Before embarking on a musical career of her own, Bebe Buell was a much in-demand model but was most often seen as the second fiddle to the famous rock musicians she was dating. She, however, saw herself as the Muse to these musicians, inspiring and sharing ideas with them. Inevitably, the term “groupie” would arise. As she says, “I’m not opposed to ‘groupies,’ per se. I just don’t like being called a name or being tagged like a sheep to slaughter’. Bebe elaborates on this idea for PKM.
I remember the first time I saw a photograph of Oscar Wilde. I was five and it was Easter. We were at the Virginia Beach home of my mother’s friends, Poppy and Tilly, who were hosting a Sunday get together. We were dressed in our pastels and frills and the candy and food was flowing. It was an adult affair and, being the only child there, I wandered off to explore while the grown-ups enjoyed their martinis and snacks.
I found myself in a living room study area and on the table was a big book filled with photos of poets, painters, sculptors and scholars. I was immediately drawn to an image of Oscar draped on a chair like a velvet throw! It stuck with me and when I got older I looked him up in the school library. At the age of twelve I read The Picture Of Dorian Gray, but my main interest was in Oscar Wilde, the man and his story. I felt an instant connection, just as I have with all the great inspirations in my life.
In 1978, when I was living between NYC, Maine and LA, before finishing the year in London, I never missed one episode of Masterpiece Theatre and their 13 episodes of Lillie about the life of Lillie Langtry, played brilliantly by Francesca Annis. To my delight, it explored in great depth the relationship/friendship between Oscar and Lillie, and I became obsessed with knowing everything and anything I could about their dynamic. I was intrigued, too, by the descriptions of Mrs. Langtry in the press at that time in England and the U.S. She was often called a “Professional Beauty” or “The Jersey Lily” because she was born on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. She was also one of the most featured women in advertising; her face was everywhere. She was the image for Pears Soap and the most respected painters of the day stood in line just to have a sitting with her. In 1877, she met Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and became his first publicly acknowledged mistress.
One of my favorite quotes was attributed to her from her conversations with Wilde: “They saw me, those reckless seekers of beauty, and in a night I was famous.” This reminded me of the back room at Max’s Kansas City, the temple of cool when I arrived in New York during the era of everything!
It was this platonic duo that introduced me to the role of the “Muse”—that is the Artist and the Muse. Throughout history and especially in the arts, there seems to always be a driving force that brings the flora. In the series Lillie, they emphasized how Oscar would repeat Lillie’s quips and observations in his writing. Their banter with one another fascinated me and I often envisioned myself as a “Patron of The Arts”, in a sense, as I’ve always promoted and sang the praises of those whose work I liked. I felt an affinity with that spirit—the gift of inspiring and sharing special ideas with an artist I admired. It wasn’t just music. I adored musing with photographers, writers, film directors and designers, too. Creative energies have always fed my soul.
The first time I referenced the term “muse” was in a 1981 interview I did with the Emmy-winning writer Stephen Demorest for the edgy publication Oui. Its sister magazine in France was called Lui. Playboy had taken over ownership of Oui so it was a glossy, classy, European-style men’s delight, targeting a younger demographic. When Stephen approached me about the piece, he showed me a couple other interviews with “It Girls” that had been published. One was with Patti D’Arbanville, the inspiration for some of Cat Stevens’ biggest hits. He even used her last name in one of the songs, “Lady D’Arbanville”. I knew Patti from the early 70s and, in fact, it was she who introduced me to Jimmy Page in 1973 on a night out dancing with her in NYC. It was a quick meeting, as I was eager to get home to my boyfriend at the time, Todd Rundgren. A year later, I would run into Mr. Page again and the rest is the stuff of rock tales.
I adored Patti so knowing that both she and Jerry Hall had done this particular interview sealed the deal. Like Patti Boyd, Jane Asher, Linda Eastman, Maureen Van Zandt, Sara Dylan, to name a few, the musical muse is the most often of the muses referenced. I recall how so many people wanted to know my viewpoints and opinions about the word “muse” and why I preferred it to the term “groupie”.
Even in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, his beloved character Penny Lane’s first words on screen are, “We are not groupies. We inspire the music- we are bandaids!”. The film was Cameron’s love letter to women and how even at that time a stigma was attached to calling a woman a groupie; it was not necessarily a compliment. It was almost like a dismissive jab, on par with “she’s such a slut” or “whore”. Another scene in Almost Famous has all of the members of the fictitious band Stillwater squeezed onto a small plane that, they thought, was about to crash. Secrets were spilled and fingers were pointed. In one of the most moving moments, the William character defends Penny when she is described as “that groupie” by one of the band members. William nails it when he points out who and “what” she really is- a bright light and cherished fan. Someone who loved them all and for all the right reasons.
