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Vikki Dougan

My back made me an overnight star

Ralph Crane/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

You’ve probably never heard of Vikki Dougan, but she was once the most sought-after woman in Hollywood, says Isabel Slone in The New York Times. The former model shot to fame in 1957, when she wore a pink backless dress to the Golden Globes. It was a sensation, and overnight she was crowned “The Back”.

Now 92, Dougan lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Beverly Hills and sleeps on an Ikea sofa bed – a far cry from her glamorous youth. But recently she has been discovered by the Instagram generation. Her pictures adorn nostalgic fashion accounts, with her famous back on full display. “I don’t know,” Dougan says. “Maybe I’m having a resurgence.”

She became “The Back” by accident: “I didn’t even think there was anything even sexy about showing a back. It just didn’t occur to me.” Hollywood disagreed. Her back graced the cover of Life magazine and was the inspiration behind the cartoon beauty Jessica Rabbit. Leading men also took notice. Dougan declined dates with Cary Grant (he was too lazy) and Marlon Brando (she had an audition early the next morning).

More successful suitors included Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, George Getty II, Mickey Rooney, Barry Goldwater Jr, Henry Fonda and Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes was a favourite: they went to an Italian restaurant with red check tablecloths. I said how much I’d like to make a dress out of them, she remembers. When they left, Sinatra kissed her goodbye and handed her a paper bag filled with tablecloths.

But being a sex symbol had its drawbacks. In 1959, Dougan says, she was accosted by Burt Lancaster, who kicked her in the back and pushed her into a lift. “Maybe if I had been a more dyed-in-the-wool actress I might have said, ‘To heck with it,’” she says, “But I didn’t think like that.” And so she fell out of favour with celebrities, disappearing from Hollywood as quickly as she’d arrived.