Burlesque Bombshell: The Life of Feri Cansel

The 1970s were a unique time for Turkish cinema, since the country was (like the rest of the world) going through a social and cultural revolution. Or was it? There was a certain dubiousness in this period: women could be free, but not too free… or they would have a dark shadow of judgment lingering over them.

Whether your fave Yeşilçam star is Türkan Şoray or Seher Şeniz, we can all agree on one thing: that they certainly weren’t afraid to dress boldly and to express themselves in their own direct and unafraid manner. Enter Feri Cansel, a stunning Turkish-Cypriot actress who took the movie industry by storm.

Queen of Cyprus

She was born as Feriha Cansel in Nicosia, Cyprus on July. 7, 1944, under the dramatic and emotional zodiac sign of Cancer and was of Turkish-Cypriot descent. Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, with their history going back 10,000 years to reveal the illustriousness of Ancient Greek and Assyrian culture.

Nicosia, Cyprus in 1970

As a youth, Feri was not afraid to play sports with boys and was always the center of attention; standing at the modelesque height of 5′ 7″. She studied at Atatürk Secondary School, which was the only coeducational school in Nicosia at the time. Her school friend Rahmi Özsan said:

“Feri Cansel loved to play boxing matches with men! She was a brave girlfriend who insisted that girls were no different from us and shared the same feelings.”

Disturbingly, she was married off at the mere age of 13 to a Turkish diplomat/British citizen 15 years her senior! At 19 she had a daughter named Zümrüt (translated to Emerald), who also became an actress when she grew up. How did Turkish and British laws allow this shocking child marriage? The situation traumatized Feri and inspired a lifelong need in her to seek independence and freedom.

The marriage was grotesque, but Feri made the best of it and went to London’s famous Alfred Morris’s hairdressing school, and then worked as a stylist. Imagine being styled by her and getting an amazingly perfect beehive hairdo in turn! After living with her husband in England for a few years, Feri divorced him. While everyone else wanted to move to Europe, Feri strived to live in Turkey after visiting as a tourist in 1964.

Life in Turkey

Following her move to Turkey, Feri forfeited her British citizenship and worked illegally at a club in Taksim Square as a service hostess, while living with a Cypriot belly dancer friend in one of the neighbourhoods of Istanbul called Pangaltı. Her visa situation presented an issue: Feri could only stay for 6 months because she did not have a work or residence permit.

Her musical colleague Zafer Şener described Feri as such:

“She was a strong-eyed, brave woman. May God have mercy on her… She was singing a rhythmic song with the refrain ‘Come to Me, Come to Me,’ which I did not hear from any other singer every night. Meanwhile, bowing slightly and rocking her sexy hips to the rhythm would make the hearts of all men, including the orchestra, jump. I remember her love of animals. She had a cute dog. Rest in peace.

Performing at a casino in 1981

Another bandmate named Manuk Hamparsumyan said of her:

“While I was playing in the Orchestra at Çakıl Casino for a long time, we accompanied Feri Cansel a lot. She was a cute and cheerful person. Although she had difficulty singing correctly, she was very good at covering it up with her good heart. Rest in peace.”

But not everyone was happy with Feri’s striptease career. An Istanbul police chief named Muzaffer Çağlar had issued this statement, which put fear into Feri’s heart:

Feri Cansel is performing art in Turkey within the provisions of Law No. 5682. If her work permit is not renewed, if she is found to have engaged in harmful activities, she will be deported abroad, like other foreigners who act in this way, and I guess she will not be able to return to Turkey easily again.

With her quick thinking and resourcefulness, Feri did what needed to be done in order to attain Turkish citizenship: In 1971 she married Yusuf İzzettin Tuzcu, the janitor of an apartment block in Istanbul. He was paid 6000 lira (equal to $2,300 USD today) for the sham marriage. She continued to work at the Parisien nightclub and live life on her own terms.

It was 3-month marriage of convenience, which dissipated in the courts under the guise of “severe incompatibility.” Feri received her first movie role in 1967 and did occasional bit parts afterwards, but the pay was too low and she supplemented it by performing striptease acts at nightclubs and taking singing lessons to work in cabaret.

And Finally, Stardom

Using her looks and charm, Feri managed to succeed in Yeşilçam (the Turkish move industry, which translates to Green Pine) and starred in the vulgar “seks filmleri” exploitation genre of the 1970s (probably inspired by Commedia sexy all’italiana.) These films were cheap, low budget, and lascivious sex comedies which often required Feri to disrobe and act like a thot.

