While Britain's trendiest clerics rack their brains for the name of the fifth Spice Girl, this is a good time to remind ourselves of five blondes who shocked the capitals of the world with their shameless singing and dancing a hundred years ago.
They were the Barrison Sisters - Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude - and they were the plump and uninhibited daughters of Danish émigrés to New York. When Lona, the oldest, war six teen, their mother took them to audition for the parts of fairies in some innocent bit of nonsense at a local theatre. The five were cute and cheeky and fluffy, and I.ona was "an outstanding beauty, well-developed and temperamental. In 1890 she married William Fleron, a Broadway press agent, who engineered a haze of publicity - posters, souvenirs, newspaper interviews, magazine articles, guest appearances - which took them triumphantly all
over the world. They played Berlin for eight months, and they monopolised the Folies-Bergere (to cries of "Vives les americaines!"), with their innocent fares, their schoolgirl costumes, and their suggestive songs.
Berlin was particularly impressed with the number Mein Kleine Katz. The curtain rose a few feet, to show five frilly petticoats. "Would you like to see my pussy?" warbled the girl. The audience would, so the curtain continued to rise, as did the petticoats, until a fluffy black kitten was revealed peering our of each girl's knickers. They concluded their act by turning their hacks on the audience, bending over, and raising their petticoats again.
The Germans took this very seriously and in 1897 Anton Lindner wrore an analysis of the Barrison Girls Phenomenon - Die Barrisons, Ein Kunstraum, Zeitsatire. Despite their voices (which he described as high-pitched and squeaky) and their dancing (he dcscribed their legs as rubbery which may or may not have been a good thing), Lindner writes of the sense of joy that they communicated to their audiences. Philip Kaplan, in an article on the Barrison girls, says: "Neither acrobatic nor aesthetic, their dancing was direct and clear and modern." They returned to New York in 1898 to great public acclaim, although critics found them vulgar, and another theatre staged a burlesque about The Embarrassing Sisters and Their Nasty Performance. This did nor bother the Americans, but when rumours started to circulate that Lona proposed to turn up at the Society Horse Show riding naked and astride the horse, she was forced to declare she would be adequately covered by pink satin pantalettes. This was nor enough for the Committee, who declared that no unconventional clothing could he worn.
Curiously enough, this incident, no different from any of the other jolly scandals that had followed them around Europe, was the beginning of the end. The public found new favourites, a French nobleman committed suicide for love of Lona, they were barred from entering Germany after a financial scandal, and their name is now forgotten. Whether the Spice Girls will vanish like the Barrison Sisters, or last like the Andrews Sisters, the next five years will show. Meanwhile, all you trendy bishops, repent after me - Posh Spice, Sporty Spice, Scary Spice.........