How Jean Harlow Changed Her Appearance For Hollywood

Move over Marilyn Monroe, the original blond bombshell was silver screen siren Jean Harlow (via Britannica). Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter, the Hollywood icon reportedly had no plans to become an actress. According to Country Living, she was discovered while visiting a movie studio with a friend. Fox executives took one look at her and knew she would become a star. Simply put, Harlow had beauty they knew would translate well on film. In 1930, she starred in Howard Hughes' "Hells Angels." Harlow's website biography writes that the role and more specifically, her icy blond hair, turned her into a sex symbol.

Per the Montreal Gazette, Harlow was a natural blond. However, the platinum shade was Hughes' invention in an effort to promote both the film and his newest starlet. Other notable actresses of the time, including Mary Pickford (known as "America's Sweetheart") and Clara Bow ( nicknamed "The It Girl"), had monikers of their own. Naturally, Hughes wanted his new sultry protégé to have one as well.

The Atlantic explains that Harlow's hair was dyed a distinct silver-like shade and she was subsequently labeled as the "platinum blond." Needless to say, Harlow and her hair were a hit with audiences. So much so, that the 1931 film "Platinum Blonde" was renamed for her, despite Harlow only playing a secondary role.

Jean Harlow's hair might have affected her health

The Vintage News reports that Hughes didn't just change Harlow's hair. He had her eyebrows shaved off then drawn into an arch. In addition, her lips were painted into a cupid's bow. To further advertise Harlow and her new look, The Atlantic writes that Hughes offered $10,000 to any stylist that could replicate the platinum shade. Of course, no attempt was successful. How did Harlow's hair dresser Alfred Pagano achieve her iconic hair color? He later said that, "We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes" (via The Vintage Woman Magazine).

As the Montreal Gazette explains, combining ammonia and Clorox can create hydrochloric acid, a toxic gas. According to Pagano, Harlow dyed her hair every Sunday for years. Toward the end of her life, her heavily damaged hair began to fall out and she resorted to wearing wigs. Jean Harlow died on June 7, 1937 at the age of 26. Per Country Living, she suffered from various ailments throughout her short life, including scarlet fever. 

Ultimately, Harlow died due to kidney failure. Although it's unknown if her toxic hair dye contributed to her death, inhaling the noxious fumes for years could have very well taken a toll on her already frail health (per Ranker). Nonetheless, Harlow suffered for her career and her beauty. According to The Vintage Woman Magazine, she reportedly did not like her platinum blond hair and later said that "Hollywood wouldn't know I'm alive" if it weren't for the iconic shade.