The Scandalous Story Behind The REAL Betty Boop Will Blow You Away

by Emerald Pellot
Emerald Pellot graduated summa cum laude from New York University with a degree in Writing & Popular Culture. She worked as Senior Editor of College Candy for 2 years, covering feminism, popular culture, and college life before joining LittleThings in 2015. Based in New York City, Emerald covers a wide range of topics from human interest pieces to celebrity news.

Created by cartoon animator Max Fleischer, Betty Boop became a cultural icon in the 1930s. A symbol of the bygone roaring twenties and all of its wonderful debauchery, the cartoon was a hit with adults and later with children, when she became more toned down.

More than the caricature of a flapper, Betty Boop represented a fully realized woman. Other female cartoons of the era like Minnie Mouse were almost replicas of their male counterparts with only a few details changed; the animations did not take on the human female form and were portrayed as childish. Betty on the other hand was sexually autonomous and outspoken against the old values asserted by her parents and the previous generations.

Nevertheless, after the infamous Hays Code forced morality restrictions on film, the sexual and psychological undertones of Miss Boop were almost entirely eliminated.

The character was essentially relegated to a more demure career girl in later years, yet Betty Boop remained a household name for decades.

While the image of the busty, doe-eyed animation may be one of the nation’s most recognizable faces, most people couldn’t pick the original Betty Boop out of a lineup. So who inspired Max Fleischer’s runaway hit cartoon? Was it the quirky Helen Kane, who “boop-a-doop’ed” like Betty? Or perhaps the ‘30s it-girl Clara Bow, whose short hair and thin eye brows perfectly mimicked the flapper cartoon’s? Or maybe it was Baby Esther, the black jazz singer whose name has been long erased by history?

Well, we’ve got an answer, and it’s a little complicated…

Although many believe Helen Kane is the inspiration for Betty Boop, the character would not have been possible without 1920s jazz singer Esther Jones, aka Baby Esther.


Nicknamed after her “baby” singing style, Esther performed regularly at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem.


Esther was known for using phrases like “Boop-oop-a-doop” (which would later become a signature of the cartoon’s). Yet, while the Betty Boop creators have acknowledged that Baby Esther is the true original, most people credit Helen Kane. Why? Helen Kane went out of her way to take the credit.


You see, the thing is that Betty Boop was initially intended, by creator Max Fleischer, to be a caricature of Helen Kane — though he didn’t know at the time that Kane was merely a Baby Esther copycat.


This is just the beginning of the story behind Betty Boop — click to the NEXT page to find out more!