Betty Grable had her legs, Pamela Anderson has her breasts, and Buffie "the Body" Carruth seems to have the whole world in her pants.
Carruth's 45-inch derriere has turned the Athens, Ga., native and former stripper into an international celebrity. Men from all over the world order her DVDs and pin-up calendars, and her MySpace inbox is constantly flooded with marriage proposals – not to mention other, more immodest requests. Every month she crisscrosses the country to make appearances at bars, nightclubs, racetracks or anywhere else willing to pay her $3,000-$4,000 appearance fee. But along the way she has come to embody what critics view as rampant sexism and exploitation in hip-hop culture.
As half-naked, bootylicious women became a staple of modern rap videos over the last decade, the line between video model and groupie got blurred. Though Carruth defends her industry and denies being exploited, she regularly receives mail from people who allege she's a poor role model whose actions perpetuate age-old stereotypes about black women.
She has appeared in rap videos for artists such as 50 Cent, Tony Yayo and Juelz Santana; appeared on the covers of men's magazines including King and Black Men; and even starred as Big Booty Judy in the movie ATL. Nowadays, Carruth lives in South Carolina with her boyfriend. But on a recent warm day in late October, she returned to Athens to attend a cancer benefit concert. Being at home gave her a chance to reflect on her celebrity.
"I wonder sometimes, what [is] it about me?" says Carruth, who won't give her age. "Because there's a lot of girls out here with big butts. I see them all the time. I see them in the magazines, but none of them have got the recognition that I have."
Her face isn't especially striking, she has never worked out much, and she boasts a diet consisting mainly of salty meats and sugary drinks. But her not-exactly-modelesque figure is exactly what's in demand for music videos right now, says Damon Thomas, an Atlanta-based director who has filmed videos for T.I., Young Jeezy, D4L and others.
"Back in the '80s when I was coming up, you had a certain type of female in everybody's videos – real thin, petite, light skin, long hair," he says. "But over the past few years, people are looking for not just a pretty face but a body that goes with it as well. The more extraordinary your figure is, the more it catches people's eye."
Sure, sex sells. But many think the eye-popping imagery has gone too far. "I think it's awful. It's definitely gone too far," Cobb County high school drama teacher Sharrell Luckett says of modern hip-hop videos. Luckett produced a play at her school this year about the Hottentot Venus – the name given to a South African Khoisan woman with a large rear end named Sara Baartman – who was brought to sideshows in Europe during the 19th century. Luckett says the subject of the play gave the high-school actors a chance to reflect on the modern exploitation of black women. "Some felt it was OK as long as the women were getting paid for it, [but] the [young men] in the cast agreed that the videos did make men look at women in an inhumane manner."
Thomas admits the big butt/little outfit trope is played out, but says there's little he can do about it. "Of course I'm guilty of having those type of things in my video," he says. "I come in with my idea, but the artist and the label also have their ideas, so it's kind of a compromise."
He adds that many women in the industry often work for little or no money, content with building a résumé or achieving access to famous rappers. The MCs themselves famously harbor love-hate relationships with these women. As Tupac Shakur once rapped: "Every other city we go, every other video, no matter where I go, I see the same ho."
Filmmaker Byron Hurt released a documentary film this year called Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which examined sexism in rap. "Through the music, you get a sense that these ideas are very common," he told National Public Radio earlier this year. "We almost associate maleness with sexism, violence and homophobia, on a certain level."
Carruth insists she has never allowed others to exploit her, either sexually or financially, and that the industry isn't as terrible as many have made it out to be. "Honestly, I don't think I've done anything to degrade myself," she says. "I'm not going to shit on this industry. The industry has been good to me."
Meanwhile, Carruth plans to segue her career in tight pants into one in real estate. She may even open a sports bar in Atlanta.
"I think every model should try to do other things," she says. "You can't be in a magazine showing your butt forever."
Is it me or does Big Gigantic sound much like Kenny G trippin on a…
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