Mata Hari

April 27, 2022

Mata Hari, the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod (née Zelle), was a Netherlands-born exotic dancer who would later become a spy during World War I.

She was well educated in her childhood – attending exclusive schools until the age of 13 when her father became bankrupt. Later, she studied to teach kindergarten but was taken away by her godfather after it was discovered the headmaster had been flirting with her. After this, in 1903, she moved to Paris to be a circus horse rider under the name Lady Macleod.

In 1904, Hari rose to prominence as an exotic dancer, considered by a French journalist to be extremely feminine and majestic. She was considered a contemporary of the modern dance movement that critics would later write about in the context of Orientalism. Her dancing career declined from 1912, and she performed her last show in 1915.

The Netherlands remained neutral during World War I, and Mata Hari was able to cross borders freely. She had a relationship with a Russian pilot who later became badly wounded, and he lost his sight. Mata Hari was allowed to visit her lover but was met by agents who allowed this meeting only on the condition that she agreed to spy for France. 

She performed several times as Mata Hari in front of Crown Prince Wilheim, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and was believed to be able to obtain information by way of seduction. She was later captured and executed, but many believe her to have been innocent.

She is often portrayed as a femme fatale, someone who used her promiscuity and sexuality to manipulate men, while others believe she is a victim of men, a scapegoat who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2021, Azerbaijani singer Efendi entered the Eurovision Song Contest with her song Mata Hari, an upbeat, energetic song where she compares Mata Hari to Cleopatra with “an army of lovers.” Efendi was inspired by Mata Hari, seeing her as a European icon of strength and femininity.

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