Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The victors write history?

Check out this list - - before you read my thoughts on it, below.

DON’T be too concerned if you pass Glasnevin cemetery and hear a frightful high-pitched whine coming from below. That will be the generations of noble Irish
heroes and heroines spinning in their graves.

They, like me, can’t believe that a country with 2,000 years of recorded history whittles a list of its greatest citizens down to a top 40 and still finds room for two members of Boyzone and their manager.

Apologies, Jonathan Swift, Brian Boru and Ronnie Delaney. There just wasn’t a seat for you once Ronan Keating, Stephen Gately and Louis Walsh had been given their dues in RTE’s shortlist of Ireland’s Greatest Figures. Another of the favoured forty, the ghost of Charlie Haughey and his giant ego, needed an entire pew to itself.
RTE will argue that the ludicrous nominees on the list are ‘the people’s choice’.

One thousand people were apparently polled on who should make the shortlist. I’d love to know where this privileged 1,000 came from – certainly no-one I know is putting up their hand to admit they think Daniel O’Donnell deserves a place above Brendan Behan.

That’s democracy in action, they’ll tell you. Democracy also means you get the government you deserve – and look how that’s been working out for us.

One wag suggested the pollsters must have canvassed the bored queue outside the passport office, ripe for a bit of anarchy. There are a lot of off-the-cuff nominations in there. Chances are, if you are approached by some clipboard-wielding suit and asked to cast your mind over the centuries of Ireland’s complex history, you’ll be tempted to latch onto the last person you saw on the news last night. Or whoever’s statue you pass every day on the way into work every day.

RTE should be ashamed of itself for its lack of respect. As national broadcasters, they are literally our channel of record. They misleadingly use the title, Ireland’s Greatest, as if it is a definitive list of the finest people we have ever produced – and then compile it in a manner more suited to picking a song for the Eurovision.

In fact, the shortlist for Eurosong was created by a panel of the musically-minded before being presented to the public vote. Where were the historical, social, economic, scientific, cultural experts who could best assemble an informed collection of Ireland’s best and brightest, past and present?

All respect to the late Stephen Gately but chances are, if people had been polled for this list three years ago, he would have been bumped off it by Katy French. His inclusion has all the hallmarks of someone having seen a TV3 tribute to him the evening before.

Popular culture can’t be ignored. But why, say, does Colin Farrell take precedence over Gabriel Byrne, who is considered worthy of being Ireland’s new cultural ambassador to the world – but not good enough to get the nod ahead of Joe Dolan? We all loved Ronnie Drew, but what about the global singing superstar of his time, Count John McCormack?

Why not Maureen Potter or Spike Milligan for their comic genius? Has Louis Walsh done as much to promote distinctively Irish music as Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning, 70-million-album-selling Enya?

It’s completely random. Charles Haughey – the self-serving shyster who served as a role model for all the self-serving shysters who would succeed him in public office – is the biggest insult of all. Sure, why would Samuel Beckett be included over CJ – poor old Sam only won a Nobel Prize for Literature and the French Croix de Guerre for his work in the Resistance against the Nazis.

The saddest failure of this list is that it devalues the real achievements of our great little country. There are not many made in the mould of Grace O’Malley, who managed to stand up to Queen Elizabeth I of England and come away with her head still intact, or Tom Crean, one of the greatest and most humble explorers of all time.

There are so many outrageous omissions. Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry; George Boole, a founder of computer science; playwright GB Shaw; C.S. Lewis, author of the globally-beloved Narnia books; Pele’s favourite footballer, George Best; TK Whitaker, the great – and still very much alive – civil servant whose economic plan dragged Ireland into the modern era of free trade and prosperity.

Incidentally, Whitaker was voted Irishman of the 20th Century by an RTE programme a few years back. How fickle are they?

We could treat this poll with the same levity RTE have – and all spoil our votes by plumping for Dustin the Turkey (who, sadly, didn’t make it either). It’s a joke anyway. We might as well make it official.

Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do?

The truth about stars who say they're sex addicts
Yes, there is such an illness -- but many just use it as an excuse for bad behaviour, says Susan Daly

Saturday March 27 2010

When Eldrick Tont Woods was still the king of clean, Nike deified him in their iconic, oft-parodied, "I am Tiger Woods" TV commercial.

Thirteen years later, those parodies could be updated with the addition of those five little words: "I am Tiger Woods -- and I'm a sex addict."

It has become the justification du jour for celebrities caught with their trousers down. We especially expected to hear it last Sunday when the man with a catalogue of multimillion-dollar endorsements and a marriage to save gave his first post-rehab interviews.

Clearly, being labelled a serial philanderer is not good for the image, implying as it does a selfish, immoral, undisciplined personality. Applying the term 'addiction' to such behaviour reclassifies it as a psychological disorder, thereby rebranding the trespasser as a victim.

It was thought at one point that erstwhile England captain John Terry might spend a highly publicised spell in a sex-treatment programme to atone publicly for his sins against his wife and team-mates. Likewise, the newly separated Ashley Cole.

Russell Brand, David Duchovny and Halle Berry's ex-husband Eric Benet have all confessed in the past to 'suffering' from sexual addiction.

Whether such high-profile figures are chemically addicted to sex -- or just happily promiscuous until they are forced to give it a more PR-friendly label -- is up for debate.

Interestingly, Woods has refused to use the term 'sexual addiction' in his latest round of mea culpas ahead of the US Masters. He needs to start building bridges with his fans and big-name brands -- and quickly.

His people afforded two television sports stations five minutes each last weekend to quiz Woods on his 'recovery' after 45 days of in-patient treatment. Woods used terms like "disgusting" and "denial" to describe the "bad things" he had done; but also triumphal words like "conquering" and "strength" to ascribe his recovery to his own depth of character. Love the sinner, not the sin.

But when asked directly what exactly he had been in treatment for, Woods refused to elaborate. "That's a private matter," he said.

Dr Eoin Stephens, head of training at the Irish Centre for Sexual Addictions, is adamant that sexual addiction is very real, but that the term can also be abused.

