Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once upon a time, there was a girl who became a dancer, a spy, and a civil rights activist. Her name was Josephine. One of the most sought-after performers in history, Josephine Baker became known for her unique style and humor. She refused to perform for segregated audiences, aided the French Resistance during WWII, and stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington. Her extraordinary career paved the way for generations of Black female entertainers.
Ashley Graham is an American supermodel, designer, author, advocate, and entrepreneur. Ashley is a passionate voice for inclusivity, leveraging her platform to inspire confidence and empower others. In addition to being a brand ambassador for Revlon, Ashley currently hosts and produces the top-rated podcast Pretty Big Deal, as well as Fearless, a show on the Ellen Digital Network
ASHLEY GRAHAM Once upon a time, there was a girl who became a dancer, a spy, and a civil rights activist. Her name was Josephine.
GRAHAM Josephine grew up in the 1900s in a poor St. Louis neighborhood where she slept in a basement corner and shared a cardboard box (and her food) with a dog.
But she was moved by a sound that filled the air: ragtime, a raggedy sort of music that bumped and jumped and made Josephine want to dance.
More than anything, Josephine loved to dance. She shook her hands toward the sky, wiggled her shoulders, and shuffled her feet.
When she was little, she often danced in front of the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis. —one of the first theaters in America made for Black artists and performers. As Josephine shimmied and twirled, passersby dropped coins by her feet.
GRAHAM Josephine used the money she earned to go to the shows inside the Booker. Crooners sang and chorus girls kicked their legs as high as their ears. Josephine tapped her feet and cheered for each performer.
And when she closed her eyes at night, she saw herself up there, too—dancing up a storm or making the crowds laugh gleefully.
The audience’s cheers echoed throughout her dreams—“We love you, Josephine!”
Little did she know that one day, her dancing feet and uncontainable charisma would make her one of the most famous performers the world had ever seen.
GRAHAM I’m Ashley Graham. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Josephine Baker.
<END THEME MUSIC>
GRAHAM Life in St. Louis wasn’t easy. Josephine’s mom and stepdad didn’t make a lot of money, so at age eight, they sent her to work as a maid for a white family.
It was hard for Josephine to work and study, so she often missed school. But nothing could stop her from going to the Booker theatre. She studied the dancers and comedians and singers and memorized their every move.
One day in 1920, Josephine was waitressing at a club when a woman walked in wearing a red wig and a blue feather boa. Josephine couldn’t believe it—it was Clara Smith, one of Josephine’s favorite performers!
Clara gave her lots of encouragement. With her influence and advice, Josephine got a part in the Dixie Steppers’ show at the Booker. At the start of Josephine’s scene with the Jones Family Band, she flew onto stage hanging from a wire. She was playing a winged Cupid, but her wings got tangled in the curtain, and she got stuck in midair.
GRAHAM The crowd laughed at her, and the more she tried to release herself, the more they roared. Josephine made goofy faces and gestures, but by the time the stagehand finally got her down, she was crying.
Josephine feared that she would get fired. But when she saw her boss, he surprised her.
“You’re a real clown, Birdy,” he said, laughing, “a born comic.” Then, he invited her to go on tour with them.
If she said yes, she’d board a train that would take her far away from her family and into an unknown world. But Josephine wasn’t afraid.
She told her little sister Margaret, “Cross your heart . . . swear you won’t tell Mama . . .
I’m leavin’ with the show . . .”
Margaret kept Josephine’s secret until she was halfway to Memphis.
As the train chugged away from St. Louis, Josephine “dreamed of sunlit cities, magnificent theatres, and [herself] in the limelight.”
GRAHAM After months of performing across the South, the Dixie Steppers finally landed in Philadelphia, where Josephine auditioned for a new show called Shuffle Along. She danced, and she smiled, but the producers told her she was “too thin, too small, and too dark”—and at 14, too young.
Still, Josephine didn’t give up. Instead, she followed Shuffle Along to New York City, where she auditioned again.
She danced, and she smiled, and she sometimes even made silly faces. This time, when they asked about her age, Josephine lied and said she was 17.
The people running the audition were impressed. They offered her a place as a dresser for the road company and later in the chorus line too—the girl on the end, which was the spot given to the biggest clown.
