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The Lady Was a Vamp

January 11, 2021

Theda Bara and the Lasting Legacy of the Deep Red Lip

Vamp. Anyone remember the super dark lipstick trend from the 90s? Well, did you know the look traces its origins to a Jewish girl from Ohio who was turned into a sexy vampire?

When Theodosia Burr Goodman turned up at Fox Studios for a screen test in 1915, the publicity department took one look at her and knew they’d struck gold. “We had every type of woman except an Arabian,” William Fox later explained, so the studio “made up a story that Miss Goodman was born in Arabia.” Then it took Arab and spelled it backwards to make Bara and shortened her first name from Theodosia to Theda.

The newly christened Theda ran with it. “The Sahara Desert,” she answered when asked where she was born. When she first appeared before the press, she didn’t talk so as to make it seem she didn’t speak or even understand English.

Theda Bara
Bara in a still from the 1915 Broadway show Blue Flame

In a time when most American women still wore no visible cosmetics, makeup was a vital part of the ruse: kohl-rimmed eyes and dark, dark lips played up Theda’s feigned foreignness and amplified her sexual allure.

Women vampires, or vamps, had been a subject of fascination since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bara was the silent screen’s uber-vamp, sucking the life out of man after man–and consequently attracting scores of female fans and some 1000 marriage proposals.

As a make-up loving Middle Eastern woman (“Arabian type”?!) I don’t quite know what to make of all this, except that it had me reaching for my blackest eyeliner and very most vampish lipstick this morning. What do you think?