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August 02, 2012 12:00:00 AM
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She was the prototype blonde bombshell and 50 years after her sudden death, the smoke from Marilyn Monroe's one-woman sexual revolution has yet to clear.

Monroe wasn't the first Hollywood pin-up. Or even a natural blonde.

But between the famous tight red sweater, the Playboy pictures, and that skirt blowing episode over a New York subway grate, the young woman previously known as Norma Jeane Baker put America and the world in a fluster.

It was a conquest that brought her celebrity marriages and fame far beyond her relatively modest list of film credits, creating a sex symbol revered by pop singers, actresses and fashionistas to this day.

"Marilyn Monroe has achieved an aura," Goetz Grossmann, an executive producer involved in developing a film about the actress called "Blonde," told AFP. "You cannot escape Marilyn Monroe. She's reached iconic status."

Quite aside from biopics like the recent "My Week with Marilyn," Hollywood, the music industry and fashion world remain intoxicated by the beauty who died at 36 in an apparent drug overdose suicide.

Creative director Joe Zee writes in that "the original body-and-soul bombshell" continues to inspire catwalks.

Celebrities like Taylor Swift and Scarlett Johansson regularly channel the cleavage, blonde curls and white dresses that made Monroe the ultimate sex symbol.

Megan Fox inked -- then had removed -- a large tattoo showing Monroe's face on her forearm.

And actress Lindsay Lohan has a full-blown obsession, most recently appearing in Playboy to mimic Monroe's nude spread in the 1953 maiden issue of Hugh Hefner's magazine. "I identify," the troubled young actress said last year.

Monroe's enduring power of attraction might seem odd. Although she was scintillating in "Some Like it Hot" and a handful of other films, her Hollywood CV was slim, and her history of heartbreak and murky death are hardly to be recommended.

Behind it all there's the sex appeal but even then, there's a question: was Monroe's seductive persona proof of independence, or the reflection of a woman being manipulated by men?

Lois Banner, author of the newly published biography "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox," says there's no doubt that Monroe wore the pants when it came to her body.

"She created her career," Banner said in a telephone interview. "She was extremely astute. She knew very much what she was doing and she went out on a limb.... The newspapers were calling out for a blonde bombshell and that's what she did."

According to Banner, who spent 10 years probing the few remaining nooks of Marilyn Monroe research, the actress knowingly played a high-risk game, losing control only toward the end, when she ran with the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.

"She slept with men to get to the top. Did they use her? Yes. Did she use them? Yes," Banner said. "She was showing her body because she wanted to maintain power over men."

But Rosanna Hertz, who teaches sociology at Wellesley College, says Monroe was no girl power heroine.

"When sexuality is marketed, the question for me is, 'who controls it?'" Hertz said.

If anything, the Monroe story might be a warning to women hoping their powers of attraction will bring glamour and wealth.

"It takes hard work to become a trophy wife," Hertz said. "It is something that many young women try to emulate. The 'Bachelorette' (TV show) is about that. I don't think that young girls who aspire to this know how hard this is: to find out who the rich men are, to chase after them."

Many have emulated Monroe, but one of the few to match -- and even improve on -- her sexuality-and-superstardom formula is pop singer Madonna.

She too is a brunette who invented a new name, went blonde, and founded a career synonymous with outrageous sexual confidence.

But whatever their similarities, Madonna is tough where Marilyn was vulnerable and it's that crucial difference that has allowed her to survive.

Madonna "always had her act together," Grossman said. "She's very in control."


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