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Weingarten: Phyllis Diller embraced the ugly

Phyllis Diller. (Aug. 1, 2000)

Phyllis Diller. (Aug. 1, 2000) Photo Credit: Danny Turner/Corbis

Long before "Mad Men" ripped the happy facade off fictionalized midcentury television families, Phyllis Diller put an entirely different spin on those family relationships. And unlike more modern versions of the past, Diller's version was aggressively unattractive and disorderly.

Diller, who died Monday at the age of 95, began her career in 1954 and reached her zenith in the 1970s by cultivating a persona that pushed well past the boundaries of accepted ideals. Among other outrageous accoutrements, she wore spiky platinum wigs, metallic and oversized caftans, and combinations of clothing that would make even the most sartorially challenged cringe.

Her accessories included a signature cigarette holder and shoes chosen to make her legs look bony and unattractive. While performers like Cher and Tina Turner also embraced odd fashion statements -- think of Cher's beaded stage wear and Turner's wigs -- they were designed to exaggerate notions of feminine beauty. Even Grace Jones went for the awful beautiful; Diller just went for the awful.

The timing of Diller's death, so close on the heels of the passing of Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown, puts this approach in perspective. Diller embraced ugliness and played it for laughs while Brown built a shrine to the pursuit of unattainable beauty ideals.

Though Diller reveled in her character's unattractiveness, as she aged, she chased those ideals. Her act chronicled this pursuit of beauty, including repeat plastic surgeries. Her natural comedic heir, Joan Rivers, uses her own battle against the clock and predilection for plastic surgery as a highlight of her humor.

Diller didn't shy away from discussing things that were awkward or smelled bad -- she celebrated them. And she allowed her audience to laugh instead of hide. In so doing, Diller boldly led the way for TV heroines like Roseanne Barr and Whoopi Goldberg who weren't polished, but instead presented a more realistic version of modern womanhood, married life and parenting -- bulges, warts and all.

Diller's family life included six children and two divorces, and her onstage working mother character highlighted the worst qualities of her mythical husband, "Fang," and her inedible concoctions, cooked to imperfection. A generation of working women chuckled along with the lurid descriptions of her home life -- no doubt wishing they had the nerve to serve their own children her signature dish of "garbage soup." The cult of boys and male comics laughing at bodily functions gave way to women mocking their noisy and odoriferous counterparts.

Women on television, especially funny women, have run the gamut from societal role models to just quirky enough. Diller met neither of those criteria and, for a while, TV characters like Roseanne followed her lead -- until audiences clamored once again for more prettified versions of female comedians. These days, even the outrageous and seemingly rebellious women in popular culture -- from the "Real Housewives" to the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- are mostly molded to their male counterparts' ideal. For now at least, in many ways the Cosmo Girl ideal is winning.

But the pendulum always swings back. Diller's legacy may seem forgotten by a generation of girls raised on laugh tracks and Botox, but they're the beneficiaries of a woman brazen enough to celebrate the notion of self-deprecation as the antidote to a wholly unrealistic physical ideal. Phyllis Diller broke ground decades ago by destroying the notion that only beautiful women were worth being heard or noticed.

Rachel Weingarten, author of "Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America '40s-'60s," teaches beauty history and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and New York University.