Poisonous Women


By Helen America


For the record: Cleopatra did not look anything like Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, she was something of a jolie-laide by modern standards, as the only official contemporary portraits of her are the ones that she approved to appear on coins. In them, we see her rather humongous nose, jutting chin and low forehead (it’s not her fault that almost every Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh was a product of direct incest; in her case, it is likely that her parents were half-siblings. Sexy).

While it’s certainly customary to wonder about a famous seductresses’ looks, especially one like Cleopatra’s, it’s also indicative of the rather unfair treatment she’s gotten since before rigor mortis kicked in.

There are very few contemporary reports of Cleopatra, and close to none that don’t have anything to do with her famous Roman paramours, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. But what’s evident from a 2018 feminist perspective is that while Cleopatra isn’t necessarily history’s greatest female ruler, great she was nonetheless.

Ancient Egypt was ruthless. Killing a sibling to replace them on the throne was commonplace, if you weren’t killing your siblings to make sure that nobody could replace you. It’s believed that Cleopatra was involved in the murders of three of her siblings; she had to fight tooth and nail to gain her place as Pharaoh more than once, which is where the Romans came into play. As the story goes, a young, exiled Cleopatra smuggled herself into a meeting with Caesar, presenting herself dramatically when the rug she had wrapped herself in was unfurled. This story is one that’s believed to have historical merit.

Another story, more myth than fact, has Cleopatra demonstrating her immense power and wealth to Marc Antony by wagering that she could throw the most expensive banquet ever. Asking a servant for a glass of vinegar, she drops a massive pearl into it before drinking up. Roughly a century later, Pliny the Elder would estimate that the single pearl cost roughly $14 million in today’s currency; however, numerous people have proven that it is nearly impossible to dissolve or even damage a pearl in vinegar (or wine, depending on the story).

Of course, the woman of irresistible sexuality and cunning political savvy died in a way that’s been characterized as being the perfect confluence of both qualities: suicide by the bite of an asp on her breast. Almost every painting that’s been made of Cleopatra includes this event or a foreshadowing of it; her death is shown as the ultimate petite mort, orgasmic and sexual.

So why include Cleopatra as a Poisonous Woman? She is the only woman in this group to have actually used poison as a means to an end (including her own life). She is also an example of how the game of telephone that is history can warp a woman until she barely resembles a funhouse mirror version of herself. As I mentioned, it’s been proven that Cleopatra would have been considered plain by the beauty standards of many societies, past and present. However, her keen sexuality and seduction, her dramatic life, and her larger-than-life story have made her into a paragon of beauty. Consider, even, the role that Liz Taylor played in all of this. While she was certainly a great beauty of Hollywood, it’s the Cleopatra role - and her legendary affair with Richard Burton, who played Caesar - that transformed Taylor into a bombshell.

About the Model




I’m a miniature fabricator. I build tiny things all day. 


Memory of the shoot

I remember the energy of the shoot. Being surrounded by creative, talented women who were so open and supportive of one another was an amazing feeling.


Woman of history you admire

There are so many, but one woman I admire is Katherine Hepburn. She challenged traditional views of women in society and followed her own rules.


Follow her on IG: @emleis