She also liberally cursed in these movies and used foul language, which led her to be nicknamed the Emmanuelle of Kasımpaşa; a reference to the French erotic film saga of the 70s. The Emmanuelle series centered around the bored housewife of a French diplomat who travelled the world and had multiple affairs with men and women alike, with her husband’s encouragement (it truly was a degenerate time period!). Kasımpaşa is a working-class town in Istanbul which apparently has some interesting slang and blue-collar characters.

Heartbreak

In 1969, Feri fell in love with Kurdish actor Yılmaz Güney on the set of the 1969 crime film Bir Çirkin Adam (A Bad Man). He was famous as an activist for Kurdish rights in Turkey, and was known as “the Ugly King” for his homely working-class appearance. Unfortunately, he did not take Feri seriously as a partner, and he dumped her and left her heartbroken. Feri had atrocious taste in men, and it’s tragic she got kicked to the curb by a mustache guy who looked like a pizza delivery man.

Yılmaz Güney acting macho on set with Feri

A dedicated and loyal lover, Feri went running to the courthouse in support after Yılmaz was caught with two guns in his possession. She even quit her job as a stripper to please him. Feri continued simping hard for Yılmaz:

“They call the man the ‘Ugly King’. But what is ugly? He is the most beautiful in cinema, inside and out. Especially who else has that mysterious smile with his curved lips and those penetrating deep eyes, for God’s sake!”

Girl….

I have a place in Turkish cinema today, and I owe this to Yılmaz Güney. Thanks to him, my name was in the newspaper columns, the people recognized me. But let me tell you right away that I did not make friends with Yılmaz Güney for the sake of advertising. I really loved him. Just like the crazy ones.”

She had spoken highly of him, only to be let down in the end:

Yılmaz is the best person I know in Turkey. A man who frankly says what he thinks and what’s on his mind. Handsome strong, knowledgeable, tough, like a rock. Since I married a man who was 15 years older than me at the age of 13, I wanted to meet a man like Yılmaz who took everything he wanted, or rather broke it off, all my life. Thank God my dreams came true, I found the man I was looking for. I am attached to Yılmaz, I love him. I hope I will not be disappointed in the end, I will end this happy togetherness with a happy ending.’

He then dumped her to marry a 17-year old named Fatoş. Yikes…

Fantastic Plastic

Because she was so often nude in her films, Feri acquired breast implants in the 1970s; as well as a nose job. Viewers only saw her exterior image: a glamorous erotic B-movie queen with a perfect figure and a luxurious lifestyle. Yet even with her newfound fame, Feri was still insecure and full of self-doubt. And who had funded her surgical enhancement? Ironically, it was all paid for by Yılmaz Güney, the lover who eventually scorned her.

Looks like a scene from Goodfellas

For some reason, her procedure was given a full-page spread by a Turkish newspaper named Günaydın on November 16, 1969. Following Yılmaz’s release from jail for the possession of illegal guns, he held a celebration with Feri and his closest friends at a casino. She appeared very taken with his “bad boy” public image. The next day would be a transformative one for her: she was to get silicone implants and a rhinoplasty.

Feri constantly complained to Yılmaz that she disliked her nose and chest, so he agreed to pay ten thousand liras to a hospital for her operations. After undergoing the painful work and then gaining consciousness, the first thing Feri did was to ask for a hand mirror to gaze into as she proclaimed, ”It is not easy to be the future fiancee of Yılmaz Güney.” When she finally had her bandages removed, Feri said in wonder, “Look how much I have changed!”

Ouch…

She was a trooper though: despite the discomfort of the surgeries, Feri’s only complaint was that she was stuck sleeping on her back for the first few weeks of recovery. The plastic surgeon, impressed with his own work, told her, “You hit it off with surgery, this new nose will suit you very well.” Even so, it was still not enough to make Yılmaz marry her. At least she got free cosmetic procedures out of it, and the relationship increased her profile in the tabloids.

Confidence and Tragedy

Feri was not ashamed to dress (or undress) however she wanted, and was boldly quoted as saying;

“As a result of my breast surgery, which I had to have for my aesthetic appearance, I became the woman with the most beautiful breasts of Yeşilçam and it gave me the most beautiful, unique, capable, artistic opportunities.”

An obsessed workaholic, she is credited on IMDB as starring in 134 films in 15 years. Their quality may be dubious, but at the time she was one of the most famous female stars in Turkey. She stated:

“I can’t make a limitation that I will make so many movies a year. If I like the offer, I accept it. In fact, 5 or 6 films a year is very normal, but this year, I made 7 films at the beginning of the work. Let’s see where it will end up?”

