Miss Piggy may well be an indisputable legend in the world of entertainment. But with her tendency to karate chop anyone who crosses her, smother the object of her affections and hog the limelight at all costs, she’s not exactly someone with whom it’s flattering to be compared. It’s little wonder, then, that the Muppet’s very human inspiration apparently didn’t see the character as a glowing tribute. In fact, it’s even said that the woman in question threatened to take her revenge.
Yes, it turns out that Kermit the Frog’s on/off girlfriend is actually based on a real person – and a very famous entertainer in her own right, too. Peggy Lee was one of the most popular musical performers of the mid-20th century, in fact, scoring multiple number ones and picking up nominations at both the Grammys and Academy Awards.
But the lady who once voiced two Siamese cats and a Pekingese in Lady and the Tramp reportedly didn’t appreciate being honored by a felt puppet pig – let alone the brash diva who once took her name. Here’s a look at Lee’s fascinating life story and how she inadvertently influenced Jim Henson’s famous creation.
Peggy Lee entered the world in 1920 in the North Dakota city of Jamestown, although back then she was known under the slightly less showbiz name of Norma Deloris Egstrom. Tragically, she lost her Norwegian-American mother, Selma, at the age of just four. And to make matters worse, she struggled to get along with the woman that her Swedish-American father Marvin later wed: Minnie Schaumberg.
But fame would eventually come beckoning for Lee after she began performing on local radio station KOVC. Then, following a change of name to her more familiar moniker, she relocated to Los Angeles to seek her fortune. And during a show at The Buttery Room in Chicago, a very important man discovered her inimitable talents.
You see, Benny Goodman, one of America’s most celebrated bandleaders, just happened to be in attendance on that night. He was so impressed by what he saw, moreover, that he offered Lee a position in his band. The singer, who by this point had mastered her famous vocal purr, duly accepted and went on to perform with Goodman for the next two years.
The partnership turned out to be a roaring success, too, as in 1942 Lee and Goodman reached the top of the US Hot 100 with “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place.” Then, a year later, the duo shifted more than a million copies of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” And Lee and Goodman also ventured on to the silver screen together, performing in both The Powers Girl and Stage Door Canteen.
What’s more, in 1974 Lee told Zoo World that her time with Goodman had taught her a lot. She revealed, “I would say that it was hard schooling, but after you graduate, you really appreciate it. It was hard to pay the rent. We rode in buses and trains and occasionally planes – oh, I would rather’ve walked. And for some reason, until I had my daughter [Nicki], I was fearless. I think I must have been a little bit insane.”
However, Lee’s successful partnership with Goodman turned sour when she walked down the aisle with band member Dave Barbour. Unimpressed that his guitarist had broken the golden rule of “no fraternizing with the vocalist,” Goodman fired Barbour. Lee then decided to depart from the band, too, in an act of solidarity.
And while Lee initially intended to leave the industry altogether and become a housewife, Barbour saw this as a waste of his wife’s talents. Instead, he encouraged Lee to resume her singing career, and the married couple subsequently began writing songs together. In 1945, then, the star scored her first entirely solo hit in “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In.”
Lee later told Zoo World about the number of deals that she had initially refused, saying, “At that time, it was a lot of money. But it really didn’t matter to me at all. I was very happy. All I wanted was to have a family and cling to the children. Well, they kept talking to me, and finally David joined them and said, ‘You really have too much talent to stay at home, and someday you might regret it.’”
From then on, Lee never looked back. She had the U.S.’ biggest-selling song of 1948 with “Manana,” along with other top ten hits such as “Golden Earrings” and “Chi-baba, Chi-baba (My Bambino, Go to Sleep).” And in 1948 she also became co-host of The Chesterfield Supper Club – a popular musical show on NBC Radio.
But 1952 would prove to be a particularly momentous year for Lee. At that time, she not only signed a deal with Decca Records, but she also notably embarked on an acting career. Her first major role was appearing alongside Danny Thomas as Judy Lane in the reboot of Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer.
