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10 Celebrities Who Spied on the Side

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For some of these big-name personalities, spying taught them the skills that made them famous; for others, being famous made them the perfect spies.

1. Roald Dahl: The Ladies’ Man Who Fell in Love with Writing

Long before he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II. But after sustaining several injuries in a horrific crash in 1940—including a fractured skull and temporary blindness—Dahl was rendered unable to fly. In 1942, he was transferred to a desk job at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Dahl quickly charmed his way into high society and became so popular among D.C. ladies that British intelligence came up with a whole new role for him: seducing powerful women and using them to promote Britain’s interests in America.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Clare Booth Luce, a prominent U.S. Representative and isolationist who was married to Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was so frisky in the bedroom that Dahl begged to be let off the assignment. In the end, however, his work with the ladies paid off. Dahl managed to not only rally support for Britain at a time when many prominent Americans didn’t want the country to enter the war, but he also managed to pass valuable stolen documents to the British government. Dahl’s stint in D.C. also helped him realize his talent for writing; it was a skill he discovered while penning propaganda for American newspapers.

2. Ian Fleming: The Armchair Spy

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By trade, author Ian Fleming was a journalist with a sharp memory and a keen eye for detail. In fact, he created James Bond, his famed international man of mystery, by plundering his own experiences as a spy.

During World War II, Fleming put his writing talents to use as part of British Naval Intelligence. Although he looked the part of Bond—tall, blue-eyed, and dapper—Fleming worked a desk job. He managed communications between the British Admiralty and the branch of intelligence tasked with sabotage behind enemy lines. Fleming was good at what he did. Not surprisingly, he proved particularly adept at conceiving outlandish spy schemes familiar to Bond fans.

Fleming’s work eventually extended to the United States. He was responsible for helping to create an American organization focused on international intelligence gathering. In 1941, he drew up a detailed chart for the chief of the OSS, showing how the new organization should be run. For his efforts, he was awarded an engraved .38 Colt Police Positive revolver.

Despite being a desk jockey, Fleming did get to witness one active operation—a break-in at the Japanese Consul General’s office at Rockefeller Center. As Fleming watched, British operatives sneaked into the office, cracked a safe, and made copies of the Japanese codebooks. Fleming later used the incident for Bond’s assignment in his first 007 book, Casino Royale.

3. Lucky Luciano: The Mobster with the Heart of a Patriot

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As head of the Genovese crime family, Charles “Lucky” Luciano did more for organized crime than any other mobster of his generation. Luciano smoothed out the Mafia’s rough edges and turned families of thugs into well-oiled, organized-crime machines. Not only that, but Lucky also embodied the gangster image—palling around with Frank Sinatra and giving girls $100 bills just for smiling. With a track record like that, it’s no wonder he ended up working for U.S. intelligence.

The story goes like this: In 1936, Luciano was convicted on 62 counts of “compulsory prostitution” and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. But while he was incarcerated, the government discovered that it needed his help. In 1942, a French ocean liner, the Normandie, was being converted into a troop transport ship when it suddenly caught fire and sank. American officials suspected sabotage. But the dockworkers, who were under the Mafia’s thumb, refused to spill any information. The government needed an in, and Luciano was the key.

In many ways, Luciano felt an intense loyalty to America; after all, it’s where he’d earned his fortune. So, he used his influence to urge the dockworkers to cooperate with authorities. In exchange, the mobster enjoyed unsupervised visits from friends and associates for the rest of his time in prison. It was a sweet deal for the U.S. government, too; in a matter of weeks, eight German spies were caught and arrested for the destruction of the Normandie.

Luciano continued to help American forces for the remainder of World War II, using his contacts on the docks to feed information to the Office of Naval Intelligence. Later, as the Allies were planning their invasion of Italy, Luciano, who also had strong ties to the Sicilian mob, offered invaluable information on where to counterattack.

As a reward for his help, Luciano was released in 1946 after serving only 10 years in prison. However, the terms of his release required that he be deported to his birthplace of Italy and never allowed back into the United States. Luciano died in exile in 1962. Before he passed away, he told two biographers that he’d had his own men set fire to the Normandie as part of a creative plot to pressure the government to release him. But as The New York Times noted, Luciano was “known to exaggerate his own cleverness.”

4. Julia Child: The Chef with a Taste for Adventure

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Julia Child wasn’t always into French cooking. As she famously recounted in her posthumous autobiography, My Life in France, it wasn’t until she was living in Paris in her mid-30s that she learned what good food tasted like.

