Seher Şeniz and the Melancholy Nature of Fame

Being a 1970s Turkish pin-up queen was no easy task. Just ask Seher Seniz; a stunningly beautiful belly dancer/actress who became famous and infamous in the Middle East and Europe for her boldness, dark-haired good looks, and free spirit. She gained notoriety during the golden era of Turkish film, whose Yeşilçam (literally translated to “Green Pine”) movie industry was Turkey’s answer to Hollywood. But despite all the fame and glory, Seher was a deeply tortured individual who dissipated mentally until she tragically took her own life in 1992.

She was born as Seher Başdaş in the district of Narlıdere, in the scenic Aegean coast city of İzmir on March 1, 1948. She was a sensitive and moody Pisces who learned how to survive without a father after he left her family at a young age. When asked about her youth, she stated, “We have never been a close family. I can say that I never had a family.” When she was 14, she started acting in bit part roles in movies. At the age of 16, Seher was forced into marriage with an older man who was obsessed with her. According to Turkish law, a girl came “of age” once she had married, regardless of how old she actually was. Showing her resolve and resistance, Seher managed to end the marriage after a month and used the law to her advantage to emancipate herself from her mother.

She despised being married to a man who was forced upon her, and said in a 1981 interview that:

When I got married, I didn’t even know the biological difference between a man and a woman. I was so embarrassed, my first night was a complete disaster. I was inexperienced, he was inexperienced. I couldn’t get out of the bathroom for 2.5 hours.

For 10 years, until I was 25, I couldn’t think about sex. I couldn’t touch a man. I started to doubt myself for a while… ‘I wonder if I’m a lesbian or do I like women’… Thank God I wasn’t… That 10-year depression is far behind, now it’s like a dream. Look, my shyness hasn’t gone away. Even today, I am ashamed to undress in front of a man. I blush when I undress. Among the men who come into my life, no one has sex with me in the light. My bedroom is always dark. I undress in the dark, I make love in the dark.”

In the 1960s. The bottom pic is pre-nose job.

Unusually, Seher’s husband’s family approved of their divorce, because he was then quickly engaged to a wealthy girl. They were divorced in one brief court appearance. This debacle no doubt tainted her view of life, sex and relationships, society as a whole, and even her own family. Her mother must have married her off early due to financial desperation or disagreements over her acting and modelling career, but the fiasco destroyed a part of her daughter’s soul. Seher chose to move with her mother, older brother and sister to Istanbul in hopes of establishing a better life, though after a certain point, she cut ties with her mother permanently because they did not see eye to eye. She retained relationships with her siblings, but they were never that close.

Pageant Girl

When she was 17 years old in 1965, she placed 4th in the Caddebostan Beach Beauty contest, and she dropped out of high school. A year later, Seher won 2nd place at the 1966 Turkey Beauty Contest. Famous for her fiery temper, she became angry at placing second so she threw her ribbon at the jury and stormed off. She yelled at them, “How can you choose me second, I’m a queen.” She also made some hilariously bitchy comments about her winning opponent:

“Sevtap is a beautiful girl. But she was not really in shape during the competition and it was my right to take first place. The audience shouted, ‘Seher… Seher…’ for minutes. I didn’t receive my prize.”

Psychedelic poster art for Katerina 72

The incident got her noticed, and from 1970 to 1975 her acting career peaked. At the urging of movie producers (who told her she was perfect except for her supposedly “large” nose), Seher underwent a rhinoplasty. This would lead to a lifetime of constant plastic surgeries, such as breast implants, Botox and more nose job revisions. She starred in mostly forgotten Turkish B-movies which were loaded with the smut, violence, and cheesiness that was typical of cinema at the time. Seher was usually casted for her face and body, something which she disdained. She claimed to be a shy woman who hated disrobing for cameras, and that she was even timid while undressing in front of her husbands, protesting:

A rare pic of her relaxing with no makeup on.

“Actually, you’ll be surprised again, but sex is not as important to me. I am one of the most romantic people in the world. Rather than making love, I like to sit for hours holding hands. If the liars who pour rose petals on the stage in buckets during my shows knew that I actually get more pleasure from a single rose that, it would affect me more…”

In 1971, she made her first and only famous movie: Tarkan: Viking Kani AKA Tarkan vs. the Vikings, which is now a cult classic. The low budget swashbuckler film was one in a series of several movies which detailed the tales of a Hunnic warrior named Tarkan, and his encounters with Vikings (played by random Turks in blonde wigs). Seher plays a Chinese queen named Lotus and she performs an impressive knife-throwing striptease dance. This oddball Conan the Barbarian-esque B-movie became a “so bad it’s good” staple of Turkish cinema, and was her only film to become popularized among western filmgoers.

The elaborate headdress she wore in Tarkan: Viking Kani (1971) was iconic.

Seher starred in 22 roles during her career, including a 1982 uncredited appearance as a belly dancer in the trashy American TV show Love Boat. She is often referred to as the first Turkish model to appear in Playboy magazine, but it was actually Nejla Ateş in 1955. As well as acting, Seher did nude modelling and danced at nightclubs throughout Europe to supplement her income. For a time she lived in Paris, and belly danced at the Moulin Rouge. It was perhaps here where she met her second husband; an American named Anthony Wilkins. This marriage was short lived, and next she married an Armenian named Teknur Kiraz.

Queen of the Nightclubs

When Seher was underaged and unable to obtain a work permit to dance in Turkish strip clubs, she used a fake ID which went by the name of “Zora.” Initially, she made 150 lira per night, but she was quickly promoted to 500 for her talented dance routines. For the time period, it was as much as a moderately successful civil servant. At first, Seher disliked being a belly dancer:

“For the first six years, I was disgusted with my job. I hated belly dancing and was ashamed of myself for doing it to earn money. Then I got used to it. I believed that belly dancing was an art. Now I dance with pleasure.”

“I dance to Arabic music. But not all. Generally, this music is very heavy. I stayed in Cairo for 15 days to find music for myself. It is difficult for me to work in Turkey. We have six musicians who can play Arabic style. It’s impossible to put them together and put them on stage. That’s why I dance with playback. But with playback, I can’t get in the mood, nor the audience. I’m in a quandary about it.

