Saturday, October 23, 2010

A blast from the past - my first-ever 'fantasy girlfriend'?

I stumbled across this photo on the Net a few days ago, and it brought back a flood of memories.  Well, it was my birthday this week, so I've been even more than usually reflective and nostalgic (often to the point of weepiness: I am finally starting to feel my age - and not enjoying it!).  It was an odd coincidence - Dame Fate putting on her 'taunting' hat again! - that I should unearth this picture just as I was feeling in such a brittle and backward-looking mood.

Now, as avid readers of this series will know, my very earliest 'fantasy girlfriends' were fictional characters from favourite TV shows of my early childhood, like Emma Peel and Dianne Simms ('Rhapsody Angel' in the classic marionette sci-fi series Captain Scarlet), or actresses I had come to know through such shows, like the lovely Jan Francis.  But I think my first flesh-and-blood crush - with a near-contemporary, and someone that I'd actually met (albeit just the once) - was with this remarkable young lady above.  I am hesitant to mention her name on here, since I imagine she still has legions of fans who are.... probably not, on the whole, the kind of people I would want to be attracting over here to the 'Ville.  Oh well, I'll say it once, and hope I get away with it.  She's an English 'glamour model' called Joanne Latham.

She enjoyed an extraordinary career at the tail-end of the 1970s.  She'd started modelling while still doing her O-levels, and went into it as a full-time profession almost immediately she finished school at the age of sixteen.  She soon hooked a shoot with the leading glamour and fashion photographer Patrick Lichfield, and he was so impressed with her that he included her on the inside front cover of his book of The Most Beautiful Women he had ever photographed.  Her local television station, ATV, also latched on to her early (I think they were probably instrumental in setting up her first shoot with Lichfield), making a half-hour documentary about her, A Model's Dream, as part of a series of profiles of 'ordinary people' called England, Their England.

Unfortunately, despite her heart-stoppingly beautiful face, she just wasn't really tall enough (or flat-chested enough!) for any high-end clothes-on modelling, and was very soon driven into nudie work - becoming, briefly, one of the most popular of The Sun newspaper's notorious 'Page 3' topless pin-up girls.  She tried to resist going into full nude work for a little while, but she'd made such an enormous impact with her topless pictures that the 'top shelf' magazines were soon in a bidding war for her services.  The American soft porn impresario Bob Guccione won out, whisking her over to the States to do the cover and centrefold for the 10th anniversary edition of his Penthouse magazine - and also, it was said, to appear in a bit part in the Flash Gordon film which he was producing (although I never spotted her in it).  I seem to recall that there were also rumours that she might be appearing in his infamous Caligula (which, despite the welter of gratuitous simulated sex in the background of the numerous orgy scenes in the 'extended version', was not such a bad film; some good moments, anyway, including a haunting final shot of the mad Emperor's white stallion, Incitatus, alone outside the Senate House after his master's murder - but I digress...); I think she must have managed to wriggle out of that one; and perhaps was dropped from Flash Gordon too.  I didn't notice her in either film, and she was most definitely the kind of girl you would notice, even in the tiniest of roles.

She stayed in America for a while and became something of a celebrity girlfriend, courted by the rich and famous: brief liaisons, or 'dates' at any rate, were reported with a number of well-known actors and sports stars, including - if memory serves - Vitas Gerulaitis and Ryan O'Neal (the dirty old man!).  But then she suddenly dropped out of the news, and out of the newspapers.  A year or two later, she made an isolated reappearance on Page 3 of The Sun, with the newspaper running a brief accompanying story claiming that she'd gone bankrupt. (I'm not sure if that was really true: I suspect their perennially punning sub-editors just couldn't resist the headline "Joanne's gone bust!"  Although it does seem all too plausible that she could have got into money troubles, being thrown into a jetset lifestyle while still a teenager, and when she probably wasn't really earning all that much.  A rather sad story.)  I gather she's continued to model intermittently, right up to the present day (she's approaching fifty years old now, but seems superhumanly ageless), but mainly 'top shelf' work - of which I am happily unaware.  However, it seems she's been mostly making her living for the past couple of decades from being a yoga teacher, and has also been doing some writing (I haven't been able to discover any online, but the brief Wikipedia article on her claims that, as well as working on her autobiography, she's currently developing a TV series.  I'm intrigued!).

Not at all the typical stuff of my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series, I grant you.  The preceding thumbnail sketch of her short-lived brush with fame - or infamy - might seem to suggest that she was nought but a brainless bimbo and superstar groupie; and that perhaps my attraction to her was based entirely on her looks, rather than - as I usually protest - on intelligence and talent.

Well, perhaps.  Her period of success - it probably only lasted a couple of years or so, from just before she turned seventeen until she was nineteen - happened to coincide with my early teen years: a period when I was, inescapably, very interested in girls.  And she was an enormous pop culture phenomenon in England at that time, far more than any of the other cheesecake models of the era that I can remember.  She was, just for a year or two, quite literally ubiquitous: she'd appear in one or other of the tabloid newspapers nearly every week (often clothed: I have particularly fond recollections of a spread she did in the Daily Mirror - ostensibly a feature on feminism! - in which she wore only a figure-hugging t-shirt-dress bearing the slogan "A woman needs a man/ Like a fish needs a bicycle"); she'd appear (clothed, though usually only scantily) on the covers of numerous photography and general interest magazines; and her pictures (again, mostly clothed; we were subject to rules on this) were pinned to the wall of every single study at my school.  And I mean EVERY single one.  Only Debbie Harry came close to matching the universality of her appeal.  The other popular actresses and models of the day attracted particular constituencies, winning over certain groups as ardent fans while leaving others relatively indifferent, and even engendering a few detractors.  But everyone loved Joanne, absolutely everyone.  It was an astonishing phenomenon.

