Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Helen Li Mei and the Jantzen Swimsuit Affair

"Fetchingly attired in an oriental style dress, Chinese actress Helen Lee Mei uses the Chrysler building as a backdrop as she poses atop a building here Oct. 3rd. Miss Mei, who was supposed to represent the Far East in swim suit fashions in New York, said Oct. 4th that she will not pose in a bathing suit because she considers it immodest. She will be flown back to Hong Kong by the swim suit manufacturer." —UPI Photo, October 4, 1958

Helen Li Mei refusing to pose in a swimsuit because she thinks it immodest? Hmmm... that doesn't sound like the Li Mei I know.

While not quite an international incident, Helen Li's unexpected refusal to model for Jantzen, after being flown to the United States by the swimsuit manufacturer, was nonetheless noted by International Screen as one of the "Ten Biggest Events in 1958" (ranking third, right after Our Sister Hedy's Best Picture Award and Lin Dai's second Best Actress Award at the 5th Asian Film Festival). While it's impossible to know what really happened, the wildly different accounts in the American and Chinese press hint at — to put it nicely — a lack of cultural respect and understanding.

On October 1st, 1958, Helen arrived in New York to help publicize Jantzen's latest international collection of swimsuits and sportswear. Here's a news item showing her doing some preliminary publicity on the day of her arrival with the three other models participating in the promo tour.

INTERNATIONAL VIEWERS . . . The international model set was well represented by this quartet of lovelies who attended the premiere of the film "The Big Country" as Astor Theatre in New York Wednesday. From left, they are Helen Connor, England; Fay Vitucci, Rome; Mamo Howell, Hawaii; and Helen Lee Mei of Hong Kong. The first three are wearing variations of the chemise while Miss Lee Mei is wearing a traditional style Chinese dress.

The Daily Review, October 6, 1958

However, it was soon being reported in the American press that Helen was refusing to wear a swimsuit for Jantzen.

No Swimsuit, No Publicity

NEW YORK (AP) — A Chinese model-actress from Hong Kong, flown here to help publicize a line of bathing suits, is being sent back home. She won't wear a bathing suit.

The wasted trip of beautiful Helen Lee Mei was described by a spokesman for the swimsuit manufacturer. He said Miss Mei agreed to come here and appear in the Jet Age International Show at Idlewild airport Tuesday, along with top-flight models from other countries.

Miss Mei arrived in New York Wednesday, and it soon became apparent there had been a misunderstanding.

"The other girls have created no difficulties," said the spokesman. "However, Miss Mei refuses to wear a swimsuit."

Miss Mei was not available for comment.

Albuquerque Journal, October 5, 1958

So, what happened? Like I said earlier, Helen was no stranger to the swimsuit. In fact, she was one of Hong Kong's top pin-up girls, as this July 1958 calendar photo clearly attests.

According to Oldflames, International Screen had a quite different account of the Jantzen affair. Apparently, when the company had approached Helen's studio (MP&GI) and invited her to the United States to promote their new collection, they weren't very organized and never showed her the contract. However, since a press conference had already been held by MP&GI to announce the tour, she decided to just go ahead with it.

Evidently, when Helen finally arrived in New York, instead of welcoming her like the top star that she was, Jantzen only sent a low-ranking promotions assistant to get her signature on the contract. It is at this point, according to the American press, that Helen became "difficult" and refused to wear a swimsuit out of an alleged (and implied as inscrutable) modesty. But according to Helen, the real reason that she refused to cooperate with Jantzen was because their assistant was rude to her and the company had acted unprofessionally.

Rather than try and patch things up with her, Jantzen warned Helen that she might be deported if she did not change her mind. Upon hearing this, Helen became so angry that she decided to sever her relations for good. She even went so far as to make a public statement that she was not at all adverse to wearing a swimsuit but rather did not like the way that Jantzen treated her.

Again, it's hard to say what really happened, yet it is not so difficult to imagine a possible chain of events from Helen's perspective: a less than respectful welcome; continually, and incorrectly, being addressed as Miss Mei rather than Miss Li (see the news items above); and perhaps even being given the "China doll" treatment (this happened, after all, during the "Suzie Wong" era).

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Maybe Helen was a bit of a diva... I don't know. But looking at Helen, especially in the picture at the top of this post, I see a proud woman who was willing to stand up for the respect she deserved.

Further Reading
Helen Li Mei biography by Paul Fonoroff


lightning in a bottle said...

sounds like bad PR management skills. i would have to side with helen lee mei on this one. going from bad to worse and not doing anything to rectify the situation? jantzen - fail.

