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13 Classic Facts About Citizen Kane

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All art is subjective, and it’s therefore perhaps pointless to argue over which movie is the “greatest” ever made. We still argue, though. And when discussing the best film ever made, there is, remarkably, an apparently universal answer. Roger Ebert used to joke that Citizen Kane is “the official answer” to the question “What’s the greatest film of all time?”—and it’s easy to see why. In the nearly eight decades (it turns 75 years old today) since its release, Citizen Kane has remained one of the clearest expressions of creative freedom and artistic innovation ever put on film. Its co-writer, director, producer and star—Orson Welles—was granted an incredible amount of control over its production, and he put it to good use, setting new standards for cinematography, makeup effects, and storytelling on the big screen.

If much of what we see now in Citizen Kane seems commonplace in the landscape of cinema, it’s because this is the film that set the precedent. If much of how we view auteurs in film now seems clichéd, it’s because Welles got there first. When stating the importance of Citizen Kane, Ebert said it best: “It consolidated the film language up until 1941 and broke new ground in such areas as deep focus, complex sound, and narrative structure.”

So, in celebration of the “official” Greatest Film of All Time, here are 13 facts about Citizen Kane.

1. ORSON WELLES GOT UNPRECEDENTED CREATIVE CONTROL.

By the time he came to Hollywood, Orson Welles was regarded as one of the great young geniuses of his time. His work in the theater earned him the cover of TIME magazine by the age of 23, and the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds—arguably the first “mockumentary” ever made—caused such a national panic that he was forced to apologize for it. It was no surprise when Hollywood began seeking his talents, but what was surprising was just how much freedom he was given.

When George Schaefer, the head of RKO Pictures, was hoping to generate a creative shakeup at his studio, he signed a deal with Welles that granted the wunderkind direct access to Schaefer himself and, among other things, gave Welles final cut on his films. Because Welles was a first-time film director, the move generated immense controversy in Hollywood, particularly when Schaefer cut the salaries of RKO employees while still granting Welles creative freedom over his work.

2. WELLES’ FIRST IDEA WAS AN ADAPTATION OF HEART OF DARKNESS.

When Welles was granted his ambitious RKO movie deal, his initial plan was to make an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, featuring first-person camera techniques, elaborate sets, and Welles’ own narration. Though production got far enough that test footage was shot featuring miniature set designs, RKO ultimately shut the movie down because the budget grew too high. In searching for an alternate project, Welles happened upon a massive screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz called American. After several rewrites, this screenplay would become Citizen Kane.

3. AUTHORSHIP OF THE SCRIPT IS STILL DISPUTED.

In the end, both Mankiewicz and Welles would win an Academy Award for the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s still not entirely clear how much work each man did on the final product. Welles once claimed that Mankiewicz was responsible for the first two drafts, while he had significant input on the third. A contract signed by Mankiewicz apparently stipulated that the studio was allowed to omit his name on the script, while a Screen Writers Guild rule at the time stated that a producer (in this case, Welles) could not be given a writing credit unless he wrote the script “entirely without the collaboration of any other writer.” In the end, the two parties agreed to share credit.

4. WELLES WAS INSPIRED BY WATCHING STAGECOACH.

At the beginning of filming Citizen Kane, Welles was an acclaimed theater and radio director with no real experience in cinema. In an effort to learn the ropes of a new craft, Welles turned to one of the most acclaimed films of the day: John Ford’s iconic Western Stagecoach. He once claimed he watched the film “every night for a month” in an effort to dissect the craft behind its production, and when asked to name his cinematic influences, he once gave the following answer: "The old masters, by who I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

5. WELLES’ EATING AND DRINKING HABITS IMPACTED HIS HEALTH DURING PRODUCTION.

Though he was not yet famous for the excesses that would make him notorious later in life, Welles nonetheless had some peculiar eating and drinking habits during the production of Citizen Kane. His habit of consuming more than 30 cups of coffee each day led him to succumb to caffeine poisoning. He switched to tea, believing that the time it took to make each cup would slow him down, but having an assistant make it for him meant that he drank so much his skin changed color. In addition, Welles would sometimes simply not eat for long stretches, then sit down to a meal that included “three large steaks with side items.”

6. THE MAKEUP EFFECTS WERE MADE BY A NON-UNION EXPERIMENTER.

Throughout the course of the film, Charles Foster Kane has to look, at various times, impossibly youthful and very, very old. Welles once recalled that, for the scenes of Kane’s early years, his face was “yanked up with fish skin” to give him a youthful look, even at 25, that’s “impossible in real life.” For the scenes of Kane’s later years, he turned to Maurice Seiderman, an aspiring (non-union) makeup artist who was, at the time, sweeping the floors in the RKO makeup department. Welles noticed that Seiderman was using his spare time experimenting with latex to create artificial face appliances and, impressed with his ingenuity, asking him to work on Citizen Kane. Latex face appliances are now common practice in movie makeup effects.

7. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS REVOLUTIONARY.

If any name can rival Welles’ in discussing the making of Citizen Kane, it is that of Gregg Toland, the iconic cinematographer who turned the film into an exercise in cinematic innovation. According to Welles, Toland actually approached him and volunteered to shoot the film. When Welles said “I don’t know anything about movies,” Toland replied: “That’s why I want to do it, because I think if you’re left alone as much as possible, we’re going to have a movie that looks different. I’m tired of working with people who know too much about it.”