When Josephine went on stage her first night, she stumbled on purpose, crossed her eyes, and made silly faces. The audience howled with laughter.
Josephine was a hit!
GRAHAM Josephine loved the adrenaline rush of being onstage, and she lapped up the audience’s attention. She was so funny, she often stole the limelight from the shows’ stars.
But no matter how popular Josephine was on stage, she struggled with America’s racism off-stage.
Josephine had known of race riots in St. Louis since she was a child. White mobs had burned down the homes of black families, and some of her neighbors had been killed because of their skin color. Even in New York, Josephine wasn’t allowed in white hotels and couldn’t get served in many restaurants. Instead, she was often met with signs that read, “Whites Only.”
So, in 1925, at only age 19, Josephine took another leap. A rich American producer offered her a role in an all-black revue in Paris. Josephine said yes, and boarded a steamship headed for France.
As the ship sailed away, Josephine leaned against the railing, the ocean breeze whispering against her cheeks. As she watched the Statue of Liberty fade away behind them, she felt something else coming into view: Real freedom.
GRAHAM When Josephine first arrived in Paris, she was less impressed by the theater than she was at being able to go to any café, store, or gallery she wanted to. There were no “Whites Only” signs! In addition, there were fewer taboos around romance, and Josephine went on to have love affairs with people of all different races, religions, and genders.
But her truest love was always Paris.
Josephine’s debut show, La Revue Nègre, opened to a sold-out crowd of writers, painters, music hall stars, diplomats, and even royalty.
When the curtain rose, Josephine did her usual comedic routine and the audience laughed at all the right places. Later, though, to their surprise, Josephine was carried onto stage on the back of a male dancer. When he stopped, she cartwheeled down from his back, and the crowd gasped.
Josephine was in a costume made only of pink feathers. She began to dance in a frenzy, moving her arms, stomping her feet, and throwing her body around the stage like she was in a trance.
When she finished, the audience leapt to their feet and applause echoed around her.
Paris had fallen in love with Josephine Baker. And they only wanted more.
GRAHAM Josephine became the star of many shows in France and elsewhere in Europe. But soon, she was looking beyond the stage.
In 1926, she met a Sicilian man named Count Pepito who became her manager and romantic partner. Under Pepito’s management, in 1927, Josephine became the first black actor to star in a feature film. She also opened her own nightclub in Paris called Chez Josephine, which served up a mix of American and Parisian cuisine, music, and culture.
By the end of 1927, Josephine had become the highest-paid performer in Europe and the most photographed woman in the world.
As Josephine’s fame grew, fans lavished her with gifts, from frilly ball gowns to shimmering jewelry. She also collected a menagerie of animals, including rabbits, monkeys, birds, snakes, and a pig named Albert.
But her favorite was her pet cheetah named Chiquita. Josephine put a diamond-studded collar on Chiquita and walked her along the streets of Paris. And though Pepito wasn’t happy about it, some nights, the cheetah even slept in bed with them!
GRAHAM After more than 10 years of success performing in Europe and around the world, Josephine returned to New York City. But she was disappointed to find that discrimination against black people had only gotten worse.
At her hotel, Josephine was informed she must never enter through the lobby again. Instead, she was asked to use the service entrance at the back of the hotel because the lobby was for “whites only.”
And when Josephine performed in the song-and-dance revue Ziegfeld Follies, the audience was shocked to see her dancing with four white men. Because of that, critics wrote many hateful things about Josephine’s performance in the newspapers.
Even more difficult news followed her disappointing return to the United States.: She soon learned that Pepito had been diagnosed with cancer, and passed away while she was in New York.
Heartbroken, Josephine quit the show and returned to Paris. There, she was grateful to be greeted by her cheering fans, bouquets of flowers, and even an accordionist.
GRAHAM As she addressed her fans, Josephine broke into one of her most famous songs—“J’ai Deux Amours”—a song about her two loves, France and her home country.
Two loves have I, and they tear me apart,
Two loves have I, both are in my heart,
One is a flower and the other a flame,
Two loves have I, but they’re not the same.
GRAHAM Josephine’s love for her adopted country only grew, and in 1937, she became a French citizen.
But while Josephine’s career soared, war loomed on the horizon.
In May 1940, the German Army invaded France, and by June, Paris fell to the Nazis.