"It can certainly be misused and overdone as a diagnosis," he says.

"This happens partly in the religious right in America, where any sexual behaviour deemed unacceptable can be classified in that way."

Tiger's retreat from the words, he says, could be read in many ways.

"One possibility is that he doesn't want the label or it could be that his behaviour wasn't actually as a result of sexual addiction. I've met people who aren't really out of control but have a sense of entitlement to inappropriate behaviour."

Relationship psychotherapist David Kavanagh doesn't like the use of the term at all. Instead, he describes the "sexual compulsivity" that he believes is causing problems in the relationships of roughly one-10th of his clients.

"In some situations, celebrities have used sex addiction as a get-out-of-jail card," he says, "but I think it is being seen as a shame-based description.

"People think it's easy for famous people to trot it out to evade blame for their behaviour but in some ways, it's more socially acceptable to say you are an alcoholic than to say you are a sex addict."

The medical community does not universally accept sexual addiction as a genuine psychological diagnosis. The committee behind the next edition of the psychiatrists' bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is due out in 2013, has announced that they won't be including it in the giant tome.

The proposed diagnosis for excessive sexual behaviours that impact negatively on one's relationships, work and mental health, will be called "hypersexual disorder".

So, no, it's not an official diagnosis, says Dr Eoin Stephens, "but then neither was post-traumatic stress until 1980."

This public perception is also often that sex rehab centres and celeb PR gurus are trying to medicalise what is simply bad behaviour.

"If I have to have an addiction, I'll take that one," goes the joke.

David Duchovny's announcement in 2008 that he was getting treatment for sexual addiction was accompanied by predictable sniggers, because at the time he was playing the role of a sex-obsessed writer on the TV show Californication. The 2007 comedy Blades of Glory made the issue its own punchline, with a sex addicts' support group meeting descending into a frantic orgy.

Some celebs have been back-pedalling furiously away from their supposed sex addictions. Musician Eric Benet went into sex-addiction rehab in 2002 but later told New York magazine: "In retrospect, it's not what I would label my situation".

Michael Douglas, who is habitually trotted out as an example of A-list sex addiction, has said that he "voluntarily went into rehab" because of a drink problem around 1990.

"Some smart-ass editor said, 'Oh, another boring story about an actor going to rehab. Let's give him sex addiction.'"

The message is that saying you're a sex addict isn't 'sexy' at all.

"There is a perception, even among our other clients here, that those who come into us with a sexual addiction isn't really as serious as a substance addiction like, say, heroin," says Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director of the Rutland treatment centre in Dublin.

"It doesn't take long for that misperception to lift because they soon see how devastating it can be. Whole families are destroyed by it, whole lives."

She categorically insists that sexual addiction is real and that as a psychological addiction, it can be much stronger than an addiction to an external substance.

"Take nicotine, for example; it will leave the system in three or four days.

"Behavioural addictions such as sex or gambling can be so much more complex. It is not simply the addiction to the high of the sexual content itself. In most cases, the anticipation of the sexual act is what gives the greater high and it becomes more and more difficult to achieve that same high.

"People end up going to huge expense, effort and time chasing it, to the expense of everything else in their life."

Psychotherapist David Kavanagh points out that whatever you call excessive, repetitive sexual behaviours, we may be conditioned to think it's more normal than it is.

"Maybe pornography isn't actually harmless to your marriage, perhaps it's just an acclimatisation," he says.

"The sex industry has a huge investment in making us believe that going to a strip club for a stag night is harmless fun, but no one knows definitively if that is true."

For now, the spotlight remains on Tiger Woods. In his latest interview with ESPN, he may have given the key to his bad behaviour.

"And as I said earlier in my statement, I felt entitled."

A fit, wealthy young athlete with time away from the wife to succumb to the temptations laid before him: is that sexual addiction or opportunism?

Pre-conception tension

Pre-conception planning: The great expectation
As if having a baby wasn't hard enough, today's parents-to-be have to contend with pre-conception planning as well, which means pregnancy is now a 12-month affair

By Susan Daly

Saturday March 27 2010

Human biology hasn't suddenly altered. It still takes nine months to grow a baby in the womb. The fertility industry, however, has different ideas. It is no longer enough for women to take all due care throughout their pregnancy: the experts are now advising that the lead-up months before conception need attention too.

Pre-conception planning is the hottest thing in the want-a-baby sphere. It's not a novel suggestion that fertility is affected by lifestyle. The famous London fertility guru Zita West has been counselling wannabe parents -- including Cate Blanchett and Stella McCartney -- for years that the state of their general health can hugely affect their chances of having a baby. But recently the common-sense advice about what to eat, drink and wear -- no tighty whiteys, dads-to-be! -- has acquired the tag of a burgeoning science.

You can now buy pre-conception tablets, containing fertility-friendly nutrients for women, off the shelf in pharmacies. There are also versions for men which claim to help improve the production of sperm (zinc is daddy's little helpers' little helper, apparently). I ring my nearest branch of Boots in Dublin and, sure enough, the assistant rattles off a number of different brands in stock for prospective parents. A month's supply of Sanatogen Mother & Father-To-Be tablets, for example, cost €19.49.

There are also a number of new books instructing women -- and men -- on how to be conception-fit. West has a new one out, and alternative health expert Emma Cannon has just published The Baby-Making Bible. The mother of them all is the latest addition to the What to Expect series by American "mom-on-a-mission" (her description) Heidi Murkoff.

The book, "the prequel" to her phenomenally successful What to Expect When You're Expecting tome, is called -- naturally -- What to Expect Before You're Expecting.

"There is research that shows that a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby don't begin at conception like we always thought it does," says Murkoff. "Doctors all over the world are pushing pre-conception planning."

Murkoff is a small, slight woman in her early 50s and when we meet in her London publishers' offices she's suffering from a touch of jet lag. Nonetheless, she is alert and intensely focused on what she calls her "mission to inform".

She says that the book is necessary precisely because there is so much anxiety out there about fertility now -- and the solutions being proffered are not always coming from the most agenda-free sources.

