When the 22-year-old Page 3 and promo girl Chantelle Houghton went on Big Brother in 2006, she said some really dumb things. During a conversation with the Labour MP George Galloway, Chantelle asked: "Does that mean you work in that big room with the green seats?" When working out the house’s weekly shopping budget she said: "Eleventy-twelve pence? I don't get it. How much is that then?" Chantelle also didn’t know what a gynaecologist was, or capitalism, and she thought Dundee was in Wales.
Speaking over the phone from her home in Essex, Chantelle tells me she would feel “mortified if she met an adult who didn’t know all that now”, but back in the 00s she was far from the only blonde known for her ditziness. From MTV to Nuts, practically every time you turned on the TV, opened a magazine, or went to the cinema there was a blonde saying something dim like “what’s tzatziki? Is it a car?”
Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie spent the whole of The Simple Life rehashing the same gag about not knowing how to use a mop, on Newly Weds Jessica Simpson couldn’t tell the difference between chicken and tuna, and Jodie Marsh once asked a reporter “is an egg a vegetable?” Meanwhile in film, every chick flick from Legally Blonde to Mean Girls to Clueless featured a bimbo with DD’s and zero brain cells. Starting out as April in Hot Chick, Anna Faris managed to carve an entire career out of playing stupid. As Erica in Friends she gasps “that sounds just like my name!” when Monica and Chandler tell her they’re calling their child “Erica”, and in House Bunny when Faris’ character Shelly is accused of turning the sorority into a brothel, she recoils: “A brothel? I’m not here to make soup.”
Of course, the dumb blonde wasn’t invented in the 2000s. Historians assert that the trope started all the way back in the 18th Century with the play Les Curiosités de la Foire. The French satire followed the misdemeanours of the eternally flummoxed and slow-talking blonde courtesan Rosalie Duthé. Fast forward to the 50s and Marilyn Monroe’s performance as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes saw the actor reinvent the airhead for a post-WW2 audience. The bleach-topped diamond obsessed showgirl reached peak bimbo when she announced: "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it."
In the 60s, Barbara Windsor and her bleached beehive made wit out of witlessness through her Carry On films, in the 70s Goldie Hawn made dumb blondes groovy for the hippie era, and in the 90s came the “Essex girl” jokes – e.g. “What’s the difference between an Essex Girl and a supermarket trolley? A supermarket trolley has a mind of its own'' – a trend that became so prevalent The Independent ran a piece in November 1991 calling it a “craze”. But it was only with the 2000s, and it’s onslaught of fame-for-fame’s-sake celebrity, that dumb blondes fully took over our cultural imagination.
They are still around – remember the moment in Love Island 2018 when blonde Liverpudlian Hailey explained that Brexit would “mean we don’t have any trees”? – but they’re much less prevalent. When we see glamorous blondes on-screen today, we focus more on their role as entrepreneurs; women capable of monetising their personality and looks to sell MissGuided’s £1 bikinis or build wash-off fake tan empires. So, where did all the dumb blondes go? And why did we suddenly start taking the ones who are left so seriously?
When Chantelle came off Big Brother, the tabloids laid into her perceived lack of intelligence. In one particularly nasty Daily Mail interview, the interviewer asked Chantelle whether she thinks she’s smart, and when she replied: "Well I got seven GCSEs and I was once offered a job by NatWest – and you don't get a job in a bank unless you are clever, do you?" The writer laughed: “Heavens. I bank with NatWest. What a terrifying prospect. I try to imagine Chantelle – queen of the Reality TV epidemic – in a NatWest uniform. Nope, it cannot be done.”
“The criticism didn't really bother me at all because I was secure in who I was,” Chantelle responds when I ask how she dealt with endlessly being patronised in this manner. “There were a lot of good things going on in my life that I could focus on instead.”
A lot of the press thought Chantelle was feigning ignorance to get attention or attract men, but speaking to her now she maintains that she really wasn't putting it on. “I didn't have a very good childhood,” she says. “Like I didn't grow up with much money at all. When the neighbours were out my Dad would fill a bathtub up for me using their garden hosepipe. I didn't get the education to know what the house parliament was like, or the colour of its seats. And I didn't know what gynaecologist was because I'd never been told about one. I'm not blaming my parents for that, but that's how you learn, isn't it? By being told?” Chantelle pauses. “I don't know, I suppose it's a bit of a laugh to some people.”
The tabloids might have called her “Paris Travelodge” and dubbed her a “wannabe footballer’s wife”, but Chantelle won Big Brother by a landslide and, after a series of magazine spreads and brand endorsements, become a 20-something millionaire (£300,000 of which came from a deal with OK! to let the magazine cover her wedding to The Ordinary Boys frontman Sam Preston). Granted Chantelle wasn’t clever in an academic sense, but her actions demonstrate a shrewd sense of business knowhow.
“Getting fame (not infamy) isn't easy and holding onto is even harder,” Nicole Lampert, a former showbiz reporter for The Sun's Bizarre gossip column, writes to me over email when I ask whether the dumb blondes ever were really “dumb”. “If they were in the public eye for more than a few weeks they obviously got something right, and it wasn't because people were laughing at them but with them. Every time we laughed, they cashed another cheque.” For Nicole the only dumb blondes were the ones you never hear about any more: “They believed in their fleeting fame and were nasty divas which quickly meant no one wanted to work with them again.”
Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace – known largely for squaring up to Nikki Graham and shouting: "know yourself, you better know yourself if you're talking to me, little girl" – was another Big Brother contestant characterised as a bimbo by the tabloid press. Aisyleyne says she was much smarter than the papers made out, but played the bimbo because she knew it would guarantee her fame. “The paparazzi were really bad back then and they would follow you everywhere,” she tells me. “I used to be in the papers looking like a drunk hot mess, Paris Hilton style. I didn't mind because I knew that it would sell papers. It wasn’t my best look, but I utilised it as much as I could. I would always get bookings off the back of being the dumb blonde.”
Chantelle might have been genuinely ditsy and Aisleyne might have been playing it up for the cameras, but not every woman is blonde and not every woman is dumb. So why were bimbos so often the only type of woman visible on screen?
A lot of it has to do with who got to decide who got on TV, and – surprise! – the executive producers, commissioning editors, and essentially, all the decision makers, were often men. Men who liked women’s IQs low and their boobs pushed up high.
“At that time clever women – of all hair colour and age – were not really appreciated outside of academia (and probably inside it too),” Nicole explains. “It was still an extremely macho society. Most women in the public eye at that time were either seen as beautiful and stupid like Jordan, or the slightly less stupid 'ladettes' (Zoe Ball/ Ulrika/ Sara Cox) who weren't as stupid because they were more like boys because they drank. Then there were the serious intellectuals who weren't pretty and therefore weren't interesting.”
The 2000s, for all its cries of “post-feminism”, was not much more enlightened than the years that preceded it. The tokens of progress – Margaret Thatcher as the first female prime minister, the Spice Girls’ Girl Power! message emblazoned in glitter across school lunchboxes – facilitated only the illusion of equality. Men were still calling the shots, and a lot of men like women that make them feel clever.
They might have generated ratings and headlines, but not everyone was a fan of the dumb blondes. P!nk's “Stupid Girls” entered the top ten and earned a Grammy nomination with bimbo-bashing lyrics like “Looking for a daddy to pay for the champagne/ (Droppin' names)/ What happened to the dream of a girl president?/ She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent”. J.K Rowling (sigh) wrote a blog post in support of the track saying that she didn’t want her daughters to become “empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones”.
As the decade wore on, journalists authored comment pieces equating the stereotyping of blonde women with the experience of homophobia and racism. “I’m not a dumb blonde, I’m an angry one” was the headline to one such piece in The Telegraph. “We blondes face prejudice every day of our lives” began another by novelist Anna Blundy in The Spectator, before asserting that “no other minority would stand for this cruel stereotyping”.
Even among the liberals there was outrage, as prominent critic Ariel Levy penned the manifesto Female Chauvinist Pigs – an account of how “pornified” culture had made it so that "bimbos enjoy a higher standing in our culture than Olympians right now.”
Aside from slasher movies and anything on after 10pm on MTV, there aren't quite so many dumb blondes around anymore. As society starts to treat women in a moderately less shit way, more diverse roles have opened up for them on screen. They can be weird, funny, self-obsessed and needy (though they will always fall asleep with a full face of makeup on).
These days if there’s going to be someone dumb on the box it’s more often than not going to be a man. Gone is the bimbo, and now cometh the age of the himbo – a gentle giant with big arms and small brains. Take the UK’s most beloved show Love Island: Molly-Mae isn’t exactly a PHD candidate, but it’s Tommy Fury who didn’t know what the capital of France was, thought “refreshify” was a word and tried to cut up ice with a butter knife. It was Molly-Mae who corrected him.
As for the dumb blondes who do continue to thrive in public life, we have more awareness of the ways in which they leverage their personalities to achieve fame. One of the many stark revelations in Paris Hilton’s recent documentary, This Is Paris, was that her public-facing persona is fake; her baby voice invented to get what she wanted. According to her sister Nicky she always knew how to use a mop, she just knew it would get people talking if she pretended she didn't.
Now that Paris has an $100 million business empire, it seems ridiculous that we ever believed anything different. Jessica Simpson, Nicole Ritchie and Katie Price have all had similar career trajectories. The dumb blonde has morphed into a #GIRLBOSS who idealises Richard Branson and talks about maximising profit margins. There’s no better example of this than Netflix’s Selling Sunset, where meticulously preened women sell property porn through multi-million dollar retail company The Oppenheim Group. They might have fake tits and lip fillers, but when they’re explaining why poured floors are better than tiles, their greying tech mogul clients are hanging off their every word. You could call these women plastic, as they are by their own admission, but you certainly couldn’t call them dumb.
“Women are taking control of their own lives and becoming much more powerful,” says Aisleyne. “We are much more respected. I like the fact that there's a lot of influential women that are blonde with big boobs that have made a success of themselves. Everyone stereotyped us as only good for marrying a rich older guy, but so many of us have thriving businesses and are sitting at the head of boardroom tables.”
Aisleyne likes being more respected, but it does mean she can no longer profit from playing dumb. Pretending to not know what "analyse" means doesn’t really work when every redtop has reported your thriving sun bed shop and massive real estate portfolio of houses.
Chantelle says she’s a lot smarter now, but unlike Aisleyne finds that people continue to underestimate her due to her appearance. “I keep up with the news by reading The Independent,” she says, her voice tightening as she grows defensive. “I read about 3-4 books a week. Most of the time I fall asleep at about 10pm with a book on my head. I think that would surprise a lot of people.”
Thing is, Chantelle need not worry, because the only dumb person in this situation is the one who doesn’t take the time to realise that being a “dumb blonde” doesn’t mean you actually are dumb. More than likely it means you are smart enough to let people think you are stupid when you need to get something from them. “It’s their loss,” Chantelle sighs down the phone, and it really is. How much of a punchline can you be when your personality has taken you from working in NatWest to laughing your way to the bank?