maggiealderson

On beauty

In Beauty, Fashion magazines, Supermodels on July 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm

An archive special this week from 2003. I stumbled across this one by chance the other day and it struck me that it exactly addresses what I’ve been feeling looking at those pictures of Elle McPherson at the school gates.

They are just paparazzi shots, but some of them – the one in the snow particularly – could go straight into US Vogue. It’s had me thinking again about the otherness of true beauty.

And I’ve illustrated it with the amazing Natalia Vodianova (who I consider the most beautiful woman on earth) because her life so illustrates the transformative power of beauty. She was selling vegetables in a Russian market when she was discovered…

I do wonder if it as potent a life-changing quality in men. I’d love to have the opportunity to ask Andres Velencoso Segura… My favourite male model.

I was leafing listlessly through a fashion magazine today, thinking yadda yadda yadda, seen it all before, when one picture stopped me in my campaign weary tracks.

It wasn’t a particularly startling fashion photograph, but then I’ve been looking at fashion pictures for so many years – first as a consumer, then as a magazine editor and latterly as homework – that I find I am less often transported by them than I used to be. I don’t know whether it’s fashion, fashion photography, or me (most likely), but find I am rarely moved to linger and sigh these days. But something really struck me about this shot. It was the extraordinary beauty of the models.

Now that’s a pretty dumb thing to say – all models are gorgeous, or they wouldn’t, er, be models – and it is a fashion photographer’s job to render that beauty on the page. But somehow, this picture seemed particularly to showcase the amazing slender legs, willowy torsos and satiny skin of the two girls. And it made me wonder – what would it be like to be that beautiful?

Theirs was not the kind of fairy floss allure that is spun together by lighting, stylists, make up artists and a certain shutter speed, as is the case with many models. A lot of them are quite wan and plain in real life, their beauty springing forth only when pinioned, like a specimen butterfly, by the camera lens.

You could tell from the picture that these are the kind of girls who are even better in the flesh, who make people’s mouths drop open as they walk down the street. The full girl from Ipamena effect.

It put me in mind of something I once read about the supreme fashion photographer Richard Avedon – whose pictures still make me sigh. He had a sister of extraordinary beauty and he wrote of her: ‘My sister’s beauty was the event of my family.’

Isn’t that good? The ‘event’. I love the way it evokes the impact of amazing beauty, its power to change lives. Because I really think to be as beautiful as the models in that picture – not pretty, not cute, not sexy, but beautiful – must be to inhabit a different world from the rest of us.

I had an inkling of this years ago, when I had one very beautiful friend, who did ultimately become a model herself. We were students doing the same summer job and although we were exactly two weeks apart in age – she the slightly older – the manager of the restaurant where we were working put her on the higher wage scale, because she was ‘nearly’ 19.

When I protested that I was nearly 19 too, only two weeks less nearly than her, he sent me packing. He had smiled the little bit of extra fortune he had to bestow on her simply because she was beautiful. He wasn’t a sleaze bag, he wasn’t trying to crack on to her, but seeing her walking into his office had no doubt made his day, in a way which my entrance had not. I fumed at the time, just as I fumed when every guy I fancied lusted after her and ignored me, but now I understand it.

Beauty has such currency. I know I have given jobs to people mainly because they were beautiful. Having them around cheered up the office and enhanced the image of the magazine when we were out and about. It’s horrible, but it’s true, and that’s why I think to be seriously beautiful must be to exist on a kind of moving walkway of life, with everything made just that little bit easier for you.

Of course there is that thing that beautiful people complain of, when they want to be loved for their minds and not their silken thighs (ha!). But on the whole, I think life must be transformed by beauty in ways we normal people can barely understand.

No wonder we are all so obsessed with it.

 

Now tell me, who are your current, living Most Beautifuls?

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  1. I have seen both Helena Christensen and Christy Turlington in the flesh (a while ago) and I thought they were just about perfect. I think when people are beautiful we assume, sometimes incorrectly (but not always), that they are the whole package, beautiful, smart, competent, nice etc, when they are actually just beautiful.

    • Yes, the assumptions are the terrible thing – the assumption that good, but also THICK. That must be unbearable. Jemima Khan, Lily Cole and many others prove how crazy that idea is. x

  2. The photo of the male model reminds me very much of one of the great Opera singers around today. A tenor called Jonas Kaufmann. The man has a glorious voice and is a passionate actor,but his personal beauty is really the icing on the cake.

  3. Nigella Lawson. I think she IS the whole package. Beautiful inside and out.

  4. Your article reveals you to be fundamentally good person, with a fairly robust sense of your own worth but many women and some men will go out of their way to attack or undermine someone they perceive as more beautiful than themselves. I think there are clear costs to beauty, if you’re not making a living from it, that are not usually taken account of: envious attacks, denial of the possibility of its co-existence with intelligence (clearly a defence mechanism that can actually hinder a career), being a mere desirable object of possession (which of course you mentioned), being neglected or excluded from normal social situations because you are perceived as intimidating or threatening to the couple and, of course, more than the usual quota of sexual harrassment. In Yeats’ Prayer for my Daughter he asks for her not to be noticeably beautiful just so her life has a better chance of being a happy one.

