Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit poster sold over 12 million copies, making it one of the best-selling posters of all time. It’s so iconic that it now sits in a museum for all to see.
Farrah grew up in Texas, but her natural beauty and affable nature caught the attention of everyone who walked by. A chance encounter with a producer at a beauty pageant led to a role on Charlie’s Angels, and a photoshoot to promote it led to the unforgettable poster that launched her career.
Farrah Before the Poster
Farrah Fawcett was born on February 2, 1947, in Corpus Christi, Texas to parents Pauline and James Fawcett. She graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in microbiology, but her true passion was always acting.
Farrah Fawcett was discovered at a college beauty pageant in the late 60s. She moved to Los Angeles and got noticed right away. Her first roles included commercials for Wella Balsam Shampoo and Ultra Brite toothpaste.
She met Lee Majors, star of the TV series The Big Valley, in 1968. Their publicists set them up on a blind date, and they were immediately taken with each other.
Farrah made her film debut in the 1969 film Love is a Funny Thing. She later appeared in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge in 1970. It’s a major failure, but she determined to keep going.
Farrah and Lee were married in 1973, the same year she earned a recurring role in the series Harry O. She caught the attention of a major producer named Aaron Spelling after her performance in Logan’s Run in 1976.
He was the one who nabbed her the role in Charlie’s Angles that same year. It earned record-breaking ratings, won her a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Female Performer in a New TV Program in 1977, and catapulted her to stardom. Watch our video to learn the truth about Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit poster.
The Creation of the Poster
Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith turned down the offer to do a bikini photoshoot to promote Charlie’s Angels, despite claims that the girls could share the profits. Farrah thought the idea was cute but wanted to be involved in the process as much as possible.
Bruce McBroom took the photos that would later be used for the iconic poster. He’d worked with Farrah before because he was a friend of Lee Majors, her live-in boyfriend at the time.
He took the photos at Farrah’s home. She didn’t have a bikini, but he said she could wear whatever she had on hand.
Farrah controlled almost every detail of the shoot and made sure that they could do it her way. She ignored requests for “sexy images and did her own hair and makeup.
Bruce took Farrah’s picture for hours and used up 40 rolls of film but didn’t feel like he’d taken the right picture. He asked her to try wearing something else, and she chose the red swimsuit to hide a scar on her stomach that she’d had since childhood. He knew it was perfect and used a Mexican blanket he had in his truck as the backdrop.
Mike and Ted Trillkis were 2 Ohio brothers who sold black-light posters to hippies at Kent State. The son of one of his neighbors noticed that men in his dorm were buying women’s magazines just to see Farrah Fawcett in the shampoo ads. He knew they could turn it into a poster.
Mike and Ted’s lives changed in the summer of 1976 when they received a package with 25 shots of Farrah in the famous red swimsuit. She even marked her favorite shot with a star.
Ted showed the photos around the office for a second opinion. The company thought a bikini pin-up poster would sell more copies but eventually went with the one she’d chosen. Its provocative but sweet nature made it a massive hit.
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The Popularity of the Poster
The poster became an immediate hit. Pro Arts earned $2 million in 1976 alone. They sold 3 million copies the next year, netting $6 million in revenue and $1 million in profit.
The poster was so popular that it began a period known as “The Farrah Phenomenon.” Everyone wanted the poster on their wall, women started copying her hairstyle, and everyone knew her name. The actress went from earning $5,000 per episode of Charlie’s Angels to netting $400,000 in royalties from the poster alone. She only stayed on the show for its first season from 1976-1977, but the poster used to promote it will be remembered forever.
Bruce never quite understood what made the poster so popular but feels it was a combination of “this wholesome, beautiful all-American girl with a dazzling smile and a red suit that covered a lot but revealed a little.”
The poster’s designer Norma Kamali also had plenty to say about it. She didn’t like the design or the swimsuit and made a new design later. At the same time, she agreed with Bruce that Farrah was wonderful to work with and is grateful to be a part of her legacy.
Farrah had to sue Bio-Graphics Inc., Pie International Inc., and T.N. Triklis because they all claimed exclusive rights to the photo on the poster. She requested at least $100,000 in reparations but dropped the case on May 11, 1977.
