The True Inspiration Behind Betty Boop Was A Black Harlem Singer

by Miranda Levy



Many people are unaware of one of the main inspirations behind the beloved 1930s cartoon character, Betty Boop. The famous sex symbol actually got her signature “boop” from a black Harlem singer named Esther Jones, otherwise known as Baby Esther. While almost everyone can immediately picture the wide-eyed, baby-voiced character that is Betty Boop, the name Baby Esther doesn’t tend ring any bells.

516JJ97WDSL 1cca9

The visual inspiration behind Betty Boop, a Max Fleischer Studios creation, was actually a popular white actress and singer named Helen Kane. While Betty was visually a caricature of Kane, her famous “booping” was the appropriation of Baby Esther’s signature scat, which she performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem throughout the 1920s. Kane believed that the character was based on much more than just her looks, and claimed that it was based on her entire persona— she insisted that she had invented the phrase “Boop-oop-a-doop” in her well known 1928 hit song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” As a result, Kane filed a $250,0000 infringement lawsuit against Fleischer and the film company Paramount Publix Corp. 

e5da770bdf819522efd5064318cfd6cb helen hayes s fashion 1ee68

The trial went on for two years until the defense called Baby Esther’s manager, Lou Walton, to testify. Walton revealed that Kane had attended Baby Esther’s act in April of 1928, and began “booping” just like Esther a few weeks after the show. The defense managed to find a 1928 sound film of Baby Esther’s performance, and played it for the judge. Esther had passed away in 1934, so this was the only form of evidence that they could provide.

bettyboop 1 e6abe

Almost immediately after the film was released, the trial ended and Kane lost. Baby Esther technically got the credit for the style behind Helen Kane’s “booping,” and by extension, Betty Boop. Scholar Robert G. O’Meally commented on this story in the anthology Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, saying Betty Boop “had, as it were, a black grandmother in her background.” Unfortunately, to this day, many people are unaware of this story. Esther Jones is the inspiration behind one of the most iconic characters in the American culture, yet most people have no idea who she is.

Vintage photos. 

More from BUST

“Black Panther” Star Danai Gurira Tells The Stories Of Black Women’s Lives: BUST Interview

Celebrating The Life And Legacy Of Marsha P. Johnson, Badass Of Stonewall

22 Feminist Books To Educate And Empower You


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.