Russell Gay

Sabrina (Norma Sykes)
Sabrina (Norma Sykes)

According to the American magazine Art and Photography (May 1957), “the UK’s top glamour photographer has a trim beard and long, slender fingers; he is a photographer who looks like an artist and has the happy name of Russell Gay”.

Although his glamorous glossies reached every corner of the globe, Russell Gay was best known to the British public as the creator of Sabrina, the sex bomb whom the British regard as the ‘twin-peak’ epitome of feminine allure.

When she first modelled for Gay, Sabrina was just plain Norma Ann Sykes, and nobody had ever heard of her. According to the official Sabrina website, Gay is quoted as saying “Even Sabrina would be the first to admit that she was a bit on the fat side in those days,” says Gay, “but no costume could disguise the fact that her 40-inch bust was going to have far-reaching repercussions.”

Sabrina took his advice and her curves were reduced with no collateral damage to her chief asset(s). Almost immediately, one of Gay’s pictures of her on the cover of a British film magazine rocketed its circulation by 30,000 in a single month.

But Gay and Sabrina were not always on the friendliest of terms. Like Marilyn Monroe, Norma has an embarrassing skeleton in her closet in the shape of the nudes she posed for before making her debut as the sexy but sweet Sabrina. One of these nudes turned up on the five of spades in a deck of playing cards for which Gay provided the 52 alluring illustrations.

Sabrina exploded via her lawyer. Writs flew thick and fast until a mutual friend persuaded the artist and the model to get together and settle their differences amicably. It says much for Gay’s talents as a diplomat and for his consummate skill at handling temperamental models that he had her eating out of his hand within half an hour. He had only to make one concession: to keep the offending nudes out of circulation. After burying the hatchet, Sabrina and Gay renewed their friendship, to the delight of their fans.

But Gay also used a plethora of unknown amateurs. Most of whom became professional models after he had shown them their potential. “Most of them are salesgirls, secretaries, or housewives,” he says, “and all of them are highly flattered by the suggestion that they might be good models. I’ve never had anyone object to doing pin-ups, and nine out of 10 will do nudes as well after they’ve had a little experience.”