Marilyn Monroe certainly achieved fame in the course of her 36-year lifetime, but in the five decades since her death, she’s become such a celebrity-branding superstar, it often feels as if America’s proto-platinum pinup never really left the building at all. She is routinely referenced in store windows and on runways; her image graces such products as glossy magazine covers and wine bottles; and her persona regularly flickers to new life on TV and movie screens.
The Monroe legacy is larger than her 33 movies, short-lived, high-profile marriages and messy personal life. Her profound transformation from a nobody named Norma Jeane Mortenson into a world-famous actress and blond bombshell resonates as a quintessential American success story and an almost impossibly perfect Cinderella story.
Once her metamorphosis was complete, her signature look — the alabaster skin, ruby red lips, platinum tresses and curvaceous body sheathed in form-fitting clothes — became a standard for feminine pulchritude.
Hippie chicks and their flower power came and went, and the sunken cheeks of heroin chic had their moment, but a half-century later it’s Monroe’s recipe for reinvention — since followed by the likes of Madonna, Anna Nicole Smith, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga and others — that perseveres.
That resonance is one reason why the stiletto-clad footfalls of Marilyn Monroe seem to be growing ever louder. One can hardly swing a white mink wrap without hitting a Marilyn-branded product or project, such as a CGI appearance in a Dior fragrance ad with Charlize Theron or her estate’s @MarilynMonroe Twitter feed, which has more than 52,000 followers.
And there’s more: If all goes according to plan, Marilyn fans will be able to end 2012 being able to wrap their bodies in Marilyn Monroe bathing suits, accessorize with Marilyn Monroe jewelry, paint their faces with Marilyn Monroe makeup, get their nails done at a Marilyn Monroe salon, slip into a pair of Marilyn Monroe stilettos and sip skinny lattes at a Marilyn Monroe Café.
There are other factors feeding the current Marilyn frenzy, of course, including the 50th anniversary of her death, by barbiturate overdose, on Aug. 5, 1962, and the current trend toward anything that smacks of retro-nostalgia (i.e. the"Mad Men"effect). But the fascination has been on the upswing longer than that, says Lois Banner, an author and USC history professor whose second book about the late actress, “Marilyn Monroe: The Passion and the Paradox,” was published earlier this month.
“There started to be articles about the ongoing fascination with Marilyn Monroe as far back as the mid-'70s,” says Banner, “after Norman Mailer published his biography. But ... it’s really increased in the last 12 years.”
Banner says the plethora of Monroe biographical material and photographic images have made every aspect of her life — including a childhood of shuttling between foster homes, sexual abuse and stuttering — well known to the American public. “This is one of the greatest stories of the American dream ever personified,” Banner said. “It’s all in there — how she made herself from nothing into something, and then how she made herself into all these different Marilyns. ... She could be made into whatever anyone wanted her to be.”
Currently, her name ranks third on Forbes magazine’s annual tally of “top-earning dead celebrities” for the 12 months ending October 2011, with an estimated $27 million in gross income — behind only Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. Before that, she hadn’t been on Forbes’ annual list since 2008.
In addition to licensing fees — the amount companies pay for the right to use Monroe’s name or likeness for a commercial or product — the most recent Forbes estimate includes the 2010 purchase price of a majority interest of the estate by a New York City branding and licensing company called Authentic Brands Group and its partner NECA (National Entertainment Collectibles Assn.) from Anna Strasberg (the widow of Monroe’s acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who inherited the bulk of her estate). Although the purchase price by the private company was not disclosed, it was reported to be somewhere north of $20 million.
Authentic’s chief marketing officer Nick Woodhouse wouldn’t confirm how much the partnership paid — or offer any guidance on the estate’s reported annual earnings, saying only that the Marilyn Monroe brand is “a very, very good business for us.”
Since taking control of La Monroe, Woodhouse said the first order of business was to cut back on the number of Marilyn-related licenses and focus on brokering deals that move the MM brand upmarket. He points to the aforementioned Dior TV ad and the poster for this year’s Cannes Film Festival (which featured Marilyn Monroe) as examples.
But a big part of the overall brand strategy, Woodhouse says, is expanding in the apparel and beauty categories.
“A larger ready-to-wear collection is the bull’s-eye for us,” he said. “We already have a strong intimates business with Dreamwear, which is also our partner for swimwear, which they’ll be launching in November. But apparel is something we’re actively pursuing with a number of partners.” Woodhouse hinted that a Marilyn Monroe label could possibly be a retail reality by spring 2013.
When asked about why Monroe continues to be a popular fashion icon, Woodhouse echoes Banner’s comments. “Whether she was rolling around on the beach in Malibu wearing a pair of Levi’s and a white Chino shirt, on stage in a very expensive ball gown singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the president or wearing a simple white dress, she managed to be all things to all people.”
Woodhouse also noted that the Marilyn Monroe of 1962 will always remain, well, the Marilyn Monroe circa 1962.
“Look at icons like Michael Jackson or Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “The memories of therm are a little bit different than maybe what they’d have liked their legacy to be. And with Marilyn it’s like she’s encased in Lucite.”
There are other projects in the works that leverage the Monroe name — beauty and cosmetics deals such as a 30-piece limited-edition Marilyn-inspired beauty collection with MAC Cosmetics, due in October, and an ambitious long-term deal that could result in several hundred Marilyn Monroe-themed nail salons and day spas popping up across the country over the next five or six years.
Niki Bryan, chief executive of Orlando, Fla.-based Marilyn Monroe Spas, which is aiming to open its first nail salon in that city before the end of the year, also points to Monroe’s ability to transform herself as key. But she thinks it’s the process — as opposed to the end product — that has real resonance in the beauty arena.
“That transformation took hard work and determination on her part and it was very skillful,” Bryan said. “She studied it, she learned it, and she made the effort, and it eventually became a seamless part of her life....”
Other projects currently in the works include a reality TV series titled “Finding Marilyn,” (which will focus on a dozen women who will compete for a chance to make it big in Hollywood), a line of jewelry inspired by the pieces she wore during her lifetime, the aforementioned spas and even a franchised chain of Marilyn Monroe-themed cafes.
Recent efforts to burnish the Marilyn brand make it seem likely that she won’t be a stranger to the Forbes ranking in future years — especially given what the folks at Authentic Brands Group have learned from mining social media data, which include some 3.3 million Facebook fans.
“Of all the people who’ve clicked the ‘like’ button at [the Marilyn Monroe] Facebook page, the top two age groups are the 13-to-17-year-old age group and the 18-to-24 group,” Woodhouse said. “She really resonates with youth.”
Which means Marilyn Monroe may very well remain pop culture’s reigning beauty queen into the next half-century.