A Brief History
On October 15th, 1917, the famous exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari was executed by firing squad after having been found guilty of espionage.
In our three previous articles from this series, we have already listed 31 women famous for being naked or who, at one point in their lives, had famously been naked. In this article, we again examine 10 more such ladies. These lists on History and Headlines are different from conventional naked ladies lists in that the main prerequisite for being considered for these is less the actual nudity itself and more its social, cultural or historical significance.
For the latest installment in this series, the “Top 10 Black Women Famous for Being Naked,” compiled in honor of Black History Month, please click here.
1) Nefertiti (c. 1,370 B.C. – c. 1,330 B.C)
Known primarily for the beautifully sculpted bust that is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, was also depicted naked. Unlike previous rulers of Egypt, she and her husband worshiped just one God – Aten, the Sun God; and they created the cult of Aten. In this cult, Nefertiti, as the “Great Royal Wife” and mother to many of Akhenaten‘s children, represented fertility. Therefore, unlike other queens, there were also representations of her nude. One surviving example is in the same collection as the more famous bust.
2) Helen of Troy (c. 1,200 B.C.)
The “face that launched a thousand ships” belonged to Helen of Troy. Though excavations have unearthed the old city of Troy, whether Helen existed or not or if there had been the Trojan War or even the Trojan Horse at all has not yet been conclusively proven. It is also not known if her husband Menelaus truly showed her off naked at a party to impress his guests or if this incident was a Hollywood fabrication. According to legend, however, when Menelaus finally found his wife after Troy had been sacked, he had wanted to kill her for the humiliation she had caused him, but when he was about to do so, she let her robe fall, exposing her nude body. The sight of her beauty caused Menelaus to drop his sword. Talk about knowing how to best use one’s feminine charms!
3) Messalina (c. 17/20 – 48)
The nymphomaniac Messalina, was the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Her sex drive was so insatiable that she even engaged in a contest with the leading prostitute in Rome and won! When news of this, however, as well as other discretions and plots got to her husband, he unceremoniously had her head cut off. As a result of her lustful reputation, most artistic representations of her accentuate her sexuality by showing her in sexy poses and/or in the nude.
4) Diane de Poitiers (1499 – 1566)
Unlike many beautiful women, Diane de Poitier’s retained her beauty into old age. In fact, she became the future Henri II of France’s mistress when he was 15 and she 35. Not just beautiful but also accomplished, she helped Henri govern when he became king. She would retain her influence over him until his death in a jousting accident. At her own death, one French courtier lamented how sad it was the earth should now hide that beautiful body. Unashamed, she had sat for many nude portraits and sculptures during her lifetime. A famous portrait by François Clouet is in the collection of the National Gallergy of Art in Washington D.C., and a sculpture by Jean Goujon depicting her as Diana the Huntress with dogs and a stag is on display at the Louvre.
5) Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” (before 1790 – 1815)
Sarah Baartman was probably born a slave in South Africa. She became known as the “Hottentot Venus” because Hottentot was then another name for the Khoi people from whom she came. At around the age of 20, this poor woman was sold to Europe where she was put on display in a freak show for her ample “assets;” she had elongated labia, and her rear end was so big and protruded so far out, that one could nearly balance a cup on it. The indignities did not stop after death, and she was dissected to explore the differences between races, and her skeleton, body cast and preserved genitals were put on display at the Natural History Museum in Angers, France. With the advent of the sexual revolution, feminists then complained that the exhibit degraded women, and it was removed in the 1970s.
6) Mata Hari (1876 – 1917)
Born as Margareta Zelle in the Netherlands, in 1905 she moved to Paris where she began performing as an exotic dancer under the name Mata Hari. This was at a time when the early modern dance movement was looking to the East for inspiration, and Mata Hari, having lived in the Dutch East Indies, had picked up some tricks for her trade there. Part of her dance routine included shedding articles of clothing until she stood on stage in just a bejeweled bra and some ornaments on her arms and head. For decency’s sake, she wore a skin-colored bodystocking, but this could not be discerned by the audience. Her star was fading, however, by the time World War I commenced. It was then that she was accused by the French authorities of espionage for the Germans and despite her protests, was convicted and executed. German documents that were unsealed in the 1970s proved she had been a spy.
7) Ilona Staller, a.k.a. Cicciolina (1951 – )
This Hungarian-born porn star was voted into the Italian Parliament in 1987 where she stayed in office until 1992, all the while still performing in the sex industry under the name Cicciolina. An unconventional politician, she is all about making love and not war, and in 2002 offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein when he refused to bow to international pressure to allow inspections for weapons of mass destruction, and in 2006, she also made a similar offer to Osama bin Laden. In 2012, she co-founded the Democracy, Nature and Love Party (DNA) whose platform includes the reopening of former brothels.
8) Brooke Shields (1965 – )
No performer has generated more controversy for being nude than Brooke Shields. As a child model, performer and actress, she was exploited and given highly sexualized and erotic roles with the blessing of her mother who had pushed her into show business. Scandalous film projects included Pretty Baby at 12 where she plays a child prostitute and The Blue Lagoon at 14 where she walks around an island naked with her hair strategically placed to cover her nipples. Still a young teenager, she famously modelled for Guess’ skintight jeans in a sexy manner. The biggest scandal, however, was the publication of a series of nude pictures taken of her in provocative poses when she was only 10! Though surprisingly ruled not to be breach child pornography laws, these pictures certainly encourage pedophilia!
9) Heather Mills (1968 – )
Before losing part of her leg following a collision with a motorcycle, Heather Mills had modelled in a photo session for the sex education manual called Die Freuden der Liebe (The Joys of Love). Even later when she had to wear a prosthetic, Mills was still sufficiently comfortable with her sexuality and body to then model nude in support of charities for amputees. All this willingness to flaunt herself would come to haunt her when she married Paul McCartney, as the photographs solidified the public’s perception of her as a seductress who had preyed upon the recently widowered, former Beatle.
10) Elizabeth Berkley (1972 – )
Famous for playing straight-laced feminist Jessie Spano on the television show Saved by the Bell as a teenager, it was all the more shocking when Elizabeth Berkley agreed to play the lead in the movie Showgirls. Full of graphic nudity and gratuitous sex, Showgirls was given an NC-17 rating. Though initially panned by the critics and despite being a box-office bomb, it developed a cult following and became one of the most successful movies on the home video market. As for Berkley, Showgirls did not provide the big break into being taken seriously as an actress that she had hoped for at age 21, but the role did give her some lasting notoriety, and that is more than most former child and teenaged actors have.
For the other articles in the History and Headlines series on naked ladies, please click here.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you think was the most famous woman known for being naked? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Eyre, Justine, Margaret George, et al. Helen of Troy: A Novel. Penguin Audio, 2006.
Moran, Michelle. The Heretic Queen: Heiress of Misfortune, Pharaoh’s Beloved. Broadway Books, 2009.
Shipman, Pat. Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. Harper Perennial, 2008.