  5. I often find myself transfixed with beautiful people because I look so visibly different. i do believe I need to work harder to get noticed by people. An ex friend once told me that I wouldn’t know what it was like to be bullied because of being beautiful. Ummm but I know what it was like to be bullied because I am not.

    • Yes, it’s like when men complain about sexism – yes, it’s equally wrong, but if you hold the ace card in your hand, you are in a better position to deal with it x

  6. I adore Michelle Williams and Cate Blanchett because of their beauty.

  7. I adore Abbey Lee Kershaw because she is beautiful, has a quirky original fashion sense, and seems to have a cool attitude. I love seeing her transform on set and work it for the camera… when interviewed she said she doesn’t even see herself up there on the billboards as a model, the real girl is the one who wakes up in the morning and rolls out of bed… but i bet she’s still beautiful then too…

  8. Mariska Hargitay for mine – she’s gorgeous!!

  9. Beauty is dangerous and lulls us as it arouses. Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal

  10. i am torn on this one.
    on one hand i appreciate beauty in all sorts of things as well as people.
    on the other hand, we put such an emphasis on beauty and how to achieve it, it can become destructive to ourselves and eachother.
    its hard to say how beautiful somebody is, without making somebody else (or a group of people) feel uncomfortable or inadequate.
    having said that i know ive encountered the kind of beauty you’re talking about when looking at that person is like looking at the sun. its just too much to handle 🙂

  11. I went to an airshow once with a very stunning tall Japanese girl. As we walked through the crowds I got to experience what it was like to be so beautiful. Everybody walking towards us stared at her in a way I have never experienced. I personally found it very discomforting, but maybe it’s something she is used to. Either way, if that’s what beautiful people have to put up with, give me average and non eye catching any day.

  12. Funnily enough (why do these things happen with such synergy?), just this week I had the opportunity to observe a group of teenagers at a bus stop for a few minutes, without being able to hear their conversation. I watched a beautiful young boy interacting with males and females and felt his absolute confidence in every interaction. His beauty just seemed to imbibe him with a belief in himself that I can’t imagine possessing- how different must be his experience of being a teenager to my own?

    I maintain that peaking in high school gives you nothing to strive for, but oohh to have lived without the angst and agony of not being beautiful at 16; of wondering if anyone would ever find you attractive; if you’d ever be happy with what you saw in the mirror…

  13. Jon Hamm!

  14. I think beauty is an evolution. There are beautiful looks at every age. Grace has to be a part of beauty, too.
    Cary Grant? You bet. Audrey Hepburn. To be sure. Bridget Bardot. I can’t think of any current young ones. I see them in the mags, but don’t know their names.

  15. Nigella Lawson IS the whole package. Beautiful inside and out.

  16. Nadja Auermann. Probably a throwback to the time when I was really interested in models, but to me she is perfect!

  17. I just started reading this blog, and, as inoffensively as possible, it is really very apparent now that it is not for me.

    If I were to contribute anything to this discussion, it would be this link and maybe this gorgeous episode of South Park.

    • Hi Rose – I explained the deleting thing above and in an email to you. I don’t ‘worship’ Hollywood stars, just find the whole issue of ideas of beauty and how we respond to it fascinating. Really like the piece you linked to, as it is another angle on the same discussion. Maggie x

  18. Grace Kelly, Grace Kelly and Grace Kelly. Ethereal, luminous and utterly gorgeous.

  19. For mine, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rosamund Pike are true beauties. I agree that Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were too! There are plenty of Pretties, Cuties and Attractives out there but real beauty is very rare.

  20. My comment seems to have been deleted; I’m not sure whether to be amused or appalled. I’m wasn’t trying to make trouble and I don’t think I was disrespectful in the least.

    But as it’s now clear that dissenting thoughts are not welcome, I will say that if this is truly the world you inhabit … that’s actually quite sad. I would rather be happy in my own skin than worship Hollywood idols from afar, and if you really can’t stand to have me say that here … well, goodbye.

    • Rose! Don’t take offence! WordPress thought your comment was spam for some reason, and I found it when I checked that file. I don’t delete any comments – only ones that really are spam. Now I will read your first message and reply. Mx

  21. Hmm…without confidence, beauty cannot shine. I am beautiful, but until I felt confident, I did not see myself as beautiful, and consequently neither did anyone else (it also probably had a bit to do with the ‘swan moment’ you blogged about once upon a time).

    Angelina Jolie is both beautiful and confident. She inspired me to be the same.

