No, that’s not me on that billboard. I was one-half of a team that created an ad campaign for KDAY Radio in 1972, as an art director for a boutique agency in Beverly Hills. Today the image isn’t radical, but it was then, and in a city so driven by media, quite a sensation.
I had dropped out of college to get married at 20 because good girls couldn’t just live with boys. We’d moved to Honolulu so that my young husband could attend the University of Hawaii while I began my commercial art career. The now-famous Crazy Shirts tees had just started; our neighbor was one of their first employees. So when we moved to Los Angeles in 1967, I brought tees with me, along with the concept, as I worked my way up in advertising art departments.
With this campaign in 1972 — billboards all over LA and a hand-paint on Sunset — I like to think that I helped spread the t-shirt trend to the mainland. I didn’t write the headline and to this day, I hate it, but take a closer look. It’s quite a period piece, capturing the moment in time when women were beginning to be “liberated,” or so we hoped.
Note the hip huggers with the peace sign belt and the radical cropping of the model’s face, and also her nipples. In this era of the burning bra, she had to be braless. Our bodies were to be liberated from the constraints of unwelcome pregnancy, decorum, sexuality, sexism, 1950s post-war stereotypes of what a woman should be.
I remember the day the photographer and I shot this image. I’d brought a tee for the model, with letters that I’d had to iron on myself. It was hot in his studio under all those lights. It was so hot that the model’s nipples disappeared. I had to invent a quick alternative. With bits of cotton ball, she taped on fake nipples. I do believe that this was the first braless billboard in the entire world.
The process of printing billboards was complicated then. There were only two companies in the US that had the capacity to print large sheets of paper that would be glued, one sheet at a time, to each outdoor panel in the greater LA area that had been purchased. When my writing partner informed me that I would be traveling to Opelousas, Louisiana, to approve the first proofs off the press, I was dubious about such a responsibility. I replied, “I’ve never done that, I can’t do that!” He looked up at me from his desk and said, “Yes, you can.”
Beverly Hills then was a different town. I lived five blocks east of my office in the Bank of America building at Wilshire and Beverly. Celebrities walked around unmolested by either tourists or paparazzo. Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, James Colburn in a white Ferrari, Richard Burton in a white Rolls, Elvis — portly, coifed, and dressed in tight, fringed leather, standing beside his Stutz Bearcat in front of his jewelers. No big deal. Well, McQueen — McQueen was a big deal. Gentlemen had to wear jackets in restaurants; women alone were discouraged at the Beverly Hills Hotel bar, or so I heard. The most expensive designer jeans at Theodore’s on Rodeo were $25. I went out with a celebrity actor once, and declined an invitation to the Playboy Mansion, which I now regret.
My younger self remembers an LA then as a less boozy version of Mad Men: meetings I couldn’t attend because I was a woman, or too young, or clients who had other things in mind. Overnight, workplaces abandoned rules that women must wear dresses, or at least pantsuits. I don’t remember wearing anything but jeans. While I worked mostly with men who were supportive, I was also well aware of limits.
As society shifted rapidly, many of us thought we could have it all. I did, and I have managed to have a great deal, but not in advertising. It wasn’t that there were only about five female full service art directors out of 1,000 guys then (as I recall), and it wasn’t that I didn’t love the challenge. It wasn’t that a recession around then prevented me from being hired by the notorious Samsonite gorilla ad team at Doyle Dane, that art directors were being let go, that it looked to be an insecure profession — it was and it still is.
The photographer and I reconnected recently on Facebook, 46 fast years later. He’s still two years older than I am, and has had a successful career shooting commercials and directing. We’ve decided to compare notes as the two young talents that we were then, he male, me female, he a husband and father, me a wife and mother, both in business for ourselves. The lasting bits of the rebel linger for each of us. He liked women as humans then and I can tell he still does.
My younger self thought that the characteristics that made me a successful advertising creative were in direct opposition to what it was going to take to create a family. Men asked why they should give up their positions in the professional schools to women — that once women started having babies they’d quit. My father, who was an egalitarian, made a prediction. He said that “women’s lib” was not so much a movement as an economic justification for the future: that families wouldn’t be able to afford a one income household — that women would be forced to work, just to survive an increasing cost of living. My younger self might have listened more closely.