Farrah Fawcett’s Swimsuit Poster Made Her An Icon, But Here’s The Real Story Behind The Steamy Snap

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In the summer of 1976, up-and-coming TV starlet Farrah Fawcett posed for photographer Bruce McBroom at her California home. There, the pair would unwittingly create perhaps the most enduring image of the decade. And over 40 years since Fawcett sat for her now-iconic poster, we reveal exactly what the camera didn’t capture that day.

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It’s an image as iconic as the 1970s itself. Sat upright against a red and white beach blanket, is a woman staring back at us with coy charm. With flowing blonde locks and an eye-catching red swimsuit, her style is only surpassed by the wide smile she is wearing. Both sensual and relatable, there’s something about this woman that makes it impossible to look away.

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Released in 1976, this poster of actress Farrah Fawcett would become one of the most sought-after images of the decade. Taken mere months before Fawcett’s debut in the TV show Charlie’s Angels, it made its model a household name. Moreover – with over 12 million copies sold – it remains the world’s highest-selling poster.

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The brainchild of Pro Arts Inc. co-founder Ted Trikilis, the seductive shot was taken by photographer Bruce McBroom. But instead of simply allowing them to use her image for profit, Fawcett asserted far greater control during the shoot. And her savviness arguably made this image what it was.

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However, to fully understand the photo we must first journey to the start of Fawcett’s career. Born Ferrah Fawcett in Corpus Christi, Texas, she first gained the showbiz world’s attention whilst doing a microbiology major at The University of Texas at Austin in 1965. For you see, her pictures from a “most beautiful coeds on campus” compilation were sent to agents in Los Angeles. And from there, she was invited to the West Coast to begin a modelling career.

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But at first, Fawcett declined the offer at the behest of her disapproving parents. Nevertheless, a persistent agent continually extended the invitation resulting in the star-to-be moving to Los Angeles in 1968. Naturally, Fawcett’s decision paid off, and she soon had a modelling contract after just two weeks in California.

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In no time at all, Fawcett was earning $350 per week as a model for such companies as Max Factor and Beautyrest mattresses. Besides her work in advertising, the starlet also soon branched into acting roles. By the late 1960s, Fawcett had already appeared in shows like The Flying Nun and I Dream of Jeannie.

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With her good looks and sweet-natured appeal, Fawcett had the aura of a star in the making. “You noticed her immediately,” gushed TV executive Leonard Goldberg – who would eventually cast the actress in Charlie’s Angels. “Each year we put Farrah in another movie for television,” he told ABC News in 2019.

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Certainly, having an acting career – by her early 20s – was something a young Fawcett would never have imagined. Indeed, as she recounted to Barbara Walters in 1984, “to have become an actress [was] like for me to become president.” However – as Fawcett added – it was something that she “never prepared for.”

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And despite her acting roles, Fawcett was nevertheless still best known for her modelling work in the mid-1970s. In fact, this helped Trikilis form an idea in 1976. After speaking with his college student neighbor, the publisher learnt that young men were buying women’s magazines solely for Fawcett’s adverts. Surely, he presumably thought, these same men would pay good money for a poster bearing the star, too.

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Interestingly, when Trikilis reached out to the model, Fawcett was on the cusp of a career breakthrough. You see, the previous year, Goldberg had pitched her the idea for Charlie’s Angels which would debut on ABC in September 1976. But even with stardom approaching, Fawcett liked the idea enough to agree to the poster.

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While Fawcett thought a poster would be “cute,” the model had ulterior motives. And as she told The Washington Times in 1977, she wanted to capitalize on a product she otherwise wouldn’t see a dime for. “If you don’t sign a deal to do one, somebody does one anyway, and then you get nothing,” she revealed.

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However, despite saying “yes” to Trikilis, the actress still had a couple of conditions. The first was to do with the choice of outfits. For initially, Trikilis had suggested that the star wear a two-piece swimsuit. But due to an undesirable scar on the star’s belly, Fawcett insisted on a one-piece costume.

