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A century of sex symbols

By Chris Lee and Patrick Kevin Day

Bombshells. Sex kittens. Pin-up girls. In Hollywood, such creatures have always been in plentiful supply. But just about once in a generation, a bona fide sex symbol will come along to stand out from the pack: some beautiful Valkyrie whose mere photograph is enough to flutter the collective pulse and whose appearance on a red carpet causes both flashbulbs and eyes to pop. These women are synonymous with the S-word because they make men think impure thoughts rather than associate them with any particular movie role, product or publicist-constructed persona.

Every era gets the sex symbol it deserves -- at least, so goes pop cultural thinking on the matter. What then to make of Megan Fox? To be sure, she is the newest “it” girl to ascend into the vaunted pantheon of sex-bomb goddesses.

Here is a look back at a gallery of some sex symbols, bombshells and ingenues of yesteryear. Call them the proto-Foxes ...

Megan Fox: Sex-bomb or just a bomb? (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
When: 1922-'29

Sex symbolism: Heralded as the original “it” girl in 1927 -- appropriately enough, for appearing in the movie “It,” she is responsible for the coinage of that phrase -- Bow was a silent-movie superstar who appeared in a number of Roaring ‘20s blockbusters -- “Wings,” “Maytime” and “The Plastic Age” among them -- but she was equally notorious for her off-screen life. Pretty yet severe-looking in a gamine way, Bow is rumored to have had affairs with Hollywood swashbucklers such as Gary Cooper and John Wayne. (Courtesy the Estate of Clara Bow)
When: 1930-35

Sex symbolism: The German-born actress-singer became Hollywood’s most glamorous femme fatale on the strength of star turns in such movies as “Blond Venus,” “The Devil Is a Woman” and “The Scarlet Empress” -- films that highlighted her droop-lidded sensuality and Teutonic sang froid. But Dietrich was equally renowned as a kind of sexual conquistador for her time: a sexual libertine and frequent cross-dresser who took on lovers of both genders and enjoyed reported liaisons with Yul Brenner, Eddie Fisher and even Gen. George Patton, among others. (Turner Classic Movies)
When: 1943-57

Sex symbolism: Tall, statuesque and possessed of a Jessica Rabbit-like hourglass figure, Russell takes her place in the sex goddess pantheon as the beloved pin-up girl of enlisted men during World War II. Legend has it that Howard Hughes designed a decolletage-enhancing bra for Russell’s movie debut in “The Outlaw” (but Russell claimed in her 1988 autobiography that the movie mogul had nothing to do with that wardrobe choice). Nonetheless, her unique physionomy became a touchstone of the era. Among the thousands of comedic quips about her, Bob Hope once introduced the actress as “the two and only Jane Russell.” (File photo)
When: 1952-62

Sex symbolism: Practically from the word go -- or at least from the time she decided to give up the name Norma Jeanne Baker -- Monroe became associated in the public imagination more with sex than simple movie stardom. To wit: In 1953, just as her career in film was getting off the ground, a nude photo of the burgeoning bombshell was featured in the first issue of Playboy magazine. Although Monroe cemented her status as one of the all-time screen icon in films such as “The Seven Year Itch,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” her screen persona cohered around the “dumb blond” persona she’d adopted early on; it stuck. Right up until her untimely death in 1962 she continued to pose nude (famously for photographer Bert Stern in Vogue) and reflect on her status as a “star” and “sex symbol.” (Associated Press)
When: 1962-67

Sex symbolism: From the moment she emerged from the surf in a belted, off-white bikini in the 1962 James Bond flick “Dr. No,” Andress seared herself into the moviegoing psyche. The role not only cast her archetype as the early-to-mid-'60s most iconic Object of Male Lust, it also helped the Swiss-born actress-model become the iconic Bond girl, the female ideal against which all others would be measured. Like those of other epochal sex symbols, the notches on Andress’ bedpost are not unimpressive: She is said to have dated James Dean and Marlon Brando. (Abrams Books)
When: 1967-83