Josephine despised the Nazis’ beliefs in white superiority and their hatred toward Jewish people, people of color, and anyone else who was “different.”
Without hesitation, she took another leap: She agreed to become a spy for France. “France is the country that adopted me without reservation, [and] I am willing to give my life for her,” she told the man who recruited her.
The leaders of the French Resistance thought no one would suspect the famous Josephine Baker was a spy. Still, it was dangerous work. If she got caught, she could be killed or sent to a concentration camp.
GRAHAM Her country house became a hideout for Resistance agents, who often traveled with her as band members. In Lisbon, Marseille, and Algiers, she went to embassy events and flirted with friends and foes, all the while secretly eavesdropping on Nazi officials.
Later, in her hotel room, she’d scribble notes in invisible ink in the margins of her sheet music, including troop positions and Nazi plans. Sometimes, she even pinned secret notes into her underwear!
When Josephine got sick in Madrid, she kept working for the Resistance, but eventually, in Morocco, she got so sick that she had to stop.
Josephine had barely recovered when she agreed to perform for the U.S. troops in North Africa. She had one condition, though: She refused to sing for segregated audiences. Black soldiers must sit in front, she demanded, together with the white soldiers.
When the war ended, Josephine was recognized as a national hero and given numerous awards for her courageous work, including France’s highest honor—the Légion d’Honneur.
GRAHAM Soon after the end of the war, Josephine married orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, and in the years that followed, the couple adopted 13 children from Canada, Israel, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and France. Josephine called them her “rainbow tribe”.
“We’ll show the world that racial hatred is unnatural,” she said. “Children of different races can grow up together as brothers.”
Josephine spoke out with greater confidence about the racial injustices of the United States. In 1963, she was invited to speak at the March on Washington, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.
Josephine stood behind the microphone dressed in her French Air Force uniform, her many medals glinting on her chest. As her eyes fell to the diverse crowd standing before her, she became deeply moved.
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she said. “But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
When she finished her speech, the crowd cheered.
Later, Josephine received a note from Martin Luther King, Jr. that said: “Your genuine good will, your deep humanitarian concern, and your unswerving devotion to the cause of freedom and human dignity will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
GRAHAM Josephine and her husband Jo raised their “rainbow tribe” in their beautiful country chateau, which Josephine had turned into a farm and a resort. Still, Josephine found that raising 13 kids wasn’t easy—or cheap. She often spent more than she made, and she and Jo fought a lot. Eventually, Jo left after 14 years of marriage.
Josephine tried to make more money. She did tours. She sold her jewelry. But it wasn’t enough.
She was forced to give up her country home.
Josephine didn’t know what to do, but fortunately, her friends lined up to help her. One of them, the princess of Monaco, offered to give her a villa there. Josephine reluctantly agreed to leave her beloved Paris.
GRAHAM In the years that followed, Josephine’s health slowly declined, but she kept performing. In 1973, she returned to New York City for a performance at Carnegie Hall where she received a standing ovation. Then in 1975, she returned to Paris to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her debut. Josephine opened a new stage show featuring a lifetime’s worth of her music.
On opening night, Josephine strutted across the stage in outrageous costumes—colorful sequined bodysuits, high heels, and tall, feathered headdresses. She danced and flirted and sang.
The audience was electrified. When Josephine finished, their applause lasted for 30 minutes. Finally, when the noise died down, Josephine spoke. Her voice choked with emotion: “I can only tell you I love you,” she said. “And I know you love me.”
GRAHAM Not long after, Josephine was found unconscious in her Paris apartment, surrounded by newspapers praising her newest show. Though she passed away, the love for her remained.
More than 20,000 people attended her funeral in Paris, which was broadcast across French television stations. She also received full French military honors, including a 21-gun salute.
As mourners followed Josephine’s coffin out of the church, attendees heard “sweet silvery notes rising from a harp.” It was Josephine’s most beloved song—“J’ai Deux Amours.”
GRAHAM Josephine danced her way out of one of the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis and into the hearts of millions of people around the world. Today, she continues to spark joy and hope in each person who hears her music, watches her film performances, or remembers her inspiring words.
Her perseverance reminds us to never give up. To take that leap, no matter the risk. To have the courage to fight for what is right. To laugh, and to always keep dancing.