"There are a lot of people preying on expectant parents and on their fears, their hopes," she says. "There's that baby-from-a-box thing in the book that I mention [a commercial baby-making kit] but most people don't need that! If you have a real fertility issue, you probably need something more high-tech, but it's the kind of thing that people see on the internet and think, 'Oh, I should be buying that'."

It was the same annoyance that drove Murkoff to write What to Expect When You're Expecting, with the help of her mother and sister. When it was published in 1984, it was revolutionary in terms of baby books, presenting a month-by-month field guide to pregnancy in plain English. It has become such a totemic volume that there is a Hollywood movie in the works inspired by its title.

Murkoff had an unexpectedly sudden pregnancy with her first child Emma. She was filled with anxieties and questions but "that was when doctors were still God and when you asked a question, they would say, 'Well, you don't need that information'."

She turned to the pregnancy books available at the time but she found them either "too factoid or too frightening". So she wrote her own.

"Two hours before I went into hospital to deliver Emma, I delivered the proposal of What to Expect When You're Expecting, so it was a really, busy, productive day!" she says.

We have the internet now, a source of information that didn't exist in Murkoff's time as a new mum -- but that may not have been a bad thing.

"There is so much misinformation on the internet," says Murkoff, "But there are also these incredible virtual communities of moms online, who are like a virtual support group. It can be incredibly reassuring but of course, again, you are taking everybody's word as gospel sometimes."

Murkoff also points out that there is a genuine heightened interest in fertility advice that is not generated by corporate sources, but is coming from prospective parents themselves. The average age at which a woman gives birth in the Western world has been climbing for years.

In Ireland, a first-time mum is now, on average, aged 31.

So far from pre-conception planning being another stick with which to beat the woman who has put off pregnancy in favour of further education and some semblance of a career, it's necessary, argues Murkoff.

"If Mother Nature had her way -- and a lot of our mothers! -- we'd have our babies in our early 20s," she says,

Still, the research into what makes conceiving difficult for one woman, and seemingly easy for another, is not definitive. Perhaps because of this, much of the advice in Murkoff's book seems as much a design for a healthy life in general as it is specific to baby-making. Losing weight, eating vitamin and mineral-rich natural foods, cutting down on smoking and not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine: all this advice is not, as Murkoff admits herself, "exactly rocket science".

To be fair, the book is pretty extensive, from preparing you for the financial cost of a baby, to a sensitive and informative chapter on miscarriage and trying again. On the other hand, there is so much information, it can make your head spin. I'm pretty much the target audience for this book; early 30s and, so far, childless. By the end of reading it, all I could think was: "What's Tay-Sachs Disease, and what am I going to do with my terrible hayfever if I can't take anti-histamines if I'm trying for a baby?"

I put this amalgamation of anxieties to Murkoff, who says: "Some personalities are more given to that [worrying], but you can choose to NOT have that information. It's your choice. But I think I'm careful in the book to be as reassuring as possible and completely positive."

Perhaps I'm not in the baby zone yet -- the parade of cutesie acronyms used in the book also grates. Sex is never 'sex'; it's the 'BD' (Baby Dance). Your partner is your 'DP' or 'Dancing Partner'. Murkoff is ready for this complaint, saying she is just trying to help readers get to grips with the language that TTC ('Trying To Conceive') women use on internet message boards.

"Myself, I believe in calling it sex," she laughs, "I believe in sex, period. I'm in favour!"

She's also in favour of dads being involved in the process of baby-making -- and not just in the obvious way. The book has special grey boxes dotted around the pages with information for prospective dads on what they can eat, drink and do to help the chances of mum conceiving a healthy child.

"It's not to put pressure on them," she explains. "It's just I think that men are often pushed to the side."

To illustrate, she tells the story of how her husband, Eric, coped with the arrival home of their first child, Emma (they also have a son called Wyatt). "I'm 24 at the time, I'm not prepared, I'm a hormonal wreck and this baby felt like a stranger to me. She wouldn't stop crying and I am just sobbing. Eric just instinctively takes Emma out of my arms, he puts me to bed and says, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of it'.

"He'd never held a baby before but his instincts kicked in and he figured it out. He was an amazing, amazing dad, still is. Dads are totally capable of it, but sometimes women say, 'Oh you're doing it wrong, I'll do it'. Well maybe he's just doing it differently, not wrong."

Anecdotes like this make clear why What to Expect is such a big hit -- empathy. "You have to have walked a mile in a pregnant woman's shoes to know that the reason her shoes don't fit is because her feet are swollen," says Murkoff.

What To Expect Before You're Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff with Sharon Mazel, is published by Simon and Schuster and in bookshops now.

WTE when you’re TTC (What to Expect when you’re Trying To Conceive)
Confused by all conflicting advice out there on the best way to conceive? Wait till you encounter some of the dizzying array of acronyms typically used on internet message board to describe the baby-making process:
BD – Baby Dance (sex)
DP – ‘Dancing Partner (spouse or significant other)
BFN – Big Fat Negative (negative pregnancy test result)
BFP – Big Fat Positive (positive pregnancy test result)
EW – Egg White (re: the consistency of cervical mucus)
FTTA – Fertile Thoughts To All
The Big ‘O’ – Ovulation

