Bent and snapped: 20 years of Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde Elle Woods Bruiser

by Charlotte Oliver |
Updated on

Meet Elle Woods, the Gemini vegetarian with a love of pink, who – 20 years ago this month – arrived on UK shores and changed the status quo. Not only did Elle teach women of all ages that they didn’t have to compromise an iota of who they were for anyone or anything, she also taught us some very important lessons about haircare.

Yes, it’s been two decades since Legally Blonde was released on this side of the pond – and it’s still our go-to feel-good movie, offering us 96 minutes of pure, unadulterated, bubblegum-pop entertainment. And yet, it’s so much more than a fluffy chick-flick. In fact, it’s a seminal movie that rewrote the rules yet again for women in film, and made a global star of a certain then-25-year-old Reese Witherspoon. What, like it’s hard?

Female Empowerment

Let’s rewind back to the early noughties, when echoes of the Spice Girls’ Girl Power message still lingered, but women on screen were still trying to change themselves for men’s approval.

Take Bridget Jones’s Diary, which came out just six months prior to Legally Blonde, and saw poor Bridge waxing and buffing herself to the point of pain-induced nausea, before squeezing herself into some eye-watering granny pants, all for the sake of a bit of nookie with Daniel Cleaver.

Or the Sex And The City ladies, who may have been sexually empowered, but were still basing most café conversations on their various romantic foibles. Don’t get us wrong, both Bridget and Carrie and co were and always will be icons, but feminism seemed just a bit, well, all talk and no trousers.

In fact, it seemed like very little had changed since Grease’s Sandy totally transformed herself from a plimsoll-wearing goodie-two-shoes into a black leather-wearing femme fatale – all in the space of one musical number – for Danny Zuko in 1978. And, at the outset, Legally Blonde felt like it was going to follow that same mould.

Legally Blonde bend and snap Reese Witherspoon Jennifer Coolidge Elle Woods

A Surprising Plot

To recap: we begin with sorority president and fashion expert Elle Woods, who’s primping and pampering herself in the opening scene before her big date with boyfriend Warner Huntington III – who, she’s convinced, is ready to propose. Cue all the girly squeals. But her happiness is cut short when Warner, who’s soon to be studying law at Harvard, tells her over dinner that, instead, he wants them to break up. “If I want to be a senator by the time I’m 30,” he begins, “I need to marry a Jackie…not a Marilyn.”

A devastated Elle then becomes a woman on a mission, whose sole purpose is to get into Harvard and reclaim her man. And somehow, she achieves it, studying round-the-clock to get her all-important high LSAT score and impressing (or stupefying) the Harvard governing board with that admissions video, in which she proves that she feels comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life. And her single-minded goal – to win back her man – becomes even more hell-bent when she gets to the highfalutin university with her trusty Chihuahua Bruiser in tow, only to discover that Warner has met his own “Jackie” – the super-serious and venomous Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair).

But then, something crazy happens along the way – Elle’s goalposts change. After realising she’s never going to be good enough for Warner (read: she’s always been too good for him), she sets out to prove just how great she is by becoming an incredible law student in her own unique way. Elle doesn’t start dressing or acting any differently, and she refuses to accept the limitations that society places on her as a “bimbo”.

Then, dressed in head-to-toe hot pink, she wins the final court case, in which she’s defending murder suspect Brooke Windham. Because of who she is, it’s her excellent knowledge of haircare that proves invaluable in tearing apart the real guilty person’s alibi. Oh, and she also takes on and beats the patriarchy in the process by rejecting her sleazy professor’s sexual advances – which was ahead of its time in a pre-Me Too era. In short, Elle changes the system, not herself.

Legally Blonde Elle Woods Reese Witherspoon Warner

Stranger than fiction

As it happens, the origins of the film were just as ground-breaking. Written first as a memoir, Amanda Brown based her book Legally Blonde on her real-life experiences as a student at Stanford Law School, who stuck out like a sore thumb because of her love of fashion and beauty. She then submitted her manuscript to movie execs without success, until she resubmitted it again… on pink paper. Reese Witherspoon was brought on board and she nailed the brief to make Elle someone real, likeable and worth far more than the sum of her Barbie-girl persona. Then, it was a winning combination of a drop-dead gorgeous wardrobe, a scene-stealing turn from Jennifer Coolidge as Elle’s BFF Paulette, and 40 different Elle Woods hairstyles all coming together to create movie magic.

The film grossed $141m worldwide on an $18m budget, and spawned one sequel and a made-for-TV spin-off, plus a massively successful Broadway and West End musical. But more than that, it inspired a generation of girls to refuse to accept the limitations society placed upon them.

Check out: actors that made cameos in movies


RADIO singers that made cameos in movies STACKED

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CREDIT: David Bowie in Zoolander u00a9 Paramount Pictures

David Bowie, Zoolander

Legendary singer David Bowie played a crucial part in the original Zoolander film, briefly starring as himself to judge the "walk-off" between Derek and Hansel. Actor Ben Stiller later said he was "in shock" that David agreed to be in it.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Paramount Pictures

Justin Bieber, Zoolander 2

Biebs also starred as himself in sequel Zoolander 2, but didn't last very long as he got killed pretty early on in the film.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Warner Bros. Pictures

Gwen Stefani, The Aviator

No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani portrayed 1930s actress Jean Harlow in the film starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Director Martin Scorsese cast her as his daughter was a huge No Doubt fan.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Lions Gate Films

Alanis Morissette, Dogma

'Ironic' singer Alanis Morissette portrayed the character of God in the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon flick, with director Kevin Smith calling her "otherworldly" and "ethereal."