I am an ape-tempered person. I get bored quickly. Maybe that’s why I like traveling, different places, different people.”

Visiting Egypt helped Seher realize that belly dancing was an art form, and she devised new methods of dance techniques after learning from locals. Her greatest love was travelling, and she wanted to observe every hidden corner of the world, even if it was not always profitable. She said “I will visit without thinking of money. Drink and eat and I will dance. I’ll see, and what I learn will stay with me as the profit.” After awhile, the money seems to have dried up and she was obliged to go back home.

With two failed marriages under her belt, Seher returned to Turkey in the 1980s and began performing at high end casinos in Istanbul. She was one of the most sought after belly dancers of her time. Regardless, the 1980s were described as a time of “great spiritual depression” for her, and this is when her life went into a downwards spiral. She felt oppressed by the 1980 Turkish military coup, which saw censorship and cinematic decline. The 1970s were a sexually liberated and decadent time period for Turkish cinema, but things were about to change.

The Yeşilçam golden era had come to an end, and Turkey had come to be ruled by a far-right Islamist military dictatorship which saw half a million Turks jailed, and thousands killed and disappeared. Interestingly, the CIA was involved (as they always are). There is no doubt that all of this brutality negatively affected Seher’s already fragile mental health. After the military coup was reversed in 1983, she performed in her final film in 1985. Her acting career was, effectively, over. This was perhaps one of the reasons why she had tried to commit suicide a year earlier.

On June 29, 1984, a 35-year old Seher overdosed on four bottles of Mogadon, a benzo used for insomnia and anxiety. She was rushed to the American Hospital in Istanbul by a shocked journalist who had turned up for an interview appointment, and was revived with great difficulty. After a twelve hour coma, she came to and uttered “I want to die.” It is said that she attempted suicide after her affair with a married businessman had crumbled. Seher was the type of girl who always dated rich. She didn’t care how the guy looked as long as he was loaded. Unfortunately, these sugar daddies never lasted too long and often left her heartbroken. They only saw her as the “other woman.”

Three years earlier though, Seher had made this statement:

“Men don’t know how to get women. They fall for them too hard. Women run away from what falls on them. There should be a bit of ‘run to the rabbit, catch the bloodhound’ atmosphere. If I were a man, there wouldn’t be a woman in the world that I couldn’t get. I learned this so well…”

She seemed to be an odd mixture of bravado and frailty.

Unable to cope with aging, a flailing career, a string of shattered relationships, and crushing depression, she turned to pharmaceutical drugs to numb the pain. In movies, she had always played the beautiful, oversexed and self-assured femme fatale role. In reality, she was a vulnerable and emotional person who disliked being objectified and sexualized. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1967, a gutsy Seher gave an interview to Pazar Dergisi magazine before her acting career blew up. In it, she is quizzed about her antipathy towards the Turkish film industry:

“I am not against Turkish cinema. Turkish cinema is actually against me. To put it bluntly, I don’t like the roles they offer. Small roles, all the time… Yes, I am not considered an important name in cinema, but I have a name for myself onstage… Filmmakers came and said ‘Seher, there is a wonderful role for you in this movie. Madam, it’s a great role. You will get undressed in one scene of the movie. You’re going to strip, you’re going to have to go to bed and have sex.’ Come on, step up the better roles…”

“Besides, what is the money they offer for these roles? They can’t even give me the money that I want. Even if they try to give it, they put me under a debt to them. I swear they’d be embarrassed if they knew I didn’t have time to deal with controlling contracts. And they’d never mention it again. I don’t mind getting undressed. Thank God that my body is beautiful. I don’t have an ugly angle… In the movies, I can undress as they want. But give me the lead role.”

“My name is Seher Şeniz. I am one of the most famous names in the striptease field. I have over tens of thousands of fans. We are not dead if we have not become an important actor in the cinema. I don’t care about anything. I have money in the bank, I get by like a rose. What else do I want from God, more trouble? Whenever I have the opportunity, I also go to Europe. Every night I count my money in my palm. As you can see, I am in a good mood. I have direction. I don’t intend to go back to zero again.”

This interview is fascinating because it shows how bold and fiery she was as a person, and her high levels of ambition and drive. After being abandoned by her father as a youth and forced into an arranged marriage, Seher became hardened to life and was determined to support herself and succeed. Initially, she held strong principles about not wanting to act unless she approved of the role. Unfortunately, she never received the important lead role she had always desired and was relegated to mere eye candy. It is tough to find pictures where she is fully or even partially clothed.

In May of 1992, Seher told her older brother Turhan Başdaş “I am going to Europe,” and left him the keys to her Teşvikiye apartment. On May 14, due to the smell of her decaying body, suspicious neighbours informed the police and Turhan that something was wrong. When they broke down the door, they discovered that Seher had been dead for several days, maybe even weeks. It was a grim end for the 44-year old actress, whose second suicide attempt had succeeded. The autopsy discovered that she had died after drinking hundreds of morphine pills (!!!) with two bottles of whiskey. She left behind a heartbreaking suicide note which delivered a scathing indictment of society:

“No one is responsible for my death. I swallowed 100 synthetic morphine pills and took other sleeping pills. Thank god I managed to go. I am disgusted and always have been disgusted by all of you. When I was only 15, I understood what people in this world are worth. I finally managed to leave this disgusting world. It would be a joke if I said it was hard to die. I am not made to be a whore, I am sensitive and emotional, no one knows. Tell no one that I am dead. I don’t want to be buried according to Muslim traditions. Burn my wigs and scatter the ashes. Wrap me in a white robe and cover me up, that’s all…”

Seher in the 1980s

Unfortunately, her relatives did not honor her last wishes and buried her according to Islamic tradition. Seher left the property to her brother Turhan, who was a retired lieutenant colonel. Of her death, he said:

“She mostly lived abroad. Sometimes in France, sometimes in England. She wasn’t working, but she had no financial problems. Recently, she was saying that she was tired of everything, of the world and people. She had seen everything she could see in her life. Therefore, she was in a depressive mental space. She wasn’t alone, she had many friends.”