Heidi Murkoff’s top tips for being conception-ready:
Take a pre-natal vitamin: “The science is so interesting – it can reduce your risk of having a baby with birth defects, reduce your risk dramatically of delivering prematurely. And there is no downside. If you decide not to have a baby after all, you’ll have great hair and skin, right?”
Tip the scales in your favour: “Ten per cent of infertility cases are linked to overweight. The more fat cells you have, the more oestrogen you produce. That sounds like an ideal scenario, but in fact having too much or too little of any hormone is going to affect fertility. The really interesting thing is the same situation holds true for men.”
Eat fertile-friendly foods: “No excesses of refined grains or saturated fats, sources of omega-3 fatty acids, lots of brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables, including berries, yams, red pepper. It’s also important for men. An interesting factoid is those brightly-coloured vegetables encourage sperm to swim faster. It probably wasn’t what his mother had in mind when she told him to eat his vegetables, but there you go!”
Lifestyle ‘vices’: “Smoking, obviously, and cut down on alcohol because heavy drinking can mess with your cycle. Caffeine you don’t have to cut out altogether but you should be down to 200mg a day or about a cup because excess caffeine is linked to lower fertility and to increased risk of miscarriage if you do conceive.”
Medications: “Take a look at the medications you take regularly. You need to check with your doctor if they are fertility-friendly and it’s not just prescription medications but also over-the-counter stuff. Anti-histimanes, expectorants (cough syrups) work by drying chest and nasal mucus but they don’t differentiate between the different mucus in your body, ie, cervical mucus.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't move, improve

If you're the type of person who likes to attend the Ideal Home Show and daydream, you'll enjoy this. From today's Property Plus in the Irish Independent.

WITH a perceptible shift in the weather, minds turn to spring cleaning and airing out our living spaces. A complete home makeover might be out of the question but it’s amazing the transformation that can be achieved by a good paint job.

This fresh direction in interior design is not simply a case of lashing a tin of magnolia onto the walls. Denise O’Connor and Catherine Crowe of Optimise Design have created some stunning effects with paint in the showhouse they designed for the upcoming Spring Ideal Home Show in the RDS.

“Unusual finishes can give a huge injection of character to a room,” says O’Connor.
“In the family bathroom of the showroom, we have painted stripes up the wall which carry on across the ceilings. People normally don’t know what to do with ceilings and leave them blank, but we are trying to have fun with them.”

To this end, O’Connor and Crowe have also painted the floorboards of the children’s room in different stripes of colour with a hardwearing and easy-to-wash paint from the Crown collection. “The are launching a new colour palette at the show and they also have a lovely range of stencils. We have a gentleman’s room with stenciled antlers on the wall – a humourous take on the old trophy room – and the great thing is, you can paint over everything if you hate it!”

The new-style paint effects – no naff spongewashing here, thank you – can also lend sophistication to a room. The showhouse features some rooms which have been painted out in all one colour, walls, ceiling and skirting boards included.

“It can make a small space seem bigger,” says O’Connor. “We would often use this technique in a very small bathroom under the stairs. We have completely painted the showhouse cloakroom in a wonderful burgundy colour and there are burgundy high-gloss fitted closets from Sliderobes to match. It has a real wow factor.”

Both O’Connor and Crowe are trained architects and offer an indepth consultation service in people’s homes which uses their complementary fields of expertise in architecture and interior design. After a four-hour consultation, they come up with a series of 3D drawings of how a client can ring the changes in their living space.

That same combination of disciplines is evidenced in the Ideal Home showhouse, a timber-framed structure assembled especially for the event. They have added architectural touches like a bridge extending between the bedrooms over the double-height entrance hall. A standalone dividing wall separates the living and dining spaces, but a tunnel fireplace in the wall also connects the two areas.

“It is a basic two-storey dormer,” says Crowe, “But the architectural features and use of lighting, colour, feature walls and finishes give it individuality.”

O’Connor points out that just as she and Crowe have had to rethink their business, “homeowners are also having to be inventive”. She says: “During the boom, people decorated with an eye to selling up. Now they are staying put and thinking about what design they want, rather than doing it for a prospective buyer.”

The result is a much more homely approach to interior design, and a bolder use of colour. The neutrals palette was designed to appeal to the masses. “Now people want to put their own stamp on their homes,” says Crowe, “They want to do something special with the place they spend so much time in.”

Austere luxe, taupes and beiges are replaced by bold statements like the customised rugs from Irish company Rug Art which she and O’Connor chose for the showhouse.

“That craft look has become important,” says O’Connor, “Some people are getting into making their own curtains or using what they already have, getting old pieces of furniture resprayed. It’s about giving what you have a new lease of life.”

Sonia Harris, PR for the Ideal Home Show, says that home and hearth approach reflects the overall theme of next month’s showcase. “We are building on the theme, ‘Improve, Don’t Move’,” she says.

“One of our major features, along with the showhouse, will be the Dulux free advice centre. People are invited to bring along a picture of a room they would like some help with and our experts might be able to assess how they can reinvigorate the space.”
• The Spring Ideal Home Show takes place from April 16 to 18, 2010 at the RDS – see for more information.
• Optimise Design can be contacted at 01 260 8788 or see

Optimise Design’s top cost-effective design solutions for your home:
• For narrow hallways try covering one area of wall with floor to ceiling mirrors for a dramatic but inexpensive finish. Mirrors also make an inexpensive splashback in a kitchen.
• Need a new sofa or chair on a tight budget? Try reupholstering your existing suite - upholsters will also replace cushions and filling. If your budget is next to nonexistent why not have a go yourself, using stretchy fabric and a staple gun.
• For a complete transformation think about painting your woodwork in a colour other than traditional white or cream. Warm greys and stony shades work particularly well.
• If you have a piece of furniture that you love but isn’t quite working in your room don’t rush to get rid of it. Instead consider spray painting it for a complete transformation.
• Customise a room by using stencils – Crown has teamed up with the Stencil Library to offer a wonderful range of contemporary stencils that create impact in any room.

Bag ladies

From Wednesday's Irish Independent (slightly embarrassing title and pic of me but never mind...)

Your house is burning and you can take only one material possession with you. Will it be photographs of loved ones? Granny's recipe book with handwritten notes in the margins? Or will it be, as Jennifer Aniston has just proclaimed, your handbag?

The man who thinks that it is a cold, unsentimental choice -- for what is a bag but a vessel for the detritus of life -- doesn't understand what handbags mean to women. To some women, let's hasten to add. A friend of mine once went out with a girl who enjoyed insisting that she had never owned a handbag. "She was a nightmare," he remembers, "It was forever, 'Would you hold this?'"

