The “ugliest woman in the world” visits New York

PolairecolorAlgerian-born Emilie Marie Bouchard, who went by the provocative stage name Polaire (“pole star”), was a sensation in the dance halls and theaters of France in the 1890s.

Decked out in black eye makeup, a nose ring, and corsets that gave her an incredible 15-inch waist, she earned praise for her exotic looks and talent.

But during a concert tour through New York in 1910, she was given a cruel sobriquet.

“Very unfairly and inaccurately, Willie Hammerstein [son of Oscar] billed Polaire as ‘the ugliest woman in the world’ and offered prizes to women who, with the aid of corsets, could beat Polaire’s 15-inch waist,” states The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.

Polaire“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.”

On the other hand, perhaps Polaire was in on the joke.

A 1910 New York Times article states that she “frankly admits that she’s the ugliest woman in the world” and goes on to explain that her popularity “is said to be based on her willingness to accentuate her ugliness” by highlighting her long neck and “protruding” lips.

Whether the description helped or hurt her in New York is uncertain. Polaire’s run here appeared to be a success, and she returned to Manhattan at least once more, in 1913, before her popularity waned by World War I.

Here’s a 1923 recording of her singing a very catchy French song called “Tchique Tchique.”

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6 Responses to “The “ugliest woman in the world” visits New York”

  1. Undine Says:

    “Ugly” is going to far, but judging by those photos, she would make an excellent villainness in some Disney cartoon.

  2. Lily Says:

    I don’t find her ugly but that waist, especially in the second photo, is disturbing! Yikes, not sure how she could breath & hate to think what was going on internally to wear that tiny corset.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    It’s hard to look at without wincing. I don’t know how she was able to sing in that thing!

  4. Lorraine Says:

    I love this blog! “The more things change the more they stay the same.” It’s somehow comforting to know that Madonna and Lady Gaga (both known for their ability to shock – think “Sex” and meat dress) had predecessors in generations past. Human nature (and that includes the nature of the audience) can be remarkably consistent through the centuries.That said the extreme corseting of Mlle Bouchard’s waist is truly disturbing. There is no doubt that she must have suffered terribly from that self-inflicted deformation (whether she admitted it or not).

  5. quotidianhudsonriver Says:

    Reblogged this on The Quotidian Hudson and commented:
    More from Ephemeral New York with fun, odd, unknown, New York tales

  6. ATH Says:

    Perhaps she is one of the women I have occasionally read about who had ribs surgically removed, the better to achieve the waist.
    It’s ghastly, but so are the spheroids our contemporary female entertainers wear.
    As always, I love this blog. And I think she has a beautiful face.

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