A Turkish newspaper wrote her a touching obituary in Sept of 1993: “Her dance was like willow branches swaying in the wind. In the slowly fading light of fire, a belly dancer, dressed in shawls and smiling, came, and turned the darkness into gold and then left this realm.” Sadly, Seher did not see the light she brought into the world or the goodness that was still possible, so she ended her life. Years earlier, she gave a very prescient interview in May of 1981 about her feelings on religion and the afterlife:

One of her last pictures.

“I believe in God. I also believe in being born again… And I know that I will come to the world as a man next time. That’s when women should be afraid of Seher… If he comes back to the world as a man, knowing how to get all the women, woe to those who will come… I love all animals except snakes and scorpions. I can’t keep animals because I love them too much. Because I can’t stand separation and death. I also love children very much.”

Not many people knew who she really was as a person, or the intelligent and creative side of her that longed to be a mother, an artist, and a normal woman. The detailed interview also described the journalist visiting Seher at her apartment in the chic and affluent Şişli district:

“Seher was ladylike… Her house is a charming, tastefully furnished penthouse. The highlights are books and musical instruments. She loves all kinds of music. She also likes to read. It’s time to read, when she goes to bed to sleep at night… But when she picks up a book, a thousand thoughts come to mind. She also likes to daydream. That’s why she was unable to finish the few books she started. Outside the stage, she has little to do with paint or make-up… Same with clothing… When you meet her on the street, it’s hard to think she’s a famous stage artist. Someone like you and us. Quiet, unpretentious…”

Seher Seniz was a woman of many talents, ideals, dreams and contradictions. On one hand she gave off the image of strength and self sufficiency, yet on the other hand the sexual exploitation of the 1970s seems to have taken its toll on her. She was a driving female force in the Muslim world, who inspired women to embrace their sexuality and to dress how they desired; yet she was also someone who was ashamed of nudity and who became fed up with being treated like a sex object for her entire career.

Inspiring pop culture: British producer S. Maharba uses rare images of Seher for his album artwork.

Her beauty was unearthly and rare, but she was deeply insecure to the point where she botched her nose with endless rhinoplasties. Her belly dancing influenced many performers after her, yet she had reservations about the profession. She loved her home country, but she disdained the manner in which women were treated within Muslim society; and her last wishes were a rejection of her faith. At the same time, she also expressed a profound belief in god. She believed in love and wanted children, yet all three of her marriages collapsed and a spoiled affair drove her to attempt suicide.

Seher was a captivating figure who entrances fans and admirers to this day. She had a star quality and charisma which attracted people to her, but she could not find peace within herself. Perhaps she has been reincarnated as a man, like she wished to be. Or maybe she is still dancing on, as a ray of brilliant light in the afterlife.

The Ecstatic Rise and Bitter Fall of Barbara Bates

Hollywood: it chews you up, and then spits you out. This proverb was never more true than in the case of Barbara Bates; a psychologically fragile Old Hollywood actress who managed to withstand several career disappointments, until a final tragedy drove her to grim suicide.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1925, Barbara always had a gift for glamour. She was a dark-haired, shy and demure enchantress, who modelled as a teen and studied ballet, eventually winning a beauty contest that changed her life. The prize? Round trip tickets to Hollywood, of course.

In 1944, Barbara and her mother went to L.A. in search of fame and glory. Two days before they were due to return home, they met a publicist for United Artists studio named Cecil Coan.

Barbara was only 19-years old, and Cecil was 45 and married with four children. None of this deterred the pair, who began a torrid affair that unexpectedly turned into a successful 22 year marriage. He divorced his wife as soon as possible to marry Barbara, 26 years his junior. Despite the initial creepiness of the pairing, they were deeply in love and would stay together until Cecil’s death.

Immediately, Cecil began working his magic and turned Barbara into a budding starlet. In September of 1944, Barbara signed a contract with Universal Pictures.

Cecil had introduced her to producer Walter Wanger, who was looking to cast “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his upcoming picture Salome Where She Danced. Barbara received a role as one of the seven dancing girls, alongside Yvonne De Carlo. She seemed set for stardom, but her career would stall in the next few years.

In 1947, producer William T. Orr convinced Barbara to dye her hair blonde. After she did, however, he told her, “You are not the blonde type. Be yourself.” Asshole, much?

Blonde Barbie

At this time, she also began pin-up modelling on the side to make some extra cash. Shy and reserved Barbara resented doing sleazy cheesecake shoots, but they caused her to catch a thirsty Warner Bros. rep’s eye, and she received her first big role alongside Danny Kaye in the 1949 musical comedy The Inspector General.

Sadly, much of her part was lost on the cutting room floor. To add insult to injury, Warner Bros. tried to force Barbara to go to New York to promote the release of The Inspector General, but she was too proud to submit to the studio’s whims and they fired her. An exasperated Barbara then attempted suicide, but the studio managed to cover it up and hide this from the press. This was the beginning of a repeated series of suicide attempts by Barbara, prompted by either personal or career lows.

Barbara (middle) pretends to play chess with Julie London and Daun Kennedy in a 1945 pin-up

In 1949, she discussed the ins and out of being a star with a newspaper. She described how:

 “Every Hollywood newcomer goes through a sex school. They have regular exercises to bring out your…uh…fire. They told [drama coach] Sophie Rosenstein to ‘put some sex into me.’ She did. Sophie made me throw back my shoulders and stick out my chest.

Then I had to sit in front of a mirror and breathe deeply—for hours and hours… They want you to become conscious of your body and to…well…to throw your curves at the world. And all the while you’re supposed to be thinking sexy thoughts. They don’t tell you what. That’s one thing they leave up to you.” 

If that sounds grotesque to you, you’re not the only one! Barbara was already in a unstable state: she was known to suffer from depression and mood swings from the very start, clearly due to untreated mental illness. Instead of being honest with her about realistic career goals, various Hollywood studios treated Barbara like a cheap floozy, giving her only tiny insignificant bit parts as a meager reward for signing on with them.