Contrary to what that girl thought, a lobotomy isn't a prerequisite for owning a handbag. I admit that I've had the same battered mushroom-beige River Island number for about four years, and it ain't pretty. But its interior fits a notepad and dictaphone comfortably, it has an easily accessible pocket for my mobile and a zipped one for my purse.

My relationship with handbags is not the stuff of Vogue but I know I need one. I also admit that I understand the allure of a real, grown-up bag. The other significant bag in my closet is a black Marc Jacobs limited edition evening bag for Louis Vuitton.

You weren't expecting that, were you? Neither was I -- I won it in a charity raffle some years back and it only comes out to play on special occasions. But on those rare evenings that I tool up with my LV bag, I feel -- well -- more put together.

This is where the line is crossed between owning a bag for functionality -- or for fun. The utilitarian aspect of toting a bag around is accepted. Men have been carrying briefcases for an age (and some, I suspect, only contain the day's paper and a banana sandwich). It's no longer a crime to be seen slinging a rucksack or messenger bag over the shoulder.

As women are no longer confined between the kitchen, nursery and bedroom, we too need a repository for carrying our paraphernalia with us. Debenhams announced in January that women now carry an average of 3.3lbs of 'stuff' around with them in their bags.

Where we lose men is in the statistics surrounding women's handbag-buying. Depending on which survey you read, women can own up to 100 bags in their lifetime, and spend up to €4,000 acquiring them. Debbie Percy, a HR consultant and life coach who runs, says: "Men just don't get it. It's hard to find a comparison for them. Men love their cars, say, but they don't have seven of them."

Perhaps they would if they could afford them. In truth, most women can't afford the bags they most aspire to either -- so-called 'It' bags -- but it doesn't stop the desire for them. After about 15 years of 'It' bags, from the Fendi Baguette in the late '90s to Chloe Paddington and beyond, the downturn was supposed to put a kibosh on waiting lists for the 'must-have' items.

So how to explain that Mulberry -- purveyors of the current object of desire, the Alexa bag -- is experiencing a 100pc pre-order demand? Or that Hermes Birkins, one of the first 'famous' handbags, still has a lengthy waiting list?

In China, where status symbols are the new currency, Birkins are changing hands for more than €100,000 because there are people there willing to pay the giant import duties imposed by the Communist rulers on Western goods.

Clever marketing to women is part of the story. Note how many of these bags have women's names from the Hermes Kelly (after movie star Grace) and Birkin (after singer Jane) up to the current star of Mulberry, named for style icon du jour Alexa Chung. To have the bag is to have, vicariously, a slice of their style.

'Kate Moss's association with Longchamps is doing wonders for them," says Debbie Percy, "and I'm watching Burberry to see if one of their bags breaks through next, because of Emma Watson's campaign for them. But the bags that reach 'It' status tend to have something more than a celebrity association. They are beautiful, edgy and stylish."

If one man understands women and their handbags, it's Edmond Chesneau. The Frenchman has been selling designs to Irish women for 30 years.

"Yes, I think a bag becomes their best friend, and that it shows a little of their personality," says Chesneau, "but, also, if you think about the bestsellers, they are always beautiful."

One of his own bestselling designs -- the Faubourg, retailing at €375 ( -- is 15 years old.

In Brown Thomas, repository of 'must-have' bags, an employee tells me they had customers "out the door" last Friday, waiting to get the Tory Burch tote, retailing at €45.

Guys trying to understand the passion for handbags should look at this tote because it draws together everything women want from a bag right now.

It is nicely designed -- a classic leopard-print and dark leather trim, spiced up by a hot-pink lining. It's got the feel-good factor of raising funds for charity (Fashion Targets Breast Cancer), it's got limited-edition cachet, it's endorsed by supermodel Noot Seear -- and it's keenly priced.

We don't ask for much, do we?

Life coach Debbie Percy, who looks at women's handbags as a personality analysis aid (see, has found some curious artefacts:

* A full bottle of wine. "I've had that in there for a week," said the lady.
* A very large beach towel, for no apparent reason.
* A flick knife -- in the handbag of an elderly lady.
* Apple cores, half-sucked mints and once -- a half-eaten chicken drumstick. "For some women, their bags are simply a dumping ground for all the family," says Debbie.
* Children's bracelets and hairclips, toys, and hospital identity tags. "Strangely enough, women don't carry around many photographs, if at all. They tend to carry instead objects that have a sentimental attachment for them."
* Personal notebooks. Says Debbie: "You would be surprised how many people seem to be mid-flow of writing a book."

"My bag is my best friend"
Karen Koster presenter, TV3's Xposé: "I have a one-bag-fits-all policy because with this job you could be anywhere at any time.

I carry around two make-up bags and a jewellery pouch, my phone, my diary and I'm a weapon if I'm not fed every three hours, so I'll have rice cakes, an apple, a banana and a bottle of water.

"I feel completely naked without it. If I'm out with my boyfriend and I don't have the big bag, I'll say, 'Here, I'll carry that bag of shopping'.

"I have about 15 bags in all -- some for evenings -- but I really use the same bag every day. It's a black patent one that I bought for $60 from a shop called Kitson when I was in LA covering the Oscars. Bargain! It's completely waterproof, wipe-down, really sturdy. I had a Jimmy Choo floppy tote once and I couldn't find anything in it.

"The most expensive bag I've had was actually a Chanel knock-off that my boyfriend brought me back from Dubai. It was a couple of hundred euro but it was a really well-crafted black bag.

"I think my first bag was a leather satchel from Dunnes. There we were, 14, hanging around, stuffing our bras and stuffing our handbags because we'd nothing to put in either of them."

"My three-year-old just loves her handbag!"
Anne Ryan, mum and entrepreneur: "I love handbags and I should be carrying a different one every day to show off my range ( but actually I'm a bit of a one-bag woman.

I carry a lime green silk one, embroidered with butterflies.

"When we were adopting our daughter Rosie from Vietnam, I came across these gorgeous bags that I now sell. We have an ethical code for how they are produced because obviously we don't want to exploit people in the country where our little girl is from.

