The enduring magic of Marilyn Monroe: As we mark half-a-century since the late star"s death, her appeal has never been stronger

The enduring magic of Marilyn Monroe: As we mark half-a-century since the late star's death, her appeal has never been stronger
From last year's award-winning film My Week With Marilyn to glossy ad campaigns from Dior and Dolce & Gabbana, the actress's signature look is more relevant today than it was in her lifetime…

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UPDATED:

21:03 GMT, 1 August 2012

Only 11 years after her death, Elton John sang his ode to Marilyn Monroe. 'And I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid,' went the lyrics. 'Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.'

What he didn't know at the time was how much truer his words would ring a few decades later.

Monroe passed away a half-century ago this Sunday, a murky death that remains one of Hollywood's most tantalizing mysteries. But look around: Her legend lives on, more vibrantly than ever.

In a development this fiercely ambitious actress surely would have appreciated, the 1950's bombshell has become a 21st-century pop culture phenomenon.

Marilyn Monroe

Enduring appeal: Marilyn Monroe passed away a half-century ago this Sunday. But in the 50 years since her death, the 1950's bombshell has become a 21st-century pop culture phenomenon

Just flip through a celebrity magazine: Some of-the-moment young starlet or pop singer will be channelling (or outright appropriating) those platinum locks, the bright red lips, moist and slightly parted, and that joyously, almost defiantly curvy figure, sheathed in something skin-tight and glamorous.

Was that Marilyn on the red carpet at last year's Teen Choice Awards No, it was Taylor Swift, wearing a white halter-style dress just like Marilyn's in The Seven Year Itch, in which the actress stood atop a subway grate and let the breeze of a passing train lift her skirts. (Oh, and that dress It sold at auction last year for a mind-boggling $5.6million, including commission.)

Was that Marilyn in the Dolce & Gabbana ad a while back No, it was Scarlett Johansson, all white-blonde hair and ruby lips. And there was Charlize Theron in a Dior ad last year, meeting up with the real Marilyn, not to mention Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, via CGI.

Magazine spreads have featured Nicole
Kidman, Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and
others having their Marilyn moment.

Hollywood homage: Was that Marilyn in the Dolce & Gabbana ad a while back No, it was Scarlett Johansson, all white-blonde hair and ruby lips

Hollywood homage: Was that Marilyn in the Dolce & Gabbana ad a while back No, it was Scarlett Johansson, all white-blonde hair and ruby lips

Virtual reality: Charlize Theron was seen meeting up with Marilyn, not to mention Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, via CGI, in a Dior television advertisement last year

Virtual reality: Charlize Theron was seen meeting up with Marilyn, not to mention Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, via CGI, in a Dior television advertisement last year

Madonna, of course, has famously appropriated Monroe's look into her image. So have singers Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani.

In June, on what would have been Marilyn's 86th birthday, Lady Gaga tweeted 'Happy Birthday Marilyn – They'll never take our blonde hair and lipstick,' along with a picture of herself, Monroe-like.

Nicki Minaj says she's 'obsessed with Marilyn Monroe.'

'Most women under 40 haven't seen her movies. For them, she's a style type – the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that'

On the big screen, Miss Williams
earned an Oscar nomination for her moving portrayal of Monroe in My
Week With Marilyn. And one of TV's most popular new shows is Smash on
NBC, which follows a Broadway musical based on Marilyn's life, with two
actresses competing to play her.

Heck,
there's even been a giant Marilyn traversing the country: A 26ft-tall,
34,000lb statue of the actress, white dress billowing and undies
showing, by artist Seward Johnson, now resting in Palm Springs,
California.

And there are plans for much more –
thanks to the purchase in late 2010 of Monroe's estate, which includes
among other things her name and image – by Authentic Brands Group and
its partner, NECA.

Madonna, who has famously appropriated Monroe's look into her image, performing in 1991

Taylor Swift channelled the actress at the 2011 Teen Choice Awards

Tribute: Madonna, who has famously appropriated Monroe's look into her image, performing in 1991 (left), and Taylor Swift, who channelled the actress's Seven Year Itch look at the 2011 Teen Choice Awards (right)

The company's CEO, Jamie Salter, says he
aims to upgrade the Marilyn brand by moving away from cheap souvenirs
and developing Marilyn-themed cosmetic lines, spas and salons,
sportswear, swimwear, footwear, handbags and more.

There are even plans for – wait for
it – the inevitable Marilyn Monroe reality show, in which young women
would compete to become a new Hollywood icon.

Actress Michelle Williams played the late star in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn

Silver screen sensation: Michelle Williams played the late star in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn

But
just what is the secret of Marilyn's enduring appeal It depends on
whom you ask – and that's fitting, really, because Marilyn, more than
other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people.

There
was, most simply, Marilyn the actress – a Marilyn that often got lost
in all the hype, despite her desperate aspirations to be taken
seriously. Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know
Marilyn 'as an image and an icon', but not as an actress.

Monroe
showed off her dramatic chops in The Misfits, for example, and Bus
Stop. But she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns
in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang
Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend in that classic pink gown; as the
sensuous but ditzy Girl in The Seven Year Itch; and as sexy band singer
Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot.

'Marilyn just leaps off the screen,' says Mr Maltin. 'She has a luminosity that transcends everything else.'

Still,
an entire younger generation is enamored of her for something
completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor in chief of Lucky
magazine, which draws women in their 20s and 30s.

'I
think most women under 40 haven't seen her movies,' Mr Holley says.
'For them, she's a style type – the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot
of women identify with that.'

Christopher Nickens agrees. 'Marilyn
was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal,' says the co-author
of the recently released Marilyn in Fashion, a rare look at Monroe's
influence in that field.

Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life, with elegance.

People gather around Seward Johnson's 26ft-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, in her most famous wind-blown pose, on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago

Art of the people: Seward Johnson's 26ft-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, in her most famous wind-blown pose, on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago

Though she wasn't seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Mr Nickens thinks Marilyn shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn.

'They didn't follow trends,' he says. 'It's about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence.'

Confidence isn't necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. In that Elton John song, Candle in the Wind, she's a beautiful innocent victimized by a terrible Hollywood machine – people who 'whispered into your brain' and 'set you on the treadmill' and 'made you change your name.'

Screen icon: The appeal of the star, pictured in 1953 in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has only got stronger with time

Screen icon: The appeal of the star, pictured in 1953 in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has only got stronger with time

That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimized as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse.

But a victim of Hollywood Monroe's latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star 'was a constructed image' – one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair (Norma Jeane was a brunette), to the make-up, that breathy voice, and the famous 'wiggle walk.'

And her dumb blonde screen image Nothing like her, says Ms Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. 'She was extremely intelligent.'

But why has Marilyn's appeal only gotten stronger 'First of all, she died very young,' says Ms Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life.

'She's conceivably the most photographed person of the 20th century,' says Banner. The author's third reason is more cynical: 'There's a lot of people making money off her,' she says.

Which brings us back to Mr Salter, whose company is also using social networking to court a young consumer base for the Marilyn brand.

On Facebook, Marilyn has three million-plus fans, 70per cent of them under the age of 24. She also has some 53,000 Twitter followers.

Mr Salter's brand vision 'To seduce the world with products that capture the iconic personality, style, glamour and elegance of the legendary actress,' according to the promotional materials.

'Look at what Marilyn was,' he says in a telephone interview. 'She's a total fashion icon. She invented the red carpet. She knew her brand.

'I've got the best model in the whole world.'