Barbara had also developed a reputation of being difficult on set. Jeffrey Hunter, who co-starred with Barbara in 1952’s Belles on Their Toes, claimed that she was “very disturbed. I felt uncomfortable in her presence and felt she was a very troubled young woman.” However, Ray McDonald, who starred alongside her in the 1953 Mickey Rooney musical All-Ashore, claimed that “she was easy to work with but had moods of depression.”

In May of 1949, another sleazy yet typical Hollywood incident occurred: Notorious lech Harry Cohn (head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958) offered to sign a contract with Barbara on one condition: she divorce her husband. She refused. He called her two nights later, and drunkenly invited her to his yacht. She refused again.

In E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers, he describes how Harry Cohn “was said to have verbally or physically raped every woman that ever worked for his studio.” Harry was a known pervert who was rumored to have forced the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak to sleep with him in order to be cast in starring roles. His track record makes Harvey Weinstein seem chaste in comparison, and would be definite cause for a #MeToo hashtag in the 21st century.

However, it was the late 1940s, and since Barbara refused to play Hollywood’s licentious game of casting couch bingo, she would never gain the big-name stardom she had always dreamed of.

But alas, there finally came a small light at the end of the tunnel: Barbara managed to land a contract with 20th Century-Fox, who cast her in the biggest picture of 1950, the Bette Davis classic All About Eve.

Barbara in All About Eve

Barbara’s role was minor, but it was the one she would always be remembered for. The Hollywood Reporter described her memorable appearance in the final scene as “sum[ming] up the whole action and point of the story. It’s odd that a bit should count for so much, and in the hands of Miss Bates all the required points are fulfilled.”

With the money from her big role, she bought a 51-foot yacht named The Bayadère, which cost $45,000 (adjusted as $480k for modern inflation). Barbara spent 8 months learning how to sail and navigate the yacht at a Coast Guard School. Hollywood did have a few perks after all! The studio even installed a radio-telephone on the yacht to enslave contact her at all times.

Barbara had a few more notable roles left: the 1950 cheesefest Cheaper by the Dozen, and the brainless 1953 Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedy The Caddy. She was frustrated with these moronic films, lamenting to gossip columnist Erskine Johnson on how “I thought great things were going to happen [after All About Eve]. So far—nothing. They keep casting me as a 16-year-old; I can’t seem to get up to 20.”

Enjoying a sandwich and coke on her yacht

Then came her dream role: Barbara was screen tested for the suicidal ballerina character in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 comedy-drama Limelight. As a former childhood ballerina, she would have been perfect for the part. Chaplin was delighted with her audition, and offered her the role himself.

Unfortunately, dictatorial Fox refused to loan Barbara out to United Artists to film the picture, due to the fact that they resented Chaplin for his supposed communist ties. Barbara was left heartbroken and destroyed after losing the role of a lifetime.

After this, Barbara’s career tanked. She was fired from the 1954 sitcom It’s a Great Life for “erratic behavior.” What set her off? Well, let us examine an interview Barbara gave columnist Lydia Lane on the set of the TV show, just months before she was canned:

 “I have had such trouble keeping thin. I dearly love anything sweet—especially chocolate—and to say no really takes discipline. But it isn’t healthy to be dieting all the time… The thing to do is find the weight at which you are comfortable and level off.

I keep a check by weighing in every morning, and if I’ve gained even a pound, I start cutting down. I have a calorie chart which I carry in my handbag and this helps me limit myself to 500 calories a day until I’m back to normal. I haven’t had to diet for quite a while, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

On the set of Rhapsody (1954)

500 calories a day? Who wouldn’t feel like shit on this diet? Obviously, Hollywood has an obsession with thinness and actresses are required to stay in shape. But this was eating disorder territory, and it was no wonder poor Barbara was losing her mind from the pressures mounting all around her.

Out of work and desperate, Cecil arranged for Barbara to go to England and sign on with the Rank Organisation in 1956. The studio felt she was too old at the age of 31, and advertised her as being a 24-year old. She was cast in a few films, but suffered a nervous breakdown and health issues which caused her to abandon the sets while filming. Many suspected that Barbara attempted suicide once again. Nevertheless, she was fired by Rank in 1957, and was forced to return to the USA.

She played in several TV commercials to make some quick cash, as the couple had lost money due to bad land investments in Spain. Barbara’s old friend Rory Calhoun landed her a final movie part in his 1958 western Apache Territory. Her last TV appearance was in a 1962 episode of The Saint. An unceremonious end for a troubled career.

In 1960, the couple converted to Catholicism and moved to a modest Beverly Hills apartment. Throughout her chaotic life, Cecil had proven to be an unmoving rock of support for Barbara. He was her manager, agent, husband, lover, best friend and closest confidante for most of her adult life. Tragically, Cecil was diagnosed with cancer, and the last sane threads of Barbara’s life quickly unraveled.

She put aside her career to loyally care for the ailing Cecil, but the stress of being his constant nurse caused Barbara to snap. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists, but survived yet again. These were very dark times for her, and the final straw was when Cecil died in January of 1967. She was at his bedside, romantic and steadfast until the very end. But when Cecil passed, something in Barbara died with him.

If she was already suicidal even in the presence of Cecil, now she was completely lost. Feeling aimless, Barbara left California for good and returned home to Denver. To her credit, she did attempt to rebuild a life: she attended a secretarial school by night, and worked as a nurse’s aide in the daytime. She was also a dental assistant at one point, and often volunteered at church.

What does this tell us? Barbara was dead broke. Cecil’s hospital bills must have drained her Hollywood fortune. Being relegated to the boring common life of a wageslave after starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in films and purchasing half a million dollar yachts was disastrous.

At the end of 1968, she remarried: to a sportscaster named William Reed, who also happened to be a childhood friend. The marriage did not seem to be very romantic, and was most likely just an arrangement of convenience to prevent the onset of late-age loneliness.

So here was Barbara: back in her hometown, aging, married to a man from her youth, her Hollywood career totally faded; as she worked obscure random jobs to rake up pitiful sums of cash she would have laughed at in her days as a top actress.