How did Child keep busy before that? By performing equally inventive work as an employee at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. government’s precursor to the CIA. Child joined the spy outfit in 1942 after discovering that the Women’s Army Corps had a height limit; at 6’2”, she was too tall for military service. Luckily, the OSS ended up being a perfect fit. One of Child’s earliest assignments was to cook up a shark repellant that would protect underwater explosives from being set off by curious underwater creatures. By all accounts, she excelled at her work. Following a stint in the OSS lab, Child was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then to China, where she worked as Chief of the OSS Registry. As such, she enjoyed top security clearance and even a little danger. (The CIA remains mum about exactly what she did.)

Working at the OSS also turned out to be a recipe for love. In Ceylon, Julia met and fell for another OSS officer, Paul Cushing Child. After the two got hitched in 1946, Julia quit her job while Paul continued to work for the government. Within two years, he was transferred to the U.S. State Department in Paris, where Julia took up cooking to occupy her time. The rest is culinary history.

5. Noël Coward: The Playwright Who Knew How to Play Dumb

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By the start of World War II, Noël Coward was already a massive success in the world of theater. The flamboyant playwright had struck box office gold with his productions of Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1926), and Private Lives (1930).

But when the war broke out, Coward abandoned his theatrical work and set up a propaganda bureau for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Before long, he was sent to the United States to drum up support for the Allied cause. Coward used his celebrity to gain access to America’s elite and to deliver top-secret information to the most influential people in the country, including President Franklin Roosevelt. He also made the most of his vapid playboy image. As Coward explained in his diary, “I was to go on as an entertainer with an accompanist and sing my songs and on the side doing something rather hush-hush … My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot.”

Coward actually possessed a formidable memory, and he did his job so well that he reportedly earned a place on the Nazi Black List—individuals Hitler wanted executed once Germany invaded Britain.

6. Robert Baden-Powell: The Boy Scout with a Merit Badge in Sneakiness

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“Be Prepared” figures into the codes of both spies and Boy Scouts, so you may not be surprised to learn that the Scouts were founded by an illustrious British agent, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.

The story begins in South Africa in 1899, when Baden-Powell made a name for himself during the Second Boer War. Stationed there with a poorly-armed outfit of only 500 soldiers, Baden-Powell faced a 217-day siege by a Boer army of 8,000 men. To defend the territory, he used everything at his disposal, including props, cunning, and deception. He ordered his men to plant fake mines on the edge of town and had them pretend to avoid barbed wire to throw off the enemy. And because he was short on troops, he enlisted all of the young boys in town to act as guards. Somehow, he managed to protect the territory until British reinforcements finally arrived.

The story made Baden-Powell a war hero in England, and after returning home in 1903, he used his newfound fame to kick-start the scouting movement. Soon, he was helping people across the globe set up Boy Scout troops. All the while, Baden-Powell remained active in the military, working as a spy in the countries he toured.

In 1915, after he retired from duty, Baden-Powell wrote My Adventures as a Spy. In it, he relayed stories about his love for the craft—reveling in the time he pretended to be an American in order to probe German sources, and proudly discussing how he once caught three spies on his own. All told, Baden-Powell painted a rather rosy image of the profession: “A good spy—no matter which country he serves—is of necessity a brave and valuable fellow.”

7. James Hart Dyke: The Artist Who Framed MI6

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James Hart Dyke wasn’t a spy, exactly, but he did spend a year living like one as part of MI6, Britain’s elite Secret Intelligence Service. During the 1990s, Hart Dyke was a successful landscape painter who followed Prince Charles on royal tours and later painted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, in 2009, the head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett, decided to bring Hart Dyke into the organization as an artist-in-residence. He was looking for someone to accurately portray MI6’s mythic inner workings without revealing too many details.

At first, Hart Dyke thought the assignment was an elaborate joke. He received a mysterious phone call, followed by an equally mysterious meeting in which he was asked to infiltrate MI6 as an artist. Still, he took the job. Hart Dyke was given complete access to MI6 and the lives of its employees, on the condition that he wouldn’t reveal any identifying characteristics about them. “As far as possible, I was ‘one of them,’” he told The Guardian. “Of course, I often saw people wondering what I was really up to … I saw officers looking at me as I sketched away and they seemed to be thinking, oh yes, an artist, are you? A likely story.”