“They saw me, those reckless seekers of beauty, and in a night I was famous.” – Lillie Langtry
I feel that women have been unfairly branded and labeled without cause. I’ve often said that I’m not opposed to “groupies,” per se. I just don’t like being called a name or being tagged like a sheep to slaughter. Summing me up for the life I’ve lived, seen through someone else’s eyes or, worse, exaggerating the truth. I didn’t want those I’ve truly loved or the relationships I’ve had to be considered less sincere because of the visibility of my partner.
Certainly loving music or dating musicians is not derogatory. Isn’t it logical, then, that birds of a feather flock together? Like-minded tribes mate or unite because of chemistry? Rock boys and models have been drawn to each other since forever! In the Netflix series Hollywood, you find that sex and sexual favors were the core of the industry. Several of the movie stars everyone loved on screen had started out as rent boys or nude models to make ends meet. Who decides why someone can give a blow job to the “right” person and get a starring role in a movie and another blow job by an aspiring talent gets tossed into the trash can of regret.
Why, after having four children with Mick Jagger, a successful modeling career and now being Mrs. Rupert Murdoch, would anyone refer to Jerry Hall as a groupie? Or gold digger, another favorite term used to describe women who marry well. Or Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg or Winona Ryder, for heaven’s sake? These are the questions I’ve always had and one of the main reason why I have rejected the term groupie in the press. It’s not a personal attack on those who identify with the moniker. It’s my own rebellion against being labeled and frowned on for the relationships I’ve had.
I knew when I was ten years old, I would hang out with Mick Jagger one day. I knew those were my people… my kind.
I’ve taken this stand for a long time, even though it’s also caused some judgement and negativity towards me from other women. It’s almost as if they think I see myself as better than them. Or that I’m not being honest when I don’t just call myself a full-on groupie, and own it. My closest friends tell me it’s just jealousy but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful to have tales and lies circulated about you by people you barely know or those who don’t know me at all. Or to have relationships that lasted for years being reduced to a laundry list of “conquests.”
This is nothing new, of course. Catherine The Great‘s enemies within the Emperor’s Court turned on her and started rumors that she was a sex fiend who had intercourse with horses. That stuck with her throughout her life and even in the museums of Russia, the tale has echoed although it’s completely untrue. Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn were also targeted. Ruining reputations was the way people got their revenge in days of yore. Or in some cases, the reason why some lost their heads to the guillotine. Why is it that women who have power or beauty have been subjected to crazy accusations of sexual voracity or deviance? Eve takes the blame for the banishment from Eden and although she was supposedly created from Adam’s rib, she is seen as a temptress and Adam as her victim.
I believe every woman should identify by how she feels comfortable and for the work she does. I personally prefer to be known for what I do, my accomplishments, my career. However, dating a rock star or an actor should not merit a nasty quip or name calling fest. It becomes unbalanced when just because someone gets famous as, say, a model or an actress and then dates a rock star, that she should get called anything other than what she does to earn a living. I’m not sure “groupie” falls under the umbrella of job occupation. I’d file it under pastime, hobby, passion, or fetish.
The origins of the groupie started with nothing more than a desire to be close to the band—the guys who made the music. Or in some cases, the women. The term came into use in the mid-1960s as slang for women who liked to hang out with musicians. It’s fair to say that not all “groupies” are the same. There are many tiers and pecking orders when narrowing it down. Certainly not every girl who dreams of being with a rock star will waltz backstage and demand sex or give oral gratification. That’s the image I despise and wish would not tarnish the entire viewpoint to the outside world. Some of the girls on the scene want to take the word “groupie” back, to personify what it meant in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It became something entirely different when the ‘80s rolled around. Bands born out of the LA scene liked a different kind of arm candy than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. They preferred exotic dancers and porn stars, the girls du jour of the time. Just as music changes with each era, so do the kinds of women who pursue the bands. But, more importantly, what kind of women the bands seek out. One man’s status is another man’s yen.