It was all too much.

On March 18, 1969, Barbara’s mother returned to their suburban home, and found the garage was locked and sealed from the bottom. Upon unlocking the door, she found Barbara dead in the front seat of her Volkswagen. She had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 43.

This came after a mere four months of marriage, indicating Barbara’s unhappiness in her newfound relationship. There are also reports that she was pregnant at the time and that this may have set her off. She was quietly buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Colorado.

Barbara once said “I have no illusions about being a star. Every time I did something really important, they ended up cutting it.” This was an accurate summation of her life and career: she lived a brief, painful and beautiful existence full of heartbreak and malady. Hollywood had drained her and then tossed her aside when they deemed her too old, mentally ill, and washed up. She was the victim of the monstrous machine of cinema, but she managed to free herself with death.

Karen Lancaume: A Tale of Suicide, Sex and Violence

Karen Lancaume was a French porn star who despised her profession and committed suicide at the age of 32. To be fair, not many female porn actresses enjoy their job: 69% of women in the sex industry report suffering from PTSD. For a sensitive and intelligent woman like Karen, her psychological wounds proved to be fatal.

She was born in Lyon to a wealthy family who would later disapprove of her career choices. Her real name was Karine. Her mother was Moroccan, and her father was French.

Karen was raised in the placid and serene countryside, spending much of her time with her brother and several pets. Her existence was sheltered, but as a child, the shy girl enjoyed playing in the forests and exploring nature.

She graduated college with a Communications degree, and considered a career in advertising. Karen lost her virginity at the age of 17.

The path she went down was antithetical to the promise of her youth. Attractive, educated, and rich; she was not your stereotypical “bimbo” pin-up queen. What forced her hand into the adult film industry?

It all began when she started working weekends at a nightclub to pay off her college debts. It is odd to note that her wealthy parents didn’t help her out financially.

When she met a disc jockey named Franck Ceronne at the club, Karen fell head over heels and the couple quickly married. He promised her a life of domestic bliss with several children. Unfortunately, the pair somehow managed to amass crushing debts and were struggling to pay them off when Franck came up with a bright idea: they should start filming pornos for quick cash.

At first Franck promised Karen that they would only make adult films together, and she would not have to engage with other men on screen. The couple quickly discovered that Franck could not perform in front of a camera, and he wasn’t sizable enough phallic-wise to impress producers.

Karen was then pressured into having sex with other partners on screen. She would later go on to say that “a man who truly loves you would never make you do that.”

The couple divorced in 1997, and Karen continued filming porn to pay the bills. Porn producers and directors adored her. She rose to stardom; working with the biggest names in the European adult film industry, and was even nominated for a Hot d’Or award.

Karen wrote of her work: “Double penetrated at a freezing 5 ° C, followed by an ejaculation. Covered with sperm, soaked, dead cold, no one handed me a towel. Once you have shot your scene, you’re worth nothing.” The lack of empathy she faced on set only fueled her distaste and disillusionment.

In 1995, Karen was gang raped: “I went to buy cigarettes at two in the morning after work, and three guys trapped me.” This was no doubt a brutal experience which scarred her psyche. Sex had become a tool of suffering in her life, which others used to brutalize and punish her for being attractive.

In 1999, almost four years into her porn career, Karen received an offer that would change her life. Writer and former sex worker Virginie Despentes was looking for someone to star in her new and explosive film project Baise Moi (Fuck Me), and required actresses who would consent to perform unsimulated sex scenes.

Virginie approached Karen and a fellow porn actress named Raffaela Anderson at Cannes Film Festival after seeing them in a documentary. She immediately knew they were perfect for the role, with co-director Coralie Trinh Thi noting how: “These two were really different from the other girls. The little one, Raffaela, was very funny. The big one, Karen, looked like she could beat someone up.”

Raffaela’s character is raped during a scene in the film, and it was emotionally difficult for her to perform since she had already suffered assault in real life, just as Karen had. She was raped by two men who recognized her from her adult film career. Outrageously, the public prosecutor told Raffaela not to complain about being raped, since she was a porn star and therefore deserved it.

Raffaela and Karen on set

The plot of the film centers around two angry women who go on a gory killing spree. There is even a a rather interesting scene where an abusive male bar patron is sodomized with a gun. Baise Moi was cathartic for its two stars, functioning as a satisfying rape-revenge movie in which the perpetrators receive scathing doses of violence in return.

For anyone who’s seen it, Baise Moi is unforgettable. It isn’t the type of film to win any awards, but it is a classic of the New French Extremity movement. It caused a massive controversy upon its release, and was initially banned in Australia, Canada, Singapore and the U.K. for its excessive depictions of sex and violence.

Critics were flabbergasted, calling the film “Thelma and Louise on crack.” To be quite frank: Baise Moi makes Natural Born Killers look like a children’s cartoon. French right-wing parties associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen attempted to have the movie banned, but it was finally released with an X-rated certificate for 18+ audiences.

The iconic bar scene

Karen’s performance was powerful and charismatic: she was tall, dark, gorgeous, intimidating, and great with a gun; the personification of badassery. Audiences, however, were not prepared to see two former porn stars headlining a film. Director Virginie Despentes claimed that:

“The real problem is that Baise-Moi is a film about violent ‘lower class’ women, made by supposedly marginal women. The mainstream doesn’t want to hear about people with nothing, the disenfranchised, the marginals, taking up arms and killing people for fun and money. It happens, of course, but we’re not allowed to acknowledge it.

Then there’s the question of the actresses. Of course it’s fine to have porn films and porn actresses, but when you put them in a naturalistic drama that causes all kinds of problems. Why? Because you’ve destroyed the idea that they are sexual toys and brought them to life.

We really took the brunt of a lot of prejudice and paranoia. We didn’t realise just how much fear and hatred it would arouse, but it definitely stoked up a lot of nasty stuff. Not least because it’s about poor, non-white women. In France, there’s real conflict between the white majority and the Arabic population.

