"Bridget" -- Dawn McDowell
Her calendars were supposed to be a joke, but they sold millions
If you are a man whose heart beats faster at the sight of a fat woman and you grew up with Bridget and have every Bridget calendar and every Bridget book ever printed, there's no need to explain. For those who have never heard of Bridget, this is what happened: About 20 years ago, a small publishing company decided to print novelty items featuring a fat girl. They thought it was strictly a joke and and a gimmick. But, much to their surprise, the puzzles and books and calendars of Bridget, the cute and innocent little fat girl, sold. And sold and sold. So much that the company still publishes Bridget calendars today, 20 years later. Thousands of FAs around the world found Bridget and collected every new item with passion. Without knowing it, she became the dream and fantasy of a whole generation of men who admired the large figure and had nothing at all in the way of pin-ups and magazines but those Bridget posters and calendars. Amazingly, Bridget herself, one Dawn McDowell, didn't know about this at all. She'd dropped out from the Bridget scene back in 1975 and thought that was it. Eventually, by accident, she came across Dimensions and wrote us a long letter, identifying herself as Bridget. She said she'd been ahead of her time in accepting herself as a large woman, but had since come to taste the harsh reality that faces fat people in our society. She offered to tell us her story. Sadly, her letter was lost and it took another two years until we finally tracked her down. Then, one day, Dawn McDowell-Bridget-was at out doorsteps, and she still had that same smile that endeared her so much to all those people who kept her calendars alive through all those years. We talked for hours and hours and Dawn became our friend. We did the interview and later shot some pictures of her. More than 20 years later Dawn is still an attractive woman. Bridget is the past, but it is no longer a haunting past as it had been those first few years after her modelling days. Dawn can bring Bridget alive when she wants to. She's part of her. Here's the story of Dawn, and Bridget.
DIMENSIONS: Who's the woman who gave us Bridget? Tell us about yourself.
McDOWELL: I was born in 1951 and grew up in Connecticut. I went to school in Grahm Junior College in Boston. By the way, Andy Kaufman was a classmate of mine. He was nuts. He already had his own show "Uncle Andy's Fun House." Anyway, my mom was a housewife and dad was a supervisor for a milk company. My relationship with my parents was somewhat dysfunctional. Mom was the matriarch; dad the breadwinner. I guess I resented my mother's controlling role. Maybe it created my rebellious spirit. I clashed with her often and we barely got along for years. Dad died when I was 18. That took away the "mediator." He used to calm things down. Mom resented my independence and doing things outside of norm.
DIMENSIONS: Were you fat as a kid?
McDOWELL: Yes, I was always heavy, even as a kid. Both of my parents were average sized. The perception of my parents was that fat kids should have had a more subdued personality. But I never thought much about my weight. I was always active and had lots of friends. I was involved in all sorts of activities.
DIMENSIONS: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
McDOWELL: I have a sister who is a 8 years older than I am. We're like night and day. My sister wasn't fat as a kid and teenager but was always on a diet anyway. She was very conservative and followed all the rules. I used to spy on her dating. Boy, she hated that. She got married when I was 12 and gained lots of weight after she had three kids. Now she's divorced and heavier than I am.
DIMENSIONS: Did you get much flak because of your weight?
McDOWELL: I was on all kinds of diets as a kid. They sent me to a "fat farm" when I was 13. They called it a "Summercamp." The camp had this very regimented program where you ate a set number of calories and did lots of exercise. I went in around 200 lbs. and lost almost 50 pounds. But I put the weight back on almost right away. I actually went back to the camp as counselor when I was in college.
DIMENSIONS: When did you start dating?
McDOWELL: After I came back from fat farm. I was 14 and started going out with this guy I had met through a mutual friend. This went on for three years. He was two years older than I and didn't even give me a hard time when I put the weight back on. We broke up because we developed in different directions. Eventually he married a fat woman who looked just like me. I just wasn't ready for anything more serious. So I graduated High School and went on to Boston to my crazy years...
DIMENSIONS: Go on...
McDOWELL: Like I said, I went to Junior College in Boston. I was the only female radio production major with 30 men. I wanted to go into writing, because I thought I was pretty good at it. I also thought that radio was not as competitive as TV, so I had a bigger chance to succeed. We lived in dorms and did all the wild and crazy stuff you did back in 1970.
