As a feminist, I have a complicated, conflicted, relationship with beauty pageants. But this vintage booklet from the 1923 Mineralava Beauty Pageant fascinates me because of the man involved: Rudolph Valentino.
Not just some master of ceremonies, Valentino was both the star and the prize of this contest: “The Most Beautiful Woman In America May be the Leading Lady of Valentino’s Next Picture.”
When the silent film star walked out of his Famous Players-Lasky (FP-L) contract in 1923, the studio suspended him without pay and won an injunction that prevented him from working for another studio, leaving the decadent dandy desperate for money. In Rudolph Valentino & the Mineralava Tour of 1923, Edward Lorusso explains:
Desperate for money, Valentino and Rambova decided to create a dance act and tour the country for Mineralava Beauty Clay cosmetics. Starting in New York City’s Century Theatre at a benefit for the Actors Fund on a bill with Will Rogers and Jeanne Eagels, the couple caused a sensation and received 20 curtain calls. Valentino was stampeded by 300 fans as he left the theater. A Boston headline claimed “10,000 Girls Mob World’s Greatest Kisser.” The mobs became so predictable that Valentino and Rambova often escaped theaters over rooftops. The couple performed in 88 cities in the United States and Canada during a grueling 17-week tour. The hysteria followed them wherever they performed.
The dance tour garnered a tremendous amount of publicity and earned the couple a big weekly salary plus a percentage of the gate. They broke house records in several theaters. But while Valentino was mobbed by hordes of fans in every city, local newspaper coverage often sniped at his romantic movie image and professional dancing as being “unmanly.” Plus, Valentino was hawking beauty products that he claimed to use himself.
Following the example of dance idols Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, the Valentinos created exotic dances and sumptuous costumes to the accompaniment of their own traveling orchestra. They performed a number of dances, but the tango routines were the ones that always brought down the house.
The beauty contest (the Miss America contest started in 1921) was another publicity angle of the tour. Mineralava sponsored a contest in each of the tour’s 88 cities and Valentino “judged” all the contestants. Then all 88 beauties descended on New York City, where they were paraded up Fifth Avenue to the Madison Square Garden. A young David O. Selznick made a short film of the contest called Rudolph Valentino and His 88 American Beauties; the film survives and is a fascinating glimpse at a “natural” Rudolph Valentino as well as the beauty contest styles of the day. Selznick shows the terrifying hordes of people who mobbed the streets outside Madison Square Garden, hoping for a glimpse of Valentino. Inside the Garden, the 88 girls come out onto a stage that is surrounded by crowds. Each girl (most with bobbed hair and bee-stung lips) parades in a gown and sash proclaiming her city and carrying (for some unknown reason) a ribboned Bo-Peep staff.
Along with being a great advertising piece, I find this vintage booklet to be a lovely little piece of women’s history, combining the power of the women as consumers with their status as prey for marketers. Along with the testimonials from “women in American Homes,” collectors of silent film will also enjoy all the celebrity endorsements from silent film stars such as Nazimova, Mae Murray, Marion Davies, and Marie Prevost.
Other items from this beauty pageant tour can be found too. Donna L. Hill, author of Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs (who also runs Rudolph-Valentino.com, owns this original trophy from the Mineral Lava Beauty Contest in Baltimore. (The Baltimore contestant came in third overall in the national contest.)
Along with trophies, Mineralava gave out boudoir dolls of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova to contest winners.
As fabulous as this pageant was for Valentino (it did get him a better contract — if also assisting in the “Pink Powder Puff” slur) and, one presumes, Scott’s Mineralava Beauty Clay, at the time, the story doesn’t really end well… Valentino’s life lasted just a few more years and Mineralava seems only a footnote in the life of Valentino.
Images of the 1923 Mineralava Beauty Pageant booklet, measuring 5 1/2 by 8 inches, via Grapefruit Moon Gallery.
Old newspaper archive photo of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova boudoir dolls found in The Doll of Choice by Movie Stars & Naughty Girls, by Linda Wulfestieg (published in Contemporary Doll Collector, March 2009).