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Giant Marilyn Monroe Statue Returns To Palm Springs, But Its Backside Faces Backlash

The 'Forever Marilyn' statue by artist Seward Johnson was first in Palm Springs from 2012 to 2014. Now, she's headed back to the resort town permanently. But her return is sparking a backlash.
The 'Forever Marilyn' statue by artist Seward Johnson was first in Palm Springs from 2012 to 2014. Now, she's headed back to the resort town permanently. But her return is sparking a backlash.

After seven years, Palm Springs, Calif., is about to scratch its Marilyn Monroe itch. A towering sculpture of the screen icon called "Forever Marilyn" that spent almost two years in the city is coming back permanently.

When she was there from 2012 to 2014, she was one of downtown's hottest attractions. But while some like it hot, others have a frostier take on the star's comeback.

The sculpture itself is a 26-foot-tall, stainless steel and aluminum likeness that captures Marilyn in that famously billowing white dress as she stands over a subway grate in the movie The Seven Year Itch.

That scene has lived on in pop culture for generations and is partly why Aftab Dada has spent years working to return the statue to the desert.

"She makes [the] majority of the people very happy," Dada says.

He's a managing director at the Palm Springs Hilton and the head of PS Resorts, the hospitality organization that's decided "Forever Marilyn's" forever home will be the Coachella Valley.

"The photos taken, and being transmitted all over the world, will do nothing but benefit the city of Palm Springs," Dada says.

With the blazing hot summer months on the horizon — the traditional off-season for the desert — Dada thinks the mighty Marilyn statue will bring in a few extra visitors in the short-term and be an overarching boost to the local economy as it bounces back from the pandemic.

But not everyone is smiling at the thought of the colossal statue taking up residence in the heart of town. Louis Grachos, the director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, is among those glowering.

"Forever Marilyn" is slated to go in front of the entrance of his museum, but she won't be facing the door. The 26-foot tall statue will be baring her backside to visitors as they exit the facility. When the city council was discussing the placement of the sculpture in November, Grachos called in to the meeting and expressed concerns about the unmentionables awaiting thousands of students who pass through annually.

"The thought of those kids leaving our museum and having the first thing they see is the undergarments and underwear of this enormous Marilyn sculpture would be highly offensive," Grachos told the council.

They were unmoved and gave the statue the go ahead to be temporarily placed in-front of the museum for three years.

Enter #Metoo Marilyn.

"She's literally going to be mooning the museum," says Elizabeth Armstrong, a spokesperson for a Change.org petition objecting to Marilyn's objectification. It has more than 40,000 signatures. Armstrong is also a former director of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

"It's blatantly sexist," says Armstrong. "It forces people almost to upskirt."

Upskirting is the practice of taking a photo up a person's skirt. If Marilyn were a person and not a statue, upskirting her could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor in California.

Fighting the battle on another front is the Committee to Relocate Marilyn. Led by fashion designer Trina Turk, it's not raising concerns over sexism and the statue's pose. Instead, they're putting the focus on complex local regulations and city planning.

"We're sticking to the street and highway code and the ways in which Palm Springs did not follow its own rules in the process of closing this street," Turk says.

Sporting a wide-brimmed hat and signature caftan, Turk is standing under the desert sun where the city hopes to eventually put the statue — in the middle of a roadway. She concedes "Forever Marilyn" brought people to town during its first run, but she's skeptical it was a definitive moneymaker.

"Social media impressions don't really pay the bills for someone who has a shop or a restaurant on Palm Canyon Drive," says Turk, who's maintained a boutique on the street for years.

"There's no data," she says.

But Aftab Dada, the leader of PS Resorts, contends a deep-dive into the numbers surrounding the Marilyn sculpture, including her effect on museum attendance, will be done.

"We are going to conduct [an] independent research study and notify the city what the economic impact and benefit she has been," Dada says.

He's surprised by all the "Forever Marilyn" backlash — especially from the city's art scene. After all, "she's an attraction, in our opinion," Dada says. "She's not an art."

Whatever "Forever Marilyn" is, the tourism group PS Resorts bought it for $1 million. They're hoping that investment pays off, both in buzz and receipts.

Even if that's not the case, her presence would seem to be in line with what Marilyn herself said: "I'm not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful."

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