Four Other Misfit Models

In Depth

Think “Cocaine Kate” invented the misfit model? For as long as beautiful women have been posing, they’ve been wreaking havoc on the industry that catapulted them to fame. Here are four of our favorite badass beauties.

NAME: Joanna Hiffernan (approx. 1843-1903)

CLAIM TO FAME: Subject of Courbet’s Le Sommeil, L’Origine du Monde, as well as other, more modest works by Whistler.

BAD GIRL BEHAVIOR: Hiffernan was an Irish model and mistress to not one but two famous painters, American James McNeill Whistler and Frenchman Gustave Courbet. There’s speculation she had the former’s love child before he grew tired of her vulgar streak and his upper crust family’s objections to their relationship. After reportedly giving the baby up for adoption, she shacked up with Courbet, becoming the subject of not one but two controversial paintings: Le Sommeil, which depicts her in bed with another woman, and L’Origine du Monde, a portrait so intimate it could make a gynecologist blush.

REFORMATION ACT: With no hard feelings after the breakup, Hiffernan helped raise a son Whistler had with a parlor maid. No one knows exactly what happened to her by the end of the century, but someone matching the description of “La belle Irlandaise” was spotted in 1882 selling antiques in Nice.

NAME: Helen Williams (1937-unknown)

CLAIM TO FAME: First black model to go mainstream, in ads ran that in The New York Times, Redbook and Life.

BAD GIRL BEHAVIOR: Williams’ bad behavior is less about what she did do and more about what she didn’t – specifically, accept that a black girl from New Jersey couldn’t be a model in the ‘50s. After carving out a niche posing for African American magazines, she set her sights on a more tolerant Paris, where designers including Christian Dior welcomed her with open arms (and fists full of cash). Later returning to the U.S. to find things just as she’d left them, she went to the press to protest fashion’s exclusion of black models. The plan could easily have backfired. It didn’t. Brands like Budweiser started using her for ads in mainstream media, and by the early ‘60s, Williams could command an hourly rate equivalent to nearly $800 today.

REFORMATION ACT: None, we hope.

NAME: Barbara Mullen (1926-)

CLAIM TO FAME: Arguably fashion’s ugly duckling, shot by big names (Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson) for big magazines (Vogue, Photography).

BAD GIRL BEHAVIOR: Another foul-mouthed, working-class woman with Irish lineage, Harlem-raised Mullen was the epitome of belle laide (ugly pretty) at a time when conventional beauty was prized and models were almost uniformly socialites. When her first husband died of brain cancer in 1955, Mullen allegedly sought comfort in the arms of agent Jerry Ford, who happened to be the husband of her other agent, Eileen. Her last editorial ran in a 1956 issue of Vogue.

REFORMATION ACT: Mullen ditched New York, the spotlight, and the drama that came with it nearly 60 years ago. She settled down in Switzerland with her second husband.

NAME: Caroline “Tula” Cossey (1954-)

CLAIM TO FAME: First transsexual to pose for Playboy, as well as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue

BAD GIRL BEHAVIOR: Born sexually ambiguous, with XXXY chromosomes, and raised male, Cossey transitioned in her late teens. Post-breast implants and pre-sex-reassignment surgery, she posed topless for several adult magazines with the help of some painfully restrictive undergarments. Photographers – and readers – were none the wiser. Post-op, she found success in fashion magazines, ads and as an extra in a James Bond flick. Cossey was finally outed by the press in 1981. She responded by not giving two fucks: She penned a few books, campaigned for transsexual rights in England, became a video vixen, and posed for Playboy under the headline “The Transformation Of Tula,” the magazine’s first out post-op transsexual playmate.

REFORMATION ACT: Cossey sought a quieter life but never gave up her bad girl streak. She moved to America’s Deep South in the early ‘90s, where she and her husband are actively involved in the transsexual community.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece listed Barbara Mullen’s year of birth as 1939 rather than the correct year, 1926.

MacKenzie Kassab is the editor-in-chief of A Magazine.

Photos via Flickr Creative Commons.

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