Our two lead actresses both have African roots – one is half-Moroccan, the other half-Algerian – and in France, don’t harbour any illusions, it’s visceral, this problem. A lot of people really don’t want to see two North African women who have been raped taking up arms and shooting European men. That’s a little too close to historical reality.”

Despite starring in an attention-grabbing incendiary film in which her performance was praised, Karen’s acting career never really took off. She was tired of porn and done with the industry, but she could not shake off the restrictive shackles of her past. The six years she spent doing adult films had taken its toll on her.

In an interview, she railed against gender inequality: “Why are women grabbed by the ass and not men? All we ask for is understanding, equality. In porn, guys enjoy the mouth of girls, the woman takes it on the face. Baise Moi, it’s the opposite.” Karen eventually wanted to write an autobiography about her life in the adult film industry, but sadly she never got the chance to.

On January 28, 2005 at midnight, Karen committed suicide in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Paris, with the aid of sleeping pills and alcohol. She left a note addressed to her mother, writing only the words “too painful.”

The final scene of Baise Moi

It was a week after her 32nd birthday. She died alone on a Friday night, with her friends returning later that weekend only to find her deceased. They claimed she had been in a good mood, and shown no signs of wanting to harm herself.

Associates described Karen as somber and introverted, often dressed in black. Virginie said of her; “She’s the only girl I knew whose big dream was to be a housewife. The first time she told me that, I preferred to put it aside, but knowing her better, I understood that it existed as a dream. It was her thing. We do not always do what we want.”

Karen had dreams that lay way beyond her porn career: to star in mainstream films, to fall in love, to have children, to write a book about her life, and to live with financial security and happiness. She did not manage to make these dreams materialize, and gave in to the psychological torment which had plagued her for years.

When you search “Karen Lancaume” on the internet, you are flooded with hordes of obscene photos and videos. Where are the stories of her life and humanity, outside of the pornographic industry?

In death, Karen deserves to be respected, regardless of what she did for a living. This written piece is a tribute to her life, and a lamentation for the things that could have been.

Let us end with the words of her friend Virginie, who said that Karen had “a sweetness, an incredible femininity. And at the same time one felt she was ready to take an ax and destroy a wall.”

The Untimely Suicide of Ruslana Korshunova

Ruslana Sergeyevna Korshunova was known as the “Russian Rapunzel” for her long cascading locks and ethereal good looks. Admirers from every corner of the earth marveled over her glinting crystal blue eyes, compared to the ice of the Siberian taiga, and her youthful beauty and elegant 5’8 frame. She was on the front covers of Elle and Vogue, and modeled for IMG, whose client list includes the likes of Kate Moss and Lauren Hutton. She lived in a world of glamour and money.

All this could not keep her alive: She died in June of 2008, days before her 21st birthday, falling to death from her ninth floor apartment building. Police deemed it a suicide.

Almost immediately, controversy, conspiracy theories, psychological analyses, and curiosity followed. How could such a gorgeous, young, successful girl kill herself? And did she really, or was she murdered?

Ruslana had lived a short but charmed life. Her father, a former Red Army officer, died when she was only 5 years old.

She was very close to her mother Valentina, a cosmetic company executive, who would be her most intimate confidante and best friend until her death. In fact, Valentina had washed Ruslana’s long hair her whole life, until she went to Paris to model and was forced to do it alone for the first time.

A pal of Ruslana’s would admit after her death that “the most important thing about her and her internal world was that she was lonely. There was no one who was really dear to her, except for her mother.”

The family lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and were not financially deprived in any way. Ruslana went to one of the best schools in the city, and wanted to eventually go to university in Germany.

But at the age of 15, Ruslana’s life changed in a flash. After her photos were printed in a magazine in 2003, she was noticed by agent Debbie Jones from Models 1, who was immediately struck by her alluring appearance.

She was deemed “A Face to Be Excited About” by Vogue magazine, and Debbie went on to say that “everyone… adores Ruslana. I saw her by chance and she looked like something out of a fairytale! We had to find her and we searched high and low until we did! She’s really incredible with feline features and timeless beauty.”

The fairy tale would not last long, but it was exhilarating. Valentina was hesitant about letting her daughter enter the lurid modelling business, and preferred that Ruslana went to college instead, claiming there was no future in the industry. Ruslana refused, and wouldn’t stop pestering her mom until she agreed to accompany her to a casting call in London.

Ruslana still had braces, and was a naive wide-eyed girl in a big Western European city. She had no idea what she was in for. The world of coked up, anorexic, cynical and desperate fashion models was still alien to her, and she tried to retain a constant mantra in the wake of this new chaos: “Instead of moaning at the thorns/I’m happy that a rose among them grows.”

Money was scarce at this time and modelling gigs were few and far in between. A friend of Ruslana’s from this period describes how “in Paris and Milan there’d be these dinners, rich men would pay to come, we could join in for free. Ruslana and I would go. It would be our only chance to eat. The men could tell we were not like THAT. We were dunces, the ones who went to bed early.” In other words: they didn’t put out; look but don’t touch, etc.

Ruslana was packed into crammed flats full of aspiring models, waiting for her big break. She received this when she was 18 years old, in the form of a Nina Ricci fragrance commercial.

In the ad, she wears a pale pink backless ball gown, and climbs up a pile of apples to pluck the fruit-shaped perfume bottle down from a tree. It was this corny yet indelibly dreamy piece of advertising that turned her into a star.

Soon she was flying high, being invited to New York and Moscow’s classiest parties, and being barraged with the attentions of dozens of wealthy suitors. Alarmingly, she was even summoned to covert parties thrown by Jeffrey Epstein on his creepy private island.

Unfortunately for Ruslana, she soon fell in love with a wealthy unnamed Russian oligarch who brutally broke her heart. Friends say that the man was attractive and super rich, and she fell head over heels for him. She wanted marriage and children, and even introduced him to her mother, but to the oligarch, this was only a temporary fling.

He began ignoring Ruslana’s desperate phone calls, and the oligarch’s personal assistant requested she leave him alone. Being dumped caused Ruslana to lose her mind. She lost weight and became fraught by depression. She would never recover from this disappointment.

