press coverage of the new celebrity brought interest to a fever pitch. Never before had a girl been allowed to show cleavage on British television. It was a taboo that was now shattered with a vengeance.
One magazine described her initial appearance: "The cameras explored her development from neck to navel. What wasn't fully exposed was wrapped so tightly that every luscious line was displayed to best advantage." The BBC was flooded with phone calls and letters in the next few days, and officials quickly "began measuring her for even more revealing gowns."
During a sixteen-week stint that proved to be a popular sensation, Sabrina never uttered a word on the television show; as she pouted innocently, the camera would zoom in on her mighty bosom, while Askey made subtle jokes about her none-too-subtle frame. For the British public, the name "Sabrina" would soon become synonymous with the word bosom.
Almost overnight, Sabrina was receiving a thousand fan letters a week. When she showed up to ceremonially open a Sheffield hardware store in February 1956, four thousand people turned out to see her, resulting in a massive traffic jam. It turned into a near-riot when her dress strap broke.
Throughout 1955 and 1956, rarely did more than a few days go by in which Sabrina went unmentioned in the London press.
One of the subjects of media attention was the forty-thousand- pound insurance policy she took out with Lloyd's of London on her forty-one-inch bust. Specifically, the policy promised payment of roughly seven thousand dollars for every inch lost from her bosom - but stipulated that she could not claim for inches lost due to "civil war, invasion or nationalization."
"But I'll never collect," she confided to a newspaper columnist. Why not? She leaned forward and whispered: "I'm growing bigger and bigger. You can tell the world I'm 42 inches now!"
Sabrina told another interviewer that I'm using my bosom to move on to bigger and better things." As one wag commented, all of this served to prove that "inches are a girl's best friend!"
With John E. Keevil Insurance Agent
A little scandal is always helpful in the making of a sex symbol, and Sabrina's came not long after her explosion on the national scene. It came to light that during her early struggling period, she had posed for a few nude stills that turned up on a set of sexy playing cards. The squatting nude profile that graced the five of spades in this series soon became a collector's item when Sabrina personally destroyed as many copies as she could find in London shops.
"I was only a kid of 16 when those photos were taken," she explained to a Scotland Yard investigator after her rampage. "I was not going to admit defeat to my parents and ask them for train fare home."
A bit exasperated by the overwhelming attention being attracted by the apparently talentless blonde, Askey gave Sabrina her release. "It looks as though I'm stuck with a Frankenstein monster," he commented. Undaunted, she made the first in a series of motion picture appearances, most relatively brief and forgettable, and "performed" in London music halls.
Her first stage appearances came in a sixteen-week variety tour right after the TV series ended, and despite the fact that Sabrina was top billed she had little to do other than stand around decoratively while comedians hurled out jokes built around her.
However, she soon had the opportunity to show off what she had learned in singing lessons. While her voice was nothing to write home about, she offered up mildly suggestive numbers like "Ready, Willing and Able" and "After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It" in whispery Monroe fashion. When she was the guest of honor at the Savoy Luncheon at the Variety Club of Great Britain, it was announced: "GREAT NEWS OF 1956- SABRINA SPEAKS!"
Her motion picture debut, Stock Car, was a bitter disappointment. "I was furious," she told one publication. "It was my first chance in British pictures and they dubbed a harsh Cockney voice in for my own. I really tried to get a part in this film and it just fell flat." Sabrina's next film, Rashbottom Rides Again, reunited her with Arthur Askey, as did the 1957 movie comedy Make Mine a Million. The roles were small, and the pictures were not successful.
As "Britain's answer to Jayne Mansfield," Sabrina never passed up an opportunity for publicity, and rarely turned away a photographer looking for cheesecake poses. Her automobile license plate - "S 41" - called attention to her most renowned attribute.
After those teenaged nude poses, Sabrina was no longer willing to reveal all, but she was more than happy to pose in negligees with plunging necklines ("She always suggests that she bend down," noted a photographer) and tight sweaters.
Russ Meyer was one of the photographers to capture her form for posterity on more than one occasion, and he says today he was never particularly impressed by her. Sabrina "wasn't really a big girl," he recalls. "She was concerned about Eve's [Russ's buxom blonde wife] bustline. She was a rather dull girl. very taken with her own importance."
This is consistent with the recollection of pinup legend June Wilkinson, who was a friend of Sabrina's during those early days. "I liked Sabrina, she was always nice to me," says June. I remember that she had a favorite trick of using a special tape measure. She had a tiny waist anyway, but this tape measure exaggerated her bust measurement and gave her a smaller waist because it had longer inches on one side and shorter on the other. Very clever!"
