Don't go to bed with Gilda

Rita Hayworth suffered when she lost her identity to that of the femme fatale she played in her most famous film, Gilda. Living a lie is contagious. Jim Carroll warns of the corrosive effects of artifice in professional relationships.

Don't go to bed with Gilda

Poor Rita Hayworth. A world-famous film star and the GIs’ favourite pin-up in the 1940s, she struggled throughout her life to be understood as the person she really was. 

Born Margarita Cansino, Columbia Studios suppressed her Spanish heritage. They dyed her hair red, raised her hairline by electrolysis, changed her name, overdubbed her singing voice and locked her into a restrictive contract.

As Rita Hayworth, she made some truly marvellous movies. Only Angels Have Wings, The Strawberry Blonde and The Lady from Shanghai are all certified classics. She is best remembered for her role as the eponymous femme fatale in Gilda.

The defining moment in Gilda is Hayworth’s seductive performance of the song Put the Blame on Mame. Swaggering across the stage in a tight silk dress, ruffling her long red locks, Gilda removes a black opera glove and, all over the world, jaws drop.

After Gilda, Hayworth was marketed as a sex symbol and dubbed "the Love Goddess". The problem was that in private Hayworth was quiet, introvert and shy. She resented the merchandising, the marketing, the falsehood. She resented having her image painted on to an atomic bomb. But it was too late.

What’s more, she was also unlucky in love. Married and divorced five times, she consistently attracted the wrong type of man. She once famously lamented: "Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me."

Poor Rita. From the mid-1950s, the studio turned to less troublesome stars, TV was in the ascendant and the parts gradually dried up. She struggled with alcohol and Alzheimer’s disease until her death in 1987, aged 68.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Rita Hayworth. Most businesses inevitably endeavour to mould people to their own purpose. Companies shape their employees to fit established precedents, to fill certain roles. Welcome to the machine.

And when young hopefuls join a business, they want to fit in; they want to succeed. They are often happy to model themselves on pre-existing archetypes. They’re prepared to forego their true selves for success; to sacrifice means for ends. But however successful a personality change or character compromise in the short term, artifice never pays off in the long term. The price of pretence is sorrow.

There’s always been a good deal of contrivance and artifice around creative businesses. Affectation and the ersatz have walked hand-in-hand with salesmanship and persuasion. We have sold aspiration and dreams to our colleagues and clients, as well as to our consumers. But we should be mindful that artifice can corrode our relationships and undermine our company culture. Because living a lie is contagious.

Sadly, over the course of my career, I observed our industry turn some good people bad, some nice people nasty. Weaker personalities seemed particularly susceptible. And there were a good number of clients who, having been seduced by a pitch process to "go to bed with Gilda", weren’t too happy with the partner they woke up with. 

Of course, authenticity has become an imperative for modern brands. Consumers are looking for transparency, unfiltered truth, the real deal. Similarly, authenticity should characterise our relationships with colleagues and clients; it should be a defining trait of our leaders. Progressive businesses must set aside the plastic smiles of yesteryear; the wooden handshakes and steely looks that for so long dominated our offices and conference rooms.

This is particularly necessary in creative commerce, where difference is the chief justification of premium; where competitive advantage is determined by human capital; where diversity of output is achieved by diversity of input. Because similarity begets similarity; difference begets difference.

Consumers are looking for the real deal. Similarly, authenticity should characterise our relationships with colleagues and clients

In Gilda, our heroine is endlessly sparring with her erstwhile partner, Johnny. They seem at the same time to love and loathe each other. Theirs is the very definition of an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship. The character says: "Hate is a very exciting emotion. Haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it."

At the very end of the film, after no end of drama, the warring couple is reunited. They can set aside the bickering and role-playing, the artifice and self-destruction. Gilda looks mournfully towards her partner and says: "Johnny, let’s go. Let’s go home."

Jim Carroll is the former UK chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty