Bella Donna: Dorothy Dandridge


It's time for this week's installment of Bella Donna. Last week I sung the praises of Joan Jett, and this week we're going back in time to talk about Dorothy Dandridge. The first African American to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, she was an immensely talented singer and actress.

For many young black women, Dorothy was one of the few Hollywood stars to look up to. But as you'll see, her life wasn't always as beautiful as she was. To view a gallery of this silver-screen beauty and to find out how to get her look, read more

You could say that Dorothy was practically born performing. As a child in the 1930s, she and her sisters toured the country as The Dandridge Sisters, and at age 13, Dorothy had her film debut in an Our Gang short. As she matured, she appeared in several films, but was mostly cast in stereotypical parts for African Americans. Rampant racism affected her solo singing career, too: She often found herself performing at hotels, only to discover that would not let her stay there because of her skin color.

Hollywood—and America in general—was a more blatantly racist place in the 1940s and 1950s, and leading roles for black actresses were scarce. But when Dorothy heard about an all-black film version of Carmen Jones, she successfully fought for the part. Her Oscar-nominated performance made her a star and landed her a spot as the first African American to appear on the cover of Life magazine. Other films followed, such as Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier.

Although Dorothy was finally a respected, famous actress, her off-screen life was tumultuous. As a child, she had been abused by her mother's partner; as an adult, she suffered from abuse at the hand of her second husband. Her only child was mentally handicapped, and she developed severe problems with alcoholism and depression. After a few attempts to regain her health, she was found dead of an overdose in her home. She was only 41 years old.

Dorothy Dandridge once said, "If I were white, I could capture the world." I think she's right. Her talent and beauty were remarkable, and a less prejudiced society would have allowed her to become an even bigger star. And her struggle to win quality roles serves as a legacy for the African American stars who have followed her. (In a coincidence, actress Halle Berry, the first African American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, once portrayed Dorothy Dandridge in a TV biopic.)

To mimic Dorothy Dandridge's classic look, follow these tips:

  • Wear full but groomed eyebrows, with a defined arch
  • Eyes should sport neutral shadow and black liquid eyeliner
  • Dorothy favored bold, orangey-red lipsticks
  • She also drew small beauty marks on her face occasionally
  • For hair, go for soft, voluminous curls.

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