It may be surprising to some to learn that Hollywood’s borderline toxic relationship with fitness is nearly as old as Hollywood itself. In the 1920’s, as general society finally began to accept film culture as more than just a cheap novelty, movie actresses began to find themselves as role models whose looks and mannerisms were suddenly being emulated across the world. With this new role in mainstream culture came great responsibility; actresses had little choice but to live up to the beauty standards of the day, working with the studios to create personas that were as over-the-top glamorous off-screen as they were behind the camera. It didn’t take long for major studios to require in their contracts that actresses remain beautiful and trim at all times at whatever cost. And so began the role of the fitness guru, hired to ensure that Hollywood stars kept themselves in shape. Madame Sylvia, whose philosophies and techniques were at best unconventional and at worst incredibly dangerous, invented the role for herself and perpetuated Hollywood’s outrageous beauty standards throughout most of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Sylvia Ulback was born in Oslo 1881. By age 18 she had a massage studio and some experience in nursing. Having moved to America in 1921, by the mid-20’s she was beginning her career in Hollywood.
With her massage training and her own dieting experience (she claimed to have lost 60 pounds shortly after moving to America) she soon developed a clientele of wealthy socialites looking to reduce. In 1925, she had her first film star client, Marie Dressler.
Soon, Madame Sylvia was practically working for every notable female star in Hollywood. Her techniques were lauded as both revolutionary and effective, and they were also highly questionable. Sylvia believed that through massage she could “squeeze off fat,” which led to incredibly painful sessions, so painful in fact that Gloria Swanson, according to one of her infamous tell-all books, would scream and hide under furniture. Other techniques included hitting stars’ “problem areas” with a large wooden paddle, a technique she believed effective on Jean Harlow. Norma Shearer was an obedient client, following her every piece of diet advice, as was Carole Lombard, who under Sylvia’s guidance adopted a diet that even today would be considered just shy of starvation.
With her philosophy which revolved around diet, exercise, and massage, Sylvia soon became a public figure herself and began contributing her tips to movie magazines. By 1931 she had published her first book, Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia as Noted by Her Secretary, in which she cattily and ruthlessly shared secrets of her popular clients. She called Constance Bennett “high-strung” and Gloria Swanson “childish.” Following the book’s release, her actress clients began dropping her one by one, and she instead continued her writing career, contributing to fan magazines and publishing instructional books.
As for dieting, Sylvia’s advice is horribly outdated and misinformed. She believed that water enlarges the stomach, that pasta is healing for the digestive tract, and that seafood in general is very fattening and should be avoided. Her misogynistic undertones must be noted as well; she claimed that “every woman’s living depends on her appearance” and preached that women should maintain such unreasonable standards for the purpose of pleasing their husbands as much as themselves.
By 1939 Sylvia had retreated from the public eye completely, as she was essentially blacklisted by all of Hollywood for betraying their trust. Her impact, however, exists still today, as the role of the celebrity fitness guru appears to be going nowhere.