Was The Original Betty Boop Black?

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Editor’s Note: The woman in the above photo is said to be model, Oyla from a photoshoot in 2008 by Retro Atelier

Was the original Betty Boop inspired by a Black woman? I was just scrolling through my Facebook feed when I stopped on a woman who bore a striking resemblance to cartoon, Betty Boop. Although the photo was black and white, I could still tell that the women looked Black. After reading the caption, I found out that the women who inspired the sassy cartoon character was Black!

Rachel Stewart is reporting, Ms. Esther Jones is a singer who was known by her stage name, “Baby Esther.” She was an African-American entertainer in the late 1920s. Her singing style often included, “Boop oop a doop.” She performed regularly at the The Cotton Club in Harlem and that’s where fellow singer, Helen Kane saw her act and was inspired enough to take Esther’s baby singing style and called it her own and recorded, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”

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After that, Max Fleischer created Betty Boop, a cartoon character who’s voice sounded a lot like Baby Esther’s and who’s named obviously borrowed from Esther’s signature, “Boop oop a doop.”

In 1932, Kane filed a lawsuit again Paramount Corporation for “exploiting her image.” After a two year legal struggle, Kane lost the case as Paramount was able to prove that Kane did not uniquely originate or have claim to the Betty Boop style of singing or look. Paramount proved this by showing Clara Bow (a Paramount Actress) also had the Betty Boop style of dress and hair.

Evidence was produced that Kane actually derived that singing style from watching Baby Esther perform at the Cotton Club several years before the creation of the Betty Boop character.

Supreme Court Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled: “The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force.” In his opinion, the “baby” technique of singing did not originate with Kane. Well, look at that! I wonder how many other Black stars have had their whole entire aesthetic taken by a White star who tried to make it their own?


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