She steps onto the stage and strikes the perfect pose, the one Vampirella holds in the poster advertised at the back of the adult comic. Her costume somehow matches Trina Robbins’ design, and despite this fact does not fall off completely when she moves, which would reveal a little more of her body. She even has the vampire bat perched on her hand.
The mostly-male crowd gives her an enthusiastic response.
It is 1973. She is fourteen.
Moments later, the same audience will be jeering and heckling her.
Heidi Elizabeth Saha was born January 30, 1959. Her father, Arthur, an artist, SF fan, and editor at DAW Publications, allegedly coined the term "Trekkies." He was friends with James Warren, publisher of Warren Comics and Magazines and Forrest J. Ackerman, the Father of science fiction fandom. Her mother, Taimi, a published author of one SF short story, had an interest in cosplay. The family were SF and comic convention regulars. Growing up, Heidi met and socialized with many people connected to this world. SF Fandom had not yet grown to its later, Godzillian proportions; convention-goers knew each other and often knew their idols as well. Heidi frequently attended in costumes and entered competitions. She was well-read and intelligent—an award-winning student, in fact. While it was less common then for a young girl to have her fannish interests, she would not be particularly noteworthy, save for the turns her life took in the early 1970s, after she hit puberty.
She had no apparent issue wearing slightly more revealing costumes; she dressed both as Sheena of the Jungle and Shahna of Triskelion. These costumes she made with her mother. Then Traina Saha ordered up for her daughter a more professional costume, made by a designer. Vampirella: scantily-dressed, blood-drinking star of a comic that regularly featured nudity, strong violence, and adult themes.
Fandom, at that time, was an overwhelmingly male affair. Heidi, at thirteen and fourteen, was moving through crowds made up mostly of men, not a few of them socially eccentric, wearing an outfit revealing even by the standards of female comic book adventurers.
At the 1973 Comic Art Convention
, two Vampirellas entered the costume competition: a shapely twenty-something named Angelique Trouvere, and Heidi Saha. By all accounts, the crowd gave both Vampis a positive, if raucous response. But Heidi had not made her own costume, which flew in the face of the do-it-yourself
aesthetic favored by congoers—especially at that time. Her family had a connection to Warren, too. Stories spread through the audience that she was there as some kind of official promotion. Another story may have spread: Taimi had tried to have Angelique Trouvere removed from the contest, because her costume cut a little too low in places. Trouvere recalls, "she's parading her underage daughter around in sexy costumes and she's concerned about decency? Sheesh!"
When Heidi took third place and Angelique won nothing, many in the audience booed and jeered. The hecklers appeared to believe the girl did not belong in the contest, and certainly should not have won. It's worth noting that Trouvere considered Heidi's costume superior, and to this day speaks quite fondly of her.
Heidi Saha nevertheless left an impression on the fannish world of the early 1970s. When she turned up in the outfit at the next WorldCon in Toronto, she received a good deal of attention. Numerous photographs exist of SF notables and congoers posing with the young girl, who seems comfortable in her role. Meanwhile, the presence of two Vampirellas at the Comics Art Convention received coverage in Vampirella #29 -- and in Playboy.
"No red-blooded fan can do without this poster!"
—Forrest J. Ackerman
"An absolute delight! I love her!"
Soon after, ads began appearing in Warren Comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland for a one-shot magazine called An Illustrated History of Heidi Saha: Fantasy Fandom's Famous Femme. James Warren published the photo-filled magazine; Forrest J. Ackerman wrote the text. The Warren Companion claims the parents saw the book as a way to build the buzz and promote a possible movie career for their daughter. James Warren agreed to print and sell them because the girl had done such an excellent job of promoting their character. They ran 500 copies, possibly believing that Heidi's presence in fan circles would move them. They also peddled Heidi as a large-sized poster that duplicated the Illustrated History's cover: Heidi as Sheena of the Jungle. The magazine did not sell especially well, but its existence got attention, and it gave rise to various salacious urban legends concerning its content. People have since shelled out serious cash for the book, now a collectable.3 One wonders what they imagine they might see.