One of the things Hart Dyke tried to convey through his paintings was the thick fog of suspicion and claustrophobia that permeates a spy’s life. As a result, his works possess a dreamy, half-realized quality. And while the subject matter is seemingly everyday—a street corner, a hotel room, a woman carrying a big purse—it always leaves the viewer wondering if something more nefarious is going on.

Hart Dyke also wanted his paintings to expose the boredom and the strain of the work—the in-between times of waiting and doing nothing that strip the job of its glamour. As a member of MI6, the painter experienced both the tedium and anxiety of traveling to shadowy locations and the strain of keeping the gig secret from everyone but his wife. While the artist-turned-spy no doubt enjoyed the experience, he felt pure relief at the end of his stint. As he told reporters in 2011, “I’ll be glad to get back to ordinary life … though I doubt I’ll ever do anything quite as fascinating as this again.”

8. Harry Houdini: The Magician Who Spied His Way to Stardom

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If you’re looking to become a spy, “escape artist extraordinaire” is a pretty good thing to have on your resume. So it’s no great surprise that, when he wasn’t suspended upside down in a water tank, Harry Houdini moonlighted in espionage.

At the start of his career in the late 19th century, Harry Houdini gained notoriety by waltzing into police stations and demanding that officers lock him up. It was a great publicity stunt. Every time he ditched the cuffs, he bolstered his reputation. But the stunts didn’t just make headlines—they also caught the eye of several influential people at the American and British intelligence agencies. According to a biography released in 2006, both the American Secret Service and Scotland Yard hired Houdini to sneak into police stations across Europe and Russia and gather information for them.

In return for his services, Houdini knew exactly what he wanted. The magician reportedly would only help the intelligence agencies if they agreed to further his career. William Melville, head of Scotland Yard, had to get Houdini auditions with London theater managers before he’d consent to a little spy work.

9. Marcel Petiot: The Serial Killer Who Was a Little Too Good at Keeping Secrets

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During World War II, the United States operated a second spy agency known as the Pond. Unlike the OSS, the Pond made contact with all sorts of dark characters—including serial killers, apparently.

One of the organization’s most prolific sources for Nazi intelligence was a Parisian doctor named Marcel Petiot, who used his position to gather information and gossip about German military operations. But Petiot wasn’t who he claimed to be. A former mental patient, Petiot used his doctor’s office as a kind of fake Underground Railroad. In exchange for 25,000 francs, he promised patients safe passage to Argentina. Petiot’s victims would come to the basement of his Paris townhouse, where he would give them an injection, ostensibly of vaccines. Instead, Petiot dosed his victims with cyanide. He would then incinerate the bodies in an old water-boiler or let them decompose in a pit of quicklime.

Ironically, Petiot’s killing spree ended in 1943, when the Gestapo picked him up on suspicion that he was running an actual escape route. He was held for seven months before being released without charges. Two months later, Paris police got wind of the bodies in Petiot’s basement and arrested him again. The remains of 26 victims were found in his apartment, although he’s suspected of murdering as many as 63. When the war ended, Petiot was convicted and guillotined.

10. Moe Berg: The Player Who Covered a Lot of Bases

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Baseball great Moe Berg wasn’t called the “brainiest man in baseball” for nothing. In 1923, Berg graduated from Princeton University with a degree in modern languages (he spoke 12). The all-star also had offers to play baseball just about anywhere he wanted. Berg was quickly snapped up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he still wasn’t content to focus on just one career. He pursued graduate degrees in French and philosophy, and then decided to add in a law degree from Columbia University.

By 1926, Berg had been traded to the Chicago White Sox, but that didn’t stop him from keeping up with his studies. Three years later, he passed the New York State bar and then accepted a position with the law firm Satterlee and Canfield—all while still playing ball.

Berg was eventually traded to the Washington Senators, where he was a hit both in the bleachers and on the social scene. Good-looking and witty, a lawyer and a pro ballplayer, Berg was quickly integrated into the D.C. dinner-party circuit, where he soon caught the eye of the U.S. government. Berg did his first spy work while touring Japan in 1934 as part of the American All-Star team. While overseas, he took home movies of Tokyo Harbor, military installations, and industrial areas.

By some accounts, however, the ballplayer wasn’t exactly a natural-born spy. One biographer claimed that Berg made some laughable mistakes early on, including getting caught by his foreign handler while he was trying to break into an aircraft factory. Even so, he was sent on relatively dangerous missions, including one in 1944 to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If Berg believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Fortunately, Berg concluded that the Germans were years away from a breakthrough.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Consider giving someone special a gift subscription or treat yourself!

