Without Marilyn Monroe, there would be no Gwen Stefani. No Christina Aguilera. And certainly no Madonna. It's nearly impossible to overstate the influence that this week's Bella Donna has had on ideas of beauty and glamour. Think of platinum-blonde hair, red lips and a beauty mark... and you think of Marilyn.

One of the reasons Marilyn is so iconic is that she represents both the benefits and pitfalls of fame and glamour. Born Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926, she was shuttled between foster homes as a child before marrying at age 16. While working at a factory, she was spotted by a photographer who helped her start her modeling career. Soon after, she lightened her hair and had her nose slimmed. At age 20, she changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, and after a few bit parts, her movie career began to take off.

To learn more about Marilyn and to see a photo gallery, read more

Marilyn was certainly on top of the A-List of her day, and although her appearance on the inaugural issue of Playboy may have made her more famous, it was her comedic timing that drew the praise of critics. She was hilarious in a series of "dumb blonde" roles, but unfortunately, people confused Marilyn with her characters. She was largely considered merely a dimwitted sexpot, but away from the cameras, she had an intellectual side. She studied Kierkegaard and Goethe, studied with acting coach Lee Strasbourg, and was vocal about her support for racial equality. But Marilyn's story, as I'm sure you know, doesn't end on a happy note. She was married and divorced three times, she suffered from depression, and she became addicted to pills. She died at age 36 of an overdose in 1962.

Marilyn fascinates me not just because she's such a beauty icon, but because of her sadness and vulnerability. She once called herself a "failure as a woman," saying:

I'm a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they've made of me — and that I've made of myself — as a sex symbol. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy is the same as any other woman's and I can't live up to it.

Browse these photos and I think you'll see that in the midst of Marilyn's beauty and glamour, there was a vulnerability to her. I think that's why she's so intriguing—interpreting her femininity is more complex than you might think.

Source