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The evolution of the British showgirl

BY Hillary Sukhonos

19th Oct 2022 Life

The evolution of the British showgirl

Showgirls were the epitome of glam in the 20th century. We chart the rise and fall of Britain's Bluebird showgirls and cabaret's subversive theatre

A new era of nightlife began for Great Britain when cabaret arrived at the start of the 20th century.

The year 1912 marks the beginning of modern cabaret in London, when Austrian writer and impresario, Frida Strindberg, opened Cave of the Golden Calf. Located underground near Regent Street, it attracted the upper crust of artists, outcasts and thinkers.

This was akin to Le Chat Noir in Paris, whose famous bohemian artists kicked off the start of cabaret in 1881.

Both venues offered drinks and entertainment in dimly lit, richly decorated surroundings, meant to stimulate creativity. Frida went bankrupt in 1914 and the Golden Calf closed—but London nightlife would remain forever changed.

Cabaret became the new kid on the block in Britain's live entertainment landscape. At the time, variety shows reigned supreme, chorus lines like the Tiller Girls swept Europe and the US, and Gaiety Burlesques (light-hearted plays starring women) were the talk of the town.

"Cabaret championed civil rights, women’s rights, and the sexual revolution"

In fact, Laura Henderson, the future owner and director of the Windmill Theatre, attended Gaiety Burlesques with her husband and wrote about her experience. 

“I, like most girls of that period, had been taught to regard legs as something you might perhaps meet in your bath, but never elsewhere, and my horror at the legs—rows and rows of them—I shall never forget.”

Years later, after the death of her husband and only son, Mrs Henderson would have a dramatic change of heart and buy the Windmill Theatre.

Theatre directors stole, mixed, and fused together different genres to the tune of what sold the most tickets. Manchester’s Tiller Girls, for example, developed a new dance style called "precision dance" which became a hit all across Europe and the US.

Meanwhile, the satirical form of cabaret seeded into neighbouring countries which were grappling with political and social strife. Germany debuted its first cabaret in 1901 and became known for gallows humour, a trait immortalised in the 1972 film Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse.

In 1911 North American cabaret ignored segregation laws to form “black and tan” clubs where jazz and mixed-race couples mingled. Assuming power to bend social barriers and embrace change, cabaret championed civil rights, women’s rights, and the sexual revolution during this period.

A cocktail of liberation and taboo, half chorus girl and half cancan dancer—the topless showgirl was born. The first large-scale topless cabaret premiered at the Gaîté theatre of Paris in 1920. Though it ruffled a few feathers, the French public generally celebrated topless revues.

Black and white photos of Tiller girls posing in row next to boatChorus lines like Manchester's The Tiller Girls were precursors to the topless showgirl

The showgirls come to Britain

Topless showgirls would not be popularised on the same scale in Great Britain until the founding of Laura Henderson’s Windmill Theatre 11 years later.

Based in Piccadilly, it opened in 1931. Henderson famously negotiated with the Lord Chamberlain to loosen centuries-old censorship laws in order for women to perform nude on their stage.

With the Lord Chamberlain's permission, Windmill Theatre manager, Vivian Van Damm, wasted no time introducing his tableaux vivants (a static scene containing one or more actors or dancers) in 1932.

Inspired by the Folies Bergère, nude or draped women were surrounded by fantastical moving sets while dancers whirled and wafted large feather fans. The feather fans slyly concealed or revealed their nudity.

This eventually created the “fan dance” still performed in contemporary showgirl revues today.

Glitz and glam: Life as a Bluebell Girl

“They were like angels who had come down from somewhere—like goddesses!” exclaims Rachel Williams when recalling her first impression of a Bluebell Girl, who is a specific brand of topless showgirl headquartered in Paris.

A self-described Welsh-Londoner, Rachel grew up performing in church before discovering the Lido de Paris in 1987, where the Bluebell Girls danced. The day after seeing the show, she strode down the long corridor of the theatre and asked for an audition.

Rachel premiered as a Bluebell Girl on her 20th birthday, beginning an esteemed international career at the Lido de Paris, the Moulin Rouge, Cats on the West End, a sister-act in Las Vegas followed by her solo show in Los Angeles.

"Showgirls are more likened to the Venus de Milo, if the Venus was only allowed to don feathers and rhinestones"

“Showgirl is a quality that one carries throughout life. The carriage of the body and how I present myself has taken me through several chapters of my life and will continue to be my defining quality,” says Rachel, who continues to perform into her fifth decade back home in England with Welsh Stars.

A showgirl is in a class of her own.

Rowena Harker Leder MBE, a showgirl from Yorkshire Dales, attests, “I don’t ever remember thinking that all the men were being turned on in the show—our costumes were so stunning. I was wearing costumes worth thousands! Our shows were visually inventive and so elegant.”

Indeed, showgirls are more likened to the Venus de Milo, if the Venus was only allowed to don feathers and rhinestones.

Who was the first Bluebell girl?

Black and white photos of showgirls in leotards stood with older womanMargaret "Bluebell" Kelly founded the notorious Bluebell Girls in the early 1930s

Rowena and Rachel are both part of a unique showgirl family called Bluebell Girls. Bluebell Girls, like the Tiller Girls, began as a team of smiling beauties performing precision dance technique in fantastical costumes established in 1932.

The founder was Irish born dancer, Margaret “Bluebell”, known professionally as Miss Bluebell on account of her clear blue eyes.