The magazine's pages have long been scanned and posted online. The cover and poster offer—or, at least, their marketing-- are unsettling. The remainder of the images, taken on their own terms, are fairly innocuous. For the most part, they show the Illustrated History of Heidi—you know, photographs of a girl from infancy to adolescence. She participates in the typical life of a home, poses with the elite of SF and Fandom, and models age-appropriate costumes. The Vampirella outfit does not appear at all. If you only saw the photographs, you might conclude a family member had assembled this for, perhaps, her birthday.
Forrest J. Ackerman's annotations and captions, however, raise considerable eyebrow. The text includes, for example, young Heidi's measurements and a question as to whether Arthur C. Clarke (shown with Heidi) "isn't waiting for Childhood's End?" Heidi reads Tolkien; we're told that looking at her can be "Hobbit-forming."
In 1974, Heidi attended the Creation Convention in New York. A writer named Emanuel Maris made an odd contribution to the program: a poem written to the tune of "Stairway to Heaven." A tribute to SF or comics, perhaps? No—a screed against a fifteen-year-old girl and her stage-mother:
There's a girl that I know,
Who's mom has her for show,
and she's bringing her to the convention
When she gets there, mom knows,
the men will eye her clothes,
With a word she commands her 'bout the floor
And her costumes have shown,
from a tailor are borne,
For her, the portrayals have no meaning
The poem continues in this vein for several stanzas, ending with the crowd's response to the girl winning a contest competition: "Seidi? Haha!"
The text was set against a photo of a porn model who superficially resembled Heidi Saha.
Art Saha had to be physically pulled off Maris.
Shortly after the Creation incident, Heidi retired from the con costume circuit. Angelique Trouvere claims the girl was relieved at the change. She feels that Heidi was going through "terrible emotional turmoil" of which her mother remained willfully unaware-- and that, the next time she saw Heidi, the girl was relaxed, and dressed like a typical teen. Heidi continued with her life, and became an artist. While she reportedly has modeled as well for SF books covers, she has kept, overall, a low profile. In 2000, she penned a tribute to her father for Locus magazine. Her notorious costume she auctioned in 1996.
The controversy, too, gradually disappeared. In 1976, a fanzine, Minus 273 Degrees Celsius #11 chronicled "The Rise and Fall of Heidi Saha." Otherwise, the story remained a fannish footnote. The exhaustive Warren Companion dedicates less than a page to their Heidi magazine and the relevant backstory. One must hunt to find information online. It begs the question: why write a piece on an obscure footnote to fandom, something best forgotten?
I have been an irregular fixture at Conventions for some time now, and I certainly qualify as a nerd, one whose fascination with the Histories of Things borders on obsession. But I had never heard of Heidi Saha until March of 2014. I was researching for a piece of writing, searching through old comic book ads, and found myself wondering who the heck Heidi, "Fantasy Fandom's Famous Femme" was. I read various accounts; many aspects of her story seemed creepily familiar, prescient of the worst elements in contemporary fandom. And in that does Heidi Saha's brief career give us points to ponder.1
The line in Maris's song, "to her the portrayals have no meaning," presages the odious Fake Geek Girl controversy of the twenty-first century. For those unaware, in recent years, fare traditionally associated with nerds has been mainstreamed. Suddenly, star actors play superheroes, hipsters attend Comic-Con, and fantasy and SF receives unprecedented levels of critical, audience, and academic success. Fandom, too, has changed; males and females attend events in about equal numbers. The changes have led some traditional nerds and geeks to complain about "Fake Geek Girls." The Fake Geek Girl, according to her detractors, attends Cons in Cosplay finery and proclaims her nerdiness but she doesn't know the character she’s cosplaying—at least, not in the obsessive detail of the old-school nerd-- and, really, what would anyone that beautiful know about the suffering that can attend nerdiness? She's probably in the pay of some company, trying to pitch products to male attendees.2 The attitude recalls more than a little the treatment of Heidi. You'd think these fanboys would want to meet women who share their interests. The core problem, of course: some of these fanboys resent women invading what they imagine is their space and, yes, the women who now comprise so much of Fandom's population attend on their own terms, and for their own reasons. Guys who cannot deal with the fact suggest a name other than "geek" or "nerd."
