Margaretha Zelle was born on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, the only daughter of four children born to hat merchant Adam Zelle and wife Antje. When Margaretha was 15 her mother died after a brief illness; that event, coupled with a history of bad investments and a bankruptcy, caused the siblings to be split up to live with relatives.
Margaretha also had a growing interest in her own sexuality, realizing fairly-early that it could be a ticket to marriage with men who had influence, money, and/or power. In 1895 she wed Captain Campbell McLeod after answering a personals ad in a newspaper; he was 40 years old at the time, while she was a month shy of 19. They were married for nine years, five of which were at his duty station in the Dutch East Indies (1897-1902) on the islands of Java and Sumatra; she would give birth to two children during that period. But the marriage was strained, in part due to Campbell's alcoholism and frequent rages over his jealousy of other officers gaining her attention, and she returning it.
By 1905 the marriage was over. Both had returned to Europe, with Campbell in the Netherlands with their daughter (their son died mysteriously on Java in 1899), while Margaretha had moved to Paris. It was there that she became a French diplomat's mistress who encouraged her to be an exotic dancer.
"Eye of the Day"
Well-aware of the fact that all things Oriental was a major fad in 1905 Paris, Margaretha had chosen a dancing style that was based on her experiences in the Dutch East Indies. The movements were a mix of Hindu and Indonesian, containing some elements of both culture's religions. The costuming was of a similar mix, and where the costume was lacking in material was a deliberate choice; she allowed much of her body to be shown nude, then bordering on the scandalous in Paris. Completing the appearance was her own looks, a dark-haired beauty with olive skin, of which one writer stated she was "...slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair. Her face makes a strange foreign impression." A newspaper (The Gallic) gave praise to her dancing, writing that she was "...so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."
Margaretha had also taken a new name when she emerged on the Paris stage, one that was befitting to her exotic look: Mata Hari, an Indonesian word meaning "eye of the day".