Clearly, they are all legendary performers, three of the greatest American entertainers and artists of the last half-century. But very few know these men shared another attribute as well: All three said they were inspired and influenced by a wildly (over)dressed, bleached-blond and quasi-effeminate wrestler, a ring villain who became a huge celebrity in the early days of television: Gorgeous George. Who was this man, and how could he have such an impact on these three titans—and such disparate ones at that? Read on...
“Ladies and gentlemen, introducing The Toast of the Coast......The Sensation of the Nation......that Human Orchid............... GORGEOUS GEORGE!"
When the announcers in the wrestling arenas cried out his name, Gorgeous George appeared at the top of an aisle with his hair long, dyed platinum blond and put up in a woman’s hairdo known as the marcel. His elaborate curls were kept in place with gold-plated “Georgie pins.’’ This at a time when all men’s hair, including President Truman’s, was short, neat and innocuous. George’s hair was anything but innocuous: It shrieked.
He wore elaborate—and deliberately effeminate—long robes of wildly colored satins and silks, trimmed with luxurious furs and silver sequins, festooned with ruffles and lace. Then “Pomp and Circumstance’’ would blare over the loudspeakers and George would begin his famous strut to the ring, as some fans laughed cheered uproariously while others hurled jeers and curses, as well as wadded-up programs, popcorn and other detritus at the arrogant faux-royal character.
But before that The Gorgeous One was preceded to the ring by his valet or manservant, who would spray perfume everywhere his master might tread. George said his perfume was “Chanel Number 10.’’ Number 5 was good enough for other people, but...
Then, when the wrestling finally began, Gorgeous George was the ultimate heel or ring villain, cheating, kidney punching, eye-gouging—and a startlingly good athlete. “Win if you can, lose if you must—but always cheat,’’ was his motto.
This was the mid-1940s. World War Two had finally, mercifully ended, and America was changing—into what, no one quite knew. But it would be something different, you could tell. Amid that transformation a transformed professional wrestler shocked and thrilled the nation, through that revolutionary new entertainment called television.
George Wagner, who grew up during the Depression on the Houston waterfront, was a handsome, dark-haired wrestler, the kind who plays the good guy in the ring, known as the “babyface.’’ He had real skill, too, but he simply wasn’t that much of a draw in the arenas. Struggling to feed his family, his young wife, Betty, his creative muse and co-provocateur, decided to make George into a bizarre and hilarious villain who would grab the leading role by being and acting completely outrageous—the man you loved to hate. (Showing their early flair for publicity, the couple was married in a Eugene, OR wrestling ring in 1939.)
He reinvented himself, declaring himself Gorgeous George, a new and unique creation that was also a variation on our national idea that anyone can become whatever and whomever they can envision. The impact of this new creation, George Wagner’s second self, was immediate and spectacular: George became a huge TV star, a national celebrity, and a wealthy man. Even more unlikely and surprising, the impact of Gorgeousness would be felt for the next half-century and more. Those he inspired and influenced— George’s cultural legacy—include:
Muhammad Ali, who met Gorgeous George when the boxer was just 19 and still known as Cassius Clay.
James Brown, the late great soul singer, who as an aspiring entertainer was struck by the “special flamboyance’’ George added to his matches.
Bob Dylan, who was the struggling young musician Robert Zimmerman when Gorgeous George came to his hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota.
John Waters, the filmmaker behind Hairspray as well as cult classics such as Pink Flamingos is still a Gorgeous disciple—to this day he has a photo of George on the wall in his bedroom in Baltimore.
Gorgeous George pioneered the Bad Boy persona that pervades today’s American pop culture—including hip-hop, populated almost entirely by Bad Boys—and was the prototype for today’s attention-seeking, self-aggrandizing professional athlete. At the same time he was also a powerful example for a line of androgynous, gender-bending entertainers from Liberace (who George claimed "stole my entire act!'') and Little Richard all the way to glam rockers like David Bowie, basketball’s Dennis Rodman and the rock star Marilyn Manson. Gorgeous George didn’t invent all of these cultural tropes but he was certainly a catalyst. You’ve heard no doubt of the Tipping Point—well, in the history of American entertainment, Gorgeous George is a Tipping Person.
GORGEOUS GEORGE: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture tells George Wagner’s saga, a tale of rags to riches to ruin. George drank himself to death at age 48, broke and alone. The book also makes the case that this be-gowned, bleached blond villainous character—an athlete showman who didn’t even truly compete in his silly, faux sport—may actually be a fairly significant American cultural figure.