Then, three years later, Lee stole the show as booze-soaked singer Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly’s Blues. Her performance even gained the reward of a Best Supporting Actress nod at the following year’s Oscars. And in 1957 she provided several voices for classic Disney animation Lady and the Tramp – specifically those for Si and Am the Siamese cats, Peg the dog and Darling the human.
But even after pursuing a career on screen, Lee didn’t give up on singing. And after moving back to the Capitol label, she would ultimately release the track that would become her signature hit: “Fever.” First recorded by U.S. R&B vocalist Little Willie John, the sultry, sensual number picked up three nominations at the 1959 Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year. Madonna would famously take a version of the song back into the charts more than 30 years later.
And while Lee never bothered the U.S. top ten again after that, she did continue to receive critical acclaim throughout the 1960s for her eclectic body of work. Along the way, she also collaborated with several other musical legends, including Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones and Benny Carter. And in 1969 she even had the honor of picking up her first ever Grammy Award when “Is That All There Is?” was crowned as Best Contemporary Vocal Performance.
Sadly, though, Lee’s personal life proved to be somewhat turbulent. In fact, by the time she won her Grammy, she was already a four-time divorcee. After splitting from first husband Dave Barbour in 1951, she married Brad Dexter just two years later. But almost as quickly as the couple had walked down the aisle, they headed for the divorce courts.
Undeterred, Lee married another actor, Dewey Martin, in 1956, although their relationship also fizzled out after just two years. And while the singer waited until 1964 to bag her fourth husband – a percussionist named Jack Del Rio – Lee was once again a single woman 12 months after she had tied the knot. Her only child, Nicki Lee Foster, came in 1943 from her relationship with Dave Barbour.
But even though Lee’s work rate slowed down during the 1970s and 1980s, she still continued to perform and record various albums for the likes of Polydor U.K., Atlantic and A&M. She released her final studio effort, Moments Like This, in 1992, and even in her 70s occasionally ventured back on to the stage.
Then, four years after experiencing a stroke that essentially finished her career, Lee suffered a fatal heart attack at her home in Bel Air, aged 81. Her ashes were later interred at Los Angeles’ Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Tribute was paid to Lee, too, when in 2003 a whole host of star singers and musicians honored her talents with a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Nancy Sinatra, Petula Clark and Debbie Harry were just some of the iconic names who took to the stage for There’ll Be Another Spring: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee. A year later, the likes of Bea Arthur and Jack Jones joined the cast for a sold-out follow-up at the Hollywood Bowl. But one particular famous face who had been heavily influenced by Lee was nowhere to be seen on either of these occasions.
Still, you can’t exactly blame the organizers for failing to invite this particular diva. After all, a felt pig puppet renowned for shouting “hi-yah” while karate chopping at any opportune moment would no doubt have lowered the tone slightly. Yes, the character we all know and love as Miss Piggy was based on the classy and demure Lee.
The Miss Piggy and Peggy Lee connection was initially deemed by many to be nothing more than an enduring urban legend. But it’s entirely true, as Bonnie Erickson, a designer on the Muppets, once revealed in an interview with Smithsonian. In fact, Miss Piggy was initially named Piggy Lee.
Erickson explained, “My mother used to live in North Dakota where Peggy Lee sang on the local radio station before she became a famous jazz singer. I first called the puppet Miss Piggy Lee – as a joke and an homage.” Yet Erickson didn’t bank on the character taking on a life of her own.
A toned-down version of Miss Piggy made her TV debut on a TV special hosted by Herb Alpert in October 1974. And during the show, she joined the jazz saxophonist for a rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” The porcine diva ultimately became a much bolder character, however, after The Muppet Show began airing two years later.
Surprisingly, Miss Piggy was restricted to being a chorus pig during the show’s early stages. As the writers began to acknowledge her star quality, though, she was upgraded to major cast member status. And alongside her on/off love interest Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy soon became one of the main faces of the Muppets brand.