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11 Surprising Facts About Fatal Attraction
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Written by James Dearden and directed by Adrian Lyne, 1987’s Fatal Attraction showed audiences just how dangerous sex could be. Michael Douglas plays Dan Gallagher, a married man who has a weekend-long affair with single career woman Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close. When he breaks off their affair, Alex goes a little nuts. Despite drawing the ire of feminists and frightening men everywhere, the film grossed an impressive $320 million worldwide, earned six Oscar nominations (including one for Close), and ranks number one in the “Psycho/Stalker/Blank from Hell” genre. Here are 11 scintillating facts about the movie, which was released 30 years ago today.

1. THE MOVIE IS BASED ON THE SCREENWRITER’S SHORT FILM.

In 1980, Fatal Attraction screenwriter James Dearden wrote and directed a short film called Diversion. “I was sitting at home thinking, ‘What is a minimalist story that I can do?’ My wife was out of town for the weekend, and I thought what would happen if a man who has just dropped his wife at the railroad station rings this girl who he's met at a party and says, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’” he told The New York Times. “It’s a little fable about the perils of adultery. It is something that men and women get away with 99 percent of the time, and I just thought, ‘Why not explore the one time out of 100 when it goes wrong?’”

Fatal Attraction producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe saw the short and asked Dearden to elaborate on the story. “To turn it into a mass-audience film, I knew there would have to be an escalation of the psychological violence, which in the end becomes physical,” Dearden explained. He says he wasn’t trying to make a social statement about AIDS, but he was trying to say “we can have the most intimate sexual relationships with somebody we know nothing about.”

2. GLENN CLOSE WANTED TO PLAY AGAINST TYPE.

By the time Fatal Attraction came around, Glenn Close was a three-time Oscar nominee who had never been asked to play a sexy role. “When Glenn made it known she was prepared to test, I became fascinated with the idea of using her,” Adrian Lyne told People. “She’s a person you’d least expect to have this passion and irrational obsession. When she and Michael tested, an extraordinary erotic transformation took place. She was this tragic, bewildering mix of sexuality and rage—I watched Alex come to life.” 

Close recalled her nerve-racking audition to Entertainment Weekly: “My hair was long and crazy. I’m very bad at doing my hair. I got so nervous, I took a little bit of a Valium. I walked in and the first thing I saw was a video camera, which is terrifying, and behind the video camera in the corner was Michael Douglas. I just said, ‘Well, just let it all go wild.”’

A year after Fatal Attraction’s release, Close kept the sexiness going in Dangerous Liaisons, which garnered her yet another Oscar nod.

3. ADRIAN LYNE WANTED TO DO A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SEX SCENE.

According to Lyne, the only thing audiences remember about the movie is the spontaneous and somewhat goofy kitchen sink sex scene. “But what people take away from the movie is not Glenn Close putting acid on the car or even the last 10 minutes when they are flailing around in the bathroom,” he told MovieMaker Magazine. “What they remember is Michael f*cking her over the sink early on—which was like 30 seconds—and another 30 seconds of them making out in the elevator … but there’s another two hours and five minutes! And I guess it worked or they wouldn’t have gone to the movie.”

In John Andrew Gallagher’s book Film Directors on Directing, Lyne said he didn’t want the love scene to take place in a bed “because it’s so dreary, and I thought about the sink because I remembered I had once had sex with a girl over a sink, way back. The plates clank around and you’ll have a laugh. You always need to have a laugh in a sex scene.” During filming he yelled at the couple, praising them. “If they know that they’re turning you on, it builds their confidence.” He used a handheld camera to film it “so there was no problem with the heat going out of the scene.”

4. CLOSE HAD A HUGE PROBLEM WITH THE NEW ENDING.

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Two endings of the film were shot: The first had Alex planting Dan’s fingerprints on a knife and then killing herself while Madama Butterfly played in the background. Test audiences felt unsatisfied, so Paramount decided to re-shoot the ending and make it more violent. They had Dan’s wife, Beth (Anne Archer)—the only untainted character—shockingly shoot and kill Alex as a statement on preserving the American family.