"In school we used to have a green purse on a string for keeping money in. Rosie is three and a half now and she's really into handbags, but children's ones, with Dora or Fifi on them.

"I am fairly organised. I carry a purse, a lipstick, a handbag hook that allows you to hang the bag from a table or in a bar. And I have a neat little measuring tape so I can go around sneakily measuring other people's bags for inspiration!"

Monday, March 22, 2010

SOS - Save our soles

From Saturday's Herald...

They're trendy, they're cheap and they've come for your sole -- it's the Attack Of The Killer Shoes!

Suffering for your fashion is one thing. Now we're being told that fake furry Ugg boots can be crippling. They might feel comfy but the cheapo, unsupported versions of the celebs' favourite are supposedly giving wearers a bad case of the flat foot. This, in turn, leads to long-term damage to legs, hips and pelvis.

So while Elle Macpherson, Sienna Miller and Gwyneth Paltrow are safely cushioned in their €170 official Ugg boots, those of us who bought the ten-pairs-a-euro type are in trouble. We sold our soles for affordable fashion.

It must be a very dangerous world out there when even our footwear is out to get us. If it's not fake Uggs, it's too-high heels. Those are the ones, you might remember, that we were told could cause everything from backache to infertility. (So, take them off during sex would be my suggestion there.)

When I was in school -- no, we didn't run barefoot back then, thanks -- the must-haves were those hideous white-soled deck shoes.

The soles were as flat as a pancake that had been run over by a Arctic truck. The laces were for decoration only. Only the deeply uncool would dream of lacing them up and providing some support for their growing feet.

Our teachers hated them because we literally looked down at heel. We loved them because our teachers hated them. The more we're warned off a shoe, the more we desire it.

Clearly, we women are mad. You wouldn't find a man tottering about with his bunions squeezed into a pair of 5ins PVC strappy sandals. Only Victoria Beckham can do that and be applauded for her "bravery".

Check out the footcare range in your local pharmacy. Heel grips, instant-spray blister plasters, gel cushion inserts for placing under the ball of the foot in nosebleed party shoes. The whole section is like a shrine to our silliness. See us as we stagger awkwardly and semi-upright from taxi to nightclub. It's like watching evolution happening in reverse.

But we like our shoes and we'll continue to suffer for them, which makes me think that the Government has missed a trick. They normally love a good old bit of fun fascism so I don't know how they haven't yet clamped down on our footwear fetish. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop: "It's for yer own good, girls".

Expect a State-sponsored Goldilocks of shoes any day now. A guy (it has to be a guy, doesn't it) who will go around checking that no footwear is too high or too low. He will pass a decree that all women should wear shoes that are 'just right'.

We have regulators for just about everything else that might qualify as a vice. Smoking is out -- or, at least, outdoors. With drink, we're all scratching our heads over which one is the one that is too many. Our foodie do-gooders are probably looking to see how New York's proposed ban on restaurant chefs using salt works out.

So maybe we need some sensible brogues with orthopedic insoles to match our hairshirts.

Can I save the Government from wasting money on advertising creatives to come up with a slogan for their new campaign? Let's issue an SOS -- Save Our Soles.

May I also suggest that such a law should be ushered in while the country is still off sweeties and what have you for Lent?

There's nothing like an extra bit of righteous self-denial to hammer a hard message home.

Of course, like all the best bits of Nanny State legislation, it should provoke an underground resistance movement, like the initial smoking 'areas' that some bars tried to get away with.

They were essentially proper rooms, with walls and heating -- but with a hole punched in the roof.

Footwear freedom fighters will be forced to adopt all sorts of shoe subterfuge. Retractable stiletto heels hidden in their slippers. And dayglo laces brightening up those brogues.

They can bring us to heel -- but they can't bring us down.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I twit, you twit, we all twit

Talking about Twitter to Tom Dunne on Newstalk this morning

Quiet time with Cillian

Cillian Murphy is down at the Dingle Film Festival this weekend - and so am I. Wonder what our reunion conversation will be like... This is an interview from when I met him in Dublin last week...

Defying Murphy's law

Cillian Murphy doesn't do TV chat shows because, he says, he'd be no good at them. That's probably true. The Cork-born actor isn't one to embroider an anecdote just to entertain his interviewer.

It's not that he is rude or unfriendly, but he's just not that comfortable talking about himself. And that's not even the personal details; his wife, his two toddler sons, his 'real' life. We're discussing his more outlandish roles -- the transsexual Patrick 'Kitten' Braden in Breakfast on Pluto, the psychotic Jackson Rippner in Red Eye -- when he blushes and breaks off.

"I hate talking about my own stuff," he says. But as we're not ensconced in this nice suite in the Merrion Hotel to talk about me, he gathers himself.

"I enjoy playing characters who are as far away from me as possible," he says. "I guess that role in that plane film, Red Eye, playing this guy who was seemingly nice and then flips -- I really enjoyed that."

The cliché that acting is a mask behind which one can hide is true in some ways for Murphy, but the interesting thing is that he doesn't actually seem that shy. The last time I saw him, about six months ago, he was on a makeshift stage in a barn in the middle of field in Monaghan. Pat McCabe, author of Breakfast on Pluto, had roped him into performing at his Flat Lake Arts Festival outside Clones. Murphy was either supposed to be playing guitar with his old rock band (more of that anon) or doing a reading with playwright Enda Walsh.

"It didn't work out, so in the end I said, 'Oh feck it, I'll just DJ' and I just played tunes off my computer," he says. Completely unabashed, Murphy took to the stage armed with just a can of beer and his Mac.

Wasn't he a bit embarrassed? "It was great fun," he laughs. "That night, even playing tunes and having people dance, there's that need to perform, you know?" Although he does admit that in the end he got down off the stage and started dancing with the crowd because he felt like "a gawl", a particularly Munster term for 'eejit', up there.

"I wasn't a hugely extroverted kid growing up," he says, "but that performance thing was always there."

