Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

How Madonna May Have Been Influenced by Mae West


Madonna, Mariah Carey, Lena Dunham and other women entertainers have followed in Mae West’s footsteps in various ways, including breaking taboos about sexuality. Madonna in particular, with her book called “Sex,” may have been paying direct homage to West.


- There seem to be a lot of people, both in movies and in music and in comedy who seem like the heirs or heiresses of Mae West.

- Madonna is somebody who really picks up West's mantle.

In a way, they have roots in the same sorts of subcultures, the kind of underbelly of New York in their respective eras and particularly, with their involvement with gay culture and in infiltrating and imbuing that into their performances.

They're also both very avid sexual agents, both in their private life, but in their pubic persona.

Sex is something that they use and they control and they enjoy and they flaunt.

Madonna's book, 1990s, was called 'Sex', just like West's play, whether that was deliberate homage, I don't know, but it's suggestive.

And Madonna's continued to remain a sexual icon as she's gotten older.

She turns 60 this year, much the same as West did.

Not getting into that sense that you have to kind of turn yourself into a character performer as you get older, you have to strip away the layers of sex or you simply become ridiculous.

But you can be a sexual woman into your 60s and not be ridiculous in the slightest.

- You know, Cher has her mannerisms too.

And she does everything from acting to singing to comedy.

- If there's anybody I could compare to Mae West, like the Gabor sisters.

They were really blonde and had really funny things that they said.

The Gabor sisters are the only ones that I could possibly say ever came close to being a little bit like Mae West.

- I would like to say Mariah Carey might have been impressed a bit by Mae West.

You think about Mariah Carey, in many ways, Mae West, in a hourglass dress, the way she speaks sometimes.

Of course, she must've been inspired by Mae West.

I'm sure, I'm sure.

- Lena Dunham to me, jokes about sex.

I mean, she's a very different type, but women making humor out of something that in reality has been the source of a lot of their oppression and challenge in life is very rare and the fact that Lena Dunham can get people to laugh about sex, to me, makes her in some ways a funny descendant of Mae West.

- Actually Lucille Ball, who I think the character she did is extremely different than Mae West, I mean, you could contrast them.

But, she was also a person who owned her show, owned the reruns, created a character that was a version of her and her glamor, had an iconic makeup style and all those kinds of things and kind of imprinted herself.

And there's a bunch of people who did things like this and so I do think that she's part of that tradition.

- There's something of Lucille Ball that wanted to be Mae West.

When Lucy would dress up in the fancy outfits or when she wanted to be the chorus girl, or when she'd come out in the fake jewelry, she wanted to be Mae West-y.

But there was only one Mae West.

Mae West was sui generis, there was anybody who vamped it up was then imitating Mae West because she set the mold.

She was the one who initiated sort of American, particularly American sexuality and voluptuousness and humor into place and anybody else who picked up on that role, male or female, was then compared to Mae West, and I think absolutely, she got the patent on it.


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.