One of the most common and admittedly valid complaints lobbied against celebrities like Paris Hilton and every one of the ever-expanding Kardashian clan is that they're merely "famous for being famous." The general public's distaste at their overexposure in the media, their libertine lifestyles, and their flashy displays of wealth and nouveau-riche status is and has always been summed up by that one hackneyed old phrase, littered with negative connotations. To those who have only been exposed to socialites-cum-celebrities in the modern age, it's impossible to imagine genuinely charming celebrities who were "famous for being famous," yet the first and most conspicuous example (and a perfect counter to Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney) were the Gabor Sisters.
Note the candles on the birthday cake form a question mark.
Zsa Zsa (born Sarí), Eva, and Magda Gabor each emigrated from Hungary in the mid-20th century and collectively captivated America for nearly thirty years. They were renowned for their beauty - Zsa Zsa was crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, though she would later claim she was born in 1928 - for their jetset lifestyle, and for their multiple high-profile marriages numbering 20 in total (though actor George Sanders married both Zsa Zsa and Magda [the latter was annulled after two months]). Their enterprising mother, Jolie, turned the three women into a brand; the accents, the furs, the "dahlings," it was all a contrived marketing scheme which, because it was so obviously forced and phony, worked. It was a joke everyone was in one and everyone loved to watch, and yet the sisters and their success were no laughing matter.
Eva, Magda, and Zsa Zsa with parents Vilmos and Jolie Gabor
Of the three, Zsa Zsa and Eva were the two standouts, and though Eva Gabor has enjoyed the most lasting legacy of the three (you may not know the name but you've definitely seen her as Lisa Douglas, the comically glamorous "farmer's" wife on Green Acres), Zsa Zsa was the most notorious of the three. On December 18th, Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away at age 99, one of the last living links to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a woman who has been described as "glamour personified."
Though not primarily known for her acting (director John Huston merely deemed her "a credible actress," Zsa Zsa cleverly parlayed her beauty, wit, and accent into a career, including standout roles such as:
8. Erika Tiffany-Smith in Gilligan's Island (1965)
Zsa Zsa played well within her wheelhouse in a 1965 episode of Gilligan's Island, portraying a flighty socialite who visits the island, falls in love with the professor, tries to buy the island, falls out of love with the professor, leaves, and is unable to help the Coast Guard find the castaways due to her thick accent. The most challenging aspect of this role was her walking through sand in her high-heels, but it's a reminder that her image had become so synonymous with wealth by this point that she was typecast in the best possible way.
7. Jessica Shelley in Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
Picture Mommy Dead, a subpar horror movie from 1966, begins with the fiery death of an already dead Zsa Zsa Gabor. While her role is minimal, she is the impetus behind it, and much like Rebecca de Winter in the classic novel/film Rebecca, the mere implication of her presence casts a looming shadow over the movie. Her death, which is later revealed to involve divorce and diamonds, again found her portraying a caricature of her "brand."
6. Talleah in Queen of Outer Space (1958)
Zsa Zsa Gabor leads the charge against good taste in this quintessentially bad '50s sci-fi movie. She plays Talleah, a rebel who, with the help of some astronauts, plans to overthrow the evil, man-hating Queen Yllana so that they may bring men to the planet again. Her minimal dialogue and the many dresses slit nearly to her bellybutton make it obvious that Zsa Zsa is meant to be more of a clotheshorse than an actress, but she does the best she can do with a movie like this (she even underplays her iconic accent).
5. Minerva in Batman (1968)
In a television series marked by, among other things, a list of notoriously talented guest stars (Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Tallulah Bankhead, Julie Newmar, Otto Preminger, Ethel Merman, Eartha Kitt, Shelley Winters, etc. etc.) Zsa Zsa Gabor retains the minor distinction of being the series' very last villain, the spa owner Minerva. In a convoluted plot typical of the campy series, she uses some kind of eggplant scalp massage to hypnotize wealthy men into giving her their financial secrets and then robs them blind. She is, of course, foiled by Batman, and yet in usual Gabor fashion she misses no opportunities in flirting with Bruce Wayne/Batman prior to her arrest. The role is perfectly suited for her: a glamorous, money-hungry villain running amok amid mindless entertainment.
4. Cabaret Owner in Touch of Evil (1958)
This role is by no means a standout (it's simply a cameo) and yet it's a pleasant surprise to see an "actress" like Zsa Zsa like one of Orson Welles' greatest films, the mid century equivalent of Tarentino giving Kim Kardashian a minor role in any one of his films. She plays a strip club owner who simply offers the detective a lead, then goes on her way. The film is notable for its other guest stars (Mercedes McCambridge, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotten), all of whom are regarded as far superior actors, but Zsa Zsa plays her role as seriously as she can, a break from her numerous other cameos.
3. Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge (1952)
Long before Baz Luhrmann's big-budget musical, Zsa Zsa starred in acclaimed director John Huston's biopic of the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. She plays an 1890s Parisian nightclub singer who acts as a muse for the young artist, the painter to have his art on display in the Louvre during his lifetime. She plays the role with the dazzling wit and sex appeal she was primarily known for, and though she was not even so much as nominated for her role, the film's nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture is a testament to her acting abilities, however minor and however contested.
2. Sonya Lamor in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1991)
If you're among my generation, somewhere in the recesses of your brain you remember the episode where the Banks' new neighbor, the glamorous Old Hollywood actress Sonya Lamor, appears to have stolen their silverware, leading Will and Carlton to break into her home and retrieve it. This role came on the heels of her publicity boon after slapping a Beverly Hills police officer across the face during a traffic stop in 1989 (which is alluded to and mocked in the episode), and all of her fictional film titles mentioned by Will include the word "Hussy," another play on her reputation as a maneater. This would be one of her final roles and, in my biased opinion, one of her best.
Because reality TV did not exist as a crutch for the dubiously famous, Zsa Zsa Gabor was a staple of game and talk shows for a four decades span. She was a notorious wit whose intellect often came as a surprise to the hosts and guests who assumed that because of her looks she was a vapid social-climber (which one could argue isn't too far off the mark). She held her own against the likes of Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall, Howard Stern, Joan Rivers, and led Oprah Winfrey on a hilariously revealing tour of her home in 1989. She was a frequent guest of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In ("this show reminds me of my honeymoon, dahlings. Nobody knows what they are doing but everybody laughs!"), played herself on Mr. Ed, served as the spokeswoman for Lawry's seasoning salt (wherein she claimed she used it on caviar), and used her beauty, alacrity, and intelligence to perpetuate herself and her legacy. She was an icon long before E!, VH1, and Bravo handed every narcissist their own media platform, and she (and her sisters) left an indelible mark on American culture, for better or for worse.
Zsa Zsa Gabor (
1917 1945 - 2016)