B orn Helen Louise Leonard, she changed her name upon entering show business in 1879. She was considered by many "a transcendent national beauty" (Fields 1999: 216) and was one of the first modern "celebrities" whose image so captivated the public that they wished to emulate her. In fact, her photograph was so prized that early manufacturers of mass-produced tobacco products included them as an attraction in the 1890s. Russell, however, was so appalled by this use of her likeness that she went to court to prevent her image being given away "to induce customers to purchase boxes of cigars and packages of chewing and smoking tobacco" (Fields 1999: 67). What made Russell unique as a beauty may, however, surprise contemporary readers.
Russell was corpulent: her weight topped at i60 pounds over her lifetime, but she was referred to in the public press as the "American Beauty," the title of one of her hit musicals. In fact, young women coveted her looks so much that they padded their clothes in order to look more "well rounded" like the actress. In contrast to today's desire to be ever thinner, girls of Lillian Russell's era frantically wrote to the Ladies' Home Journal for weight-gain advice in order to more closely resemble her. In the 1890s, plumper bodies were not only considered fashionable, they were considered a symbol of success.
Russell was also an advocate of the health benefits of bicycle riding. When she was given one of the first "modern" bicycles, gold-plated nonetheless, by "Diamond Jim" Brady in 1895, she rode it all over New York and was regularly interviewed about its health benefits. Riding a bicycle was a sign of liberation, health, and temperance, as the anti-alcohol spokesperson Frances E. Willard noted in her A Wheel within a Wheel, or How I learned to Ride a Bicycle. To ride it she wore a "split-skirt," one of the reform clothing innovations, which made it possible for women to ride a bicycle without being indecent. It quickly became a national fad because she wore it (Fields 1999: 104). Despite riding, her friend Brady was infamous as a gourmand, eating huge meals, and Russell joined him regularly in these fourteen-course extravaganzas, "pounds and pounds . . . accumulating on her already stuffed figure" (Morell 1940: 172). Her hourglass figure, she believed, would never go out of style (Morell 1940: 172). Yet, the New York Journal commented "she has no beauty below the chin ... and moves with the soft heaviness of a nice white elephant" (Morell 1940: 185). After the introduction at the same time of Charles Dana Gibson's (1867-1944) tall, slim-hipped "Gibson Girls," Russell realized that riding her bicycle was a means of weight control.
After 1912, she wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Herald, as well as other newspapers, providing beauty tips for women. She lectured widely on health and exercise with a talk entitled "How to Live 100 Years." In Chicago she was hailed as "the priestess of the art of living sanely, correctly, and preserving health and beauty" (Fields 1999: 180). But still "the living, breathing Lillian was at all times a cure for sore eyes," according to the New York Sun (Fields 1999: 181). Russell remained an icon of beauty even as she aged.
She was considered an expert in this field because she was, for her generation, deemed the feminine ideal incarnate. In addition to acting as an ambassador of celebrity debutantes in her column, Russell discussed women's health, love, and, most provocatively, women's suffrage, a cause to which her mother had been devoted. After World War I broke out, she was a recruiter for the Marine Corps and raised money for the American Legion. In 1922, she acted as a special investigator on immigration for President Warren G. Harding in Europe. After her death, she was buried with full military honors because of her contributions to the war effort.
See also Smoking
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