Every successful performer needs a gimmick, and few could have devised one as effective as vaudeville strongwoman Charmion. She combined athletics, physique display and sex appeal in a provocative act that made her a star. Unfortunately, information on her life is as scanty as her stage costume. We don’t even know her nationality, though the Irish, Americans, Australians and French all claimed her. She made her spectacular debut in 1900 at New York’s Koster & Bial’s vaudeville hall, and she immediately set heads spinning and tongues wagging.
Charmion swept onto the stage in an elaborate, flowing gown and a stylish plumed hat; she then mounted a trapeze that was suspended over the footlights. As the band played a seductive waltz, Charmion proceeded to remove one article of clothing after another, all the while swinging back and forth on her perch. After she had disrobed sufficiently’as close to nudity as the laws of the time would permit’she began flexing her muscles, displaying her considerable arm and shoulder development. She ended with a serious gymnastics exhibition and trapeze performance. It’s said that the men in the audience cheered her on with raucous whoops and shouts of ‘Oh, la la!’
Charmion was understandably quite a hit with her male audiences. She began to get bookings in some very posh theaters. In fact, starting in 1904, she supposedly reigned for a decade as the top vaudeville headliner, reputedly earning $4,000 a week, the highest salary paid in vaudeville at the time. At the height of her popularity she was even filmed by Thomas Edison’s new motion picture camera. By 1914, however, it was all over.
Charmion returned to the oblivion from which she had arisen.
Her act was unique. Unlike other strongwomen she didn’t demonstrate her prowess by lifting things; instead she preferred to display her physique (quite a bit of it) to the admiring throngs. She was definitely ahead of her time in that regard: a performer who made a living by merely displaying muscles. She not only devised one of the first striptease shows in vaudeville history, but she did something even more amazing: Because she flexed as she stripped, Charmion gave the first female bodybuilding exhibition in history.
Note: Special thanks to Laurie Fierstein for much of the above information.
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