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CREDIT: u00a9 Warner Bros. Pictures

Fergie, Poseidon

Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie was actually a child actor, so it's no surprise that she returned to the screen as an adult. She starred as lounge singer Gloria in the 2006 remake Poseidon starring Kurt Russell.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Paramount Pictures

Kanye West, The Love Guru

Yeezy has actually had cameos in many films and TV shows, but 2008 film The Love Guru is probably his most well-known cameo, as he starred as himself, exclaiming, "I love hockey!" whilst watching a hockey match.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Warner Bros. Pictures

Jarvis Cocker, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the lead singer of wizarding band The Weird Sisters, who perform at the Yule Ball. The band also featured Jarvis' Pulp bandmate Steve Mackey as well as Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway from Radiohead.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Warner Bros. Pictures

Ian Brown, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Stone Roses singer Ian Brown had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the third installment of the Harry Potter films as a wizard stirring his drink with magic whilst reading 'A Brief History of Time' by Stephen Hawking sat in the Leaky Cauldron pub in the fictitious village of Hogsmeade. Brown told NME, "The director is a friend of my girl and he said, 'I've got a part if you want it. I asked my sons, and they were like, 'Do it!' I did it for my sons. My brief was to be a romantic, bohemian wizard. I was into that."

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CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

Madonna, Die Another Day

After providing the title track for 2002 James Bond flick Die Another Day, Madonna also appeared in the film very briefly as fencing coach Verity who tutors Olympic hopefuls and tells Pierce Brosnan's Bond, "I see you handle your weapon well."

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CREDIT: u00a9 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Dave Grohl, The Muppets

Nirvana and Foo Fighters musician Dave Grohl starred in the 2011 reboot film The Muppets as a drummer in rival band the Moopets named Animool. He later had a drum-off with Animal a few years later in the TV series.

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CREDIT: u00a9 New Line Cinema

Britney Spears, Austin Powers in Goldmember

It turns out that Britney's appearance as herself in the third Austin Powers film was all down to Beyoncé. She told the Calgary Sun, "She called me. She said she desperately wanted to be in the movie and wanted to wear a bra that shot bullets. We managed to accommodate her requests."

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Britney Spears, How I Met Your Mother

But our Brit also appeared in three episodes of US sitcom How I Met Your Mother as Abby the receptionist who is obsessed with main character Ted Mosby and ends up dating his best friend, Barney Stinson.

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Katy Perry, How I Met Your Mother

The TV show is no stranger to a celebrity cameo, also featuring Katy Perry as Honey – a very gullible character that Ted briefly dates.

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Nicole Scherzinger, How I Met Your Mother

Pussycat Doll Nicole starred as Jessica Glitter, Robin's fellow teen popstar friend who she grew apart from after Jessica had a baby.

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Enrique Iglesias, How I Met Your Mother

Enrique starred in the series as Robin's exotic lover Gael who incites jealousy from Robin's ex-boyfriend Ted.

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Jennifer Lopez, How I Met Your Mother

JLo had a brief cameo as a love interest for Barney Stinson, an author named Anita.

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Carrie Underwood, How I Met Your Mother

The last of our HIMYM cameos, country singer Carrie Underwood starred as a love interest for Ted, a pharmaceutical representative who kept him hanging on.

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CREDIT: u00a9 Columbia Pictures

Macy Gray, Spider-Man

'I Try' crooner Macy Gray featured very briefly as herself performing at a concert in the first Spider-Man film in 2002 starring Tobey Maguire as the main man.

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Demi Lovato, Grey's Anatomy

Singer Demi Lovato was a child actor, starring in plenty of shows on the Disney Channel. She guest starred in an episode of Grey's Anatomy playing Hayley, a girl who could hear everything that was going on inside her body. Scary stuff.

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Ed Sheeran, Game Of Thrones

Singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran had a very brief spot in TV juggernaut Game Of Thrones as a soldier who was, of course, singing!

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Adele, Ugly Betty

Adele starred in beloved American sitcom Ugly Betty back in 2009 as herself taking part in a photoshoot for Betty.

“Playing Elle Woods was the role of a lifetime, and I’m so honoured to have been a part of sharing her story with you all,” said Reese earlier this year. “It completely opened me up to so many people in the world, who come up to me every week or every month and say, ‘Elle Woods inspired me to go to law school. Elle Woods made me believe in myself.’”

heat magazine cover
©Bauer Media

It’s no surprise, then, that fans have been beside themselves at the news that we’re finally getting another movie – written by Mindy Kaling and set for release in May 2022 – which will tell us all about what Elle did next. Two decades since its UK release and Legally Blonde is still every bit as entertaining – and hasn’t aged in its relevancy or key message. That being that you should never change who you are, because you are more than enough. Oh, and you should also never wet your hair for at least 24 hours after getting a perm, at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate.

Read more in the latest issue of heat magazine - OUT NOW.

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