Glamoursurf said...

She did the right thing. Very interesting post!

Cheong said...

Yes Helen was an alluring actress, more mature in person and in her screen roles than the young bright stars at Cathay.

I can vaguely remember her in a coloured film which made her quite famous before she joined Cathay. She play a role of a simple village girl, a bit deformed in the face and after a sucessful plastic surgury she became beautiful and arrogant which ended her losing her family and her love
Can anyone refresh my memory?


ewaffle said...

I would think that being met by a not particularly compent flunky who doesn't know her proper name then finding out that nobody at Jantzen knew her correct name and being threatened with being deported (!?)--in reality meaning only that she would go back to HK but doing so in the most humiliating way imaginable--might get anyone upset. And if a person is a movie star who as done a ton of publicity shoots, calendars and other PR stuff it might quickly get to an irreperable stand-off.

Very intriguing post and a great way to show how pop culture can be a way into culurally significant but little known events in the past.

Their slogan was "Wear a Jantzen and a smile". Not in this case.

oldflames said...

Very interesting post,Dave.

The first photo from the top is so fascinating.

Li Mei took bold but rational action in the face of "crisis"...She has done herself proud.

Cheong, it will be useful if you could recall who was the lead actor in that movie?

duriandave said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone! Glad to see so much support for Helen. :D

I'll be following up in a few days about what she did instead during trip.

Cheong, based on a description I found in the HKFA catalog, the movie you described sounds like Strayed Beauty (aka The Song of the Nightingale).

oldflames said...

Dave, you beat me to that...hehe.My guess would also be The Song of the Nightingale夜鶯曲。

If I am not mistaken,at the end of the movie, Li Mei's face was again disfigured due to an accident,she was abandoned by her lover,friends and family.Poor girl.

hcpen said...

thanks for the lovely cheongsam picx as usual..hehehe..

Dev said...

I must say I love both the pictures!!

THanks Dave!

YTSL said...

Aaah, read the first bit of the entry first and then the entry above it.

Yep, definitely noted the "Miss Mei" (as opposed to "Miss Li") bit.

"...looking at Helen, especially in the picture at the top of this post, I see a proud woman who was willing to stand up for the respect she deserved."

I so agree.

BTW, duriandave, do you have any photos of Lisa Lu? She's another actress from that era (but working into this one) who comes across to me as one formidable woman deserving of lots of respect.

duriandave said...

YTSL, I've been meaning to post something about Lisa Lu for quite some time now. I'll bump that project to the front of the queue!

Cheong said...

Thanks Dave for getting the information on Helen Li Mei's film. I Saw the film a long time ago when I was still very young. It must have left a lasting impression on me to remember it. I saw Helen when she made an appearance in Kl in conjuction with one of her films for Cathay in the late 50s.I remember her singing a few songs and demonstrating some nimble steps of Cha cha with a partner.
I have dug up some old cds where Helen sang Mai Wan ton(Selling wan ton) and Ya For ( Wild Five). Do you have any further information of her other songs?


duriandave said...

You're welcome, Cheong! That's cool you had a chance to see Helen. It seems like a lot of HK stars visited Malaysia to promote their films. Did you see any others?

I've got this CD that features songs by Helen and fellow MP&GI stars Lin Dai, Yu Ming, Lin Tsui, Ting Hao, and Grace Chang. Definitely worth getting!

Aitch said...

Very interesting topic. I had no knowledge of this actress or the asian cinema during that era in general. I'm glad I stumbled onto your blog during a search for Jantzen's History. The have a historical archivist for their company.
The Jantzen executives were a combination of truly not-understanding her status in the Asian cinema world but also indifferent to it-- believing it inferior. She saw through that and said something about it. Good for her. Even though, as the company said "They were flying in models from all over the world." Rather snidely rubbing it in how easily she could be "replaced". They were asses for falsely blaming it on her.

duriandave said...

Hi Aitch! Glad you found it interesting.

Li Mei was no pushover. Before she became an actress, she was a political science major and a screenwriter.

Coincidentally, she ended up living and passing away in Portland, Oregon, the hometown of Jantzen.

Aitch said...

Oh my DD, how interesting! I will try to check out the Hollywood Chinese Exhibit at the Museum as I will be in LA next week.... I "collect" vintage film genres and this is all new to me. Thanks!!!

duriandave said...

Yes, do try and check it out! It's a great show. The museum is very easy to get to via the Metro subway. It's right across the street from the Union Station in downtown LA.

Aitch said...

Thanks a lot DD--Union Station is already on my list!

duriandave said...

You're welcome! Let me know how you like the show.