After the poster debuted, Mike and Ted Trilkis became multimillionaires who now run Pro Arts Inc. Ted Trillkis even earned the distinction of “the King of the Posters” from The Washington Post.
Farrah After the Poster
Farrah Fawcett enjoyed her time on Charlie’s Angels and got along well with her co-stars but decided the material was too lightweight and not worth the strain it was putting on her marriage.
She left to begin a movie career. The producers sued her, and she lost part in the 1978 film Foul Play to Goldie Hawn. The animosity didn’t last forever, and they reached an agreement where Farrah would still guest star in Charlie’s Angels. She had to work alongside her replacement Cheryl Ladd who said she always remained professional despite the potential awkwardness.
That compromise allowed Farrah to pursue a film career, but it didn’t start out well. Her first 3 films, Somebody Killed Her Husband in 1978, Sunburn in 1979, and Saturn 3 in 1980 were all flops. The Cannonball Run in 1981 was successful financially but received poor reviews and negative publicity after her stunt double Heidi Von Beltz suffered a tragic accident on set.
Farrah met Ryan O’Neal in 1981 who encouraged her to return to television. She starred in a 1981 miniseries Murder in Texas and filed for divorce from Lee Majors in 1982. She began dating and moved in with Ryan soon after.
Farrah’s later roles were more serious including the play Extremities and the film The Burning Bed in 1984 that earned her Emmy and a Golden Globe nominations.
Farrah and Ryan had a son named Redmond in 1985. She starred in the film version of Extremities in 1986 and earned another Golden Globe nomination even though it was a bit of a flop.
Farrah continued to seek out serious roles for the rest of her career. She returned to TV, earning an Emmy nomination for Small Sacrifices in 1989 and starring with Ryan in Good Sports in 1991.
Farrah also used her natural beauty to come back from slumps in her career. She posed for Playboy at the age of 48 in 1995, and it was the best-selling issue of that decade.
Farrah’s career was back on track by then, but her second marriage was not. She broke up with Ryan in 1997.
Farrah posed for Playboy again at the age of 50 and promoted the spread on David Letterman. Her next major role was The Apostle in 1997.
She began dating James Orr after that, the director of the 1995 film Man of the House. A scandal erupted in 1998 when it became known that he was abusive towards her. She testified against him in court and he was found guilty of assault.
Farrah also suffered numerous losses in the next few years. Her only sister, Diane Fawcett Walls, and her mother, Pauline, both died in 2001. The producer of Charlie’s Angels died in 2006, leading her to reunite with her former co-stars.
Farrah worked as long as she could despite these losses. She starred in Dr. T & the Women in 2000, received her 3rd Emmy nomination for The Guardian in 2003, and created a short-lived reality show called Chasing Farrah in 2005.
Farrah’s charity work was also extensive. She supported the Cancer Society, appeared at the Humanitarian Awards in Media, spoke at anti-domestic violence panels produced by the Show Coalition, and was a board member on the National Advisory Council for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
She co-produced the documentary Farrah’s Story in 2009 after being diagnosed with cancer. Her friend Alana Stewart recorded her doctor’s visits, and she stayed by her friend’s side along with Farrah’s ex Ryan O’Neil.
The documentary was also the last time the 3 original Angels were ever seen together on film. It was a ratings success and earned an Emmy nomination for Oustanding Nonfiction Special.
Farrah Fawcett tragically died of cancer at the age of 62 on June 25, 2009. She left a large portion of her estate to her son Redmond and set up a trust fund used to create The Farrah Fawcett Foundation for cancer research and prevention.
Ryan O’Neil said he was following Farrah’s wishes when he donated the red swimsuit and a copy of the poster to the Smithsonian on February 2, 2011. This decision, along with her extensive filmography and the litany of merchandise based on her image, will keep her legacy alive forever.
Did you own a copy of Farrah Fawcett’s red swimsuit poster, or do you know anyone who did? Let us know in the comments below. Like and subscribe to FactsVerse for more on the impact of Hollywood’s best blonde beauties.