So, the pair got to work, and Toland was given the freedom he so craved. He modified cameras and lenses to create the film’s famous “deep focus” shots. He worked with visual effects expert Linwood Dunn to create masterful composite shots (the scene in which Kane discovers Susan Alexander’s suicide attempt, for example, isn’t just one shot, but three shots stacked atop one another). He stretched muslin over the tops of sets to allow the ceilings to be visible while microphones could also be placed above the actors, and he and Welles famously chopped holes into the floors to allow for even lower camera angles. All of these elements combine to make Citizen Kane a master class in cinematography, and an example of every camera trick of the era finally combined into a single film. As Welles would later put it: “In this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do. So anything that I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.”

8. WELLES WAS INJURED TWICE DURING FILMING.

Welles’ commitment to his performance as Charles Foster Kane meant that he poured tremendous energy into the role, sometimes at the risk of his own wellbeing. During the scene in which Kane rampages through Susan’s room, smashing furniture and ripping things off the walls, he badly cut his left hand. Then, during the scene in which Kane confronts Boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) on a staircase, Welles fell and injured his ankle so badly that he was forced to reschedule certain scenes and direct the film from a wheelchair for several days.

9. WELLES DID MAGIC TRICKS TO DISTRACT STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Though he’d been granted incredible creative freedom to make the film, Welles still had to answer to studio executives who wanted the film to turn a profit, and was apparently worried they wouldn’t approve of the often innovative nature of his production. For the “News of the World” newsreel sequence, he even went so far as to claim the footage shot was just “tests,” so the RKO office wouldn’t worry about it.

When RKO executives actually did visit the production, Welles used his natural flair for showmanship to distract them. According to Seiderman, the crew was told during these occasions: “Don’t do anything. Smoke cigarettes and talk.” Meanwhile, Welles would perform card tricks for executives until they left.

“He would invite us over but he’d keep us outside the screening and then do tricks and stuff to amuse us,” George Schaefer’s then-assistant Reginald Armour recalled.

10. IT CONTAINS PTERODACTYLS.

Though he had massive creative freedom on the film, Welles also still had a budget, and as a result certain creative shortcuts were used to reduce cost on Citizen Kane. In one instance, a scene between Kane and Susan that was originally intended to take place in an ornate Xanadu living room was instead shot in a redressed hallway. In another, the production got even more creative: For the scene in which Kane and his entourage visit the beach, the large birds flying in the background are actually a previously created shot of pterodactyls from either King Kong (1933) or Son of Kong (1933).

11. IT LAUNCHED MANY FILM CAREERS.

Because he had worked for many years with the Mercury Theatre Company (which he co-founded with John Houseman), it was Welles’ natural inclination to include his theatrical collaborators in Citizen Kane. Among the actors making their cinema debuts are Mercury players Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), and Ray Collins (Jim Gettys).

12. WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST TRIED TO KEEP IT OUT OF THEATERS.

Even before its release, rumors swirled that Charles Foster Kane and his life story were based on the life of media baron William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful men in America at the time. Like Kane, Hearst built a massive California palace and stocked it with exotic animals. Like Hearst, Kane fell in love with a performer and became a sort of patron to her (in the film it’s Susan Alexander; in real life it was Marion Davies). One Kane line in particular—“You provide the prose poems; I’ll provide the war”—seemed to be directly lifted from a famous Hearst quote: “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” There’s even a popular legend that the film’s inciting MacGuffin, “Rosebud,” was inspired by a pet name for a portion of Davies’, um, anatomy.

Though he denied the film was based on Hearst at the time, Welles would later say: “I thought we were very unfair to Marion Davies, because we had somebody very different in the place of Marion Davies, and it seemed to me to be something of a dirty trick, and does still strike me as being something of a dirty trick, what we did to her. And I anticipated the trouble from Hearst for that reason.” He would later effusively praise Davies in the foreword to her memoir.

Louella Parsons, a Hearst columnist and tremendously influential media figure at the time, requested a private screening of the film prior to its release. According to post-production sound engineer James G. Stewart, Parsons left, “outraged,” before the film even ended. (Her chauffeur, who stayed until the end, called it a “very good picture.”) Parsons then began demanding to speak to Schaefer, claiming that RKO Pictures would face “the most beautiful lawsuit in history” if the film was released. Editor Robert Wise was then asked to screen the film for the heads of all the other major studios of the day, as they all feared Hearst’s influence and worried that the film’s release would impact all of Hollywood if it incurred the full measure of his wrath.

Hearst’s vast newspaper empire banned all advertising of Citizen Kane, and numerous theater chains refused to show it, contributing to its eventual financial failure at the box office. Welles once claimed that the retribution grew so vicious that he was warned by a policeman that “an underage girl, undressed, and photographers” were waiting for him in his hotel room, so he simply abandoned the room and left town.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG OWNS “ROSEBUD.”

The film hinges on the word “Rosebud,” and on a group of reporters attempting to find out why it was Charles Foster Kane’s last word. It’s eventually revealed that “Rosebud” was written on a sled Kane owned as a child, symbolizing a sense of joy and innocence that he constantly worked for in adulthood but perhaps never gained. This plot device is among the most iconic in cinema history, and has been parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Family Guy. In 1982, one of the “Rosebud” sleds from the film was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. The buyer was director Steven Spielberg. Though some of the “Rosebud” sleds were burned during the Citizen Kane production as part of the final scene, it’s still unclear if Spielberg’s copy is the only one remaining.

Additional Sources:
The Complete Citizen Kane (1991)
The Making of Citizen Kane, by Robert L. Carringer

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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.

Paramount Pictures

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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