Years later, in March of 2008, Ruslana would write on her blog:

“Why, sooner or later, love will die. What is even worst is if it will end earlier for my partner than for me. It really hurts when someone stops loving you but you continue to love.

Reason says that it is better to be loved, but in life, we love more often than we are loved. To love, especially without return, is very hard, painful and takes away from the soul’s strength.”

And so she went through a string of disappointing relationships. She grew anxious about finding the “right one,” and often dated several men at a time, hoping one would take. A friend noted how “she was always searching for love. I used to say to her never search for love. The love will find you.” But she kept pining for true romance, and making bleak choices in the process.

To add on to personal injuries, Ruslana’s career began experiencing a decline at this time. It wasn’t completely over, but employment did start to dry up. A friend said she balked at the world’s newfound indifference to her: “She couldn’t understand. Suddenly she was one of a thousand girls. One of a million. A no one.” The world of fashion is a cold one; here today, gone tomorrow. The phone had stopped ringing.

Ruslana’s life became more stressful than the 20 year old could handle. She was still making $5k per fashion show and photoshoot, but sent much of that money back home to her mom and brother. She rented out a Manhattan apartment for a whole year at the price of $40k, and lived mostly alone, or with whichever man she was currently dating.

With her family on the other side of the world and constant unstable relationships being her only close sense of support, she started crumbling under the pressure. It was around this time that Ruslana joined a self-help cult named Rose of the World. Similar to Scientology in its operation, the Rose stems from a 1980s American cult named Lifespring, which was banned at its outset.

In training sessions, participants are encouraged to share their most traumatic life experiences and mistakes. They are then told to accept responsibility for these, and it is supposed to purge members of their demons. The sessions can run up to $1,000 for only three days. Desperate and isolated, this became Ruslana’s only emotional outlet. She was said to be extremely vocal at these sessions.

Friends reported a change in Ruslana, noticing she began moody, agitated and aggressive after her sessions at the Rose. She attended the program for three months. Former participants claim the organization gave them PTSD and emotional scars, but fellow model Anna Barsukova said “it’s a popular thing to do. One of my friends went there too… They do training about developing your personality.” However, there was a dark side- Ukrainian model Anastasia Drozdova also committed suicide by jumping after attending the Rose for a year.

According to a friend from the Rose, Ruslana told them her darkest secrets, talking tearfully about her failed romantic relationships and her father’s death. One claims “she tried suicide five times in different ways. She’s tried it since she was 15, 16 years old. It was a loneliness that no one understood.” One must note that those were the ages upon which she began her modelling career.

When questioned about Ruslana’s death, a Rose life coach had harsh words: to him, she was a “typical victim. Sometimes it’s better to commit suicide than not to change.”

Ruslana had also been embroiled in a lawsuit with her former agent, who she sued for $500k due to embezzlement of funds. She complained to acquaintances about money troubles, and told her mother she was getting fed up with the modelling business and wanted to eventually leave it.

The most salient insights into Ruslana’s psyche lie in her personal blog. She explains herself in her own words, growing more and more frustrated in the months before her death:

Jan 2008

It hurts as if someone took a part of me, mercilessly tore it out, stomped all over it…threw it out.

If I am for others, then who is for me? And if I am for myself, then what am I for?

Feb 2008

there’s disorder! i don’t have a home. I need an boss for there to be order

Mar 2008

my dream is to fly..oh my rainbow is too high..

I’m a bitch. I’m a witch. I don’t care what you say … I know why my other relationships didn’t work out, ’cause I’m unpredictable.

life is very fragile, and its flow can easily be ruined.

i’m so lost..will i ever find myself?..

Her final entry came on May 30, a month before her death:

“Do not confuse love and desire. Love is the sun, desire – only flash. Desire dazzles, and the sun gives life.

Love does not take away from one in order to give to another. Love – this is the essence of life. But you will not give your life to another.”

On June 28, 2008, at 2:30 p.m., Ruslana fell to her death from the ninth floor balcony of her apartment at 130 Water Street, Manhattan. She left no suicide note.

She had returned from a modelling gig in Paris, and showed no outward signs of distress or abnormality. The doorman noted she was all smiles on the day of her arrival. Friends claim she was “on top of the world,” and had no reason to have done what she did.

Ruslana died four days before her 21st birthday. There were no alcohol or drugs in her system, and in life she was known to hate drinking because it made her sick. Ironically, even though she was afraid of heights, she chose to die by jumping.

She fell from an intimidating height

Before her death, Ruslana’s famously long Rapunzel hair had been hacked off. This spurred on rumours of murder, but it may have been a final act of defiance, or the symptom of a manic and self-destructive episode. As a model, she had to keep herself in pristine condition, always rail-thin, always presentable. It seemed she had had enough.

Although she already had a new boyfriend, luxury car dealer Mark Kaminsky, Ruslana chose to spend her last hours with her ex Artem Perchenok. He was her only real long term relationship: the couple had dated for 2 years.

Artem describes her as impressionable and sensitive: “She would cry for any, even trivial reason. She took everything so personally.” He said that the two were each other’s first loves, which explains why Ruslana spent her last night with him. They also continued to share a cat together.

Artem’s father states that “the kids watched movies, read love poems. My son had this tiny book Ruslana had given him once. They read the poems from there. Later he put the book in her coffin — and his cross.” The film in question was Ghost (1990).

Manhattan crime scene

Hours after Artem dropped Ruslana off at home, she was dead. He felt that she was trying to say goodbye to him. To honor her memory, Artem had a tattoo of Ruslana’s name in Russian done on the inside of his wrist.

At the building, police found that the construction netting on the balcony of Ruslana’s apartment had been sliced open, in order to facilitate her jump. Bizarrely, her body was found 28 feet away from the building. This meant she would have had to have taken a running leap from the balcony.

The sound of her fall to earth startled witnesses, who say the impact sounded like a bomb, a bass drum and a gunshot. Just as she lived, Ruslana died in a very public manner.

Distraught concierge Muhammad Naqib described the grisly scene: “I was shocked when I saw her on the pavement. She was on the road, small and pitiful, in a puddle of blood, surrounded by a crowd. Her arms and neck were broken.” She had no shoes on, and wore only a purple tank top with blue jeans.