    Interesting that another of my favourite bloggers should be posting on a similar subject this week…

    http://www.thestylerookie.com/2011/06/when-i-was-just-little-girl-i-asked-my.html

  22. I think Kate Moss is absolutley stunning. She’s an incredibly versatile model. Those cat eyes, those cheek bones, her figure – what a knock out!

    In terms of men, Jeremy Northam makes me swoon, not only his dark, brooding good looks but also his fierce intellect!

    • Kate is in a category all her own, I think. She is beautiful, but it’s so much more than that, it’s the attitude that makes her so fascinating. I love her knees…

  23. Have met both Vanessa Redgrave and Nigella Lawson when they were much younger and both were very beautiful. (Still beautiful now, but at the height then.)

    • Vanessa has more charisma than beauty for me. Her bearing, her height… mind you, I did meet her in the loos at the BAFTAs (20 years ago…) so it wasn’t exactly a fashion shoot!

  24. I once sat in a bar with a breathtakingly beautiful male model friend. I myself….not quite so breathtaking!
    Our intent was quiet drinks and chat….if only!
    People’s reactions to him were quite startling. Multiple women were gob-smackingly rude in gate-crashing our space and introducing themselves/their vital contact details. Men glanced, smirked and whispered to each other. I’m sure there were those not affected or interested by our presence, but they appeared in the minority.
    To his credit, my unflappable and ridiculously modest friend seemed utterly disconnected to the reaction his presence caused. I walked away thanking God I resemble only a mere mortal 🙂

  25. Nastassja Kinski, especially in Tess of the D’Urbervilles has to be my idea of true but unusual beauty. Luminous. Paul Newman still does it for me. But strangely, with men, I actually prefer the ‘jolie-laide’ types. Flawed but more fanciable!

    • Yes, true attraction is to personality isn’t it? I have found myself attracted to very plain men who were very very funny. With every laugh they got a little bit more sexy…

  26. I’d like to second Linda’s comment and add that not all beautiful people have the kind of personality that allows them to easily deal with the attention–positive and negative. Some beautiful people are shy and very sensitive. And some women can be very cruel to women they perceive as more beautiful. Also, though this is better than harassment, sometimes married/attached men treat you like you are threatening when all you want to do is have a normal work relationship, etc. I’ve often been described as a beautiful person and yet talking/reading these sorts of things always make me terribly sad. In my opinion, though it has definite perks, it is not what it is cracked up to be…at least for the non-celebrities. As Linda said, I have had friends admit that I have not been invited to certain events because I would be competition. Also, knowing that others perceive you as beautiful can make your life much too shallow and empty if you let it.

    • This is fascinating and is another example of why I find the whole notion of beauty so interesting. It can be a burden for those who have had it thrust upon them – but it is a burden that comes with perks. People who are given invisble gifts like being maths geniuses, or piano prodigies, don’t have their luck on display to the world. It’s the visibility of beauty that makes it so complex for the one who has it and the ones observing. Great stuff, thank you x

  27. The most beautiful peron on the planet is my 3 month old son. Really. He is stunning, STUNNING I tell you and practically stops traffic. I can’t pick just one woman or man…but Nigella is pretty special. Beauty has such currency. I quite like being surrounded by beautiful people too- so cheering in a workforce or at a party. Keep up the good work Maggie. And hurry up and publish another book, I finished Shall we Dance months ago.

  28. Hmmm… I am actually rather annoyed by this article and I can’t pinpoint why! I love beauty and being surrounded by beauty and beautiful things and beautiful people but… I guess I’m annoyed at your honesty and how bluntly you have put it. You are right. Beauty is not a level playing field.

    Although I know what you are saying, that there is true physical beauty, the kind that just makes you sigh and stop breathing simultaneously, I don’t agree that beauty is a look… to me it is a feel… a strirring… and a projection…

    I am considered good-looking, stunning sometimes too, depending on my total package (my dress sense is rather dramatic, hence why I have a style blog) but I’m not beautiful, not in the true breathtaking sense. Even though I am capable of projecting beautiful and for me, this comes from feeling powerful
    …like today (Jul 7th)… I had the most amazing Flamenco class and when I’m dancing Flamenco and am in ‘the zone’… goddddd I feel strong… and therefore beautiful. Don’t really care if no one else can see that.

    I see beautiful women everyday! Maybe not the beauty you write of but I am stirred by triggers of beauty on a daily basis… a smile, a laugh, a witty comment, a generous thought or action…

    If I have to choose from the world of celebrity then… okay, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman… the Hawaiian woman in the opening credits of ‘Hawaii 5-0’ (original)… Yasmeen Ghauri… Angelina Jolie (when she’s not Angeleaner 😀 )… Ava Gardner… (Indian star) Rekha… and yes, Nigella stirs me. Lame pun intended!