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Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – Fawcett stipulated that she would have the final say on what photo would be used. To that end, she would review the images sent up for consideration. Moreover, any negatives that the actress didn’t think were up to standard would be destroyed.

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With the details finalized, Fawcett and Pro Arts Inc. agreed upon a date for the picture to be shot. But after the initial shoot, the company ran into a problem: Fawcett was unhappy with the photos. So the snaps had to be scrapped and a second photographer sought to do the job.

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However, like with the first session, the images produced this time around didn’t live up to Fawcett’s standards. And rather than let Trikilis suggest a third photographer, Fawcett proposed hiring McBroom who had been working with the model since the early days of her career. Perhaps due to the years they’d spent working together, McBroom possibly understood Fawcett like few others in the industry.

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“I had the pleasure of knowing Farrah when she was the young innocent girl who just arrived in Hollywood,” McBroom said. “She was a very smart young lady…and very honest and open,” he remembered to Entertainment Weekly in 2009. “There was no artifice about her, no phoniness. She had no idea of how beautiful and how attractive she was, I’m sure.”

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Fortunately, Pro Arts Inc. agreed to hire McBroom, and they quickly got in touch. As the snapper remembered, the company stressed that the finished product should stress the model’s sex appeal. Indeed, he was told, “It’s gotta be her great hair, she’s gotta be smiling, she’s gotta be in a bikini, and they’ve gotta be drop-dead, sexy pictures.”

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So come the day of the shoot, McBroom drove to meet Fawcett at her Mulholland Dr. home. Although the actress was living with her then-husband Lee Majors, on this day Fawcett had the house to herself. And it would make the perfect location to put such an iconic image into film.

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After arriving at the house, McBroom outlined to Fawcett the specifications he’d received from Trikilis. “I said, ‘He wants you in a bikini’ and she said, ‘I don’t have a bikini,’” the photographer recalled. Moreover, after McBroom revealed the brief for “drop-dead, sexy pictures” – Fawcett replied, “I’ll just do it the way I want.”

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By all means, Fawcett maintained control of her own image. For instance, rather than hire a stylist, the actress applied her own make-up and did her own hair for the shoot. As for the costume she famously wore that day, it actually came out of her own closet.

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And yet the swimsuit which eventually featured in the famous photo was something of a coincidence. In fact, Fawcett tried out numerous costumes over the course of the day, but nothing clicked with McBroom. “I knew I didn’t have a picture that resonated with me even though she looked great [in anything],” the photographer told Entertainment Weekly.

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As the day drew closer to an end, McBroom was becoming frustrated. “I was running out of ideas and I was getting desperate,” he said. Finally, he turned to Fawcett for advice. “I said, ‘You know how you look best. Is there anything else that you’ve got that we haven’t shot?’”

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To McBroom’s suggestion, Fawcett replied, “Lemme go have a look around,” before walking off. After a moment, the star returned wearing something that she’d found in her collection. “What do you think of this?” she asked McBroom. And before the photographer’s very eyes stood Fawcett in the now iconic swimsuit.

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Yes, so impeccable was the costume, in fact, that McGroom couldn’t even believe his eyes. “It was like it was spray painted on her,” he said of the form fitting and revealing outfit. As he went on to explain to Entertainment Weekly,, “I don’t think it was a swimsuit.”

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But this time the photographer knew he’d seen the perfect outfit to compliment Fawcett’s beauty. “I said, ‘You know what? That’s it!’ I said, ‘Farrah, just get comfortable and do your thing.’” Immediately, the two sprang into action – Fawcett in full model mode and McBroom frantically taking shots. And still, the perfect image hadn’t quite formed in front of the lens.

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Then, McGroom had a brainwave. Going to the pickup truck he’d parked outside, the photographer returned with an Indian-style blanket he used as a seat cover. After sitting down in front of the decoration, Fawcett cocked her head, flashed a huge smile and let McBroom work his magic.

