A Brief History of Pop Stars as Sex Symbols

You can grumble about how “sex sells” “these days,” but the connection between pop stardom and sexiness goes back pretty much to the beginning of pop stardom. Pop stars are meant to inspire us, dazzle us, and bring a sense of otherworldly joy to our mundane lives — and, alas, due to basic human nature, this almost always includes evoking sex.

Here are just a few of the hottest throughout history:

Josephine Baker rose to fame in the ’20s as the “Bronze Venus” and “Creole Goddess.” She was particularly famous for wearing this skimpy costume homage to bananas (and little else):

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Mae West was the Madonna of the ’30s, known for singing, acting, writing her own material, and whatever else would allow her to display her sexually frank persona alongside her voluptuous figure:

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Whatever else was going on in his life, Frank Sinatra‘s stunning looks, smooth voice, and hyper-masculinity can still make hearts beat a little faster, half a century after his heyday:

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In the 1950s, Jayne Mansfield followed in the mold of both Mae West and, even more, her contemporary Marilyn Monroe as a busty blonde who acted, sang, and danced — and, in Mansfield’s case, became one of the earliest Playboy models:

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Brigitte Bardot‘s main claim to fame in the ’60s was her beauty — that hair, those lips — with a little bit of acting, modeling, and singing to give us all an excuse to look at her:

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Before Jane Birkin got a famous purse named after her, she was a sexy ’70s chanteuse who rose to fame singing the scandalously explicit “Je t’aime … moi non plus” with Serge Gainsbourg. (In a very French twist, he’d originally written the song for Bardot.) Birkin went on to become a fashion icon and to give birth to two of our chicest modern-day ladies, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon:

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Jon Bon Jovi made ’80s hair metal soft, sensitive, and sexy for even the most tame suburban girls:

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Janet Jackson got that whole Beyonce thing down way back in the ’90s: She sang about sex, wore very little at times, and still maintained an air of unquestioned respectability, maybe because of her family pedigree, but also because she was a dream-girl-next-door and serious artist wrapped up in one:

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Christina Aguilera owned her sexuality from the start of her ’00s-dominating pop career, setting herself apart from the superstar to whom she was most compared — her former fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears:

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Is Miley Cyrus‘ sustained lack of clothing this past year symbolic of a bigger point about female sexuality? Or just the easiest way to shock the parents of former Hannah Montana viewers? The jury’s still out, but if nothing else, Miley knows the important place sex has always occupied in the personae of pop stars:

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