“When I heard that they wanted to make me into basically a psychopath, where I go after someone with a knife rather than somebody who was self-destructive and basically tragic, it was a profound problem for me because I did a lot of research about the character,” Close told Oprah. “So to be brought back six months later and told, ‘You’re going to totally change that character,’ it was very hard. I think I fought against it for three weeks. I remember we had meetings. I was so mad.”

In Entertainment Weekly, Close said she thought Alex was a deeply disturbed woman, but not a psychopath. “Once you put a knife in somebody’s hand, I thought that was a betrayal of the character,” she explained. The main reason the ending was changed was because moviegoers wanted revenge. “The audience wanted somebody to kill her,” Michael Douglas told Entertainment Weekly. “Otherwise the picture was left—for lack of a better expression—with blue balls.” Though audiences wanted Alex dead, Douglas saw that as a compliment. “You were so good in the part that everybody wanted you to be killed,” he told Close on Oprah.

In hindsight, Close thinks they did the right thing in changing the ending. “Bloodshed in a dramatic sense brings catharsis,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “Shakespeare did it. The Greeks did it. That’s what we did. We gave the audience my blood. It worked.”

5. THE MOVIE CAUSED THE PHRASE “BUNNY BOILER” TO BECOME A PART OF THE LEXICON.

In probably the most disturbing scene in the movie, Alex boils Dan’s kid’s pet bunny. The phrase is listed in Urban Dictionary and on the U.K. site Phrases.org. Urban defines it as “after a relationship break-up, the person who wants some kind of revenge, like stalking, or harassment,” and Phrases says, “an obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her.” Close herself was uneasy about the scene. “The only thing that bothered me was the rabbit,” she said on Oprah. “I thought it was over the top.”

6. CLOSE HAD THE KNIFE SHE TRIED TO KILL MICHAEL DOUGLAS WITH FRAMED.

In the theatrical ending of the movie, Alex comes after Dan with a knife but doesn’t succeed in getting away with murder. Close told Vanity Fair that she framed the fake knife, and that it’s hanging in her kitchen. “It’s all an illusion. It’s a cardboard prop!” she said. It’s also a rather creepy reminder of the film.

7. THE MOVIE SAVED MORE THAN A FEW MARRIAGES.

The film shows what happens when a married man lets his guard down and embarks on an affair, only to have it destroy his life. “That movie struck a very, very raw nerve,” Close told Daily Mail. “Feminists hated the movie and that was shocking to me. They felt they'd been betrayed because it was a single, working woman who was supposed to be the source of all evil. But now Alex is considered a heroine. Men still come up to me and say, ‘You scared the s**t outta me.’ Sometimes they say, ‘You saved my marriage.’”

8. CLOSE WOULD PLAY ALEX DIFFERENTLY TODAY.

One of the reasons the film was so controversial is the negative way it depicted mental illness. Psychiatrists have said Alex suffered from erotomania, a condition in which a person wrongly believes a person is in love with them. Close spoke to two psychiatrists in preparation for her role, and neither said Alex’s behavior—especially the bunny-boiling—was because of mental illness. “Never did a mental disorder come up. Never did the possibility of that come up,” Close told CBS News. “That, of course, would be the first thing I would think of now.” She also said, “I would have a different outlook on that character. I would read that script totally differently.”

9. DEARDEN ADAPTED FATAL ATTRACTION INTO A PLAY, WITH THE ORIGINAL ENDING INTACT.

In 2014 a stage version of the movie went up in London, starring Natascha McElhone as Alex and Kristin Davis as the long-suffering wife, Beth. Dearden reimagined the script in making Alex more sympathetic, Dan more blameworthy, and returning to the original ending.

“[I] wanted to return to my original conception of the characters in a sense to set the record straight,” Dearden told The Atlantic. “Because while Alex is undeniably borderline psychotic, she is also a tragic figure, worn down by a series of disappointments in love and the sheer brutality of living in New York as a single woman in a demanding career. So whilst remaining faithful to the storyline, I have introduced the ambivalence of my earlier drafts … nobody is entirely right and nobody entirely wrong.”

10. DEARDEN AND CLOSE DON’T BELIEVE ALEX IS A MONSTER.

“Alex is emphatically not a monster,” Dearden wrote in The Guardian. “She is a sad, tragic, lonely woman, holding down a tough job in an unforgiving city. Alex is not a study in madness. She is a study in loneliness and desperation.” He goes on to write that he regrets “that audiences shouted ‘Kill the bitch!’ at the screen … Did Fatal Attraction really set back feminism and career women? I honestly don’t believe so. I think that, arguably, it encouraged a vigorous debate from which feminism emerged, if anything, far stronger.”