To critics, she had only this to say:

“Nudity exists all over the world. Okay bro?.. In Germany , harcore movies are playing. Are those who don’t undress better actors than me or my friends who undress like me? None of us are ill of exposure. However, we undress because the script requires it and the audience wants it that way.

In 1974, tragedy struck in the form of a violent traffic accident. After a decline in her health during a follow-up exam, doctors determined that Feri’s breast implants had to be removed as they presented a risk of cancer. From thenceforth, the silicone was taken out of her chest and she went back to her natural body type. Audiences still loved her regardless, and she continued to play seductive “vamp” characters onscreen.

Feri’s regrettable taste in men continued on in July of 1976, when she married businessman Yusuf Tereyağoğlu, the son of one of Ankara’s leading families. It was her third marriage of conveniece, and like the others, it was also bound to fail. Although Yusuf was wealthy, he and Feri did not get along and divorced three years later in 1979. As the 70s faded into the 80s, Feri’s film career began to flounder, and she started to focus more on live performances and business ventures.

A Gruesome Demise

In August of 1983, Feri Cansel signed a striptease contract with a restaurant/nightclub in Bursa called Turistik Köşküm Night Club for a substansial amount of money. On Sept. 2, 1983, at the age of only 39, Feri was brutally murdered by her jealous fiance Melih Ük at her home on Cihangir Akyol Street. At 11 PM, he had entered the house drunk and in an agitated state; being on the verge of bankruptcy. He was known to be an angry alcholic.

Top: Zümrüt and Feri Cansel.
Bottom Left: Zümrüt’s forehead is covered in blood after being grazed during the shooting.
Right: The despicable Melih Ük.

Seeing clutter on a table, Melih asked rudely, What is this doing here? Take it somewhere else.” Feri retorted, I know where to put it.” From thereon, an intense argument erupted between them. Suddenly, Melih leapt up from the sofa and grabbed his 7.65-inch Kırıkkale brand gun. Feri cried out, “This man is going to kill me, help me.” Melih coldly said, You have already deserved death. You have another loved one. I will not help you with him.”

She was way too beautiful for him! Mf looked like Where’s Waldo combined with Wario…

In a state of drunken envious rage, he shot Feri three times in the head. Feri’s heroic daughter Zümrüt jumped onto Melih and tried to wrestle the gun out of his hands, but was grazed on the forehead by a bullet in the crossfire. He was ironically described by those who knew him as “a man who would not hurt even an ant.” They had known each other for four years, and no one expected their relationship would end so badly.

Zümrüt testifies: ‘He put a gun to my mother’s head like this’.

Zümrüt gave a shocking testimony of what occured that night:

“I left the room when my mother argued with Melih, who came to take some of her personal belongings. My mother was crying. I went inside. Melih had a gun in his hand. At first I thought he was jokingly scaring my mother. I was scared when I heard a gunshot. My mother fell to the ground. The gun fired again. I collapsed on my mother. One of the bullets fired from the gun missed my forehead.”

A brave daughter: Zümrüt Cansel

Feri and Melih met in 1979 after spotting one another at a concert in Izmir. He was a coarse looking tradesman with an ugly mustache who was already married, but for some reason Feri took a liking to him and they moved in together in Istanbul. They even opened up a market together named Zümrüt, after her daughter. She had hoped that Melih would be the man she would finally settle down with, but instead he dealt her the ultimate betrayal.

The mother and daughter in better times.

Feri was excited to go to Bursa to continue her dancing career and was packing her things for the trip that coming morning. Gripped in an episode of maniacal envy; most likely over Feri’s controversial striptease career and public nudity, a drunken Melih used his insecurity as an excuse to end her life. What’s even sadder is that Feri’s daughter Zümrüt bore witness to the senseless murder of her mother.

Taking out the trash: Melih is marched off to prison.

A Trial and a Funeral

Coward that he was, Melih fled the crime scene and left her to die. Feri was still breathing, so she was taken to Taksim First Aid Hospital. Sadly, the gunshot wounds were lethal and she passed away in the early hours of Sept. 2, 1983. Heartbreakingly, a childhood photo of Melih was discovered in Feri’s wallet after her death. Her funeral was held on September 6, 1983 at Şişli Mosque, in the Muslim tradition. The service was attended by other glamorous Yeşilçam actresses, such as Mine Soley, Mine Mutlu, and Serpil Örümcer.

