Attack of the 6ft Women

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jane Leeves needed a shrink, and not the kind whose sassy foil she plays on Frasier. The British actress had just arrived on a Burbank soundstage in 1991 to start taping a TV pilot she hoped would be her big break when 5'5" costar Joel Grey got a gander at her. All 5'9¾" of her, that is, plus the pumps she walked in on. "He blew up and said, 'What the hell is she doing in heels?' " says Leeves. "We did our scenes with me in my stocking feet and him on an orange box." (The pilot was never picked up, perhaps because of the pair's glaring lack of chemistry.)

How times change. These days, Leeves, 36, doesn't have to stoop to conquer television. As Daphne, Frasier's physical therapist for the past five years, she sees eye-to-eye with one male costar (David Hyde Pierce) and towers over another (so what if he's a dog?). And she's not even the tallest woman on NBC, which offers a WNBA-worthy lineup of Leeves, Kristen Johnston (6') of 3rd Rock From the Sun and Suddenly Susan's Brooke Shields (6'). At ABC, Dharma & Greg newcomer Jenna Elfman (5'10") joins PrimeTime Live anchor Diane Sawyer (5'9"). At CBS, Christine Lahti (5'10") represents the height of medical competence on Chicago Hope. And Lucy Lawless (5'10") towers over the competition on the syndicated Xena: Warrior Princess.

Not to stretch a point, but the movies are following suit. Geena Davis (6') and Sigourney Weaver (5'11") no longer stand out in a crowd of female stars that includes Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Mira Sorvino and Devil's Advocate's Charlize Theron (all 5'9"); Minnie Driver, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Liv Tyler (5'10"); and, coming in at an even 6', Uma Thurman.

What's going on here? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the size of the average American woman is only 5'4", a scale that seems more suited to the era when such actresses as the 5'4" Elizabeth Taylor (see chart page 54) and the 5'2" Marilyn Monroe represented the feminine ideal. Yet today the list of prominent American women who measure 5'9" and above is, well, long. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno stands 6'1½", tennis star Venus Williams 6'2". At 6', Carolyn Bessette Kennedy is only an inch shorter than her husband. Even the recently crowned Miss America, Kate Shindle, is 5'11" without her tiara—the tallest Miss America ever.

"Now is a really good time for tall women," notes Ralph Keyes, author of The Height of Your Life, a book about the role of stature. "Tallness in women is more fashionable—and visible—than ever." Sciascia Gambaccini, fashion director for the new magazine Jane, concurs. "When they talk about the look of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy," she says, "it's the look of the '90s."

What we have here are women ready to tower, not cower. "Uma's very proud of her height," says Kenny Crouch, wardrobe supervisor for the movie remake of The Avengers, which Thurman just finished filming in London. "She wears heels to accentuate her height—and she looks great for it." Bill Robinson, a close friend of Grosse Pointe Blank star Minnie Driver, recalls being astounded by the sky-high Prada sandals the actress chose to wear for an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. "I said, 'Wow, those are amazing shoes.' She said, 'If I'm going to be tall, why not go all the way?' "

Today's tall chic owes something to the burgeoning cult of the super-model—not to mention the stiletto heels that have soared higher than the stock market. Yet it also seems to speak of empowerment. "Trends in height follow trends in power," says author Keyes. "It used to be that petite women were the ideal—that whole '5-foot-2 with eyes of blue' standard. Today it's much more fashionable, in a political sense, for women to be powerful, to look guys in the eye." Or, if need be, to give them a shiner. "In old movies, men came in and saved women," says Frasier's Leeves. "Now women like Geena Davis and Sigourney Weaver are making action movies. Women's roles are stronger. It's not about being protected."

It's no accident, says 5'10½" social commentator Nancy Friday, that the first thing she did after her book My Mother, My Self hit the bestseller list in 1978 was to splurge on some three-and four-inch heels. "Success allowed me to stand tall," says Friday, who admits that in earlier years she adopted a "debutante slouch" to mask her height. "This piece of work I'd done allowed me to be myself." Adds Trisha Year wood (5'9"), recently crowned Best Female Vocalist at the Country Music Association awards: "I don't know that height alone can make you powerful, but it definitely makes me feel that I'm a presence. That gives me confidence—and that somehow translates into power."

Sometimes women choose to throttle back on this power, as the saga of the late Princess Diana (5'10") shows. During her early days with Charles, she did everything possible to boost the standing of her royal spouse (though the pair were about the same height). In their engagement pictures, she meekly posed one step below him at Buckingham Palace. At their 1981 wedding, she wore flats. For their official portrait, she obligingly let him perch on a box. But as the couple's happiness ebbed, Diana's heels soared—until she was routinely sporting stilettos.

Still, it's no simple thing, being the height of fashion. Inside almost any Amazonian warrior is a little girl who recalls the stings that come from not fitting in. "It was pretty awful," says 3rd Rock's Johnston, who hit 5'10" as a 13-year-old in Whitefish Bay, Wis. "I was a huge, nerdy freak." Says 5'6" Miami psychologist Katharine Westie, once the tallest student in her sixth grade class: "Kids can be very cruel to children who are different in any way."

