In the late 19th century, tiny corseted waists on were all the rage. Women used a technique called “tightlacing,” where they tied their corsets so tight that their waists shrunk down to sizes that were so small, it’s hard to believe they were able to move. One Algerian-born woman, by the name of Emilie Marie Bouchau, was well known for her famously small waist. Bouchau also went by the stage name “Polaire” (“Pole Star”) and it was reported that her waist circumference was no greater than 16 inches.
While today this look would be considered odd, Polaire earned praise for her exotic looks that consisted of black eye makeup, a nose ring, and a 15-inch waist.
After years of being praised for her talent and looks, Polaire received a cruel label while she was touring through New York in 1910. Willie Hammerstein, (son of Oscar) started calling Polaire “the ugliest woman in the world,” and took it a step further by challenging women to try and beat Polaire’s 15-inch waist. He even offered prizes up to those who could shrink their waists even smaller then Polaire’s.
The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville stated the following regarding the harsh nickname…
“In hindsight, it is difficult to comprehend how an actress noted in France for her beauty could be billed as ugly in the United States, but the description appears to have been based in large part on Polaire’s wearing a ring in her nose, a novelty with which American audiences were unfamiliar.”
But, according to a New York Times article, Polaire was in on the joke and she admitted that she was the ugliest woman in the world. She even went on to share that her popularity is said to be based on her willingness to accentuate her ugliness by highlighting her long neck and protruding lips.
Regardless of whether the label helped her or hurt her in New York, her run was a success and she ended up coming back to Manhattan in 1913 for another performance. Her popularity ended up waning by the time World War I started.
As they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Commenters shared their opinions on the photos…
“Some of the photographs look retouched to me–although she has a remarkably small waist, which is clear in the photograph where she’s holding a rose, in the second photograph, you can see a shadow that looks like more of a bust and waist to the left side of the figure. Some of the other more extreme ones also look as if they have possibly been retouched.”
“In the 2nd photograph, the shadow you talk about is her bust. The photo wasn’t retouched. And, the pic with her behind the rose is also her bust. You must remember that photography, back in the day, was not as tack sharp as it is today. I’ve looked at every photograph and none of them seem to be retouched.”
“A for-real sideshow freak, for sure, but I wouldn’t call her ugly.”
“Proportions similar to Barbie.”