And then there are those who look at being a groupie as a form of prostitution. I’ve never understood that one because most girls who live that lifestyle don’t charge money to be with their favorite rock god or even their crew. It’s a thrill to be with the band, but it seems the glamor that was once attached to that goal has changed. For me, it was a thrill to fight to say “I’m IN the band”… or even “I AM the band!”
When I was living with Todd, he produced one of the first all-female bands, Fanny. They were so great! June Millington could shred! I felt bewildered when I would hear snide remarks wondering if Todd was sleeping with one of them. I thought to myself that would have never been said or thought if they weren’t women.
The bottom line is preference. We all have a choice. And we all can be whatever we want. We can wear many hats. I see myself as a mother, wife, musician, singer, songwriter, writer, mentor, animal lover… many different things. What I do in my spare time is how I make my soul happy. Who I date is based on connections, fate and karma. We end up with who we’re meant to be with and the experiences we have are all meant to be. I’ve been with my husband Jim for twenty years now. Our 18th wedding anniversary is coming in August 2020. So, I’m writing this piece from the perspective of a wife, mother, working musician, writer and mentor. Not just a girl who had lots of suitors in her youth. Every single little thing is part of the journey.
The first time I saw a photo in Rolling Stone of what they called a “groupie”, I was 15 years old and in the 10th grade. It was 1969, and neither the image nor the word was at all something ugly to me. It just seemed exciting and cool. The girls were so outrageously dressed, and it reflected an almost innocent charm. I didn’t aspire to be a groupie but they seemed like they were the ones who made the guys in the band cool. They helped dress them, created make-up looks and spread the word all over town about how good they were. It didn’t seem to be so much about sex and backstage antics. Maybe I was too young to fully understand everything, especially from the pages of a magazine.
On my first trip to LA with Todd in 1973, when I finally did meet some real girls who liked to be called groupies, it still didn’t seem derogatory. I started to see how it was all just tossed together in some people’s minds. It’s a complex dance between an artist and his muse. None of it is something so vulgar or tainted as being only about sexual conquest. Maybe to some, it’s about that. But for me it was a series of fated encounters that have lasted throughout my life.
Some people see a groupie as a girl who will do anything, including have sex with a roadie, to get to the band. There is that element to the rock n’ roll lifestyle. But it’s not the entire package. Others see groupies as a vibe, the girls who are there when the band makes it, the girls that helped them make it, the on-the-road bestie, or the girls who get the bands drugs and food. Or even give them the clothes off their backs if the band is short a cool stage look. I often joke that that’s how wearing your lingerie out became a signature rock girl look- the band had taken her clothes to wear onstage!
I never looked at the men I dated or loved as conquests. Humans aren’t territories to be battled over or ceded to. The human connection is divine.
I recall reading where Pamela Des Barres said she was still a virgin when she first discovered her teenage heart being drawn to rock boys. It felt sexual to her and it was also just youthful and sweet. Not a salacious sexual quest. More a desire to be near the music and the men who made it. That’s perhaps what one would define as a “classic groupie”. Or, in some circles, “fan” is the preferred analogy. I can relate to that myself as I knew when I was ten years old, I would hang out with Mick Jagger one day. I knew those were my people… my kind.
Pamela has made a career out of her life as a proud groupie. But certainly she has a right to claim the term because she helped invent it! She now calls it her “groupie heart” and that is something anyone who’s ever had a crush on someone or loved someone’s music so much that it altered your DNA can relate to. Hasn’t everyone felt that way? Every guy or gal who picks up a guitar or slings a mic stand had to have been dazzled by their inspiration or felt a need to pursue that for their own futures. So, my point is this- none of it is negative nor should one word hold so much power that when it’s flung at a woman, she’ll feel shamed or scorned.
When I started to get a bit of fame, the media seemed to want to call me anything but “groupie”. It was “Friend Of The Stars”, “Queen Of The Rock Chicks”, “Leggy Model”, “The Mother Of All Rock Chicks”, “It Girl”… so when the internet entered our lives, I began to see just how judgmental and downright mean people were about the women who hung out with the bands. It started to become something so dirty and taboo that I wanted no part of that term. It’s a thin line, a hard one to walk. Personally, I feel loving music and being attracted to musicians is as natural as doctors and nurses getting along. Humans are drawn to their soul tribe. Music, musicians and all art forms attract me. I’m the moth to that flame.
