Caricatures in The New Yorker often derive their wit from flesh-and-blood targets, but real people also inspired classic cartoon characters. From the vultures in The Jungle Book (based on John, Paul, George, and Ringo) to Ursula the Sea Witch (based on John Waters muse Divine), animation inspiration can often be traced to actual people.
Some celebrities who inspired cartoon characters, such as Betty Boop muse Helen Kane, weren't happy with their depictions. Others, like The Little Mermaid inspiration Alyssa Milano, were delighted. But there's no doubt that animated icons are much more than whimsical figures invented for children.
You'll be surprised to learn the real-life origins of your favorite cartoon characters, and how these drawings eventually took on lives and legends of their own.
For some people, inspiring a cartoon is an honor. But for others, it's an insult. The latter was true of Jazz Age flapper-singer Helen Kane, who inspired Betty Boop. She sued Paramount Pictures and Boop animator Max Fleischer for "unfair competition and wrongful appropriation." Kane lost her 1932 case, however, because the judge determined Kane had likely copied her style from African American singer Baby Esther. Testimony at the trial revealed Kane had seen Baby Esther's cabaret act in 1928, where she sang words like "boo-boo-boo" and "doo-doo-doo" in a baby voice, similar to Kane's later act.
Known as "The French Angel," professional wrestler Maurice Tillet achieved fame outside of the ring as the alleged inspiration for everyone's favorite green ogre, Shrek. DreamWorks Pictures has never officially acknowledged the similarities, but they're nearly impossible to ignore.
Disney's Winnie the Pooh is based on AA Milne's beloved children's stories illustrated by EH Shepard. However, both the book and cartoon Poohs had another inspiration: Winnipeg the Bear, the unofficial "pet" of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps, and later a beloved resident of the London Zoo.
According to Milne biographer Paul Brody, Winnipeg ("Winnie") was a huge favorite of Milne's son Christopher Robin, who of course also figured prominently in his father's tales (and in the Disney cartoons).
Though Marilyn Monroe is often credited as the inspiration for Tinker Bell in 1953's Peter Pan, she had little to do with the animated character. Animators modeled many of Tink's characteristics using Peter Pan author JM Barrie's descriptions, but the strongest influence on the beloved Disney fairy was actress Margaret Kerry, then known for having "the most beautiful legs in Hollywood."
According to the Los Angeles Times, it was Kerry's "pantomime of Tinker Bell standing on a hand mirror sizing up her hips," in particular, that caught Disney animators' attention.