The History of 'It' Girls (And Their Predictable Downfalls)

Heavy is the head that wears the "It" girl tiara.

Sure, it's all fun and games "“ or coke and threesomes "“ at first. But it seems that barely a day goes by without some misguided pop moppet lurching across the evening news: Onetime star, fulltime trainwreck Britney Spears continues to careen from one explosion to another; Lindsay Lohan's strung out, white-trash-on-meth mug shot remains a perpetual punch line; and Nicole Richie keeps forgetting to eat.

Sure, you could blame the spoils of fame, the permissive atmosphere of the cult of fame, or the poor decisions of the It girls. But I think it's much handier to blame the It Girl title itself. Whether the girl possesses some actual talent or simply a birthright that makes her notable doesn't exactly matter, all that matters is that she have some sort of indefinable quality that makes her fascinating to watch.

History has no dearth of young women who, once thrust into the limelight, manage to screw things up in astounding, stupefying ways. From extremely public and scandalous affairs to drug addiction to homelessness, It girls through the ages have been there, done that, and few have lived to tell the tale.

The Original "˜It' Girl

The "It girl" title was born with silent film star Clara Bow. Bow, whose diminutive size and glamour of barely concealed sexual voracity made her one of the first film sex symbols, was discovered while still in her teens, growing up in Coney Island. Bow's breakout role was in a film unsurprisingly called It "“ not, of course, the one about the scary clown, but a 1926 silent film based loosely on a provocative novelette by contemporary tastemaker, Elinor Glyn. Just to clinch the title for their very bankable new star, Bow's studio paid Glyn $50,000 to declare publicly that Clara Bow had It.

Bow's fame grew exponentially after It and later Bow vehicles tended not to vary from the prescribed formula: Insert Bow into some plot about poor girl trying to make her way in the world and let her take off as much clothing as censors would allow.

As Bow became the first real sex symbol of silent film, tales of her supposed sexual appetite outside of her films blossomed. The fledgling celebrity media followed with strict attention Bow's real extracurricular activities, which included public affairs with leading men, engagement after engagement, as well as her rumored activities. Those included having a threesome with two Mexican whores, bedding the entire starting line up of the 1927 USC Trojans football team, and knowing both her Great Dane and pet koala bear on extremely intimate terms.

In Hollywood, she was treated as a kind of pariah "“ a dirty joke telling, hard-drinking outsider with a thick Brooklyn accent "“ but to the public following her exploits in the papers, she was fascinating.

In truth, Bow's personal life was a straight up mess and her eventual pattern of self-destruction seemed to set a precedent for the It girls who followed. She had been sexually abused as a teenager by the father who later lived off and squandered her earnings in Hollywood; when she was a young girl, her schizophrenic and sometime prostitute mother had tried to slit her throat; later, Bow found herself feeling betrayed by friends and family alike, from the best friend who married her father to avoid deportation to the cousin who lived with her and regularly stole money from her. Under intense strain, Bow suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1931, causing her studio, Paramount, to fire her. After some time off, she made a brief comeback before marrying, making babies, and gaining nearly 100 pounds. Bow's enforced retirement only got worse: A suicide attempt, severe depression and hypochondria, addiction to sleeping pills, electro-shock therapy, and finally, a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

"A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered," Bow wrote once, near the end of her life. She died a recluse in 1965, 32 years after her last film appearance.

The Blonde Bombshell, not so lucky in love

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Platinum blonde Jean Harlow succeeded Clara Bow as the silver screen's sexual It (and id) Girl.

Born in 1911, Harlow escaped her weird and controlling Mother Jean by getting hitched at age 16 and moving to Beverly Hills, only to find that Mother Jean's own lifelong ambition to become an actress had followed her. Her mother pressured her into finding work as an extra in films and soon after, Harlow starred in the curiously named Why is a Plumber? Not long after, Harlow was discovered by producers and consummate weirdo, Howard Hughes, who cast her in his film, Hell's Angels. The role catapulted Harlow into the sex symbol stratosphere.

As befitting a sex symbol, especially one barely 19 years old, Harlow stumbled through a well-publicized series of husbands, affairs and strange tragedies. Her second husband (there were three in total), producer and director Paul Bern, was found naked and dead in the bath at their Hollywood home. A coroner's inquiry determined that he had shot himself in the head. At first, Harlow was widely suspected of being responsible for or at least connected to his death, but, in the hopes of sidestepping what would surely be a scandal, MGM, Harlow's studio, spread the totally unscandalous story that he had killed himself because he was impotent.

In 1937 and at only 26 years old, Harlow died from renal failure after the onset of severe kidney disease. She was buried in the negligee she'd worn in the last film she made, Saratoga.

Interestingly, Nicole Richie recently gave birth to a little girl she named Harlow, after the troubled sex symbol.

The Next Blond Bombshell

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Before she died, Clara Bow wrote to several gossip columnists, bequeathing her It Girl crown to perhaps the best-known blond bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson and christened Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe's childhood was first spent with her psychotic mother. After her mother was institutionalized, Monroe grew up in foster care and state homes, before marrying out of the system at the age of barely 16.

