The story of Josephine Baker is one for the books–and the small screen. The entertainer, spy, activist and all-around it-girl will be at the center of an upcoming series, De La Resistance. 8x Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe is set to play the late icon.
“I can’t wait to transform into the iconic performer, American hero, glamorous bi-con, goddess, intellect, global humanitarian, and [spy] that is you; telling a unique story only a few know,” Monáe said of the role via Instagram. “Thank you to my [A24] family for partnering with me & [Wondaland] to produce this legendary series.” Monae has multiple acting credits to her name, including roles in Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Antebellum. She’s also been featured in series like Sex, Explained and Homecoming.
Baker is certainly one of the most famous figures in history. Her liberated stage presence, oft-replicated banana skirt and how her contemporaries spoke of her are indicators of her global impact. Over the years, Beyoncé, Zendaya, and Kerry Washington have referenced her legacy in fashion specifically.
She also had a few “firsts” under her belt. As a teen, Baker was featured in “Shuffle Along,” which is viewed as the first highly successful, all-Black musical. The diva has received a posthumous honor as well: in 2021, she became the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Panthéon. She was also the first performer to be interred there.
With a life so rich, one might assume even the intricate details of Baker’s journey would be well-known. It turns out there are a few facts you may not be aware of. Below, we’re sharing some tidbits about the legend.
1. She was an original celebrity beauty influencer.
Baker’s slicked finger waves were so popular, she was the face of a pomeade, Baker Fix, that would help others replicate the look. The brilliantine came in jars and tubes.
There was also Baker Oil, a skin tanner.
2. The participated in “slugging” before it was a huge TikTok trend.
Since Josephine Baker was miles ahead when it came to using her celebrity to give beauty brands credibility, it’s only right that she was clairvoyant with skincare trends as well. In a 1978 biography, The Hungry Heart, the writer revealed Baker would place Vaseline all over her body. “I love it, it’s good for my skin,” she said. 100 years later, TikTok users are “slugging,” which is when you slather vaseline on your face as the last step of your nightly skincare routine.
3. Coretta Scott King asked Baker to lead the civil rights movement after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
The horrific racism of the Jim Crow era pushed Baker out of the United States. At 19, she was offered an opportunity to perform in Paris and she made the city her new home. Her trips back to America were harsh reminders that segregation and bias ruled the country, calling her to use her voice to talk about her experiences.
In 1951, the NAACP named her “Outstanding Woman of the Year.”
Baker was highly supportive of the civil rights movement and she spoke directly before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
Following King’s death in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked Baker if she would be open to taking the minister’s place in the Movement. She declined, citing concerns for her young children.
4. Her friends included Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco and Christian Dior.
Princess Grace Kelly, an American actress turned royal, met Baker at a club in New York in 1951. The staff refused to serve Baker because she was Black so the two, among others, left the spot in protest. They remained friends until Baker’s death in 1975. The entertainer was originally buried in Monaco, where she spent the last years of her life.
During a 2021 post-Met Gala interview with Vogue, celebrity stylist Jason Boldon revealed Baker was also close with Christian Dior. In fact, during one of her American tours, she exclusively wore clothing by the designer. Pierre Balmain was a friend of hers, too.
5. There was a conversation between Baker and James Baldwin that stemmed from a story commissioned by Time. It never ran.
In 1973, Time magazine sent a young Henry Louis Gates Jr. to France to interview Josephine Baker and James Baldwin about life as expatriates. The two had both moved from the United States to France in their young adult years in hopes of escaping bigotry and violence, a fact that was to support the spine of the story. Baker, Gates and his fiancée went to dinner at Baldwin’s home, where the two stars talked about everything under the sun, including what pushed them out of America. The story did not run, with Lit Hub reporting Time called the subjects “passé.” Boy, were they wrong.