DIMENSIONS: And that's when the whole "Bridget" thing started?
McDOWELL: Well, sort of. During my second year in Boston, in the fall of 1970, there was ad in the Boston After Dark paper, which was a tabloid. They were looking for fat, nude model. They wanted to do take-off on Playboy bunnies. This company already had a contract with Playboy and did puzzles of real Playboy bunnies. They wanted to see if a take-off would work.
DIMENSIONS: What did you think when you saw this?
McDOWELL: I was kind of intrigued and discussed it with my friends at college. They all felt I should do it. Of course I decided to go for it, just as a dare. I called the company and went to their offices in Watertown. They didn't ask many questions; they just looked at me to see if I was the type they had in mind. Apparently I was. They had about a dozen fat girls that applied and they said they'd do shoots on three or four. A few days later they called me back in for a test shoot. I was going to get a couple of hundred dollars for the first session and they'd use the pictures for a puzzle if they liked them.
DIMENSIONS: As simple as that?
McDOWELL: As simple as that. They didn't talk royalties or anything. Probably because they thought it'd never sell. Anyway, I didn't know a thing about posing. I just wore old jeans and pretty fakey underwear. A friend came with me to calm me down. They asked me to take off my clothes. I nearly flipped. They took about 3-4 roles, enough to do the puzzle. We left after a couple of hours. I thought that'd be the end of it and they'd never use the prints.
DIMENSIONS: But that wasn't what happened...
McDOWELL: Well, they didn't call, so I called some time later to see what happened. They said they picked one shot for the puzzle, which became the original "Bridget in the Buff" puzzle. I was flipping out, couldn't believe they decided to go through with it. They sent me a few dozen puzzles. I gave them to friends, they put me together and it was weird [giggles].
DIMENSIONS: That was the beginning of "Bridget?"
McDOWELL: I didn't think there'd be anything more to it. I didn't hear from company and thought that was that.
DIMENSIONS: Did people recognize you from the puzzle?
McDOWELL: I wasn't too concerned about that, but I was a bit concerned about back home. I thought it'd never get back to Connecticut, but the puzzle sold extremely well. My mom didn't know I had done it, so I wrote her a letter and warned her to expect the puzzle. She was appalled and thought it was shameful and would ruin her life. She wasn't at all concerned about mine. We never really talked about Bridget after my original letter. She let me know she wasn't happy with it and laid this guilt trip on me.
DIMENSIONS: So they just used that first shoot to do that one puzzle?
McDOWELL: That's what I thought. The puzzle came out in fall of 71, and then, all of a sudden, there was this 1972 calendar with me. I saw it in a card shop in downtown Boston. My first reaction was a lot of anger. I realized those guys were starting to make money off me and I wasn't. I called and asked them not to do anything else with my pictures. Then I got together with a friend who recommended a lawyer. We contacted the company and as a result a new contract was drawn up. They gave me a settlement for what they owed me for the puzzle and the calendar and royalties for whatever else they'd do with the original pictures.
DIMENSIONS: And you thought your life was back to normal?
McDOWELL: Kind of. I finished Junior College and returned to Connecticut to find a job. Within six months the publishing company called back. "Bridget" had become a phenomenon even though it had started out as a joke. The calendars sold like crazy, even internationally. We were all very surprised but we now knew the stuff sold.
DIMENSIONS: And at that time it was just the calendar?
McDOWELL: Yes, but now they wanted to do a series of books. I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go back. After a while I made up my mind to do it, but I definitely wanted control and input over what they did, like the right to approve all the pictures, no beaver shots and pornographic stuff. My lawyer drew up a contract and negotiated the financial stuff. It came out great. I was making royalties and getting paid well for modeling.
DIMENSIONS: That was a pretty hot deal back in 72.
McDOWELL: Oh, definitely. When the contract was squared away, everyone got down to making money. The calendar was now in its second year, and they did a life size puzzle of me. Then came the books. They'd been doing books before; most other ones were with thin, sexy models, $5 gag items for birthdays. But now they wanted to do a series on Bridget. The first book was Bridget's Diet Cookbook.