While her young husband was off serving as a Merchant Marine in World War II, Monroe found work as a model. That led to a contract with a major studio, which led to a name change "“ Norma Jean became Marilyn "“ and a divorce from her first husband, but no real film work. Small parts in good and bad films alike made her a recognizable face, but her real ascent into stardom came with her 1953 role in Niagara. Classic Monroe films followed: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven-Year Itch.

Throughout, Monroe's personal life mirrored Bow's, though with some added twists: In addition to drinking, blundering from one ill-advised relationship to another (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller), and being taken advantage of by people she trusted, Monroe was rumored to be involved with the mafia, as well as the Kennedy family. By 1960, Monroe was also no longer entirely bankable as an actress, either "“ her last two completed films, Let's Make Love and The Misfits, were failures, and she managed to get herself fired from her last movie after missing too many days of filming.

Not long after that, at the age of 36, Monroe died at home in her Los Angeles bungalow, an empty bottle of sleeping pills found next to her body. While rumors circulated "“ and continue to circulate "“ that she was murdered, the official ruling was of an overdose.

The Factory Girl

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Edie Sedgwick was an erstwhile actress and socialite who found her 15 minutes of fame in the originator himself, Andy Warhol, after he discovered her at a party in 1964. For nearly a year and a half, the two were practically inseparable "“ Sedgwick, 21, tall, slim and usually seen wearing glorified t-shirts as dresses, even tinted her short hair silver to match Warhol's wigs. As part of his gang and in her own right, Sedgwick was all over the Page Sixes of the day and in August 1965, Vogue went so far as to name her a "Youthquaker," whatever that means.

Because she was Warhol's latest superstar, Sedgwick also appeared in a number of his films including Restaurant, Kitchen and the appropriately titled, Poor Little Rich Girl. The latter seemed to be about Sedgwick being Sedgwick, in a very avante garde way, of course "“ a sometimes out of focus Sedgwick sort of wanders around her apartment and talks about how she spent her inheritance. Sedgwick was an actual heiress "“ she came from good Northeastern stock (her great-grandfather was the Rev. Endicott Peabody, founder of the Groton School), was raised in California, and grew up attending private schools. At the age of 21, she had moved to New York to become and actress and a model and partially succeeded.

But it didn't last long. Warhol, who had a habit of making "superstars" out of attractive young women and then replacing them after a little while, soon dropped Sedgwick. By that time, her life was unraveling at the edges "“ drugs, eating disorders, and self-destructive relationships propelled her through stays in psychiatric wards and hospitals and to her eventual death. Sedgwick died of an overdose "“ "acute barbitual intoxication," the Santa Barbara Coronor's Office declared "“ at 28 years old.

Interestingly, Edie Sedgwick's cousin is Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to Kevin Bacon, thereby proving that the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is indeed gospel.

The Rolling Stone's Muse

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Marianne Faithfull was still in school "“ a convent, actually "“ when she met Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham at a party in 1964. Faithfull was an aspiring singer-songwriter with real talent and with his help, as well as from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, her first hit, "As Tears Go By," made a respectable showing on both the American and British charts. Of course, at the time Oldham, Jagger and possibly even Richards seemed a bit more interested in Faithfull's 17-year-old breasts "“ according to one story, Jagger actually poured a glass of champagne between them to get the girl's attention.

But while her career seemed to have a promising trajectory, tales of sex and drugs began to eclipse those of rock n' roll. Though she married in 1965 and popped out a kid about six months after that, she quickly returned to the London rock, folk and drug scene, dropping the child off with her mother in a bit of very extended daycare. By 1966, she was divorced and Jagger's fulltime lady "“ meaning that virtually everything she did ended up in the papers. It was no exception in 1967, when Faithfull and Jagger were letting the good times roll at Richards' London home and the place was raided by the cops. Faithfull was found stark naked under a fur, which she conveniently let fall as soon as the cops burst in. Somewhere into this tale fits a Mars bar, which was allegedly used in a sexual context. In any case, a healthy amount of drugs were found upstairs and both Jagger and Richards were arrested. Later, the verdict was overturned, and then sense that they were all in fact invincible was reinforced.

Time passed, more drugs were consumed, and Faithfull became pregnant with Jagger's child. When she had a miscarriage "“ one day before Yoko Ono, carrying John Lennon's baby, also miscarried "“ both she and Jagger were destroyed. She began using drugs with a vengeance "“ before, it had been recreational, but now it was personal. By the summer of 1969, Faithfull swallowed a bottle full of barbiturates in a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for a day.

Their relationship staggered on for another year or so, and Faithfull did too, drinking, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the pursuit of a stupefying drug addiction: From passing out face first into bowls of soup at the homes of English gentry to arrests from drunken and disorderly conduct at Indian restaurants, Faithfull was truly messed up. Bouts of homelessness and hospitalization ruled the better of the "˜70s for her, until her transcendent 1979 punk-inspired album, Broken English, seemed to put her back on the map.

Still, she was a junkie and it took the better part of another decade before she could kick the habit. Faithfull has actually managed to recover from the swinging sixties (and seventies and eighties, really), although her career hasn't exactly hit the same heights of notoriety as it did when she was party-hopping with Mick Jagger. As the surviving matriarch of "˜60s rock-drug-folk scene Faithfull continues to make genre-pushing music as well as act, in films like Marie Antoinette and Gus Van Sant's Paris, I love You.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

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Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

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MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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