Profession: American Professional Wrestler
Real name: George Wagner
Born: March 24, 1915 Died: December 26, 1963
Gorgeous George took every handicap thrown his way and turned it into something that would revolutionize several industries.
He wasn't particularly physically imposing - at 5'9" and 215lb he wasn't really that much to look at. He'd had to drop out of school to help support his family back in Houston, Texas, where his family moved when he was seven. Having spent his youth working out in the YMCA, palling around with some rough kids and making some degree of money in carnival wrestling matches, earning thirty five cents a win, he seemed certainly capable of some of the theatrical and sometimes real and heavier demands of professional wrestling.
Back in those days pro wresting was a live attraction. The prototypical stuff was there - the notion of a wrester you cheered for and one you didn't, scripting of matches, what have you. And George certainly had his share of ideas, marrying his sweetheart in the ring as a draw for example.
Back then ethnicity was sometimes used as the McGuffin to draw hatred from the crowd, and there was another man, "Lord" Patrick Landsdowne, who took the notion of "British aristocrat looking down at the unwashed masses" to a bit higher level.... coming to the ring with valets and wearing a velvet robe. (In a side note, Triple H's first incarnation was a nod to this kind of character, a blue blood with a pretentious name ("Hunter Hearst Helmsley") who didn't want to touch the audience.)
George thought he could do that one better, and boy did he. Growing his hair long and effeminate, dying it platinum blonde and securing it with bobby pins. He first entered the ring as this outrageous character in Eugene, Oregon in 1941, and audiences went nuts.
Now, the idea of a flamboyant pro wrestler with bleached hair - well, Hulk Hogan's a household name, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage's robes are certainly well known. Both men credit Superstar Billy Graham with their look, but Graham drew straight from the man the announcer in Oregon first called "Gorgeous George". And it stuck. Remember that this was in the 1940s, and there was nobody before him who'd made it acceptable for a long haired man to swish around a ring in sequinned robes. George took huge risks.
George, remember, was a competent amateur wrestler and no bad slouch as a pro wrestler either. But his over-the-top antics, including valets hosing down the crowd with disinfectant and perfume before George would deign to walk to the ring past them, inspired rabid hatred. George was a superstar, and when pro wrestling, arguably the draw that sold the first televisions (much in the same way pornography sold the first VCRs) hit the small screen, George was its Milton Berle. People tuned in just to see how far George could go to be outrageous and flamboyant, and he met the expectations every time. When Pomp and Circumstance played, you know George was about to hit the ring.
He had a personal valet, who showered his feet with rose petals as he entered the ring, and carried a large mirror so George could admire himself. When pro wrestling returned to Madison Square Garden, George was the draw, and he took half the ticket sales, making him the highest paid pro athlete of his day.
As a pro wrestler, in-ring he also did quite well, winning the AWA Heavyweight title (losing it only to Lou Thiesz). But he is most remembered for, in addition to turning the pro wrestler into a consummate showman, his specific gimmick contributions. When he wrestled Whipper Billy Watson, the consequence of him losing the match was to have his beautiful golden locks shaved off. The "hair match" has since become a staple and at least one wrestler, Brutus Beefcake, made that his day to day shtick.
In additionto inspiring just about every pro wrestler that followed, a chance meeting with up and coming boxer Muhammad Ali, and their ensuing conversation, inspired Ali to become the trash talking athlete as famous for "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" as for his tactics and tremendous boxing skill.
Repeated injury, advancing age and alcoholism took its toll and he retired in 1962. Though he had earned hundreds of thousands as a pro wrestler, and invested a quarter million in a poultry farming enterprise that his notoriety helped do well, a combination of other bad business decisions and multiple divorces took their toll, and he was a broke and destitute alcoholic, and in and of itself that proved to be another often copied trait of the once-rich and once-powerful pro-wrestler.
The man travelled far and wide from his birth in Nebraska, and through the course of his life he left an indelible stamp on pro wrestling, entertainment, sports, sports marketing and television. Not a bad accomplishment for someone who as a relatively small beginner was thought to be unlikely to succeed.