The Singing Legend Who Inspired Miss Piggy

Image: Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Miss Piggy is a legend in the world of children’s entertainment. But with her karate-chopping tantrums and her need to hog the limelight at all costs, she’s not exactly a favorable character to be compared to.

It turns out, though, that Kermit the Frog’s on/off girlfriend was in part based on a real person – and a famous entertainer, no less. Peggy Lee was one of the most popular musical performers of the mid-20th century, releasing multiple hit tracks, picking up prestigious accolades and making her mark on the big screen.

The Miss Piggy and Peggy Lee connection was initially deemed by many to be nothing more than an enduring urban legend. But it’s actually true, as Bonnie Erickson – a designer who worked on The Muppet Show – revealed in a 2008 interview with Smithsonian.

Erickson’s original inspiration for her Muppet character were the pigs on her family’s farm, but it was a fond memory of a certain entertainer that gave her the idea to call her Miss Piggy. The designer 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.”

Who was Peggy Lee?

Miss Piggy’s fame is nothing compared to the success that her namesake enjoyed in her heyday. Lee, who entered the world as Norma Delores Egstrom in North Dakota, first gained national attention as a jazz singer with Benny Goodman’s swing band. With the group she released hits including “Why Don’t You Do Right?” before pursuing a solo career.

In 1952 Lee took to the big screen to play Judy Lane in the reboot of The Jazz Singer. Three years later, she stole the show as troubled star Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly’s Blues – a performance that earned her an Oscar nod.

Lee’s cinematic work also led to her involvement with children’s entertainment powerhouse Disney. In 1957 she lent her voice to Si and Am the Siamese cats, Peg the dog and Darling the human in the animation Lady and the Tramp.

Even after a successful movie career, Lee didn’t give up on singing. She still occasionally returned to the stage into her 70s – despite having battled a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, a heart condition and pneumonia.

However, in 2002 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. A year later, a host of musicians honored Lee’s talents with a concert at Carnegie Hall. And with Miss Piggy remaining a staple of popular culture, the jazz singer’s legacy still lives on.

Image: Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Miss Piggy’s rise to fame on The Muppet Show

In the sixth episode of The Muppet Show’s first season, Miss Piggy was actually called Piggy Lee. But as the character’s popularity increased, the behind-the-scenes team reportedly began to worry that her name was a mistake.

According to Erickson, “[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.” Erikson admitted that she had no idea whether Lee was aware she had inspired Miss Piggy.

But the connection between Peggy Lee and Miss Piggy doesn’t end with their names. In the fifth episode of The Muppet Show, Rita Moreno joins Animal for a rendition of “Fever” – a track made famous by Peggy Lee.

Miss Piggy performed the same song at the 2006 Hollywood Bowl to honor the orchestra’s founding director, John Mauceri. Accompanied by fellow Muppets Statler and Waldorf, she sported a red gown as she belted out the classic hit atop a grand piano.

At one time, Miss Piggy was never intended to be more than a bit character. When Erickson spoke at a 2018 event called The Women of the Muppets, she 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.”

Then as the writers began to acknowledge Miss Piggy’s star quality, she was upgraded to major cast-member status. Alongside her love interest, Kermit the Frog, she soon became one of the main faces of the Muppets brand. As Erickson put it, “I didn’t know Miss Piggy was going to be a star, but she did.”

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