Sylvia's personal studio where she treated the stars on the Pathe Studios Lot

Sylvia’s personal studio where she treated the stars on the Pathe Studios Lot

Sylvia Ullback was a Hollywood beauty expert to the Hollywood stars in the 1920s.  As her career progressed she rose to fame in newspapers and Hollywood fan magazines.  Ullback began to represent a new standard for physical culture.  Her version of physical culture and the ideas she preached about the body were based on her three-pronged approach: diet, exercise, and massage.  In 1932 she began writing monthly articles for Photoplay magazine and offered advice to women on how to become “as lovely as the stars.”  Throughout the 1930s she wrote for PhotoplayModern Screen, and Physical Culture magazine in addition to several books.1  Her discussion of beauty and the body represented a shift from the 1920s radical “reducing craze.”

However in July 1935 Sylvia left Photoplay magazine for Modern Screen.  The content of her articles shifted dramatically and there was a distinct shift in the content of her articles.  When she returned to Photoplay in 1937 her discussion of beauty had clearly changed.  Rather than discussing exercise, diet, and massage she began to talk more about personality and allure.  This change in her rhetoric was representative of the beginning of a larger shift in ideas about physical culture.  In September 1937 Sylvia abruptly left Photoplay magazine without explanation and struggled to find a new venue for her rhetoric.  She published one last book, which was a compilation of her articles for Bernarr Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine, and then disappeared.  The reasons for her disappearance are unknown and she never reemerged in the spotlight.  In 1975 she died in Santa Monica California.  She was listed as a housewife with no mention of her previous career as the beauty expert to the stars and to many Americans in the depression era.

Ullback’s career parallels much larger trends in the history of physical culture.  This project argues that physical culture shifted between 1935-1940 and that the decline of Sylvia’s mantra of diet, exercise, and massage in her writing is evidence of this change.  Drawing on topic modeling techniques and software, I analyzed Sylvia’s articles from Photoplay magazine between 1932 and 1937.  The results depict a clear change in the topics discussed within her articles.  Although the only articles used were those by Ullback in Photoplay magazine, they are evidence of a larger trend in the history of physical culture.  Digital tools have allowed for a statistical analysis of the language used and is a starting point for what could be a much larger study encompassing hundreds of texts and newspaper articles by many authors about physical culture.



  1. Over the course of her career Ullback authored a total of four books.  Her first, Hollywood Undressed (1931) was an expose on Hollywood.  As a result she was blacklisted by many of the studios and instead began to write for Photoplay.  Her second book, No More Alibis (1934) was a New York Times best seller for three years.  In 1936 she published Pull Yourself Together, Baby! which discussed personality, allure, and youth.  It was a departure from her previous books.  Her final book was published in 1938 and was entitled Streamline Your Figure.  Drawn from her articles for Physical Culture Magazine the book was clearly written in a different tone and was an attempt to return to a discussion about physical culture.  Her discussion, however, focused on the democratic reasons for proper physical culture and one chapter was entitled “A Call to Arms.”  The book was far from successful and she abruptly disappeared at the same time it was published. []

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