Burlesque for skyscrapers
Irene Siewert was born in a small town in Alberta, Canada, in 1925. Siewert looked just like any other little girl until she hit 13, when she shot up to a towering 6' 8". That's right, six-feet-eight-inches.
Growing up in rural Canada during the 1930s was rough for Siewert, as it was a time and place of more limitations than options. While the same height and weight would have been praised and considered desirable for her male peers, Irene didn't quite fit into the common expectations for girls, being neither dainty nor petite. Siewert recalled in numerous interviews during the 1960s that she was repeatedly mocked by her peers and even adults for her size: called "bean-pole" and a "high wire repair girl," and greeted with the perennial "how's the weather up there?"
Even as an adult Siewert was once stopped by Ohio police and accused of being a man. They argued that no woman could possibly be that tall. Siewert recalled the event during an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2014, explaining that the police wouldn't believe her until she "exposed herself" in order to prove she was actually a woman. Siewert's femininity, desirability, and even identity as a woman were repeatedly brought into question; her inability to meet rigid cultural definitions of femininity drastically limited her opportunities for relationships and employment.
When she started auditioning for roles in theater and film as an actress, Siewert both figuratively and literally didn't fit the part. During an interview published in the Daily News in 1966, Siewert recalled, "… Juliet wasn't 6-feet-8 and if there were any parts for skyscrapers I didn't get them." With a distinct lack of roles for taller, muscular women in Hollywood, Siewert decided to try her hand at being a showgirl, with not much better luck. She recalled later in 1973 for an article published in The State that she was hired as a showgirl for a club in New York by Lou Walters, but "they couldn't find a costume big enough to fit [her]. So [she] went exotic."
Irene Siewert became Ricki Covette, "the world’s tallest exotic" in the late 1950s. As an exotic dancer, Covette’s unusual size turned out to be an asset as the curiosity surrounding her height made her incredibly popular, drawing in large crowds wherever she performed throughout the United States and abroad. Taking advantage of what initially brought her ridicule and anxiety, Covette managed to make $30,000 a year (about $250,000 today) as a dancer, according to articles found in her collection. She was paid as much as $750 a week to perform in different clubs around the country.
Covette’s entry into burlesque and subsequent success as a performer eventually drew the attention of casting directors. Covette was cast in a number of roles tailored to fit a "skyscraper" such as herself, appearing in A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum, The Swinger, and The Marriage-Go-Round with Joan Fontaine. Theater afforded her a welcome two-year break from exotic dancing and proved her talent. Despite her popularity in the theater, Covette remained painfully aware that her success was not entirely due to her talents, but rather an enduring fascination with her height. She mused to Herb Michelson during an interview published in the column "Stage and Screen," "Let’s face it: When you audition, it’s the height they want you for."
While this realization pained her, Covette understood the practicality of having a gimmick in show business. Covette utilized her height first to get herself noticed and ultimately achieved her goal of becoming an actor, and made a lasting name for herself in the burlesque business. To learn more about Ricki Covette’s life and burlesque, visit the the collection at the Archives Center in National Museum of American History.
Maggie McCready completed an internship at the National Museum of American History in the Archives Center. She recently graduated from Goucher College and majored in History.