A new PBS documentary, Mae West: Dirty Blonde, is shining a spotlight on the revolutionary Hollywood icon

By Alexia Fernandez
May 27, 2020 10:56 AM
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Rebel, seductress, writer, producer and sexual icon.

In a PEOPLE exclusive look at the trailer for the documentary on her life, Mae West: Dirty Blonde, the actress can hardly be summarized in just a few words — but the new PBS film aims to shed light into the life of the subversive star.

Mary Jane West, best known by her stage name Mae West, left an indelible mark on Hollywood, notably for her unapologetic embrace of her sex appeal and femininity.

"Mae West crafted this image, she was a sexual gangster," a voiceover says in the trailer.

Fashion icon André Leon Talley says, "Mae West was a pioneer for all those women who dare to be sexy: Cher, Madonna, Rihanna, Beyoncé."

Mae West

West, who died in 1980 at the age of 87, achieved critical acclaim in every artistic medium that existed during her lifetime after beginning a career at the age of 14 as a vaudeville dancer.

The actress, who starred in films such as She Done Him Wrong, I’m No Angel, Sextette and My Little Chickadee, pushed the envelope of social change and become one of Hollywood's most controversial stars.

"She goes from being sent to jail for what she wants to say in 1926, to being the toast of Broadway in 1928 to being the highest-paid actress in America by the 1930s," the voiceover says.

In an exclusive statement to PEOPLE, Bette Midler, who executive produced the documentary, recalls a memorable interaction with the legend.

"I used to sing a Mae West song when I first started working solo. I actually did not know she was still alive; there was no internet...She sent me a cease-and-desist letter telling me to stop imitating her," she recalls. "Of course I did, and I still have the letter! But truly, there will never be anyone like her. Her diamonds and feathers, her strict adherence to the clothes of the 1890s...were all part of the package. How could you not love her? She believed in her creation, and she lived it every day of her life. Now, that's commitment!"

Candice Bergen also sings her praises in the trailer, saying, "Nothing could intimidate her, she just was not afraid to go out and poke a bear with a stick."

Mae West: Dirty Blonde premieres on PBS Tuesday, June 16 at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).