Who is Clara Bow and Why Is Taylor Swift Singing About Her?

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Photo Source: Brian Friedman/Shutterstock

In case you missed it, Taylor Swift’s new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” just dropped. Within an hour, thousands of her fans were well on their way to memorizing most of the songs on the album. But many of them, especially the younger ones, are bound to be a bit confused by the track titled “Clara Bow.” Who is she? Is she on Instagram?

Not even close. By name-checking Bow, Swift is not only honoring one of the first ever movie stars, but also Hollywood’s first “it” girl. The term originated with the young actor’s performance in 1927’s “It”, playing a lovable shop girl who has, well, “it”—which the movie defines as a quality “that draws all others with its magnetic force.” (Sound like any country-to-pop crossover hit maker you know from a different Eras?)

Thanks to Swift and the recent discovery of Bow’s long-lost 1923 movie, “The Pill Pounder” (shown at this year’s San Francisco Film Festival), the actor’s name is once again front and center. Get to know her as well as some other notable “it” girls of the past. While they were often singled out for their distinctive looks, their talent is equally noteworthy.

Clara Bow

Who was she: In her late teens and 20s, Bow was a leading lady of the silent movie era, starring in films such as “Wings” (1927) and “Mantrap” (1926). With her OG flapper energy, Bow set the tone for “it” girls’ ability to be both tomboy and sex symbol. 

Proof of “it”: Despite winning a “Fame and Fortune” contest as a teenager, she said she couldn’t get parts because studios deemed her “too young, or too little, or too fat.” But once she made it onscreen, audiences (and critics) couldn’t keep their eyes off her. 

Hedy Lamarr

Who was she: When the Austrian-born actress was just 18, she performed what is considered the first orgasm in a mainstream film in 1933’s “Ecstasy.” In the late 30s, she moved to Hollywood and MGM head Louis B. Mayer hyped her as “the world’s most beautiful woman.”

Proof of “it”:  In her American debut in “Algiers” (1938), the audience allegedly gasped at her beauty when they saw her first scene. Also—speaking of intangible magic!—Lamarr was an inventor in her downtime (even between takes) and got a U.S. patent in 1942 for a secret communication system that was the forerunner to today’s Wi-Fi.

Lauren Bacall

Who was she: Bacall got her acting start when Capote swan Slim Keith showed the then-model’s “Harper’s Bazaar” cover to her producer husband, Howard Hawks. Hawks went on to cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s “To Have and Have Not,” which launched her to immediate fame. During filming, she famously started an affair with Bogart and they married in 1945 when she was 20 and he was 45. 

Proof of “it”: Before heading to Hollywood, drama student Bacall had many side hustles: model, restaurant hostess, theater usher. Even as an usher, she earned notice, with Esquire calling her “the prettiest theater usher—the tall slender blonde…by general rapt agreement among the critics.” 

Nancy Kwan

Who is she: Raised in Hong Kong, Nancy Kwan was relatively untrained and virtually unknown when she got the lead in 1960’s “The World of Susie Wong,” and shared the Golden Globe for most promising newcomer. A year later, she starred in “Flower Drum Song,” Hollywood’s first major feature to have a majority Asian cast. (BTW, the actress is a distant cousin of Kevin Kwan, author of “Crazy Rich Asians.”)

Proof of “it”:  Women imitated Kwan’s style—and asked for it by her (and her character’s) name. Kwan appeared on the October 1960 cover of Life wearing a cheongsam dress, which sparked a fashion craze for “the Suzie Wong dress.” In 1962, Vidal Sassoon cut her long hair into an angular bob (both U.S. and British Vogue covered this news!) that became known as the Kwan Cut.

Edie Sedgwick

Who was she: Born into a wealthy family in California, Sedgwick moved to New York City after her trust fund kicked in on her 18th birthday. She met Andy Warhol in 1965 and soon became his muse, starring in The Factory’s “Vinyl,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” and “Chelsea Girls.”

Proof of “it”: An influencer long before those were things, Sedgwick was known for her heavy eye makeup, bleached gamine haircut, and leopard print coat, and Women’s Wear Daily named her a “fashion revolutionary” in 1966.

Grace Jones

Who is she: Among the original multihyphenates, Jones was a supermodel, actor, and musician who rocketed to fame in the Studio 54 scene. She was (and is) a game changer known for her androgynous look. 

Proof of “it”: Jones was an unexpected but highly entertaining Bond girl. Decked out in leather and her signature cowl hoods in her portrayal of May Day in 1985’s “A View to a Kill,” she manages to steal the show from Roger Moore, Tanya Roberts, and Christopher Walken.

Parker Posey

Who is she: An actress with a penchant for quirky roles, Parker has been stealing scenes since her first major film role, as the sadistic senior Darla in 1993’s Dazed and Confused.

Proof of “it”: Time magazine crowned her “Queen of the Indies” in 1997, after she had three movies (“subUrbia,” “The Daytrippers,” andWaiting for Guffman”) premiere in a single month the previous year. 

As for today’s “it” girl?


Who is she: Zendaya has successfully metamorphosed from Disney Channel teenage denizen to Hollywood A-lister, grabbing attention and taking risks: When auditioning for “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” she wore no makeup so that her talents would shine through. It worked, as it did with her portrayal of Chani in “Dune, Part Two.”

Proof of “it”: “It” in a new millennium means doing all the things: Zendaya acts, sings, dances, models, directs, and produces. She’s not only the youngest woman to win a lead actress Emmy, for “Euphoria” in 2020 when she was 24, but she’s also the youngest producer to be nominated.