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Signature Reads: Meet Empress Sisi, the First Victim of the Modern Paparazzi


Published on Signature Reads, March 9th

If the “50 Most Beautiful People” magazine edition had existed in her lifetime, Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria-Hungary would have graced its cover.

Considered by many to be “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Sisi became something of a global sensation as a young bride, and the people maintained a frenzied fascination up until—and well beyond—the moment of her grisly death at the hands of an assassin.

Today, tours through Sisi’s former imperial palaces and museums still pay much tribute to her iconic hair (they have dark wigs recreating the many different hairdos!), her elaborate fashion sense (gowns and gloves and riding hats, oh my!), and her famously svelte physique (glimpse the unimaginably miniature imperial waist!) — those facets of Sisi’s physical persona that so thoroughly dazzled and captured the public imagination during her reign.

Over the course of her very public life, Sisi filled many roles — imperial leader, royal wife, mother to the heir, celebrated equestrian, advocate for human rights to name a few — and yet Sisi is perhaps most remembered by posterity (and was most lauded in her lifetime) for her celebrated looks and venerated fashion sense. You might say that she was the first modern ruler to be a victim of ravenous and unrelenting media pursuit — the first victim of a modern paparazzi.

The spotlight began to shine the moment Austria’s eligible young leader, Emperor Franz Joseph, passed over an elder, more suitable sister and picked the fifteen-year-old Sisi to be his bride. As the young Bavarian duchess traveled to her groom’s capital city via barge, cheering crowds lined the entire water route, frantic to see for themselves the young girl who had bested all of Europe’s other blue-blooded bachelorettes. When Sisi arrived in Vienna, hers was already the most recognized face in the capital, despite the fact that she had never herself been to the city. The blue and white of her homeland Bavaria’s flag instantly became the trendy colors of the season. Women in the capital began to wear their hair in braids, “a la Sisi,” in homage to the famous locks that had captured the emperor’s heart.“In so many ways, the life of Empress Sisi parallels that of England’s Princess Diana.”

From that time onward, Sisi was stalked and pursued by the public and the media. When she became pregnant with the emperor’s first child, the crowds gathered outside the gates of the palace in order to catch a glimpse of the royal baby bump.

The people, it seemed, could not get enough — and the papers could therefore not print enough — when it came to their leading lady’s fashion choices, her supposed intrigues at court, and the drama of her marriage and personal life. One funny example: when Empress Sisi opted out of attending the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, the Austrian media made much ado of Sisi’s supposed rivalry with the hostess of the opening ceremonies, Napoleon III’s beautiful wife, Empress Eugenie of France. Think: Team Taylor Swift vs. Team Katy Perry, but in much bigger dresses.

A natural introvert, Sisi was both sensitive and shy, and thus horrified by the attention heaped on her. She rarely left her private chambers without a fan, a hat, an umbrella or a kerchief — tools she used to conceal her face from the gawking public and hounding press. I can’t help but think of Jennifer Aniston or some other hounded celebrity cowering behind a coat while scampering out of some Hollywood eatery.

Though pursued by the press at all times, Sisi developed an almost pathological fear of being photographed. In fact, as she aged, she would not even allow portraitists to render her likeness, but instead insisted that they rely on images already drawn from earlier in her well-documented life. Thus, the image that we have of Sisi through the decades remains remarkably youthful and fresh, perhaps even adding to the fascination that modern audiences have with her.

The older she got, the more determined Sisi became to escape the stifling Viennese court and the constant attention and scrutiny. By middle age, it was common for the empress to decamp from the palace on frequent and long-lasting trips abroad. During these sojourns, she often employed the alias of “Countess of Hohenembs” in order to travel incognita.

In so many ways, the life of Empress Sisi parallels that of England’s Princess Diana, but perhaps nowhere more is that comparison poignant than in the way the two leading ladies were stalked and scrutinized by a voracious press. And while many assert that Diana was hunted by the paparazzi even to the point of her tragic, premature death, the same might be said of Sisi. You see, Austria’s empress was traveling on one such incognita trip to Geneva when the local press caught wind of her presence in the city and plastered the news all over the papers. It was this attention that tipped off a nearby assassin and enticed the murderous Luigi Lucheni to stalk Sisi with his blade.

If Diana is the most notorious and memorable victim of the paparazzi, one might make the case that Sisi was the first, and that hers was a tale of equal tragedy.

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Allison Pataki
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