As an entertainer myself, it always hurt me when what I actually do for my job was ignored or not taken seriously because of the famous names I’ve been attached to. It’s so one-sided to only put that burden on women. It has been the norm for men to be patted on the back and admired for their taste in women and especially if they were able to appeal to many and have tons of sexual experiences. Even in the animal kingdom, the male peacock has the massive plume bloom to attract as many lovers as he can. A male lion can rule the pride with his sexual domination. A male celebrity only becomes more famous if he’s got a beautiful model or actress on his arm. Whereas a woman who’s dance card is busy or even full is often ridiculed or bashed. Branded with the scarlet letter of infamy.
It started to get under my skin when I saw myself defined only by who I’d dated or had close friendships with. It’s the luck of the draw. Some women who are in the public eye can date and marry a celeb several times and be embraced for it. They use it to further their already visible life. They are proud and exploit all their lovers as the playthings that they’ve become. Some have become famous by leaking a porno or being on a reality show. What was once a limited field has become wide open with lots of branches of thought and assumption. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for me to fight for my image… my persona… my legacy. But I did fight. I turned down almost every request I was presented to be interviewed for groupie documentaries or sensationalized TV shows. Sometimes turning down large sums of money. But I wanted to work hard and felt if I worked hard enough one day I’d be thought of for what I did on a stage, in front of the lens of a camera, as a mother and at times even a manager, more than who I shared my life with. Dare I use the “R” word? I wanted RESPECT.
There’s lots of contrast in the definition of groupie or muse but what about “partners”… the duos who took the world by storm. Sonny & Cher, Karen & Richard Carpenter, Debbie Harry & Chris Stein, Jack & Meg White, Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, Stevie Nicks & Lindsey Buckingham, Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore, etc… Or Chrissie Hynde and Courtney Love, who both married musicians. There’s a kaleidoscope of ways women are seen. It all depends on how you are first perceived. The general public seem to hold on to how they first heard of you even if you go on to do many different things in your life. Marianne Faithfull is a perfect example of someone who has been able to transcend her detractors and carry on like the warrior she is. But it baffles my mind how anyone could call her or Anita Pallenberg anything but tastemakers and trendsetters. They were the women I would stare at for hours as a young girl. They fascinated me almost more than the guys they hung out with. Yet I still hear them sometimes referred to as groupies.
The word groupie is almost like the word fuck. It has more layers and meanings than can be pinned into one corral. It has become universal in its use and means a thousand things to a thousand different people.
Like any entertainer, I have an overwhelming need to be loved and to give love and positive energy to others. That’s why I crave being onstage. The connection with the audience is almost like having the best sex in the world. Or at minimum, a great, soulful hug that sends sparks through your body. I’ve been doing this since 1980, in public anyway. This is my life… not the talented, special men I dated in my youth. That’s part of my story and I will never regret a single heartbreak nor will I ever regret loving to the point of forgetting myself and my own pursuits. But I want to be remembered for more than my dates or suitors. I gave birth to a child who grew up to become a superstar so the role of nurturer has followed me throughout my life. I’ve accepted the fact that my fate is to be a vessel for talent and to enrich those who possess it. It’s become who I am- all the parts and pieces of my karma rolled into one big bang! My artistic side occupies just as much space as my musing side- equal parts love and creative energy.
Things come full circle especially when I get approached after one of my shows by young girls that call me “High Priestress” or tell me that they are my “groupies”. When I hear the words “Bebe, Im your biggest groupie!”, my heart swells but I also like to immediately remind them that I do what I do onstage because of them. Because of the exchange being a performer gives to my being. It’s like fuel… hors d’oeuvres for the soul.
Bebe Buell · by Chester French
One morning in 2009, I got a call from an old industry friend who had landed at Interscope Records. I was awoken with, “Bebe, you’ve been touted in a song produced by Pharrell Williams called ‘Bebe Buell’ by a young band from Boston called Chester French.” I remember thinking “wow, that’s a nice compliment” because the gist of the song was that someone like me or Pamela Anderson Lee were the creme de la creme of rock-boy desire. There’s a clothing line called ‘Muse & Lyrics‘ that has a blouse/top called “The Bebe” and the brand ‘I’m With The Band’ has named their leopard scarfs and headbands the “Bebe”. There’s even a cocktail called “The Bebe Buell”
But I think one of the coolest things was having Cameron Crowe name the lead singer in Stillwater Jeff Bebe. He gave me the original T-shirt that was used in the movie, too, and boy do I treasure it! Cameron sprinkled all kinds of little clues and messages throughout Almost Famous. I was especially touched by the Jeff Bebe nod because he knew how much I wanted to be a singer in a band. I remember him once saying to me that I should just go for it. At that point, people only knew me as a model and Todd Rundgren’s girlfriend. I hadn’t even done Playboy yet, so I was still trying to figure out who I was and how to do it. I finally did but it took me six more years to get in the studio and front a band!