Indeed, Nicole Kidman was dubbed "Stalky" by classmates, Olympic basketball star and aspiring model Lisa Leslie (6'5"), at age 7 already taller than her teacher, was jeered as "Olive Oyl," and Cameron Diaz was called "Skeletor" after the emaciated cartoon character. "It can be a little traumatizing," admits MTV personality and model Daisy Fuentes. "By seventh grade I was beginning to develop a curvature of my spine because I was slouched over all the time."

Clothes, for these young women, were always a problem. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Terry Farrell, a 5'11¾" former model who plays Lt. Commander Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was embarrassed at having to buy boys' shoes to fit her size-10 feet. Actress and singer Susan Anton (5'11") had to eschew miniskirts because "they were like Band-Aids on me." And as a 6'1" 14-year-old, "Nothing would fit," says actress Brigitte Nielsen, who was married to 5'10" Sly Stallone from 1985-'87. An exception to the rule, Carolyn Bessette seemed stunningly statuesque even as an adolescent. According to classmates at St. Mary High School in Greenwich, Conn., the future Mrs. JFK Jr. was so leggy that she actually looked good in the school's ill-fitting gray uniform pants.

But even the prettiest of tall girls has had trouble getting dates. "[The high school boys] said, 'Oh, she has a cute face, but she doesn't have no butt and no hips!' " says cover girl Tyra Banks (5'10"). "I was always the girl who had a crush on a guy and he didn't want me." Sometimes, though, a tall girl can be the victim of her own high standards. Unlike Cindy Crawford (5'9"), who hung out with some of the shortest boys in her class in De Kalb, Ill., Fuentes confesses, "I feel very uncomfortable dating guys who are smaller."

That didn't pose a problem for Susan Anton and her pint-size ex-lover Dudley Moore (5'2½"), or Thurman and ex-husband Gary Oldman (5'10½"). " 'The long and short of it is, they say the twain shall never meet,' " Anton recalls Moore joking on Johnny Carson's show, " 'but it does. Quite often.' "

Once past adolescence, tall women often find their prospects looking up. Nicole Kidman, who was turned away at a school audition for Annie because she dwarfed Daddy Warbucks, won the lead opposite Tom Cruise (officially 5'9") in 1990's Days of Thunder—and the star's heart. Brooke Shields, always insecure among "wispy, WASPy girls that kind of floated into the room," grew comfortable enough to poke fun at her height—and to get the last laugh on her hit sitcom, where her size is one of the prime sources of jokes. (She also finally found a guy who measures up, 5'11" husband Andre Agassi.)

"It's nice to stand out now," says 3rd Rock's Johnston, whose size helped her land her role as Sally, an alien who was a man back home. Says the series' cocreator Bonnie Turner: "We wanted someone who could be Harrison Ford in a dress. When John [Lithgow] met her, he said he loved to look an actress in the eye. He's 6'4"."

Of course not everyone shares that sentiment, even in this age of high achievers. "Producers are short. I'm not the average producer's sexual fantasy," Sigourney Weaver recently told Movieline magazine. "When I come into a room wearing platforms, they go, 'She's not my type of woman,' because what they are looking for is the petite blonde who looks up to them." Lately, however, more moviemakers are taking a longer view. Like Woody Allen and the half-dozen directors who hired Liv Tyler in the last two years. "Woody is never bothered by who's taller than him-or not," says costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, whose spikeheeled outfits for Mira Sorvino in her Oscar-winning turn in Mighty Aphrodite comically exaggerated the gap. Height "can be a problem when they say it is," says Star Trek's Farrell, "and just a little obstacle to work around if they really want you."

Casting tall women does, however, require a heightened awareness. Although the rare gazelle can wear clothes off-the-rack—as does Paltrow, with Donna Karan duds, in the upcoming Great Expectations—costume designers often have to struggle with the same problems their stars do every day, like too-short pants and sleeves and waistlines that hug bust-lines. To dress Geena Davis for last year's The Long Kiss Goodnight, much of the wardrobe had to be custom-made, including boots at $1,000 a pair for her size-11½-feet.

Fancy footwork is employed in other ways as well. Platforms of various heights, planks under carpeting, even having one actor walk on the curb and another in the gutter are among the many time-honored tricks used to level the playing field between the sexes. "We've done everything from backcomb a guy's rug to stack his heels," says one makeup artist.

Given all the tricks that filmmakers employ, it can be hard to tell how big any actor is. Their fans might be surprised to learn, for example, that Winona Ryder is only 5'4", Drew Barrymore 5' and Robert Blake 5'4". Yet the new crop of tall women claim the weather up there's just delightful. "Height commands attention; people notice. And if you are in the entertainment industry, half of what we do is try to get people to notice us," says country star Yearwood. "Somewhere along the line you realize that being tall is a fabulous thing. Now I wish I was taller!"


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