One of the first widely known African-American sex symbols, Eartha Kitt was also twice a Tony-nominated serious actress and a two-time Emmy Award-winner as the voice of the scheming empress-wannabe villain Yzma in Disney's The Emperor's New School.
She was 81 when she died in 2008, but now her daughter Kitt Shapiro is broadening her legacy with a modern lifestyle product brand reflecting her “amazingly fundamental, holistic lifestyle and easy living philosophies,” as Shapiro puts it.
Her Simply Eartha brand has started with the launch of home décor items that utilize the images, writings and wisdom of Eartha Kitt, designed by Shapiro to communicate her mother's style and empowering messages.
Shapiro then looks to evolve the brand to include products that do not necessarily tie in her mother’s images or writings, but represent the underlying principles that Kitt lived and shared with her daughter.
“Most people think of my mother as a diva, the ‘Material Girl’ of her day, with her ‘Santa Baby’ and [fellow 1953 hit] ‘I Want To Be Evil’ furs and glamor,” says Shapiro. “But she was born in South Carolina: Her given name was Eartha and she was the epitome of her name. We lived in Beverly Hills when I was growing up, but she recycled everything and only ate and fed me organic food. We had an organic vegetable garden, and a huge aviary with chickens and a rooster--in Beverly Hills in the early ‘60s! She was the original Beverly Hillbilly--and I was mortified: the kid with the mother feeding her friends organic eggs! She was like Dr. Doolittle!”
Shapiro further recalls picking and cleaning carrots, and collecting the eggs.
“I was like a fox in the henhouse: They hated me and I hated them!” she says. But her mother also “recycled and repurposed everything. Nothing was thrown away or wasted. ‘Waste not, want not,’ she said. ‘Everything has a use.’”
But Kitt’s lifestyle—“green” and health- and fitness-conscious long ahead of the time--eventually impacted positively on her daughter, as did what she called her “Kittisms” witticisms.
“She’d interpret the sayings we hear and make them her own,” says Shapiro. “I have a lot of these things in her own unique handwriting: She wrote everything down on thousands of pieces of paper, from beautiful journals to yellow notepads to post-its to napkins.”
Shapiro’s initial Simply Eartha product offerings feature some of her mother’s Kittisms.
The set of four Kittism Coasters, for example, combine classic Kitt images with her handwritten and signed Kittisms “What I do today is how I am interpreted tomorrow,” “The only thing I can sell and still own is my talent,” “You'll fall for anything if you don't stand for something” and “I like to use the freedom of my own imagination.”
“I have nothing against Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or other fabulous icons, but instead of using just another photograph of a celebrity, I‘ve taken the feelings and philosophies she wrote down in her handwriting and incorporated them with her images, and with the help of artistic product designers, created designs that have more of the feel of artwork--as well as representing my mother’s life and the way she lived it.”
Shapiro notes that all Simply Eartha items are made in America.
“My mother only believed in U.S.A. products, if possible, because it puts people to work in our country,” she relates. “She also insisted on natural materials: She didn’t want anything synthetic touching her body. She had been a cotton picker in the South on a cotton plantation, and she’d also try to repurpose items.”
Shapiro likewise envisions future Simply Eartha product, to include coffee mugs, notecards, pillows and other home décor and maybe even garden items, to come from recycled materials.
Available on the company’s site so far are the Kittism Coasters and similar framed Kittism Wall Art, printed on specially prepared canvas using archival, fade resistant and non-toxic inks; the coasters are natural stone, printed using a UV process that ensures the inks contain no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), resulting in a coaster that is vibrant and absorbent while environmentally safe.
“My mother didn’t care about the furs and diamonds she performed in,” says Shapiro. “She said, ‘Don’t get me cut flowers or diamonds and furs, but plants or pieces of land--because they’re not making any more of that!’”
Shapiro, who had previously “dabbled” in modeling and worked in the fashion industry, feels lucky to have worked for her mother for 25 years.
“I highly recommend that nepotism thing!” she says. “But she really felt, ‘I’m Eartha, and this is Kitt!’—that I completed her in some way, and in many ways I did: She was an orphan and had no family she knew of, and when I was born it gave her the roots she was looking for for so many years. Obviously there was pressure as the only child of a celebrity, but I think I was almost the perfect personality to have been born to her, because I balanced her in so many ways, and had such a really good relationship and connection that was so deep. I’m so blessed to have had that.”
"Establishing the Simply Eartha brand is my tribute to my mother and a way to share the wonderfully beautiful organic and humble way of life that my mother lived, taught and exemplified," Shapiro explains. “She said so many times, ‘This is all for you. Don’t get rid of anything I put my hands on, because the reason I kept it is for you to do something with’--not for me to follow her footsteps, but to know that whatever she left behind serves a purpose.”
“She was such a trailblazer—in an understated way,” concludes Shapiro. “I can see the Beyonces and the Hallie Berrys of today because of my mother and Lena Horn and Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll—African-American women who set the tone for glamorous sex symbols.”
As for future products in the Simply Eartha line, Shapiro says they'll retain her signature style--with or without her image.
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