Funeral in Moscow

Murder was ruled out, as anyone who went upstairs to Ruslana’s apartment would have had to have crossed paths with the concierge. She had no known enemies who wanted her dead, but some assert she had connections to the Russian underworld. This has never been substantiated

Ruslana’s mother had her buried in Moscow, the city she loved best. At the funeral service, dressed in a black veil, she gave a final touching and heart-wrenching speech about her lost daughter:

“She was very strong, even though she looked so fragile. She was the closest person in the world to me, the most trusted; she would never let me down. I was always proud of her. And I’m proud of her today.”

Until the end, Ruslana supported her family and kept them close to her heart, visiting her mother and brother in Kazakhstan mere months before she died. She kept a small and close circle of friends, which she preferred over the hustle of big parties and Hollywood.

Yet she still felt alone in all the foreign countries she lived in and traveled to, and deprived of the romantic love she always dreamed of. Her online posts show a deep obsession with loss, love and feelings of emptiness. Artem accused her of giving up on herself, and Mark wondered how she could do this when she was loved by so many.

None of us will ever fully understand what motivated Ruslana Korshunova to kill herself, but her pain will continue to resonate deeply with all who read her tragic story.

Jeanne Hebuterne: Devoted Companion Until Death

Jeanne Hebuterne (1898-1920) was the love of Amedeo Modigliani’s life and his biggest artistic muse. She was described as “shy” and “delicate,” but was often asked by famous artists to pose for paintings because she was so beautiful. Painters were obsessed with her long dark hair and mesmerizing eyes. Not one to be outdone by others, Jeanne was a talented painter in her own right.

Self Portrait by Jeanne, 1916

Jeanne met Modigliani in Paris at a prestigious art academy in the spring of 1917. They experienced intense chemistry and began an affair.

She was disowned by her wealthy conservative bourgeois Roman Catholic family after moving in with Modigliani, who considered him to be nothing more than a perverted degenerate. Jeanne also gave up her artistic and modelling career to be with him. She was deeply in love, enough to defy her family.

Portrait of Jeanne by Modigliani, 1918

They were the It Couple of the Bohemian art community. The introverted, melancholic and pale girl with the braided hair had captured the promiscuous artist’s heart, and he was infatuated as well. It was, unfortunately, a doomed liaison.

The pair moved into a home together by the lush and sunny French Riviera, but the alcoholic and drug-abusing Modigliani came down with tuberculosis and died slowly and painfully. The couple’s daughter Jeanne was born in Nice in November of 1918, but this did nothing to lift the impoverished and ill couple’s spirits. Tuberculosis was overtaking Modigliani.

Death by Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919.
This was her last drawing, made in the 40 hour window between her lover’s death and her own suicide.

When he was dying, Jeanne was one of the only people who still stood by the broke and destitute artist. He was not rich in his lifetime, and had been giving his paintings away in exchange for restaurant meals. Friends found Modigliani in his deathbed with Jeanne crying and holding onto him, refusing to let him surrender to death’s embrace.

 Though they were unmarried, Jeanne considered herself to be his wife and vice versa. She had been obsessed with thoughts of death and suicide even as a teenager, and Modigliani’s death would be the last straw for her. He died at 9 pm on January 24, 1920, and Jeanne’s heart died with him.

Amedeo Modigliani , “the prince of vagabonds”

Jeanne had been pregnant yet again when Modigliani died and she couldn’t take the pain of her loss. At the tender age of 21, she jumped out of the 5th floor of her family apartment, 2 days after her lover’s death. She had killed herself and her unborn child, and left the couple’s baby an orphan. Jeanne’s body was found by a servant at 4 am, who brought it to the doorstep of her family’s home.

She and Modigliani are buried together in Pere Lachaise cemetery. Modigliani’s eptiaph reads “Struck down by death at the moment of glory,” and Jeanne’s epitaph reads “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.” If not for the cruelty of fate, talented and ethereal Jeanne would have been able to pursue her artistic talents as well.

As for Modigliani’s paintings? The man who died ill and penniless has paintings selling for up to $170 million USD in our time. The man who said “It is your duty in life to save your dream” was unable to save himself or the love of his life, but the cosmically corrupt universe consumed his art for profit. 

Holly Jo Glynn: Lonely Cali Girl Driven to Suicide

Sketch of Dana Point Jane Doe

Holly Jo Glynn was a 21-yo girl who committed suicide in 1987 by jumping from a cliff in Dana Point, California. She was unidentified until 2015, when her old school friends and interested websleuths teamed up to help identify her.

 Her family had tried to involuntarily institutionalize her 8 months before she killed herself, but to no avail. She was described as quiet and shy, but she liked to party, flirt and use drugs.

 Holly’s life unraveled in September of 1987, when she took a taxi at 3 am to the 150 ft remote cliffs to jump to her death. She’d asked the taxi to take her as far as her last $18 would get her, then walked alone the rest of the way. The driver  had described her as seeming silent and unhappy during the ride.

 At the scene, police found a half consumed can of Coca-Cola (her last drink), a purse (stolen) containing small change, a packet of cigarettes, matches, and two maps. She had mid length strawberry-blonde hair, and wore a tan dress, men’s underwear and turquoise-colored canvas shoes, all of which were believed to have been second-hand clothing.

 The LA times described how “standing at the ledge, she would have seen nothing–there was no moon that night–and heard only the wet smack of the Pacific against the rocks below.“

 Investigators found marks on the side of the cliff that she had struck during her fall, and she was missing several teeth postmortem due to the impact. A detective described how “she was still alive for some time at the bottom of the cliff, because she had made angel wings with her arms in the sand, you know, like children do in the snow.” 

 Police were unable to identify her since her family had never reported her missing, and the case went cold. Holly was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the ocean. She was then forgotten until her 2015 identification.

 One can only imagine what went through her head on the cold dark night of ‘87 in which she flung herself onto the jagged beach side rocks after drinking half a can of cola. It seems the loneliest death possible.