Was Vikki 'The Back' Dougan The Jessica Rabbit Of The '50s?
Left: Vikki Dougan at Ciro's in Los Angeles, California, in 1957. Right: Animation cel of Jessica Rabbit. Source: Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Tumblr.
Claims to fame are hard to come by -- but if you've got a back like Vikki Dougan's, you make the most of it. Today, she is mainly remembered for her revealing outfits, and for recent speculation that she inspired the look of Jessica Rabbit from the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jessica Rabbit's backless frocks do bear a resemblance to Vikki "The Back" Dougan's -- whether Roger Rabbit director Robert Zemeckis and his designers had her in mind is less clear.
Dougan may be a footnote to the grand story of big stars, but her story is an interesting one. She was a relatively well known model -- imagine the many quasi-celebrity babes who've graced the cover of magazines like Maxim, or hosted niche TV shows on basic cable networks. Dougan is said to have dated Frank Sinatra, and a folk group wrote and recorded a song about her. She wasn't a nobody -- and her influence on fashion lives on even if her name is seldom heard.
The Early Years
Dougan was born in Brooklyn in 1929 as Edith Tooker, and she began modeling at 11. When she was just 16, she married William Symons, the owner of a photo studio, with whom she had a daughter. In 1948, she had her big break, becoming the New York Skate Queen Champion. For the contest, skaters were judged not on their roller skating but on charm and beauty. As the “Queen,” she was launched into the spotlight, and two years later, her first marriage ended in divorce.
She appeared on the cover of Life on October 26, 1953, and was featured in the article "Careers Aplenty: Vikki Dougan models, acts, designs, mothers.” According to the article, she made money as a model while taking classes for acting and singing. Her first acting role was as an uncredited showgirl in Back From Eternity in 1956. She had roles in nine more movies, including Tunnel of Love in 1958. But she never really made it as an actress.
Dougan was not among the more buxom celebrities of her time period and so Milton Weiss, a Hollywood publicist, had the idea to promote Dougan using backless dresses in 1953. Her dresses were more than just backless; they were cut down nearly to her gluteal cleft.
Did She Inspire A Cartoon?
Weiss also sent her to places where she would be noticed. She became an “it-girl,” crashing Hollywood parties, showing her assets to the world. In a way, just as Jessica Rabbit was “drawn that way,” Weiss created Dougan’s image.
Sources have speculated that Dougan inspired Jessica Rabbit, but other than the similarities in their clothing, there is very little to suggest that this is true. Gary K. Wolf, the original creator of Jessica Rabbit, did not mention Dougan as an inspiration for Jessica Rabbit. Jessica Rabbit was originally based on Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood. In a 1988 interview with the New York Times, animation director Richard Williams cited some flesh-and-blood inspirations as well:
It's the ultimate male fantasy, drawn by a cartoonist ... I tried to make her like Rita Hayworth; we took her hair from Veronica Lake, and Zemeckis kept saying, 'What about the look Lauren Bacall had?'
Without an acknowledgement from Zemeckis or his animators, it doesn't seem accurate to say that Dougan directly inspired Jessica Rabbit. Was she the most infamous example of a risque (for the time) look that the filmmakers seized upon? Without a doubt.
Her Celebrity Was Short-Lived
While she may not have inspired Jessica Rabbit, she did inspire music. In 1957, she appeared in a newswire photo which led the folk group The Limeliters to write a song called “Vikki Dougan.”
After numerous connections with various male celebrities, she married for a second time. Her new spouse, James R. Sweeney, was a former Texas Christian University football halfback. She was only 24. She claimed he drained her of her savings and after a year and a half of marriage, they divorced. She continued to be the subject of celebrity gossip columns.
But The Legend Lives On
Though she wasn't a success as an actress, Dougan was a fairly popular model -- particularly in the '50s, when the newsstand was rife with men's magazines trying to emulate the massive success of Hugh Hefner's magazine. Dougan appeared on the covers of magazines like Nugget, Gentleman, High, Foto-Rama and others -- not highbrow reading material, but not smut, either.
In 1969, she won $75,000 in a lawsuit against Cavalier magazine because they published nude photos of her in 1964 in a pictorial entitled “The Back is Back.” She did not give them permission to publish the photos. She said that she had posed naked for Playboy, but those shots were not published because she backed out. She did appear in Playboy twice before, once in 1957 and again in 1962.
Vikki Dougan is still alive, though she has faded from the spotlight. Her final credits included an appearance as a bus driver on The Carol Burnett Show in 1967.
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