Sex symbolism: One of Bisset’s earliest movie appearances was in 1967’s Bond spoof “Casino Royale,” where she rounded out a cast that also included the ne plus ultra sexpot Ursula Andress. But the British Bisset staked her claim in the sex symbol sweepstakes in 1977’s “The Deep.” For that shlocky but successful thriller, the actress was filmed swimming underwater in a clingy, transparent T-shirt. The movie’s producer Jon Peters later commented, “That T-shirt made me a rich man.” By the time Newsweek proclaimed Bisset “the most beautiful actress of all time,” her status was cemented, resulting in a relatively lengthy sex-symbol run that extended into the “Me” decade with her appearance as a proto-cougar in 1983’s romantic comedy “Class” opposite a baby-faced Andrew McCarthy. (Associated Press)
When: 1974-97

Sex symbolism: If you ever wondered who benefited the most from the feminist bra-burning of the 1960s, look no further than the wall of an adolescent male circa 1976. That’s around the time Farrah’s sales-record-smashing poster, with the blonde smiling alluringly while wearing a red swimsuit in a very cold room, debuted shortly before the actress-model’s first appearance on the soon-to-be-hit TV series “Charlie’s Angels.” The show about three female detectives helped spur sales of her poster and launched Fawcett’s fame into the bombshell-osphere. She told TV Guide the next year she thought its ratings success was due to the fact that “none of us wears a bra.” Amazingly, she reclaimed bombshell status nearly 20 years later by posing nude in Playboy at age 50. (Associated Press)
When: 1979-90

Sex symbolism: One sure way to tell a true bombshell from a mere pretender is to gauge how often you see their hairstyle copied throughout the culture. Farrah Fawcett’s layered, feathered look was everywhere in the late ‘70s, and Bo Derek’'s awful plaited cornrows from the hit comedy “10" had a brief and tacky reign during the early ‘80s. Amazingly (for a bombshell), Derek had a stable love life -- she remained with her longtime husband John Derek from the time they got together in 1976 (when she was just 16) until his death in 1998. Despite her success being nude, Derek’s other talents were considerably less well-respected. She won three Golden Raspberry awards for worst actress and was nominated for worst actress of the century in 2000. (Warner Bros.)
When: 1990-2006

Sex symbolism: She got her start, like so many sex symbols, in the pages of Playboy, but it was the sight of her bounding (and bouncing) through the surf as California lifeguard C.J. Parker on “Baywatch” that cemented her sex symbol status. For a while the series was the biggest television show in the world, and it appeared Pam’s sex symbol-dom had reached its apex. But then a sex tape of her and husband Tommy Lee got leaked to the Internet and launched a cottage industry of leaked intimate tapes between beautiful young actresses and their smarmy boyfriends (Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian soon followed suit.) Though embarrassing, it transformed Anderson into a whole new kind of icon one who straddled the legitimate and increasingly mainstream pornographic world without seeming out of place in either one. Once she became a punchline in Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie “Borat,” however, it was apparent her influence was on the wane. (All American Television)
When: 1993-present

Sex symbolism: We used to like our bombshells to stay stateside, but with the international appeal of Pam Anderson on “Baywatch,” the bar was forever raised. Therefore, it took Angelina Jolie traveling abroad to adopt children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, while giving birth to other children in Namibia and France, to really cement her sex symbol status. This is after several awkward phases -- including her “rising sex symbol” phase when she was picked to fill out the extremely form-fitting costume of videogame sex icon Lara Croft in the “Tomb Raider” movies, and her “weird” phase that had her wearing husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in vial on a necklace and behaving a bit too lovingly toward her brother at the Oscars in 2000. Her work with the UN and her travels abroad demonstrate that it takes a lot more than sprawling across the hood of a sports car or twirling your hair to achieve major sex-symbol status in the 21st century. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)