Close doesn’t see Alex as monstrous either. “I never thought of her as the villain, ever,” she said on Oprah.

11. A TV VERSION OF FATAL ATTRACTION WAS KILLED.

In 2015 it was reported that Paramount would be bringing the film to the small screen in what was described as “a one-hour event TV series.” Mad Men producers Maria and André Jacquemetton were set to write and executive produce the show, with Deadline writing that the TV version would show how “a married man’s indiscretion comes back to haunt him,” just like in the movie. The show was set to air on Fox. But in early 2017, it was announced that the project was being killed—at least by Fox—after the producers encountered troubles with both the title and casting (The Hollywood Reporter wrote that both Megan Fox and Jenna Dewan Tatum were both said to have passed on the project.)

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13 Stylish Facts About dELiA*s
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Lucy Quintanilla

Millennial women across the United States will remember rushing to their mailboxes after school to grab the hottest catalog of the ‘90s: dELiA*s. The groundbreaking magalog, which debuted in 1994, was, by 1998, sending out 55 million catalogs a year. REaD oN fOr A fEw fUN fACts aBoUt dELiA*s.

1. THE COMPANY WAS FOUNDED BY TWO MALE YALE GRADS.

Stephen Kahn and Christopher Edgar, former Yale roommates, were in their 20s when they started dELiA*s in New York in 1993. Kahn—who, after Yale, had studied political philosophy and Victorian history at Oxford—had taken a job at the brokerage firm PaineWebber and was studying for his MBA at night. But he was bored. He wanted to run his own company. “I was interested in being more creative,” Kahn told Crain’s New York Business in 1998. “And I wanted to make a lot of money.” He convinced Edgar to leave his comparative literature Ph.D. program at Columbia University to start the company. Kahn provided $100,000 of his own money, and his father provided another $100,000.

2. DELIA*S WAS ORIGINALLY AIMED AT COLLEGE-AGED WOMEN.

In the early ‘90s, 90 percent of catalogs were aimed at women aged 30 to 50; it was seeing fashionable undergrads at Columbia that inspired Kahn and Edgar to launch a catalog aimed at selling clothes to college-aged women. They called the catalog dELiA*s. (Where that name came from is a mystery.) Initially, they created 20,000 catalogs and, in 1994, hired students to distribute them around college campuses.

But the response from college women, Kahn told Chief Marketer in 1998, was “lukewarm.” After running ads for the catalog in a few magazines, they found a new market: the college students’ little sisters. “We got a huge response from high school kids,” Kahn said. “So basically the market found us.”

They expanded their customer base to include 10- to 24-year olds with the goal of giving girls who might not live in areas with tons of shops for them an opportunity to buy cool clothes. (Fortune’s summation of the company’s strategy, from a 1997 article, is too amazing not to share: “Today’s average 14-year-old girl in Des Moines is just as hip to what’s hot as the 14-year-old in suburban Los Angeles … She, too, wants shiny avalanche pants and baby-T’s, but she’s stuck in the backwoods with nowhere to shop but her local Wal-Mart. Delia’s body glitter, like Dorothy’s red shoes, transports her from the farm to Melrose Avenue.”) “We felt that this group was not well served,” Edgar told The New York Times in 1997. “There wasn’t a recognition of these kids as real consumers.”

The first catalog hit campuses in the fall 1994, and quickly became a hit: Within four years, the company had annual sales of $158 million. When it went public in 1996, Kahn’s 57 percent share of the stock was worth $163 million.

3. KAHN AND EDGAR WOOED INVESTORS BY COMPARING dELiA*s TO MTV.

In the ‘90s, it was tough to get investors to put their money into catalogs. According to the Los Angeles Times, they “often doubted that teens will bother to leaf through pages and manipulate measuring tapes.” But dELiA*s was able to land financing by comparing its catalog to MTV’s programming. “We told them to think of us as a ‘channel’ through which you can program different types of apparel brands,” Evan Guillemin, the company's chief financial officer, told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “We, like MTV, stay constant … but we’ll provide them with a constantly changing assortment of designs and brands.”

