You may recall that in 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala celebrated all things camp (this was the year Jared Leto carried his own head as an accessory and Billy Porter arrived, swathed in gold sequins and actual wings, on a litter borne by six extremely muscular gentlemen). The accompanying exhibit attempted, in a mint-green text panel, to define the whole affair in the words of actress Mae West: “Camp,” she commented in 1971, “is the kinda comedy where they imitate me.”
West had good reason to say this. In the long arc of a career that went from vaudeville to 1980s B-movies, West was a hardworking actress who loved to push envelopes. From obscurity to fame, comeback to caricature, she spent decades delighting in the stylization, excess, and shock value of what we would come to know as camp culture.
Susan Sontag is largely credited with popularizing the phrase “camp” to describe the long-running cultural vogue for and fascination with things that are just a tiny bit extra; her proto-listicle “Notes on Camp” is an attempt to wrap arms around the cultural concept and its embrace of exaggerated artifice. Sontag, too, turns to Mae West as an example of camp well done, writing that while unwitting camp is the best kind, West could give something just as good—a performance that, “even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.”
Born in 1893, Mae West was performing in vaudeville by her teenage years. She debuted on Broadway as an eighteen-year-old dancer and hustled her way through various song-and-dance roles, becoming semi-famous for doing “the shimmy” in the Broadway revue Sometime. Still, by the 1920s, she was a theater veteran with little name recognition and few prospects.
To bring her career in line with her ambitions, West started writing plays herself. Cobbling together financing and theater rental, she put together a Broadway production, cast herself as the lead (a Montreal sex worker), and debuted it in 1926 under the rabble-rousing title: SEX. As historian Marybeth Hamilton writes,
The play was unanimously panned by New York’s theatre critics, all of whom predicted its immediate failure and some of whom called for police intervention. Yet despite this condemnation—or rather, no doubt, in part because of it—SEX became one of the major hits of the 1926 season, playing to mostly full houses until forced to close in March 1927.
That forced closure was the result of raid by the NYPD vice squad, thanks to which West was charged with obscenity and spent eight days in the women’s prison on Roosevelt Island—an event that, to West’s delight, only boosted her public profile. She continued to write boundary-pushing plays, centered on women’s sexuality and gay life. At a time when thin flappers and demure Ziegfeld girls were the fashion, West’s physicality and her embrace of burlesque tropes brought low-class entertainment onto high-class Broadway.
West took advantage of her own notoriety in her 1928 play Diamond Lil, sanding a few rough edges for the sake of public appeal. A vaudeville drama set in the Gay Nineties, Diamond Lil at last made West a star persona. She played a languid, singing, wise-cracking sexpot in drag—in her own words, “a little bit spicy, but not too raw.”
Not everyone was a fan of West’s excess, a version of femininity turned up to eleven and reliant on gay male culture. American cinema scholar Pamela Robinson recounts 1930s reviews that dismissed West as “the world’s best bad actress” and “the greatest female impersonator of all time.” But her hustle was undeniable. In 1928, the New Yorker claimed that West,
who writes her own plays and then stars in them, is one hundred per cent good showman. Her showmanship is apparent always, natural, inborn. She may have added to it, learned a trick here and there, but her ability to put herself over and her delight in doing it is a trait that could not have been acquired.
In the 1930s, West got her big break in film. She was nearly forty years old, at an age when most actresses were considered past their prime. She went on to star opposite Cary Grant and W. C. Fields, and while at one time she was among the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, she ultimately left the movie business due to clashes with censors, who didn’t feel her burlesque persona fit with the reality of Hays Code Hollywood.
West maintained a career through mid-century on stage, in clubs, and in radio, television, and music. She returned to films in 1970 as a libidinous casting agent in Myra Breckenridge, based on Gore Vidal’s 1968 transgender revenge novel. The movie was ultimately released with a rare X rating and was universally panned (Film scholar Christie Milliken notes that critic Stanley Kauffman concluded that “The film looks like an abandoned battlefield after a lot of studio forces tussled and nobody won.”).
But West was used to bad reviews and suggestions of censorship, and Myra, along with the likes of late-night television and a 1971 Playboy interview in which she defined herself as camp incarnate, set her up as a resurgent celebrity. New generations with different attitudes toward sex and entertainment—and an appreciation for looking back on campy content—joyfully ate up her double entendres and husky swagger.
This was the Mae West of archetype, the woman about whom James McCourt rhapsodized that
the buzz derived from watching her lope into an empty set-up frame, survey the invisible audience like an ocelot raised on ortolan fricase, utter “Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie,” and swerve off camera, was the ultimate fulfillment of audiences’ collective expectations.
West died in 1980 at age eighty-seven. Since her passing, audiences and scholars have explored her legacy as a camp diva, a queer icon, and a model of feminism. The same words that were used to criticize her in her early career—she was “a grotesque, a man in drag, a joke on women, and not a woman”—have come up against a fuller, modern understanding of gender as performance. Whether she (or camp, for that matter) belongs to any one audience has been debated, but scholar Michael Schuyler argues that Mae West is for everyone: “The best self-consciously produced camp doesn’t take sides but desires, instead, to be embraced by all sides. West, it seems, knew this.”