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And once the picture was taken, McBroom knew their hard work was finally at an end. “When she did the series of sitting-up poses, I said, ‘We’ve got it,’” he told Entertainment Weekly. “And I heaved a huge sigh of relief.” As if by chance, the photographer used his last roll of color film to take the picture. However, he still had a roll of black-and-white to document the session’s little seen aftermath.

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Indeed, for after finishing the shoot a relieved Fawcett began to relax and wanted to freshen up. “She said, ‘I’m so tired of looking pretty and having this hair and make-up,’” McBroom recounted. “And she grabbed the garden hose and just held it up and drowned herself with [water].”

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Blessed with an image of Fawcett freely showering before him, McBroom’s photographic instincts kicked in again. “I grabbed my Nikon…and I said, ‘Don’t stop, don’t stop!’”,he recalled. And although the shoot resulted in that iconic 1970s’ picture, McBroom maintains that these candid snaps were the day’s best.

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“The sexiest pictures I took are the pictures I took after the session,” the photographer told Entertainment Weekly . “It was a totally innocent Farrah: ‘I’m so sick of looking pretty all day.’ She just smeared her make-up, and it was the capper of the whole thing. We had so much fun. We just had a blast doing it.”

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From McBroom’s shots, there was very little doubt in the actress’ mind which one she liked the best. Upon seeing her image smiling back at her, Fawcett marked a star on the proof before sending it over to Pro Arts Inc. alongside a few runners-up.

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Pressed on why the snap appealed to her, Fawcett revealed she enjoyed the humbleness of the image. “I guess the fact that it was a one-piece bathing suit, and I was happy…I wasn’t in a sexy pose like Brigitte Bardot,” she confessed to Barbara Walters. “I mean, certainly it’s sexy because that’s my figure, and my nipples were showing. But, that’s me.”

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Despite Fawcett’s enthusiasm, there were some nonetheless who weren’t happy with the outcome of the shoot. In fact, the agent responsible for setting up the sessions was reportedly so displeased that he believed McBroom should go unpaid. Luckily, however, others didn’t share his view and persuaded him to go with Fawcett’s choice.

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Then, around the time of Charlie’s Angels first season, Pro Arts Inc. released the now famous poster. Due to the show – which saw the actress star as private investigator Jill Monroe alongside fellow leads Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith – Fawcett had already received a surge in popularity. But the poster made her face recognizable around the world.

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Yes, within months Fawcett was transformed into a cultural icon. To add to that, countless fans copied the star’s luscious hairstyle and a Fawcett-branded shampoo even entered the market. Furthermore, the star’s acting career also received a boost. Thanks to the poster, Fawcett was offered a part in the film Logan’s Run. And she soon quit Charlie’s Angels after one season, arguably to pursue movie stardom.

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Unbelievably, for both Fawcett and Pro Arts Inc., the poster would become an unimaginable financial success. Over time, it would sell a record-breaking 12 million copies, and it proved to be a bigger earner for Fawcett than even Charlie’s Angels. Indeed, she initially bagged $400,000 from royalties overall. However, the star still experienced some negative aspects of fame, especially with regard to the photo’s sexualization.

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As she later told Barbara Walters, Fawcett apparently became uncomfortable with her status as a sex symbol. “I remember that a lot of women used to come up and ask me to sign the poster for their husbands, their boyfriends,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘I don’t know if I would do that.’”

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Regardless of Fawcett’s own thoughts on the matter, it’s undeniable that the poster turned its model into an enduring figure. Indeed, in 2011 – just two years following the actress’ death aged 62 – the swimsuit she wore was put on display in the Smithsonian. Certainly, it’s an honor that its makers could never have foreseen.

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“Neither Farrah or myself thought that this was a big deal,” McBroom told Entertainment Weekly. However, the photographer was clear over who was responsible for the shot’s success. “[Farrah] gave a gift to the publisher…unerringly finding one picture out of thousands that made her look the way she wanted to look,” he said. “Farrah picked that image – and she was right on the money.”

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