It was the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, and the surprise winner was New Zealand-bred bay Prince of Penzance, whose odds were 100 to 1. Only four horses have ever won the Melbourne Cup at such long odds; the other three were The Pearl in 1871, Wotan in 1936, and Old Rowley in 1940. A great race for those punters who always put a bet on the outsider.
Prince of Penzance was ridden by Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to ever win the Melbourne Cup. As the Melbourne Cup has been going for 155 years this looks a bit slack on the part of women, but Michelle is only the fourth female jockey to ever compete in the Cup, giving women riders a 25% success rate so far. Of course it would be even more encouraging to see women chosen to ride the favourites, rather than outsiders with long odds ….
Michelle’s background story is one which has gained a lot of interest, because she is from country Victoria and has nine older siblings. Michelle lost her mother when she was only six months old, and was raised as the “baby” of the family by her father and older sisters.
Seven of the Paynes have gone on to work in the racing industry, and for those interested in large sibsets, Michelle’s siblings are Andrew, Cathy, Stephen, Brigid, Margaret, Bernadette, Maree, Patrick, and Therese (Brigid passed away suddenly a few years ago). Michelle’s brother Stevie, who has Downs Syndrome and works as a strapper, has also proved a crowd favourite for his support of his sister.
A girl from the country made good, a single dad with ten children, a big close family touched by tragedy, an inspirational brother who kept believing, the race that stops a nation, a win against the odds, and a photogenic heroine who cheerfully tells everyone that didn’t think she was good enough to “get stuffed” … it’s surely only a matter of time before this becomes an Aussie battler movie evoking laughter and tears, in the style of The Castle or Red Dog.
Michelle is a variant of Michèle, the feminine form of Michel, the French form of Michael, a Hebrew name meaning “who is like God?”. In use in medieval France, by at least the 17th century the name had been brought to England by French Protestant refugees. Michelle didn’t become common for English-speakers until the 20th century, so that although this is an old name, we tend to think of it as very modern.
Michelle first joined the charts in the 1940s, debuting at #248 – part of the post-war trend for French girls names. It rose swiftly, and was a Top 100 name by the 1950s, making #52 for that decade. By 1960 it was #18, and was in the Top 10 by 1961. Michelle reached #1 in 1967, which was the same year that the Beatles song Michelle won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. It also coincides with the period that (Holly) Michelle Phillips was in The Mamas and the Papas.
Overall, Michelle was the #2 name of the 1960s, and it made #1 again in 1974 and 1975, coinciding with Michelle Phillips’ success as a solo artist, and her foray into acting. Michelle was the overall #1 girls name of the 1970s, while Michael was the #1 boys names of the 1970s – the only time that male and female versions of the same name have been #1 at the same time. Michelle left the Top 100 in 2003, after half a century as a popular name. Currently it’s around the 200s, so it is still in reasonable use and comfortably positioned as a modern classic.
In the US, Michelle has been a Top 1000 name since the late 1930s, and was in the Top 100 from the 1950s until the late 2000s. It peaked at #2 during the late 1960s and early 1970s, so that although its popularity is very similar to that in Australia, it never quite managed to make it to #1 in the US. Currently it is #187 and falling. In the UK, Michelle was a Top 100 name from the 1960s until the 1980s, and Top 10 during the 1970s; it is currently #289 and steadily falling. Michelle is still popular in Switzerland and Latin America, but considered very dated in France.
The name has been kept in the public eye by all the now grown-up Michelles who have gone on to succeed in various fields. These include singers Michelle Branch and Michelle Featherstone, Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child, actresses Michelle Pfeiffer and Michelle Williams, Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey, and figure skater Michelle Kwan. One of the most famous is American First Lady Michelle Obama, who was serenaded by Paul McCartney with the song Michelle after he received the 2010 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Peaking in the 1960s and ’70s, pretty French Michelle may seem like a dated name – a mum name, or even a grandma name. However this modern classic is still getting reasonable use, and could appeal to parents wanting a name that seems “normal”, with many successful namesakes. It also works very well as a middle name.
Michelle received an approval rating of 41%. 34% of people thought the name was too dated for a baby, but 10% saw it as a nice normal name that’s easy to wear. Only one person thought Michelle seemed evil because it contained the word hell, and just one thought it was only suitable as a middle name.
(Photo of Michelle Payne on Prince of Penzance from The Australian)