Monkeys That Became Pop Culture Icons

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Frida Kahlo and Fulang-Chang
Frida Kahlo and Fulang-Chang

In honour of Chinese New Year 2016: the Year of the Monkey, AnOther celebrates five of the most influential simians

Determined by the lunisolar calendar, Chinese New Year always falls on a different date, with each cycle defined by one of the twelve animas of the Chinese zodiac. This year, February 8th marks the beginning of the Year of the Monkey; good news for those born under the sign – most recently 2004, 1992, 1980 and 1968 – who can expect good fortune and prosperity for the next 12 months. Not a monkey? You can still enjoy the festivities which last until the end of the month (making that 11am finish on 1st January seem a bit pathetic in comparison), with London’s Chinatown boasting the biggest party outside of Asia. Don’t forget the traditions and superstitions too: let off fireworks to ward off evil spirits, don’t wash your hair or wear damaged clothes (the perfect excuse to track down some mint pieces from Prada’s monkey-emblazoned SS11 collection perhaps?) To celebrate the monkey’s moment, AnOther shines a spotlight on five very special simians.

A humbling thought: however glamorous your life might feel at times, there’s a chimpanzee whose story will always be significantly more fabulous. We’re talking, of course, about Bubbles, the chimp adopted by Michael Jackson in 1983. As the King of Pop’s coddled companion, Bubbles had free rein of the Neverland ranch, took tea with the Mayor of Osaka during the Bad World Tour, travelled by private jet, had his own agent, and charmed a who’s who of the Hollywood glitterati (although reports that the pampered pet was the ring bearer at Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding were sadly false). The posh primate was even immortalised by that pop culture lightning rod Jeff Koons in a life-sized, gilded porcelain statue as part of his Banality series (an edition of four, one sold to a private collector for a cool $5.6million in 2001). Let go by Jackson when he became a pugnacious teen, today, Bubbles has retired from the limelight to a Florida animal sanctuary. Late last year it was reported that a Bubbles biopic topped the list of Hollywood’s best-unmade screenplays. But you have to ask whether we really need it, when the truth is so much stranger than fiction.

A marker to make any child of the 90s feel old: Friends has been off our screen for 12 years now; it started 22 years ago. Ouch. The sitcom’s stars have achieved varying degrees of post-Friends fame, Jennifer Aniston and her hair might be the highest profile, but one of the sweetest success stories is Katie’s. Not familiar? You’ll know her better as a ‘him’; Katie and her double, the aptly named Monkey, played Marcel, Ross’s pet capuchin, who loved The Lion Sleeps Tonight and humping everything in sight. She’s since graced our screen in Ace Ventura II: When Nature Calls, Outbreak and George of the Jungle, fronted campaigns for Bud Light, McDonalds and Diet Coke, and even slipped into sultry mood modelling alongside Kendall Jenner in a recent Mario Testino shoot for Allure. Two years older than Jenner, it’s not known whether she gave the rookie any advice, but as trainer Nerissa Polzer told People magazine in 1995 of Katie’s partner, “If Monkey were human, she’d be Meryl Streep”. Quite.

You have to wonder how Aladdin ever got the girl in Disney’s 1992 retelling of the One Thousand and One Nights tale. He’s the shirtless street rat who lies about his identity and counts a kleptomaniac monkey as his best friend. It doesn’t exactly read: winning Guardian Soulmates profile. Still, his simian sidekick – Abu – has his charms, and even manages to hold his own against the Genie (voiced by Robin Williams on energetic top form). Cheeky and expressive (his constant face pulling operates like a Greek Chorus for the film), he comes in useful, being transformed into an elephant for his pal and even breaking him out of jail. He’s also a natty dresser – Abu is never without his waistcoat and matching fez. What a look.

Lush with symbolism, iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s poignant, beautiful work thrums with energy. Unable to have children (Kahlo suffered several agonising miscarriages, due in part to complications following a traffic accident in her teens), she found a maternal outlet in looking after animals, keeping birds, dogs, a fawn, and several monkeys at her home, Casa Azul, in Mexico City. The pet spider monkeys – a loaded visual metaphor – appear in several of Kahlo’s paintings. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbolic of sexual avarice and promiscuity, yet in Kahlo’s work they appear tender, even protective. Take 1937’s Fulang-Chang and I, the composition calls to mind a Renaissance Madonna and child; but by replacing the cherubic infant with the monkey, she is giving the meditation on motherhood a sardonic edge. It manages at once to speak of longing, loss and lust.

Not technically a monkey, but Koko the western lowland gorilla certainly deserves a shout out. Considered to be the most intelligent primate in the world, 44-year-old Koko is famous for communicating via an abbreviated version of American Sign Language, and is said to have a vocabulary of over 2000 words. In 2014, Koko issued a message to the delegates of the UN-led climate change summit, COP21, urging man to protect the planet. “Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But man stupid… Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry,” she signed. Koko, who has expressed that her greatest wish is to be a mother, is also known for her love of cats, adopting several as pets over the years. YouTube videos of Koko nurturing and playing with her kittens threaten to melt the heart of even the most hardened cynics.