How Model Vikki 'The Back' Dougan Inspired An Iconic Animated Character

Vikki Dougan is a name that rarely comes up in discussions of classic Old Hollywood movie stars. Dougan stayed under the radar in terms of fortune and fame, but in the 1950s she was briefly known for her stunning figure and penchant for backless dresses, which became enough of a memorable trademark that she is thought by many to be the inspiration for a famously sultry cartoon character with her own iconic backless dress. 

Per The New York Times, Vikki Dougan was born Edith Tooker in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York and was soon sent by her mother to live with boarders in upstate New York. As a teenager she began winning beauty pageants, including Miss Coney Island and the eighth annual New York Skate Queen contest, which led to a lucrative modeling career. Her agent recommended she change her name and she took the first name Vikki, after actress Vickie Lester, and began using her mother's maiden name, Dougan, as her own last name. 

Vikki Dougan was a Life magazine regular

In 1952, Vikki Dougan made the first of three appearances in Life magazine, in a story showing Dougan in a variety of wigs as she explained how she used the ability to change her hairstyle easily to get more modeling jobs. She appeared again in 1953 in an article about working mothers, which featured her and her daughter, Deidre, who was born during Dougan's brief marriage at age 19. As reported by The New York Times, Dougan was signed to the prestigious Eileen Ford modeling agency and appeared in ads for Maybelline, Cutex, and Charmin, and on the covers of several magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, Seventeen, Collier's, and Modern Romance. 

Dougan dreamed of parlaying her modeling career into acting and began taking lessons with famed coaches Stella Adler and Eric Morris. She became an announcer for "The Jackie Gleason Show" on television and was offered a contract with Paramount, which she turned down, later telling the Times, "They offered me for a week what I was making in an hour as a model." 

The Back is born

Instead, Vikki Dougan signed with actor John Wayne's production company Batjac, a move she later regretted. "I should have just signed with Paramount because at least they were making movies," she told The New York Times in 2021. Despite not getting auditions, Dougan made headlines in 1957 when she appeared as a presenter at the Golden Globe awards and wore a backless pink satin dress. At the ceremony, she made her way to the stage and realized she couldn't hold the award, shake the winner's hand, and keep her shawl in place, so she let her shawl fall to the floor, revealing her back to the audience, including a bevvy of tabloid photographers.

The moment made Dougan, particularly her back, famous. Per Life magazine, it was a trend at the time to note and emphasize certain actresses' specific body parts. Jane Russell was known as "The Bust," Betty Grable was notable for her "Million Dollar Legs," and Vikki Dougan became known as "The Back." In 1957, Vikki Dougan returned to the pages of Life magazine for a series of photos shot by Ralph Crane that showcased her now-famous back. Crane took pictures of Dougan walking around various Los Angeles locales, usually shooting his subject from behind and featuring primarily male onlookers swiveling their heads to look at her in a manner reminiscent, per Life, of the modern "distracted boyfriend" meme seen constantly on every possible social media platform.

A publicist put Vikki Dougan in her famous frocks

In an interview with The New York Times, Dougan later said of her famous figure and the attention she received, "It is not symbolic about who I am. It wasn't really me. I was playing a part. I didn't even think there was anything even sexy about showing a back. It just didn't occur to me." Per Messy Nessy Cabinet of Chic Curiosities, Dougan transformed into "The Back" thanks to her publicist, Milton Weiss, who had backless dresses made for his client and arranged for her to make dramatic appearances at previews and parties. This led to quippy newspaper headlines like "Vikki Dougan makes the best exits in town" and "Vikki Dougan ... Backs Into a Film Career." 

She was supposedly banned from one particular premier because she was known for attracting "too much attention," and per The New York Times, rumor had it fellow sex symbols Jayne Mansfield, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mamie Van Doren were jealous. Dougan even did a pictorial in Playboy magazine with the headline "The Back." She appeared in five movies between 1956 and 1959 and made seven television appearances between 1959 and 1967, per IMDb.

#MeToo in the 1950s

In her 2021 interview with The New York Times, Vikki Dougan (shown above in 2012) described how she had been unable to break through into true Hollywood stardom because she refused to put up with the constant sexual harassment. Despite having fond memories of getting asked out by Mickey Rooney and going on a date with Frank Sinatra ("he gave me a kiss, I remember his lips were very soft"), Dougan described several instances of going to read for a part and instead finding that the men with whom she'd been hoping to work had other expectations. According to Dougan, Jerry Lewis presented her with champagne on ice rather than a script, and Burt Lancaster allegedly kicked her in the back and pushed her into an elevator after she rejected his advances. 

In 1960, Dougan briefly married actor Jim Sweeney. In 1965 she had a second daughter, Tiffany, with financial advisor Robert Kelly who Dougan says abandoned them, sending just $100 a month in child support. Dougan eventually moved to New York and went back to using her original name, Edith Tooker, and worked as a photojournalist, a go-go dancer, a restaurant hostess, did temp work for Kelly Girl and Manpower, and sold Mary Kay Cosmetics. After a bout with skin cancer, she made her way back to Beverly Hills, where she lives today in a rent-controlled apartment building for seniors. In 2015, she accepted an award for distinguished contributions to film and television at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

Did Vikki Dougan inspire the look of Jessica Rabbit?

Richard Williams, the animator behind the groundbreaking 1988 movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" has, per The New York Times, said that his inspirations for the sexy, sultry lounge singer Jessica Rabbit, "the ultimate male fantasy, drawn by a cartoonist," were a variety of classic Hollywood actresses: "I tried to make her like Rita Hayworth; we took her hair from Veronica Lake, and [director Robert Zemeckis] kept saying, 'What about the look Lauren Bacall had?'" While Williams hasn't mentioned Vikki Dougan as an inspiration for Jessica Rabbit, once you know about Dougan and her wardrobe of backless dresses, it's hard not to think about her when considering Jessica Rabbit (above) and her signature red dress with an exceedingly low back.

As noted on the Messy Nessy Chic blog, Jessica Rabbit's habit of wearing that low-backed dress even just to run around Toontown can't help but bring to mind all the photos of Dougan running around Los Angeles in her signature low-backed frocks. Messy Nessy Chic writer Vanessa further notes that Jessica Rabbit's signature phrase, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way," could also apply to Vikki Dougan, whose persona as "The Back" was drawn up for her by a publicist and, per Dougan herself, "wasn't really me. I was playing a part."