Şişli Mosque

Melih Ük was caught in Moda two days after his escape, and was tried before the 3rd High Criminal Court of Turkey, and recommended a 25-year criminal sentece. At the police station, he lied that Feri owned the gun and tried to fire it at him first:

Feri took out her gun and said, ‘Get out’. When I tried to take the gun from her hand, she fired. Then I took the gun and fired. I regret. But I was under heavy provocation. It ruined my life.

Zümrüt testified against her mother’s killer.

Directly contradicting the testimonies by Zümrüt and their friends who were present that day, Melih’s words were a total fabrication. He was completely shameless and unrepentant until the end. While on trial, Melih also claimed that he was in financial debt because of Feri. He alleged that when he arrived home on the day of the murder, he asked Feri who she was talking to on the phone:

 “Because Feri works at night, I used to pick her up from the casino and come home late. Because of this, my work was delayed and I was in debt. I came from Izmir on the night of the incident. I saw Feri talking on the phone with someone else. She insulted me when I asked who she was talking to. When the argument got bigger, Feri took the gun and said, ‘There are other people in my life. I was talking to my girlfriend,” she said and walked over to me. I took the gun from her hand and fired a few shots and ran away.”

In every story, he always blamed the victim. Yet in the Forensic Medicine reports, it was stated that two of the four shots that caused death were fired from far away; not up close as he claimed. The lies were clearly mental gymnastics from a man who was unable to put his ego aside and admit his guilt. At a 1984 hearing, Melih was given a more lenient sentence of 15 years and 10 months in prison.

Zümrüt resembles her late mother.

Aftermath

 Tragically, Melih only served a meagre 7 years in prison in the end, due to the misogyny and neglect of the Turkish legal system which virtully allowed men to get away with femicide. Zümrüt is still alive and in her early 60s, and is married with three children. After her mother’s demise, she pursued a brief acting career which ended in 1986. There is no doubt she loved Feri very much and was a courageous girl who tried to save her life.

Feri had famously stated that women are no different from men, and had believed in her own rights and autonomy. It was tragic that her life was cut down so early at the age of 39 because of a narcissistic person who did not respect her humanity. Feri’s second funeral and final burial took place on her island home of Cyprus, and was funded by close friends as she was nearly broke at the time of her death.

Feri was used by the Yeşilçam industry to strip and perform lascivious songs in her youth, but once they considered her “old” because she was nearing 40; she was promptly discarded by those who once casted her in dozens of films. A week before her death, Feri lamented the state of her entertainment career to director Yılmaz Atadeniz after bumping into him on the street:

While walking on Istiklal Street, we saw a very nice lady from behind. Her legs were like pillars… When we suddenly turned around, we saw Feri Cansel… She was very happy to see us, hugged, kissed, asked how we were. At that time, she took a break from cinema and she was a singer. She said to me, ‘Oh Yılmaz Brother… I missed the movie sets and you guys so much. Singing is a tough job. I wish you would pick me up from the house at 7 am and take me to the set at 10 like before. I miss cinema,’ she said. She was killed a week later.”

Yılmaz Atadeniz went on to make disgusting victim-blaming comments about Feri:

Feri was an interesting woman. She was very confident. While most of the female actors in Turkish cinema had their benefactors and someone protecting them, she did not. That’s how she lived her life. There was a man she was with once. He was too harmless to hurt even an ant... She insulted the man, said words that touched his masculinity, and provoked the man… Zümrüt was also at home. The man stabbed Feri. So Feri burned both herself and the man because of her tongue…

Yikes.

Ironically, when asked who was her favourite actress, Feri stated it was Seher Şeniz; a fellow tragic Yeşilçam star. Seher committed suicide in 1992 after the decline of her acting career and a slew of toxic relationships. The two women were both forced into child marriages with older men; a practice which sadly seemed common at the time in Turkey. And like Feri, her life was overrun by tragedy as stardom turned out to be a double-edged sword.

Between 2010 and 2020, there were 2,296 femicides in Turkey. In a 2013 Hurriyet Daily News poll, 34% of Turkish men surveyed claimed that violence again women was sometimes necessary. A 2006 study in Sivas, Turkey found that 52% of women surveyed experienced domestic violence. The same misogynistic and backwards attitudes which caused Feri to lose her life and then be blamed for her own death are sadly still present in Turkey today.

Feri’s legacy lives on as a woman who pioneered cabaret fashion, attitude and glamour in Turkish cinema. With her vivacious charm, sense of humor and modelesque beauty, Feri made a strong impression on moviegoers during the 1970s. She rose through adversity and became a self-made woman who went through financial highs and lows, yet stayed positive and hopeful throughout. Had her depraved fiance not robbed her of her life at such a young age, there is no doubt that Feri would still be stunning audiences to this day.

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.