The Heidi Incident also brings to mind the harassment faced by some cosplayers. Yes, someone who turns up dressed like Wonder Woman or Vampirella wants to be noticed--as does someone who comes as Darth Vader or the Elf with a Gun. They seek appropriate attention, however: something like, "Nice costume! May I take your picture?" rather than, "Nice tits. I'm going to have a conversation with them now." Heidi Saha wandered into these controversies at a time when they had received little voice in North American or nerd culture. These facts may have played some role in the reception she received, beyond the early fanboys' dislike of professionally-manufactured costumes. I suspect the text of the Heidi magazine did little to help matters here: but the socialization and attitudes towards girls, women, and female sexuality, in the broader culture and in nerd culture specifically, just might be the most significant factor.
Regrettably, a certain percentage of geek males harbor hostility and resentment towards females, especially young and attractive females. I find it difficult to believe that these attitudes played absolutely no part in Heidi's reception. For her more sinister detractors, here was, perhaps, that cute girl who ignored them back in ninth grade, served up for sexual appraisal and degradation. In this way, she recalls those girls and women in the era of the World Wide Web who get targeted online, usually over revealing photographs, and often from the very rascals who most burn to see these photos in the first place. Michael Brutsch, the boys at 4chan /b/, and the latest cyberbully may be touted as the dark side of the internet, but people like them have always existed, and quite a few creep the halls of nerddom.4
This business of knowing the past so one is not doomed to repeat it carries greater weight in the world of international affairs, though it can be impossible there to know exactly what relevant lesson history might be teaching. On a far smaller social scale-- the worlds of geekery and fandom, for example-- we can sometimes see past group dynamics and their effects, and more readily recognize how shifty behavior can hurt us all in the present.
1. Why yes, I am pretty much using "nerd" and "geek" interchangeably. Thanks for noticing.
2. Some companies do hire models—of both sexes, but principally females—to dress up and pitch products or hand out samples at Cons. No one has to interact with then. Frankly, when an ersatz superheroine hands out free energy drinks, I usually say "thanks."
3. Heidi apparently retains some status among collectors. When Forrest J.Ackerman sold the contents of his famous Akermansion to pay for medical bills, one of the numerous items that found its way into circulation was a signed photograph of Heidi, sent to him with a greeting when she was in her twenties. As of this writing, someone is asking over $4000.00 for the photograph on ebay. The magazine, meanwhile, has listed for more than $5,000.00 (!). The last sale for which I can find a record made $445.00.
4. Brutsch was the Reddit moderator "violentacrez" who made headlines and lost his job after Gawker revealed his real-world identity. His notoriety derives from running subreddits for such things as jailbait photos, creepshots, dead teenage girls, and abused women. People posted appropriate images and offered offensive and sexualized comments about the subjects. Reddit removed the offending pages and, while Brutsch's story received widespread notoriety and international news coverage, he is merely the most well-known of a type all too common online.
And no, it is not only men and boys who engage in such behaviour. But let's not pretend it isn't mostly men and boys who engage in such behavior.
5. Thanks to JP for some advice on the handling of this topic. Quoth the Poop: "Sometimes the past isn't just a different country, it's a different planet altogether."
Richard J. Arndt. Horror Comics in Black and White: A History and Catalog, 1964-2004. New York: McFarland and Company, 2013.
Richard Beland. Jungle Frolics: An Illustrated History of Heidi Saha. January 20, 2010. http://junglefrolics.blogspot.ca/2010/01/much-of-whats-written-about-heidi-saha.html
Jon B. Cooke, David Roach, and Richard Corben. The Warren Companion. New York: TwoMorrows, 2001.
"Fact or Fiction #15: The Infamous Heidi Saha Incident." Retrospect. http://my-retrospace.blogspot.ca/2010/10/fact-or-fiction-15the-infamous-heidi.html
"The Models: Heidi Saha." Vampirella: Daughter of Drakulon. http://www.vampilore.co.uk/models/saha_heidi.html.
Angelique Trouvere. Interview by Richard J. Arndt. 2007. Enjolraworld. http://www.enjolrasworld.com/Richard%20Arndt/Angelique%20The%20Unconventional%20ComiCon%20Costumer.htm.