Her features were utterly compelling, mesmerising, uncanny in their perfection.  They were almost too perfect, like some Platonic ideal of beauty, a universal paradigm of prettiness.  It's conspicuous how baby-like are her huge round eyes, her pert nose, her puffy lower lip; and how like the oddly stylised but highly arresting glamour girls of Japanese manga.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if she also exhibits the optimum eye spacing (or IPD, the inter-pupillary distance) which my ophthalmologist friend The Younger Dr P once proposed as the ultimate secret of feminine attractiveness.  She didn't need much help from make-up, I don't think: her eyebrows were naturally that exquisitely contoured, and the shape of her pouty little mouth that sharply outlined.  Just about everything about her was perfect: the perfect oval shape of her face, the perfectly sculpted chin, the immaculate complexion, the high cheekbones, the imperious arch of the eyebrows, the impossibly cute ears, and that high forehead (which I always liked to fancy was suggestive of a keen intelligence).  And those eyes - oh, my good god!  Not only were they an astonishing size and shape (and an ideal distance apart), but they were the most dazzling cornflower blue - a shade I've never quite seen the like of in anyone else.

It should not have worked.  It should have been too much - too obviously childlike, or too inhumanly flawless. But it did work: she was completely irresistible - the most breathtakingly pretty girl I've ever seen.

She had lovely legs too.  She'd been a promising ballerina as a child and had, I believe, spent a couple of years or more at the exclusive Royal Ballet School (until in her early teens she stopped growing taller, and started instead to develop cumbersomely large breasts).  I've always had a weakness for ballerinas: dance training doesn't only sculpt beautifully proportioned legs; it doesn't only nurture physical grace and elegance; it seems to inculcate desirable attributes of personality as well, a quality of poise and self-assurance.  Joanne had that in spades, and I suspect it is that, quite as much as her devastating prettiness, which enabled her to become such a massive hit in the world of modelling.  I remember being thoroughly charmed by her personality in the TV programme about her, A Model's Dream; particularly by the moment when she playfully upbraids Patrick Lichfield, "Get a move on!  I'm bloody freezing here!" (This was one of her clothed shoots; but outdoors, in chilly weather.  And yes, a sixteen-year-old novice model was showing the ballsiness to give some backchat to one of the most famous photographers in the world!  I think this was probably the moment that I decided that this lady might be worthy of lifelong admiration.)

And I happened to have met her and chatted to her for a short while - only a little before, perhaps just a few months or weeks before... she suddenly became the most famous model in the country.  (But that, perhaps, is a story for another time...)  In that little conversation, I'd been immediately impressed by her personality (even more than by those fathomless blue eyes, honestly!) - the ease and naturalness of her manner, the bubbliness of her humour, the utter lack of arrogance or pretension, and yes, even a suggestion of intelligence.  And this was some months before I saw evidence of the same qualities in that TV programme.

It was yet another of the uncannily cruel conspiracies of Fate that I should start to form the first real crush of my life on a girl who was about to become a superstar - a girl whom I would never see again other than on magazine covers and TV screens.  Fate, you are a bitch!  Leave me alone.

I had only two consolations to cling to, two facets of the improbably perfect Ms Latham which were unlovely imperfections to me, two areas in which her otherwise exquisite proportionality was disappointingly lacking.  She was tiny, far, far, far too short for me: I towered over her already, even though she was two or three years older than me, and I still had a couple of big growth spurts to come in my later teens.  And her breasts were enormous.  Not just too big for my personal taste (I've always been primarily a 'legs man' rather than a 'breasts man' or a 'bum man'; and insofar as I have a breast preference, it is decidedly towards the smaller end of the scale), but unbecomingly disproportionate, I felt, to her petite frame.

And so I was able to convince myself that, for all her many perfections, she wasn't quite right for me.  And I was able to follow the strange trajectory of her career, and her colourful private life, without suffering too many pangs of jealousy or resentment (although I did worry from time to time that she might not be happy).

But every time I caught a glimpse of that amazing face of hers, my heart flip-flopped a little.

And I discover that it still does.


Gary said...

Wow. Yes she's very pretty. VERY.

But dude, you're still crushing on a pin-up you remember from thirty years ago? Is this a bit like the song 'Angel is a centerfold'?

Froog said...

Yeah, I know - a bit sad, isn't it?

Actually, it's very nearly 33 years ago that I met her - but some people stay with you!

Anonymous said...

A lovely reminiscence but I notice that you say that she was in Lichfield's book The Most Beautiful Women (as does Wikipedia) but I have this book (which Lichfield signed for me) and she is not in it, unless she is the girl in the Avon advertisement inside. (The inside cover girl was, in fact, Brooke Shields)

Anonymous said...

This lady lives by me now you wud never believe it's the same lady all that high life and she lives in a one bedroom rented flat and spends most her days smoking weed if baggy scruffy clothes

Anonymous said...

Under the Banyan Tree , Yoga website.

Andy Hamblett said...

I wonder what happened to her? Back in the UK maybe........Christ, she'll be 56 now. I never bought either The Scum or w*nk mags but I do remember the photos she did for British Leyand with (clothed) modelling for Minis, TR7's and so on.

They don't make 'em like that anymore. Girls, not cars.