4. CREATIVE DIRECTOR CHARLENE BENSON HAD A DAY JOB AND WORKED ON DELIA*S AT NIGHT FOR THE FIRST YEAR.

The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog
The cover of the first-ever dELiA*s catalog.
Courtesy of Charlene Benson

With its irregular capitalization and engaging photos, dELiA*s was a standout from the start. That strategy came from creative director Charlene Benson and her collaborators. Benson was the art director of Mademoiselle magazine when she got the dELiA*s gig—and she kept that day job for a full year while producing the catalog at night.

How Benson got the dELiA*s job is what she calls a “folksy” story: One of her friends, the writer Hilton Als, met Kahn at an art show, and they got to talking about the catalog. Benson went in for an interview. The office was casual; “it looked like they had collected all the furniture off the street,” Benson tells Mental Floss. “They didn’t really have an idea of what it should be yet. They wanted to know if I knew how to put together a photo shoot, how to do the layout, how to talk to printers. It was more of the business part of it.”

Given pretty much free rein—albeit on a shoestring budget—Benson hired some help and got to work … at night, after she finished at her day job. And though she loved working at Mademoiselle (which was, she says, “wonderful”), dELiA*s gave her a different kind of opportunity. “I did all of the things that I didn’t get to do at Mademoiselle—choose the pictures where the girls were making faces, and have kind of more chaotic layouts, and just have a certain kind of fun and a certain kind of real girl-ness that I always missed working at a Condé Nast fashion magazine,” she says.

That included randomly capitalized type. “We really liked that mixed up and down type,” Benson says. “Sassy had kind of done something like that [before dELiA*s] and we really liked it. But because I was such a bad typist a lot of times my typing would kind of look like that, so it was like, ‘This feels right.’”

Benson didn’t do any market research to create the catalog, but she did look at teen magazines that were available at the time. “When I looked at teen stuff it was a lot of ‘how to kiss a boy,’ or ‘how to know if he likes you.’” She and her team decided to do the opposite: “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s do something where that’s not in the picture yet or maybe it’s not the most important thing to her—that she’s more creative, and she’s more interesting, and she’s more about her friends still.”

The copy in the catalog (an example: “wOulD YoU rAtHeR bE iN a cAve oF sNakEs oR a bAthTub fUlL oF sluGs?”) also reflected that—something Benson says parents appreciated. “I got a lot of nice notes from moms that would be like, ‘Oh thank you for the funny copy. My daughter and I had a really beautiful moment reading it together.’”

The first catalog, which Benson says “wasn’t totally baked,” was a huge success; Edgar came back to Benson in two months and said they’d sold every piece of merchandise. “He was like, ‘So we want to do another one,’ and I was like ‘Wow, didn’t you find that first one really difficult?,” Benson says, laughing. “And so we did another one. ... I did that for a year and was still working at Mademoiselle and I just basically had no life,” Benson says. After that year, Kahn and Edgar asked Benson to come on full-time, and she left Mademoiselle. “That’s really when we made the catalog grow.”

5. THERE WAS A “FICTIONAL DELIA.”

Though no one knows where the name Delia came from (Benson calls it "one of the great mysteries"), according to Jim Trzaska, dELiA*s' photo producer, there was a fictional Delia who “was supposed to be a girl’s girl who loved hanging out with her friends above all else, and dressed for herself rather than to attract boys. That naturally set the tone at the photo shoots as well.”

6. THE CREW HAD A STRATEGY FOR MAKING PHOTO SHOOTS FUN.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

Rarely will you find a girl in a dELiA*s catalog smiling; she’s more likely to be making a funny face or looking like she’s having the time of her life. They were looking for a particular type of girl, Benson says—someone who was expressive. "Sometimes I would ask them, 'Do you want to be an actress someday?' The actual shoots were super fun. We just had the funniest crew, and the stylist that we worked with consistently, Galadriel Masterson, was just really, really funny and she had this way of teaching the girls how to be on set and how to express themselves. She had a really good idea for how to put the stuff together because we weren’t match-y and we weren’t outfit-y. We just shot a lot of film until we got the funny pictures we wanted." Benson brought on Kevin Hatt to photograph the early catalogs, and later, Mei Tao shot them.

According to the models who participated in those shoots—who typically had already appeared in teen mags like Seventeen—they really were awesome. “Every single one was fun,” model Kim Matulova told MTV. “There was always a lot of energy and it was very natural, unforced, and spur-of-the-moment. [The photographer] would just turn on the music and let us girls do our thing, and he’d capture it.”

The photographer shot on Polaroid, and the models would get to take some photos home at the end of the shoot. “I have a huge box at my mom’s house full of old Polaroids and outtakes,” Matulova said.