Miss Bluebell set a new precedent in cabaret by requiring a height of more than 5ft 9. The tall and leggy Bluebell Girls dazzled audiences at the Folies Bergere and Casino de Paris under some of the biggest headliners of the day, Mistinguett and Josephine Baker.

She preferred British dancers for their height, charm and sterling work ethic. Over the next 90 years, Bluebell would gainfully employ 14,000 artists and offer a passport into luxury entertainment like no one before her.

“If people knew the history of Margaret Kelly…” reflects Jane Sansby, the current ballet mistress at the Lido de Paris. "I was inspired by Miss Bluebell’s story when I was 12 years old. The BBC did a great special on her.”

This special dives into Miss Bluebell’s fortitude during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. While running small performances, Miss Bluebell was invited to the office of Colonel Feldman who offered her an opportunity to entertain German troops abroad.

Handsome pay and ample rations were promised, yet Bluebell would not compromise her allegiance to her countrymen.

Written by her official biographer, George Perry in the book Bluebell, Miss Bluebell replied to the colonel, saying: “That may be so, but I have a British passport, and I am a British subject. I have many relatives who are soldiers and are fighting against you Germans. You must understand why I cannot for a moment contemplate entertaining your troops!”.

The colonel ended the interview, but the thick folder on his desk with her name on it remained. Shortly after, her husband would be captured by the Nazis on account of his Jewish heritage. Bluebell would face interrogations and ultimately succeed in finding ways to hide her husband until the war's end.

Miss Bluebell’s integrity during the war ensured her good reputation during the post-war boom when she was offered a post at the Lido de Paris. At the time the Lido was a new venture and under Miss Bluebell it became synonymous with the best of French entertainment.

"Bluebell would face interrogations and ultimately succeed in finding ways to hide her husband until the war's end"

A French newspaper, Le Monde, reviewed their show in 1954: “I don't think there is currently a more 'impressed' and charmed public than that of the Lido. The new revue [Désirs] is a concentrate of audacity and good taste.”

The show was a topless revue. By 1954 Miss Bluebell reintroduced the topless line of girls called “nudes”, reviving the pre-war elegance of her earlier career. It was all considered very glamorous. Celebrities began to flock to see the Bluebell Girls.

“I was there in 1958, you know. People used to ring up from Tokyo and Sydney to the Stardust Hotel saying they’d stay only if they were guaranteed tickets to the Lido show,” recounts Rowena, now 85 years old.

In her day, Lido transplanted its brand of cabaret to the Las Vegas strip with help from Donn Arden, the producer credited with creating the glitzy Las Vegas showgirl image. Rowena Harker Leder served as the archetype for this reinvented showgirl.

“I was in the first (Bluebell) show that ever left Europe to go to America, which never happened before.”

Exuding elegance and confidence, Rowena describes a vivid picture of the early days in Las Vegas.

“There were tumbleweeds flying down the strip and so few cars. We were 28 girls and when we arrived in Las Vegas it was absolutely wonderful because they treated us like royalty. And our accents, they loved our accents, of course! Plus, we were nearly all six feet tall."

Certainly, showgirls are vibrant and attractive women. But their beguiling physique threatens to eclipse what really matters: personality and talent.

After 28 years at the Lido de Paris, Jane Sansby, the ballet mistress, pinpoints what defines a showgirl: “I have had dancers trained at the Royal Ballet, and West End Theatre dancers. What do all the dancers have in common? Determination, professionalism and great quality dance training. The question really is, what type of lifestyle do the dancers want to live?”.

That lifestyle might include a weekend gala at the Cannes Film Festival to stand side by side with Leonardo DiCaprio, for example.

In Rowena’s era, it had been Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. High profile events and celebrities have been consistent touchstones throughout the decades.

The decline of the showgirl

A group of young dancers stand around piano with older womanLaura Henderson, owner of the Windmill Theatre with some of the girls during a break in rehearsals, August 1943

It seems no matter how elegant the venue, expensive the costume, or educated the women, baring breasts never ceased to create a fuss.

Sadly, both Miss Bluebell’s Hellenic beauties in Paris and the US, as well as Laura Henderson’s house of feminine delight in England, have met their end. Grand spectacles starring gorgeous women dripping in sophistication no longer exist in the UK.

The Windmill, having been eclipsed by private strip clubs, closed in 1964. Though it reopened in 2021 as a modern nightclub called The Windmill Soho, it is without the topless element.

The Lido de Paris closed earlier this year on July 30 after it was bought by Europe’s largest hospitality company, Accor Hotels. The closure made headlines around the world.

“What happened to the Lido de Paris was a shock to the entertainment world,” remarks Jane Sansby. Young showgirls, who are now the last generation of Bluebells, will no longer have these employment opportunities or access to the lifestyle.

“We may be a dying breed,” laments Rowena, who feels that popular entertainment today lacks a certain sophistication. Will the sparkle of a Bluebell Girl, a Windmill Girl, or a Tiller Girl ever shine again?

“I think the memory will stay and the history of the Bluebell girls will never be forgotten. It is unforgettable,” claims Jane Sansby assuredly. It will ultimately be up to adventurous theatre owners and British audiences to decide.

Read more showgirl stories at birdintheworld.com by author, Hillary Sukhonos. Hillary is a former Bluebell and American ballet dancer now capturing stories from her life in Paris.

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