What’s more, Miss Piggy was actually called Piggy Lee in the sixth episode of The Muppet Show’s first season. Later in the series’ run, the character also informs celebrated comedian Avery Schreiber that Piggy is simply a shorter form of the name Pigathius. But as Miss Piggy’s popularity increased, the behind-the-scenes team began to worry that her name was a mistake.
Erickson told Smithsonian, “Peggy Lee was a very independent woman, and Piggy certainly is the same. But as Piggy’s fame began to grow, nobody wanted to upset Peggy Lee – especially because we admired her work. So the Muppet’s name was shortened to Miss Piggy.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Undoubtedly, Erickson’s decision was a wise one, too. After all, Lee certainly wasn’t averse to getting the courts involved if she felt wronged. In 1991, for example, she sued the Walt Disney Company for violating her Lady and the Tramp contract – following which she walked away with a cool $3.83 million.
To bolster her case, Lee had argued that Disney had issued the classic animation on VHS without her consent. The 1952 contract that she had for the film had stated, you see, that she had the right to give the nod to any “transcriptions for sale to the public.” And while video cassettes may not have existed at the time that Lee signed on the dotted line, the court deemed the Lady and the Tramp VHS copies to be pertinent to the Disney agreement.
Inevitably, Lee was delighted with the outcome, and in 1991 she told Entertainment Weekly, “I’m surprised I feel as good as I do. I guess when you’re a winner, you feel good. Disney has certainly made a fortune. I should think they’d be willing to share, but I guess mice need a lot of cheese.”
Meanwhile, Erickson discussed Miss Piggy’s unlikely namesake while speaking at a panel event named The Women of the Muppets in 2018. The designer was joined by Sonia Manzano, a.k.a. Sesame Street’s Maria, and puppeteer Fran Brill at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. And she was keen to point out that Miss Piggy also had a much more natural inspiration.
“A lot of people have asked who I based Miss Piggy on, but it wasn’t a person,” Erickson told the audience. “She was based on my recollections of the pigs on my uncle’s farm in Minnesota where I spent summers as a child.” And Erickson went on to tell the story of how her mother’s favorite singer had served as an influence when it had come to naming the character.
Yet Erickson also revealed that it hadn’t been her decision alone to change Miss Piggy’s name to something a little more respectful to Lee. She told the panel, “Eventually, when we started to use Miss Piggy a little more, the legal department decided her name might not be considered a compliment. And it was shortened to Miss Piggy.”
At least Lee could have taken heart from the fact that she wasn’t the only real-life person to have inspired a Muppet creation, as Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s Zoot was similarly based on jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri. And Erickson also told the audience that she had had no idea Miss Piggy would become the Muppets’ breakout star.
The designer explained, “If you look back to the early days of The Muppet Show, you will see that [Miss Piggy] started out relatively simple. She was just a chorus girl who wore her chorus girl outfits. But she graduated – thanks to Frank Oz, who really developed her personality and gave her a reason to be – from the karate chop to the comedic hair.”
When asked whether she considered Miss Piggy a feminist, however, Erickson replied, “Isn’t it interesting? She’s done by a male performer, and yet she has become a symbol for sort of brassiness and independence that women appreciate. I would hesitate to say that she’s a feminist, because I’m not sure that that’s how Miss Piggy would feel about it or read it, but I see her as that. I think a lot of women feel the same way.”
Thankfully, Erickson and co appeared to get away with their tribute. And while speaking to Smithsonian, the Muppet designer admitted that she had no idea whether Lee knew she had inspired Miss Piggy. However, there have been rumors that the singer once warned that she would sue if the character’s name wasn’t changed.
Yet the connection between Peggy Lee and the Muppets doesn’t end with the name. In the fifth episode of The Muppet Show’s first season, a guest performer joins Animal and Floyd for a rendition of “Fever.” This, of course, was the track that Peggy Lee made famous way back in 1958.
And in a neat nod to her origins, none other than Miss Piggy performed the same track in summer 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl. The Muppet sported a red gown as she sat and then plummeted off a grand piano while belting out the classic hit. Miss Piggy joined Statler and Waldorf and her beloved Kermit the Frog at the event that honored the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s founding director John Mauceri.