At first it expressed itself through music: he and his younger brother formed a rock band, which was at one point on the cusp of signing a five-record deal with a London music label. Their parents had reservations -- his brother, Paidi, was still in school, and Cillian in his first year of law at UCC at the time -- and they turned down the offer.

Shortly afterwards, he turned a fledgling interest in acting into his first professional performance as the charismatic lead of Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs. I saw him in that first stage run in Cork in late 1996 and, although it's easy to say this in hindsight, the raw, visceral power of his performance seemed prophetic.

Murphy didn't see it like that -- at first anyway. "I didn't know any better, I didn't see any future in it [acting]. I just thought, it's a great laugh, you only have to work an hour at night and you can sleep all day and you get to go touring."

Only a run in Dublin and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival finally convinced him that there might be a future in this acting lark. "I was so lucky to get a play that was so brilliant and so successful," he says. "I began to realise that this was a bit more serious and it was making a proper impact."

So out went college -- "Law was the wrong match, definitely. There is a very narrow potential for creativity" -- and in came a profession where the performer in him took full flight. He might be reserved and unassuming in person, but there has been nothing tentative about his choice of roles.

His Batman baddie Scarecrow used the cool intensity of his striking blue eyes to chilling effect; in Breakfast on Pluto, those same wide eyes are key to the portrayal of the sensitive and innocent Kitten.

His reluctance to tread the chat-show circuit hasn't done him any harm in Hollywood -- his CV of independent 'European' films is interspersed with big-bucks works such as Danny Boyle's Sunshine, the aforementioned Red Eye, Girl With A Pearl Earring, 28 Days Later and, somewhere between the two worlds, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Next week sees his latest film, Perrier's Bounty, opening in cinemas nationwide. It's Murphy's first Irish film in a few years.

"I don't have a system where I do 'one for them, one for us', but I think it's important to make films about your own country. And to have loyalty towards the industry at home. Take Vincent Cassel; he'll make films in America and then he'll go back home and make a huge amount of films in France."

As a younger actor -- he's now 33 -- he says he was keen to seek out roles where he wasn't defined as an Irish person. "As you get older, you worry less about that, it's more about the quality of the stories."

In Perrier's Bounty, he is Michael McCrea, a "bottom-feeder in the criminal world", playing opposite Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham and Jim Broadbent. Broadbent plays Michael's father and it is the relationship between the two of them, as much as the "fun" shoot-'em-up scenes, that attracted Murphy to the job.

"No matter how old you are, you revert to being a surly teenager," he says, "you never, ever meet your parents totally as adults. You'll always be the child, they'll always be the parent, there's this friction and I thought that was really well played by Jim.

"What Mark [O'Rowe, the writer] does really well -- and he did this in Intermission [in which Murphy starred with Colin Farrell] -- he writes Irish males brilliantly. The inability to express one's feelings and the inability to say to the girl what he's feeling about her. The inability to sort this shit out with his parents. I recognise that in myself and in my friends."

If that sounds like a bit of a personal insight, well, it's only a glimpse. He admits that sometimes he can go home to wife Yvonne in London with the "residue" of a character hanging about at the end of an intense filmshoot, but that ultimately, "I'll say I'm just cooling off and getting back to 'Cill'; to myself."

He's been at home since filming on the new Christopher Nolan film, Inception -- also starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- wrapped in December. "I'm sure there's a way of working all the time, but that doesn't really interest me," he says.

Going out on the town doesn't interest him either -- he's anxious to keep his family out of the papers. And probably because of this low profile he keeps, the paparazzi don't bother with him. "I think it's fair game with me but it's not very nice when they do it with the kids. It hasn't happened much and there's not very much you can do about it, but as a dad your animalistic, protective instinct is to get angry."

He also has a professional reason for retaining an air of mystery. "It's very hard to retain any sort of distance from people nowadays, but if you can retain any of that, you should, so that when you do a play or film, people will be able to believe the character a bit more. There are some actors I don't know anything about and I'm glad because I can enjoy their performances more."

Again, he's probably right. And if that's what it takes for him to keep surprising audiences with his chameleon characters then, Cill, it's nice not knowing you.

Perrier's Bounty is released on March 26th

CILLIAN CHAMELEON – Murphy’s biggest on-screen transformations
28 DAYS LATER (2002): Trainspotting director Danny Boyle spotted Murphy in Kirsten Sheridan’s movie version of Disco Pigs and brought the indie darling to mass international attention.
RED EYE (2005): This was Murphy’s year of the baddie in which he proved those stunning baby blues could transform him in a split-second from romantic lead to chilling terrorist.
BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (2005): Certainly his greatest physical transformation, playing transvestite ‘Kitten’ Braden in this Neil Jordan film also brought him his greatest critical acclaim – and a Golden Globe nomination.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006): Ken Loach cast Murphy as a young Corkman caught up in the horrors of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War in this Cannes award-winning saga. It was a personal revolution for Murphy, who said he found it challenging to be playing a character close to his own personality (“only braver”).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A little tweetie bird told me...

Sacre bleu! Who is telling tales on Twitter?
Rumours of Sarkozy and Bruni's affairs were just the latest micro-blogging wind-up, says Susan Daly

Jeff Goldblum is dead and so is Kanye West. Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy are having a ménage-à-quatre and eating pork will give you swine flu. Well, no, not really. All of these startling bits of 'news' have broken on in the past year -- and not one is true.

The micro-blogging website allows anyone in the world to set up an account and post unlimited messages of not more than 140 characters. Anyone can read them and anyone can 're-tweet' your message -- pass it on to their friends and followers from their own account.

In this way, a tweeted bit of 'news' can become like a game of Chinese whispers. The context in which it was written and the reliability of its source are lost in the mists of the Twittersphere.

Some of this mis-reporting is fairly victimless. (Literally so, in the case of the many celebrities who have been tweeted as deceased when they are not.) Actor Jeff Goldblum had his publicist release a statement to reassure fans that, "He is fine and in Los Angeles", a new twist on the Mark Twain classic that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.

