The 12 Actresses Who Made the 1980s Sexy

From Phoebe Cates to Kelly LeBrock, we remember the beautiful women who made Reagan-era movies worth watching. 

Thirty years since their cultural peak, let’s take a moment to remember the Preppie Pin Ups (or if you prefer, the Punk Pin Ups as they were often secretly worshipped by both the freaks and the geeks). Some of these actresses are still around, but with radically different images. Think Diane Lane, Demi Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Connelly, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christina Applegate, and even the greatest Preppy Pin Up of them all, Molly Ringwald, now an erstwhile author and singer. For others, the decade of big hair, spandex, neon, Day Glo, oversized tweed coats, fedoras and band badges, marked their twilight. 

Even still, we pine for Phoebe Cates, performer of the most famous topless scene in film history as the (temporarily) red bikini-clad Linda Barrett in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Then there was Mia Sara, who gave life to the adorable truant Sloane Peterson in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Kelly LeBrock was the computer-generated cyber-fantasy in that same year’s anarchic Weird Science. Dude-wise, you had your Sheens (and Estevez-es), your Spaders, your McCarthys, but they were really just interchangeable guys in popped collar polo shirts and Ray-Ban Wayfarers.

In previous decades geeks were geeks, greasers were greasers, Jake Ryan (Ringwald’s perfectly coiffed object of desire in Pretty in Pink played by Michael Schoeffling) was Jake Ryan. Before the 1980s, the heroines only dealt with the latter two types. But between ‘81 and ‘86, the screen stories as written (more often than not by the late John Hughes, a sort of one-man Nerd Braveheart) found the Preppy Pin Up finally giving the brace faced dorks and tender-hearted virgins some.  Never before were screen sirens asked to be so geek friendly. 

The ’80s were also the first terminally jaded decade. Movie-goers were convinced they’d seen everything in the ’70s: the porno chic sensation of Deep Throat, Divine eating poo in Pink Flamingos, giant sharks in Jaws, serial killers with dead skin masks in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Death Star. For this reason, the ‘80s ingénue had to go the extra mile to make an impression. Rae Dawn Chong smeared herself with mud and grunted in “Cave” language (Quest for Fire).  Barbara Crampton in Re-Animator was strapped naked to an operating table while a severed head, guided by her own zombie father’s hands, attempts to give her “head” (get it?).  Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles has to dance in her panties to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” in a film (The Allnighter) directed by her own mother. 

How were these bold acts rewarded?  Well, the ’80s also gave us the fast forward button, the freeze frame button and a video store in every stupid, suburban town. Most of these actresses were serious about their craft and had no idea that millions of teenage boys would be zooming past every other carefully memorized line and studiously considered non-nude scene to linger over the ones with the sex on the stairs and in the chair and on a “real train,” as Rebecca DeMornay, a very patient de-virginizer, has with the young Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Cruise had yet to grow into his badass Maverick self. He was still the full on nerd of Losin’ It, in which the relatively seasoned Shelly Long plays the… very patient de-virginizer.

Mad scientists have pinned this extinction level event to the cameo appearance of Madonna in 1985’s Vision Quest.   She rejected the very notion of the Preppie Pin Up, and for good measure, with 1986’s Who’s That Girl?, Madonna returned the screen heroine archetype to the bleached blonde, buxom, gum snapping, baby-voiced archetype of the ’40s and ’50s.   Madonna was far too aggressive for the “no fumble with my body this way” hooker parts and was not the girl who lived next door.  She was the girl who lived out of a black hatbox suitcase painted with skulls and filled with stolen cutlery.  As Linda Fiorentino (Vision Quest’s de facto star) and Rosanna Aquette (Desperately Seeking Susan’s) can attest, it was hard to keep pace.  Cultivating the Pat Benatar look had seen its day.

Time (the avenger) however, is finally, if slowly retrieving the Preppy Pin Up’s underpants (“Girls underpants!”, as memorably specified in Sixteen Candles) for posterity thanks to the persistent fascination with all things ’80s by a younger generation.   Now, whenever we hear songs of the decade, your “Moving in Stereos,” your “I Melt With You’s,” and of course, your “Pretty in Pinks,” it’s these spandex-clad, headband-favoring babes who are revived in the mind: forever young and big in Japan. In our hearts, and today, in our social feeds, there will always be a place for the preppy pin up. After all, it wasn’t the films that got small. It was the phones. 

Photos by Everett Collection