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In junior high she got an after-school secretarial job at the American Trampoline Company. On weekends she put on short shorts and demonstrated merchandise at trade shows. She saved enough to buy herself a nice radio, then spent hours listening to serials and leafing through glamour magazines in her room. "When your parents don't give you any direction, you tend to float out and fantasize," she says. "And it was kind of a natural progression for someone from a poor background like mine to dream about becoming an actress or a model."
As a teenager Jacobs won an acting scholarship at an off-Broadway theater and earned a coveted part in a Jewish community center production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. To earn money for more acting lessons, she had a boyfriend take cheesecake photos. Using the name Sylvia Kane, she took her portfolio around to some agencies. They told her she was too short for high fashion. As it turned out, though, she had the perfect shape for pulp fiction. Jacobs wound up posing for dozens of true-crime magazines while trying to launch a serious acting career.
In 1961 Jacobs landed a real glamour job. As Miss Laguna, a traveling spokeswoman for a costume jewelry company, she made appearances in department stores nationwide. She had a wardrobe of chic suits, cat-eye sunglasses, fancy hats in birthday-cake colors, and of course loads of matching beads and earrings. She taught the secrets of accessorizing to housewives from the new suburbia, who bought her merchandise in the hopes it would make them look like her. She presided at lobster luncheons with store executives and stayed in fancy hotels. And she had her own career-girl apartment in uptown Manhattan.
But she gradually grew disillusioned with the life she'd dreamed of in her childhood bedroom. The allure of being a model "went away like a genie out of a bottle," she says. To fill her nights on the road, Jacobs read books by Simone de Beauvoir and poetry and Eastern philosophy that led her to question her Doris Day lifestyle. She began to hate the in-store demonstrations, the customers staring at her as if they could find the meaning of life in a strand of fake pearls. Her smile was as phony as the plastic baubles she sold. She quit.
"I believe that your eyes and your skin and your lips are your accessories," Jacobs says. "Just to sell merchandise, the people in the fashion industry take away a woman's natural accessories and make her feel shitty about herself unless she's wearing a piece of shit from some company. I'm absolutely anti-fashion."
How then does Jacobs square this sentiment with her more recent role as clothier to the fashion elite? Well, she doesn't really. She says she simply can't help it that fashion editors adore her clothes and use them to sell an image of women as sex objects.
Every so often, Jacobs adds, she thinks about doing a line of roomy cotton blouses for women like her who just want to be comfortable. But somehow she never gets around to it. "It is, was, and always will be a thrill to see a gorgeous body," she concedes. As proof, she gestures to the portfolio. "My designs enhance the natural curves," she stresses. "I mean, look at this photo -- I made a shirt that would give a man cleavage."
Fashion mavens certainly have no qualms about endorsing Jacobs's handiwork. "Shanie's clothes were Cosmo at our sexiest," says the magazine's founder Helen Gurley Brown. "Cosmo did things that were standard or traditional -- it's not that we were always dressing in angora bikinis and hand-knit barely there bras with a tiny string in back. But when we wanted a really delicious, sexy garment, Shanie was there."
Sunburned newlyweds and a loud group of retirees line up at a dock in the Miami Beach Marina to board the SeaCruise, a three-tier gambling boat that makes nightly voyages into international waters. Several flashily dressed regulars meander to the back of the line. A security guard at the gangplank pats the men down and gives them the once-over with a metal detector before allowing them to board the floating casino. Anticipating trouble, Jacobs approaches the checkpoint with her purse already open. "It's my work, it's my work," she huffs impatiently as the perplexed guard inspects her crocheting tools. He waves her through.
The boat won't leave for an hour, but the bar is already doing a brisk business. On the upper deck, two couples dressed for a night of partying take each other's pictures. Jacobs wears a wrinkled cotton blouse over leggings. The wind blows her salt-and-pepper hair into a tangle as she settles into a chair by the rail, facing the sunset over the MacArthur Causeway. She takes the five-hour boat ride so often that SeaCruise managers gave her one of the VIP passes they award regulars. They revoked it, however, when they discovered that roulette and blackjack are not what brings her aboard.
"This is the best place I've found to work," Jacobs says, turning her face to the breeze. "Mmmmmm. It's like having your own yacht." She puts her white supply box on a neighboring seat and lifts off the cover. Inside, about a dozen darning needles stick out of a balled-up sock, next to an old metal cigar tube. Jacobs opens the tube and crochet hooks fall into the box like pick-up sticks. She selects one, then pulls a glittery wool halter top from her purse and lays it on her lap.