Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cover girls

I love it when a sub inserts an exclamation mark to spice up a paragraph - not. Anyway, here is my airbrushed piece from today's Irish Independent.

Magazines have been notorious for retouching the cover shots of their models so they look thinner. Now a backlash has editors trying to do just the opposite. Susan Daly reports

Wednesday June 17 2009
The worst-kept secret in the beauty and fashion business is that an airbrush is a model or celebrity's best friend. Traditionally, this piece of technological wizardry has been used to slim down limbs and banish blemishes on digital photographs so that they are seen fit to grace the cover of a magazine.
The argument against this retouching of reality has been that it is harmful to impressionable readers, leading to eating disorders, body dysmorphia and issues of low self-esteem as they try to attain the impossible perfection presented in these photographs.
Well, the reality just got grimmer -- and slimmer. Alexandra Shulman, the influential editor of UK Vogue magazine, has written a letter to all the major fashion designers to warn them that she is now having to ask her photographers to make her cover models look bigger!
The sample sizes which many designers provide for photoshoots are so tiny, she says, that she has to hire ever-increasingly skeletal models to fit into them.
These models are so thin that she fears alienating her readers altogether. Her photographers must now use all their trickery not to take these girls down a size -- as was more traditional in the wafer-thin fashion world -- but to beef them up.
Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, backed up Shulman's claims. "I spent the first 10 years of my career making girls look thinner," he said, "I've spent the last 10 making them look larger." The size zero debate has gone sub-zero.
It's ironic, really, that a fashion magazine editor is complaining about having to skew reality to make her models acceptable to readers. For years, the same editors would have argued that no-one wants to buy a dress from an overweight model (for overweight, read a size 10 and up).
Flawless, thin, impossibly beautiful and generally white -- that was the type to which cover girls conformed.
Side by side with Shulman's move back to healthy-slim, we are told there is a backlash against the doctoring of magazine cover images altogether. Airbrushing and digital manipulation is out: undoctored beauty is in.
French Elle recently flirted with reality by featuring three celebrities without make-up on their cover of their April edition. The inclusion of bare-faced ladies in a high-fashion mag was internationally applauded, although the "au naturel" celebrities featured -- actresses Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau and supermodel Eva Herzigova -- are genetically blessed with fabulous bone structures to begin with.
Anna Wintour, the formidable editor-in-chief of US Vogue, has also been embracing diversity in her previously rigid cover girl criteria. When the Ethiopian model Liya Kebede posed for the May edition, she followed Beyoncé and Michelle Obama to become the third black woman in a row to appear on the cover.
"About a year ago, we talked about the global conversation about diversity in fashion, and we took it very seriously," said Patrick O'Connell, a spokesman for US Vogue.
US Vogue, lest we forget, was also the magazine that published a cover shot of an almost unrecognisable Oprah Winfrey in 1998. Winfrey spent months shrinking herself to Anna Wintour's acceptable parameters for the style bible.
"If you want to be on the cover of Vogue and Anna Wintour says you have to be down to 150lbs -- that's what you gotta do," said Winfrey, which is a worrying statement from the apparent queen of self-empowerment and self-respect.
That Wintour is doing a U-turn can only be good, right? Yet some see such talk of diversification as merely trend-driven, a stunt to keep readers attracted to an industry that sells fantasy in the form of luxury items.
When Italian Vogue published its "Black Issue" in June of last year, featuring only black models, it sold out within 72 hours -- but was criticised in some quarters for tokenism.
Cover fakery is still widespread. Actress Kate Winslet protested against GQ lengthening and slimming her legs to stick-insect proportions in 2003. Fast-forward to late last year and she denies that Vanity Fair airbrushed her semi-naked body for an Oscars issue, although she admitted to six hours of make-up, hair and light set-ups for the shoot.
Dove cosmetics launched a viral video on the internet last year called Evolution that caused quite a stir. It showed one average-looking woman being transformed through make-up, re-styling, lighting and digital retouching to produce a model-worthy photograph. "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted," read the kicker line on the video.
The Swedish Ministry of Health has launched a similar campaign to show the country's teenagers how model shots can be manipulated.
A separate website controversially published two photographs of country singer Faith Hill last year -- one in which she looks like the naturally attractive 40-something mother that she is; and the other in which she has been freakily Photoshopped to look like a woman in her early 30s for the cover of Redbook magazine.
This is the same magazine that did a Frankenstein job on Julia Roberts for a cover story in 2003, using a picture of her head from a 2002 paparazzi shot on top of a photo of her body from the 1998 Notting Hill premiere.
The photograph was accompanied with a headline that read, with no trace of irony, "The Real Julia".
The tricks of the trade are no secret. Digital photo manipulation can trim fat, even out skin tone, banish blemishes, add shine to hair, even change the colour of an outfit.
New York magazine was accused of "whitewashing" Michelle Obama on their March cover by giving her a Barbie pink lipstick and lightening her skin tone, although they defended it as an "illustration" rather than a photograph.
A good sign that an image has been airbrushed is when the skin is so flawless that it seems plastic and unreal. The sardonic celeb-style website regularly takes a poke at hyper-real cover photos -- its archive has a worryingly long list of entries. The model and actress Jenny McCarthy highlighted her own dodgy covershot for last month's US Shape magazine.
The shot, she admitted, had undergone "a crap load of airbrushing ... I have freckles ... and stretchmarks that you do not see here, and they add a little shadowing to make these muscle things happen that don't exist on my body."
Even with the digital paintbrush out of the picture, there are ways to fake a flawless portrait. People magazine made a big fuss of its 100 Most Beautiful list in 2007, which included 10 celebrities looking dewy-faced without -- gasp -- their make-up, or airbrushing. But clever photographers' tricks were used to flatter the women (including Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Rachel Bilson who are in their 20s and wrinkle-free anyway).
Several of the pictures were taken with a long exposure, disguising small imperfections. The shots were also overexposed to the point that the brown-skinned Rosario Dawson looked positively white -- all to fade out uneven skin tone, spots and freckles.
Most of the women were shot wearing white clothing, against a white background, to act as a further natural reflector to fill in dark shadows and blemishes. The women also stood in front of wind machines to tease some energy into their tresses.
But should we worry so much about smoothed-out stars giving false example when fantasy has always been the nub of showbiz? Think of those soft-focus, up-lit portraits of the earliest Hollywood stars.
Black and white is so flattering, darling. Some historians believe that even the iconic bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti -- the world's first beauty queen -- may have been touched up.
The artist who created it is thought to have straightened her nose and smoothed creases around her mouth to present her in the most flattering light. With the idealisation of beauty so culturally-entrenched, it may take more than a few celebs sans slap to change it.

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