Sabrina's feelings of frustration with her career in England were symbolized by her self-generated rivalry with Diana Dors. Sabrina made a point of driving a converted Cadillac that was a foot longer than Diana's, making it "the longest vehicle on British roads." Since Sabrina's bosom was allegedly some six inches larger than Diana's thirty-five-inch bust, she also took it upon herself to personally mail out eight-by-ten photos of her torso as compared to her rival's to prove the point to the press. One publication declared an appropriate epitaph for her campaign: "Di Dors has more talent in her little finger than Sabrina does in her bra cups!"
In 1958, Sabrina starred in the London revue Pleasures of Paris. It proved to be an excellent vehicle for her particular talents, and she went on to tour with the show for a year in Australia. By this time, Sabrina decided she had gone about as far as she could go in British show business. So she packed her bags and set out to conquer the world at large.
America and the World
Believing she had been discarded by the British press and show business as a cheap novelty, Sabrina made her way to America in late 1958, preceded by a number of girlie-mag appearances. The forty-minute cabaret show she performed in Manhattan's Latin Quarter drew a promising early response. She sang sexy ballads, joked about her famous anatomic assets, and took part in skits with stand-up comedians. Her cabaret show went on to tour in over thirty states. "The people here respect me as a performer," she declared. "I'm not just known as, you know - a bosom."
Her most significant motion picture appearance came in 1958 with the British comedy hit Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, starring Terry Thomas and Alastair Sim. As one of the sexy madcap girls at St. Trinian's who wins a trip to Europe, she and her pals embark upon a fast-paced slapstick adventure involving a diamond heist. Her first American film, the memorably titled Satan in High Heels, featuring voluptuous U.S. star Meg Myles, was heavily publicized but failed commercially, although it has earned a cult audience in subsequent years. As usual, Sabrina appeared as herself, performing a song in a nightclub.
Sabrina headed south in 1960 and found a most receptive audience in Cuba. By press accounts, she apparently took the country by storm -including its new revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, who found time to show her some of Havana's famed sights. The trip proved so successful that American promoters who had previously snubbed her were suddenly forwarding new offers. "Who says I've gone bust?" she proclaimed to reporters.
After having been away for four years, Sabrina, her measurements now improbably reported as 42-18-35, made a widely heralded return to London in 1963. She made TV appearances (including a reunion with Askey) and performed in nightclubs, once again playing the breathy-voiced dumb blonde joking about her assets.
She and Askey also performed a skit at the Royal Variety Show. In December 1964, a worldwide search for a bosomy successor to June Wilkinson (who was leaving to make a movie) in the bedroom-comedy stage hit Pajama Tops ended in the selection of Sabrina. But it soon became apparent that when it came to theatrical comedy talent, Sabrina did not quite measure up to her old friend and rival, and the show quickly closed.
Sabrina hit the road again, with a tour of Europe and Australia. She became a particular favorite Down Under, appearing regularly on television as the Caltex Oil girl. By the end of 1965, she had settled down to stay in the United States.
In August 1966. Sabrina starred in Rattle of a Simple Man at the Ivar Theater in Los Angeles. This play had been preceded by an eastern-U.S. tour with The Loving Couch. In an interview at the time. she showed her sense of perspective about a most unusual career. "I've never taken myself seriously. I've always been content to be the dumb blonde of the BBC. It's a bit of a giggle for me to take on this part because I'm not an actress at all."
The curtain did not close on one of the most curious of all show business careers until later that year. when Sabrina was top billed in a cheap exploitation movie called The Ice House. The film depicted a psycho killer who strangles a succession of beauties who gave him the cold shoulder. encasing them in a meat freezer. The picture was placed in cold storage for three years until a limited release in 1969.
In December 1967, Sabrina announced that she had married Dr. Harry Melsheimer, a wealthy Hollywood plastic surgeon.
"He's tall, dark and handsome... We're very much in love," she said happily. Sabrina and her new husband settled down in Encino, California. Looking back on her career in the 1970s, she remarked: "I always enjoyed singing and dancing, but really I never took myself seriously as a performer. Neither did the public, not to mention producers and casting directors. They usually reviewed my figure and not the performance. I was frustrated and eventually got fed up with the whole thing."
In one last hurrah as an entertainer. Sabrina made a special return appearance to England in 1974 for Arthur Askey's This Is Your Life. Unfortunately, married life back in California proved less enduring than her career, and the Melsheimers divorced around 1980.
In the final analysis, it can fairly be said that Sabrina was "all sizzle and no steak." But for a time, that sizzle alone was oh so tantalizing. I can't dance. I can't sing. And I can't act," she once candidly admitted, shrugging her beautiful shoulders. Whatever Sabrina may have lacked in ability, she more than compensated for as a delightfully goofy symbol of a bosom-addled age.
|From "Bombshells" - Glamour Girls of a Lifetime - by Steve Sullivan, St Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998|
|Mr Sullivan credits "British collector Neil Kendall for his contributions regarding Sabrina."|
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