It’s moving to be honored and it’s also nice to be appreciated by the younger generation of pop culture lovers. The first time my name was in a song, I was excited by it. My old friend G.E. Smith had a line on his solo album that was about coming to visit “Bebe and Liz”… he came over to my best friend Liz Derringer’s house to play it for us. We were elated… it was cool. I would never be so bold as to sit here and make a list of my lovers or the songs they wrote for me because it seems so long ago. I’d rather leave that up to the fans of the music to decipher and besides not all songs written for others are acknowledged as such. I’ve had several songs given to me as gifts or written to me in letters.
Sometimes the authors don’t admit it because their feelings change and they don’t want to upset their new love interest. Didn’t Bob Dylan write “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”, “Just Like A Woman”, “Fourth Time Around” and “Like A Rolling Stone” about Edie Sedgwick, only to later deny it? I know the feeling because it’s happened to me. So, at this point in my life, I just cherish the letters (yes, I still have them so one day when we’re all gone they will maybe solve the puzzles) and I respect and allow artistic license to have its day. It’s an artist’s prerogative to change their minds so I hold no hurt feelings. Music buffs are pretty smart anyway and they usually know the truth, so it matters little unless it’s blatant. The one topic that irks me is that I claimed This Year’s Model was about me. Well, that’s impossible because I didn’t meet and start to date Elvis Costello until he was well into Armed Forces. I was living with him in London when he recorded it in the fall of 1978. He included a couple of lyrics from songs on Armed Forces in letters to me but I can say with certainty that “Party Girl” wasn’t one of them. I guess it was the timing of the release that made people speculate I was the subject, but I wasn’t and never claimed to be. He didn’t even know me when he wrote those records. Why this is disputed has always been a mystery to me. The songs Mr. Costello sent me in letters were from later albums, starting with Get Happy. I will always wonder too why he would say something so false and perpetuate a rumor twenty years later in the liner notes of a re-issue. Here’s to hoping it is finally put to rest. And even with the shame and pain I felt at the time, I feel no regret or ill will toward anyone. To me the truth is pretty obvious. Remember the story I told earlier about Catherine The Great? Revenge is often used when hearts are hurt, and it is very common in the entertainment industry.
Didn’t Bob Dylan write “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”, “Just Like A Woman”, “Fourth Time Around” and “Like A Rolling Stone” about Edie Sedgwick, only to later deny it?
In summing up my thoughts on the topic, I feel it’s time in our culture to appreciate the roles women have played in art since the beginning of time. Dali had his Gala, Picasso would hide the initials of his mistresses in his paintings and secretly tell them so they would know it was for them, Clapton immortalized his love and lust for Patti Boyd with the ultimate ode in “Layla” and John Lennon may have written the most beautiful love song of all for Yoko in “Woman”. Or was it Paul McCartney with “The Long And Winding Road” about Jane Asher or “Maybe I’m Amazed” about the spectacular Linda Eastman McCartney?
We can’t leave out the spirited and unique George Sand whose given name was Aurore Dupin. She was born in Paris on July 1, 1804 and adopted the name “George” because women couldn’t write professionally with the freedom of men in those days. She became one of the most popular writers in Europe during her lifetime- one of the most notable writers of the European Romantic era. She would wear male attire in public saying it was easier and more affordable than women’s garb. She was a confidant to Franz Liszt and lover and muse to Chopin. She would lie beneath the piano while Chopin composed, saying it sent the music through her entire body instead of just her ears.
Music is primal and it gets into our bloodstream. It’s easy to see why young girls get crushes on their idols and some even grow up to marry their dream man. But the days of defining women by their sexual desires or “conquests” should be on the wane. I never looked at the men I dated or loved as conquests. Humans aren’t territories to be battled over or ceded to. The human connection is divine. Each and every person we cross paths with is part of our magical life story. So, whatever you identify yourself as is fine. That is your privilege and judgement should not follow even if the choices aren’t the norm. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
*Closing side note* As I was finishing this essay, I was doodling with a People magazine crossword puzzle and one of the clues was “GROUPIE”. Guess what the answer was… “FAN”. The timing was uncanny!