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BEAUTY IS JUST SKIN
Column by Jen Frankel!


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kelly lebrockBEAUTY IS JUST SKIN
Column

by Jen Frankel

Back in the 80s, a pert and perky Kelly LeBrock told us “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” It became one of the most quoted commercial catchphrases of all time (entirely obliterating “Sometimes I just don’t feel fresh” in its wake – thank God...) The product, all but forgotten, was Pantene, and the method of slogan delivery was by model.

There’s always been a blurred line between “actress” and “model.” Young, pretty girls are Hollywood’s grist, and they are discovered and sent packing more regularly than your New Year’s promise to work out more and totally swear off chocolate. It’s not exactly the same for guys; actors have made the leap to product pimping far more often than Calvin Klein hunks have jumped onto stage and screen.

Yeah, that “Don’t Hate Me” campaign was irritating. LeBrock never really developed as an actress, although she became an icon of female beauty because of roles like her “perfect woman” in Weird Science and as the archetypal “Woman in Red.” In the posters for the latter, she didn’t even make top billing. If there ever could be a woman who stood for idealized, unattainable gorgeousness, it was Kelly LeBrock.

At least, it was only Pantene she was pushing. The notion that changing your shampoo could make men fall all over you seemed as ridiculous as it was. I’m sure a lot of women changed, but in hopes of curing their split ends, not because they thought it would make them a goddess to men.

Models and leading ladies have always been the faces of cosmetics companies. The trend away from the former and toward the latter has meant criticism from the fashion industry that models are taken less seriously than actresses and pop idols, who tend to sell more magazines and have slowly been replacing them on covers and in ad spots for the last twenty years. Andie MacDowell, debatably never a particularly strong actress, has maintained her profile high entirely through her connection to L’Oreal.

She’s never stopped working for long as an actress, and has a record number of projects slated for the next two years, but you’ve probably never heard of any of them. It’s the makeup that really does make the woman.

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Cosmetics companies have trended in a new direction over the last few years, and I’m not entirely certain I like their new approach. Initially, I was pretty thrilled to see a plus-sized womanly woman (one who’s REALLY curvy and not just saying so) like Queen Latifah on ads for beauty products. Yes, Covergirl seemed to be saying, you can be beautiful even if you’re not a highly paid runway model. Big girls need makeup too.

I liked it, but I was a little freaked out as well. Was this really the advent of a broader definition of beauty to include the 99% of us who aren’t model-quality, or was this just a way of making the rest of us even hungrier to spend as much as possible on product?

Advertisers are savvy, and ones that sell to us through our insecurities are the savviest, not to mention most profitable. To my way of thinking, Queen Latifah aids the notion that ALL women need makeup, and that it’s okay to admit it. It reinforces low self-esteem without artificial enhancement while ironically finally giving women a more realistic and attainable icon to emulate.

And now, there’s a shift even further to muddy the idea of just what makeup is supposed to prove about you to the world. Covergirl has recruited Drew Barrymore to sell mascara with the concept of “be all you can be,” not the actual slogan of course, but as if makeup plays a big part in self-esteem. I’m more okay with a model or an actress I don’t particularly respect sending out that message than I am with hearing it from someone who’s successfully fought through drug addiction, the curse of the child actor, and become a high-powered Hollywood producer and director herself.

faceIt’s a twisted kind of angst that makes me long for cosmetics spokesmodels I can write off as lightweights, instead of celebrating that Drew, a woman I respect, is out there being beautiful for all the world to see.

But this is the new paradigm of advertising beauty products. Someone somewhere realized that women who otherwise aren’t interested in the “we must repair your flaws so you can love yourself” line sold by cosmetics companies don’t feel any need to respond to the likes of Christie Brinkley and Rihanna might just listen if the words are in the mouth of Diane Keaton instead.

Hence Ellen Degeneres’s emergence as one of the new faces of Covergirl, with her own line of anti-aging products, and Keaton selling hair color for L’Oreal. “Because You’re Worth It” takes on a far more attractive tone when it’s coming from the mouth of someone who you respect, instead of someone who already seems just a little too entitled to be likable.

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When Ellen mocks models, you feel you join her – and feel a little less guilty about following their lead to the beauty section of the drug store. If Ellen swears by it, it can’t really be self-indulgent, right?

faceFrom men, I’d be curious to see reactions to Hugo Boss ads featuring Ryan Reynolds and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Guys seem less okay with sexualized, idealized ads showing male beauty. It took Axe to find a comic and sexy tone that goes down well, but Boss is really trying hard to do for men what most cosmetics companies already do for women – bring in some glamor. Attainable or no, men do seem to like the look and feel of a good suit, and maybe adding a bit of cologne to that is doable without having to feel emasculated.

From “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” to “Don’t Hate Me” to “Maybe She’s Born With It,” the message from advertisers to women is that you need to buy a lot of stuff to be a natural beauty. I’m personally not going to buy and obsess more because the new black is smart, savvy women with business success and staying power instead of pretty models who may vanish back into the ether in the next TV cycle. But it feels as manipulative to me as putting Sarah Palin into an election and convincing us that women are coming into their own on the political stage. With Drew shilling for the cosmetics giants, sending me that subtle hint that even she needs to be fully made up to get ahead, I feel distinctly betrayed.


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