Rita Hayworth (October 17, 1918 – May 14, 1987) was a pinup girl whose all-American looks and Hollywood glamour earned her countless film roles and a special spot in fans’ hearts. But Hayworth was not what she seemed, writes Adrienne L. McLean—and neither is the legend about her storied transformation from Hispanic dancer to Anglo-seeming star.
Hayworth was born Margarita Cansino to a Spanish father and an Irish-American mother, and when she made her way to Hollywood in the 1930’s she was subjected to an exhaustive makeover that eliminated most traces of her ethnicity. But while it may have seemed that Hayworth walked away from her true identity, writes McLean, the truth was anything but.
She writes that “…rather than leaving her past behind, Hayworth always remained, or retained, Margarita Cansino”—and Hayworth’s ethnicity gave her a path to stardom because it allowed her to mix wholesomeness and sex appeal.
Becoming Rita Hayworth wasn’t easy. Cansino had to go on restrictive diets and maintain a grueling exercise regimen. She was convinced to give up her birth name and undergo two years of painful electrolysis to change her low, dark hairline. But contemporary stories of the new star named Rita Hayworth, McLean notes, didn’t hide the woman behind the star. Rather, they put pictures of Cansino—the Hispanic “before”—alongside the “after” of Hayworth the perfectly groomed star.
Thus, transformation was always a part of Hayworth’s appeal. She was cast as someone who was worth years of investment and work, whose ambition propelled her past what Hollywood considered her “faults” and who, despite being completely manufactured, somehow still retained a genuine appeal. This paradox persists to this day: we want to know that stars, despite their fame and fortune, really are “just like us.”
To attain her coveted spot in Hollywood, Hayworth had to transcend not just her waistline or her hairline, but her own ethnicity, writes McLean—even though her ethnicity itself was used as a marker of the fact that she was an authentic star worth uncovering through years of careful production. One of her greatest paradoxes, “is that she can be read as ethnic or American, but also as ethnic and therefore American.”
True to form, Hayworth was idolized both as a “white” body and as an “ethnic” one who could play a myriad of interchangeably “foreign” film roles. Similarly, Hayworth played roles that were both sexy and wholesome—presumably some kind of combination of the permissiveness Hollywood felt her ethnicity allowed and her new identity as a chaste white woman to be protected and cherished.
For McLean, the paradox of Hayworth is a chance to unpack what ethnicity—either created or ignored by Hollywood—means for movie stars. Maybe Cansino/Hayworth made it not in spite of who she was, but because of who she was.