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Friday, 6 July, 2001, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Lara Croft: Fantasy Games Mistress
Lara Croft
The world's most popular virtual woman, Lara Croft, has become a 650m marketing reality since her first mission for the Tomb Raider computer game in the mid 1990s. Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at her adventure from PCs to the cinema screen.

Like Popeye and Superman, she began life as a pencil sketch on paper. Unlike them she became a virtual reality - not in California's Silicon Valley but in humble Derby, where in 1995 she was created and developed at the Core Design video-game studio.

If the marketing men had got their way, she might have been a he. But Tomb Raider's creator, Toby Gard, stuck to his guns and his decision seems to have paid off.

Each year, a sequel went straight to the top of the video-game charts. Lara sprinted through comics, became a big-selling plastic action figure and a fearsome weapon in Sony PlayStation's global struggle with its competitors.

Jon Voight and his daughter share an embrace
Angelina Jolie and her famous father, Jon Voight
Her fame was boosted with appearances on the covers of Time, Newsweek and the style magazine, The Face - the first by a digital person.

The former Liverpool goalkeeper, David James, blamed late nights with Lara for a spell of poor form. In every High Street, people bought Marks & Spencer's range of Tomb Raider III merchandise.

More than 100 million people worldwide have used their joysticks to guide Lara around the globe, as she encounters booby-traps, tigers and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in her quest for mysterious artefacts.

And up to a thousand dedicated websites provide further evidence of her international stature.

For there is now much to discuss about Lara Croft, thanks to the recent biographical invention by Eidos, Lara's parent company.

She was, according to the company, born in Wimbledon, the daughter of Lord and Lady Henshingly-Croft, on Valentine's Day, 1968, although Lara, unlike other women, is forever 29.

Nell McAndrew and her mirror image
Promo model Nell McAndrew doubles as Lara
Her education included a spell at Gordonstoun, Prince Charles' Scottish public school where the emphasis is on character-building through physical pursuits.

During her time at the school she went mountain climbing in the Scottish Highlands and developed a passion for the sport. Later she became even better acquainted with mountains when her plane crashed on its return from the Himalayas, killing everyone on board but herself.

She staggered into a village two weeks later, destined to throw off the shackles of her aristocratic lifestyle and become a female version of Indiana Jones.

From the day of her cyberspace delivery, though, there has been disagreement about her role. Toby Gard soon left to form his own company, Confounding Factor, amid resentment about what other people were doing with Lara.

He made a deliberate attempt to avoid the spangly thongs and metal bras so popular with digital women: "Lara, I felt, had more dignity".

Lara is a distorted, sexually ambiguous, male fantasy

Germaine Greer
Her wardrobe was practical: shorts, hiking boots and backpack, and in contrast to the helpless women of most games, she was characterised as "a veritable Germaine Greer". The real Germaine Greer, though, pours scorn on Croft and her improbable 34D-24-35 body.

"Lara Croft is a sergeant-major with balloons stuffed up his shirt," Greer said. "She's a distorted, sexually ambiguous, male fantasy. Whatever these characters are, they're not real women."

And Peter Molyneux of the Guildford video game company, Lionhead - the man regarded as the godfather of Britsoft - is in no doubt about the essence of our redoubtable heroine's appeal.

"Women had never featured prominently in computer games before, but when you think about the audience - predominantly young males - there was one thing missing," he says. "Lara Croft introduced sex to computer games."

Lara Croft's computer image with guns drawn
Gun totin' Lara takes on all-comers

Several models/actresses have impersonated Lara Croft for promotional appearances in the past, but now for the first time, audiences around Britain are seeing her in action, lots of it.

The American actress, Angelina Jolie, who lends flesh to the fantasy, has spent months getting in trim for Lara's feature film, in which Jolie performs most of her own stunts.

Lara's creator feels that Jolie, the daughter of actor Jon Voight, has "that certain wild quality" needed for the role, although, inevitably, she has to bolster her portrayal with an amply-padded bra.

Most critics have adjudged the 65m film is all front and no substance, but two sequels are planned.

It seems her promoters are convinced that the pixellated heroine and her Uzi still have plenty of ammunition.

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