    When it comes to celebrity men… what stirs me is very different to most tastes! Intelligence is the factor that determines a man’s beauty… his age has nothing to do with it, which is why I find men like John Nettles and Jim Clark fucking hot!! Stephen Larkham (former Wallaby flyhalf)… Conrad Coleby (Australian actor) are beautiful men. I’m not in to the Depps and Beckhams, etc.

    I agree with the commentor above, I feel that way about my children, about my husband, about my best friends…. they to me are the most stunning people I have ever seen

    What is beauty really? I think I have an anwer to that but I’m going to write about it on my blog!!

    • I agree with everything you say – beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc etc and as I said below, a really funny man becomes beautiful to me very quickly… However, I have found in all my years of interviewing film stars, models etc that there is a point at which extreme beauty tips over into being something ‘other’ almost alien. Some very famous models look ordinary in the flesh, others shine from within. I’m fascinated by it and by our reaction to it as a species as well as culturally, as there are so many different ideals of beauty around the world. Keep it coming! xxx

  29. Hmmm… I am actually rather annoyed by this article and I can’t pinpoint why! I love beauty and being surrounded by beauty and beautiful things and beautiful people but… I guess I’m annoyed at your honesty and how bluntly you have put it. You are right. Beauty is not a level playing field.

    Although I know what you are saying, that there is true physical beauty, the kind that just makes you sigh and stop breathing simultaneously, I don’t agree that beauty is a look… to me it is a feel… a strirring… and a projection…

    I am considered good-looking, stunning sometimes too, depending on my total package (my dress sense is rather dramatic, hence why I have a style blog) but I’m not beautiful, not in the true breathtaking sense. Even though I am capable of projecting beautiful and for me, this comes from feeling powerful
    …like today (Jul 7th)… I had the most amazing Flamenco class and when I’m dancing Flamenco and am in ‘the zone’… goddddd I feel strong… and therefore beautiful. Don’t really care if no one else can see that.

    I see beautiful women everyday! Maybe not the beauty you write of but I am stirred by triggers of beauty on a daily basis… a smile, a laugh, a witty comment, a generous thought or action…

    If I have to choose from the world of celebrity then… okay, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman… the Hawaiian woman in the opening credits of ‘Hawaii 5-0’ (original)… Yasmeen Ghauri… Angelina Jolie (when she’s not Angeleaner 😀 )… Ava Gardner… (Indian star) Rekha… and yes, Nigella stirs me. Lame pun intended!

    When it comes to celebrity men… what stirs me is very different to most tastes! Intelligence is the factor that determines a man’s beauty… his age has nothing to do with it, which is why I find men like John Nettles and Jim Clark fucking hot!! Stephen Larkham (former Wallaby flyhalf)… Conrad Coleby (Australian actor) are beautiful men. I’m not in to the Depps and Beckhams, etc.

    I agree with the commentor above, I feel that way about my children, about my husband, about my best friends…. they to me are the most stunning people I have ever seen, so much so that I am sometimes overwhelmed.

    What is beauty really? I think I have an anwer to that but I’m going to write about it on my blog!!

  30. I met Natalie Imbruglia about 18 years ago. I worked on a TV show and famous people came in all the time. I didn’t watch Neighbours and although I knew of Natalie, she wasn’t on my radar. Anyway, she walked in and I was transfixed by her. She has the most incredible skin and eyes. She was also a tiny, tiny person (as a lot of the actors are). Jon Hamm is stunning, although I’m hoping he’s not a ‘tiny, tiny person’….he has to be tall. Helena Christensen…incredibly and other-worldly beautiful. Michael Hutchence…so beautiful and so missed…

  31. Kiwi actor Karl Urban. Although I think it could be just his amazing hair that bewitches and befuddles me. Maggie, have you noticed that there aren’t as many really, truly good-looking male celebrities as female celebrities? Male models, sure…but there are very few really jaw-dropping male actors, singers etc. Almost every female celebrity meets the eternal criteria of ‘beauty’ (slim, youthful looking, facial beauty), yet many male celebrities are badly aged, overweight, plain of face, or just fundamentally not that attractive. Do they believe that women have lower standards, or what? I don’t understand it. I personally find very little to rest my eyes on in terms of male beauty on tv, music videos, movies etc. Fortunately I’d rather look at my husband anyway, but as an intellectual problem…why do they show us plain or ugly men and expect us to enjoy watching them, yet to succeed in entertainment women are expected to be physically perfect and arresting?

    • Yes, with men it’s all about the ‘personality’… not fair, but personally it’s all about the GSOH for me. I don’t care how ugly a man is, if he makes me laugh I will find him sexy. True.

  32. Some of the people that I think are the most beautiful are actually enhanced in my eyes because of their kindness, intelligence and wicked sense of humour. I know it’s cliched, but true beauty really should come from within.

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