A page from the Summer '97 dELiA*s catalog.

The crew also had a strategy for getting girls to let loose. “One thing that always got a big reaction from everyone on set was a fake boy named ‘Billy’ who was invented by our lead stylist, Galadriel Masterson,” Trzaska told Refinery 29. “Depending on what kind of mood we needed from the model, ‘Billy’ could be anyone from a shady ex-boyfriend to a bratty little brother or a gay best friend. He definitely helped us get the shot on more than one occasion.”

7. YOU MIGHT FIND SOME FAMOUS FACES IN YOUR OLD CATALOGS.

Miranda Kerr, Brooklyn Decker, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Cassie, and Krysten Ritter all struck a pose for dELiA*s back in the day.

8. AT ITS PEAK, THE COMPANY GOT THOUSANDS OF CATALOG REQUESTS DAILY.

Courtesy of Charlene Benson

According to Chief Marketer, by August 1998, Delia’s was receiving 3000 to 5000 catalog requests every single day. (Some outlets suggest the number was as high as 7000 requests a day.) The company had a whopping 5 million names in its database, each one accompanied by its precise order history.

According to The Cut, 4 million people—or 10 percent of the 40 million female Millennials currently living in the United States—have requested a dELiA*s catalog.

9. THERE WERE PLENTY OF COPYCATS.

Not surprisingly, dELiA*s' massive success led to a number of “magalog” competitors, including Zoe, Wet Seal, moXiegirl (or mXg), Alloy, Airshop, and Just Nikki. But Kahn was not threatened by the competition. “People will try to play catch-up,” he told Chief Marketer. “There will be a shakeout on the imitator side. Most of these guys will lose a lot of money for a long time.”

10. THERE WAS A SPIN-OFF FOR BOYS.

Droog, a.k.a. dELiA*s for boys, launched in 1998. Though it, too, aimed for a market Kahn and Co. thought was untapped, its approach was different than its big sister’s: Instead of being shot in a studio, Droog was shot in fields and parking lots. Its centerfold featured a car, shot head on, bearing a license plate which read “Droog.” The name was the result of a company contest. It was, Kahn told Catalog Age in 1999, a “natural progression from dELiA*s” that featured “streetwear, workwear, and urban and athletic lines.”

Sadly, Droog did not find the same success as dELiA*s; according to Catalog Age, it folded in 2000.

11. THERE WAS A CATALOG FOR HOME FURNISHINGS, TOO.

Contents, which featured roomwares for teens, launched in the late ‘90s. Says Benson, who collaborated with a designer named Whitney Delgado on the catalog: "I love the pictures so much, and those crazy rooms that we built."

12. THE BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES POSED A PARTICULAR CHALLENGE FOR BENSON.

A Delia's storefront.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Following the launch of its website in 1998 (which, according to Chain Store Age accounted for two to three percent of the company's total sales in just two weeks online), dELiA*s began opening brick-and-mortar stores in 1999. Creating the look of the stores was, according to Benson, a tough but rewarding assignment.

To help, the company enlisted visual merchandiser Renee Viola and hired store designer John Farnum, who had worked with Nike. “The tricky part was like ‘OK, we have this thing, it looks like this and feels like this in print. How do we bring what’s happening here into the stores?’” she says. “We didn’t want to lose what we had. From a design standpoint and a building creative team standpoint, it was super fun—I haven’t been in a store development process that was so collaborative since. It was quite wonderful.”

13. THE COMPANY WAS SOLD, WENT OUT OF BUSINESS, AND CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD.

In 2003, amidst decreasing sales, dELiA*s was sold to Alloy, its former competitor, for $50 million. (Catalog Age called it “one of the hottest pairings in teendom since Britney and Justin.”) Alloy at first absorbed the company; then, two years later, spun it off again so it was a separate entity. In 2014, after it lost $57 million, dELiA*s filed for bankruptcy; all of its retail locations and its website were shuttered by March 2015.

But that wasn’t the end. In early 2015, Delia’s was purchased by Steve Russo and other investors and relaunched that August. “In speaking to women who came of age in the ‘90s, they all said they couldn’t wait to receive their dELiA*s catalog in the mail after school,” Russo told The Huffington Post. “The company in those days was visionary, with its inclusive product assortment. We saw an opportunity to revive that excitement in every girl again through print catalogs, exciting new social media campaigns, and a strong e-commerce presence.” You can shop here.

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