Some have wider-ranging consequences. In the early chaos of the Haitian earthquake, Twitter was buzzing with reports that two commercial airlines were running free flights for doctors and nurses to the country. A commendable action, but one the airlines had to deny publicly.

There were some instances where medical staff were being airlifted so there was a grain of truth in it. However, the subsequent kerfuffle detracted attention that needed to be re-focused on the plight of the Haitian people.

The same dangers that come with spreading gossip verbally also apply to false tweets. The fire might be put out by someone's publicist but the internet is a vast, uncharted territory where smoke lingers for a long time.

This has been the case with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni. Rumours of their affairs -- his with a cabinet minister; hers with a musician -- may have been greatly exaggerated. The French press has not been as interested in their private life as the international press has. (Mistresses, secret children and such extra-curricular activities are not considered to be of public interest there.)

The French magazine L'Express has broken le silence to state that the 'news' was created by a trainee French journalist who posted them on Twitter. It was an experiment to see how quickly unverified rumours could spread online.

The relentless pace of instant communication on Twitter means that rumours don't percolate -- they explode. The volume of people getting the message that Sarko and Bruni were at 'love loggerheads' gave it a critical mass, and it became mainstream 'news' overnight.

Now, despite the revelations about where the initial reports may have come from, Sarkozy and Bruni will forever have the cloud of doubt hanging over their marriage, at least in the public's mind. Bruni's statement about the chance of survival for the marriage in the aftermath of the story -- "I guess marriage should be forever but who knows what happens?" -- won't exactly have helped.

Yet the ability of Twitter to convey real news so speedily is one of its main attractions. It's why I joined it over a year ago, and why I continue to use it. I might be a freelance journalist, alone at my desk, but within an instant I can see what is preoccupying the world -- or at least the part that is on Twitter -- at that given moment.

I'm all for a forum where I can connect with interesting, like-minded people that I would never have otherwise met. Conversely, it's allowed me to gauge the opinions of people who are not so like-minded -- and that can be most interesting of all.

But it can be easy to forget how public it is. Posting a tweet is like shinning up the Spire and shouting your opinions through a loud-hailer.

Pop star Miley Cyrus discovered this to her cost. She abandoned Twitter when she realised it had begun to affect her privacy (what's left of it). "I'd tweet, 'I'm here,' and I'd wonder why a thousand fans are outside the restaurant," she said, "Well, hello, I just told them."

Actor and writer Stephen Fry liked that Twitter brought him in close contact with fans, but threatened to leave when one of his followers dared to brand him "boring".

The public nature of the site can blur the line between a professional and private persona -- a difficulty encountered by Sky Sports presenter Chloe Everton, who was given a slap on the wrist by her employers for her double entendre-laden tweets.

On the other hand, too much can be made of nothing just because the tweeter is high-profile. Newstalk presenter Sean Moncrieff, for example, had a tweet repeated and analysed in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, even though it was clearly a joke.

The tell-all technology -- it is just so easy to fire off an angry or emotional message and hit the 'Tweet' button -- can be all too tempting. We've had a woman tweeting that she was having a miscarriage in work, and another that her son had just fallen into a swimming pool and drowned. Both women were deemed to have 'over-shared' and roundly criticised.

A tweet might only allow 140 characters but those instances show it can carry an emotional punch above its weight. The brevity is the beauty of it, but not getting the full picture can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. The key to safe twittering is this: don't tweet anything you're not prepared to say to someone's face IRL (that's 'In Real Life', folks).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mean Mothers

Spare a thought on Mother's Day for those with a more complicated, and not entirely positive, relationship with their mum. (As per movie star Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina, pictured left, whose disastrous relationship was chronicled in Christina's memoir, Mommy Dearest).
From yesterday's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent.

Peg Streep says she was no more than three or four years old when she knew that her mother didn’t love her.

On that devastating note, American writer Streep opens her thought-provoking new book Mean Mothers. It is, she says, the story that no-one wants to hear. Maternal love is one of society’s sacred cows. The bond between mother and child is supposed to be pure and unconditional.

This is why occasional tales of extreme child abuse at the hands of a mother seem so shocking, so unnatural.

But it can be easier to write off a physically or sexually abusive mother as an evil anomaly than to accept that they are at the rather extreme end of a much larger number of mothers who indulge in hurtful behaviour.

Psychologist Rachel Harris has specialised in family therapy and parenting education for over 30 years. “Sadly, after years in practice, I have to report that there are more mean mothers than most of us would like to admit,” she says. “There’s a continuum from horribly abusive mothers to motherly saints, but there are plenty of mothers in the middle range who are unable to love or who say mean things to their daughters.”

In other words few of us, hopefully, can relate to the notoriously abusive childhood Christina Crawford says she suffered at the hands of her movie star mother Joan. As chronicled in her memoir Mommy Dearest – and portrayed chillingly by Faye Dunaway in the 1981 movie of that name – Joan Crawford’s monstrosity climaxes with the attempted strangling of her daughter.

Neither does it suggest that the occasional maternal criticism some might be familiar with – “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” – constitutes a bad mother.

The ‘mean mother’ behaviour Streep writes of is much more insidious. With her own mother, it was the absolute absence of an affectionate word or gesture during her entire childhood. Streep’s mother would admonish her for skipping as they walked down the street, “as though my joy was an affront to her”. She told Streep’s first boyfriend that while her daughter was pretty on the outside, she was rotten inside.
The isolation Streep felt as a child was compounded by the fact that her bruises were emotional, not physical.

“There was no reconciling the mother I knew – the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticise me – with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewellery on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place,” she says.

“She flirted with everyone – even my girlfriends and later my boyfriends – and they pronounced her delightful. Her secret, and mine, was closely held; who would believe me if I told? So I didn’t.”

Now a mother of an adult daughter of her own and after years of therapy, Streep became interested in how other women have coped with the legacy of having a mother who made them feel unlovable.

Cathy, a book-keeper who now has her own 8-year-old daughter, spoke of how from when she was very little her mother would tell her that she was sure that the hospital had sent her home with the wrong baby. Sarah, an artist and writer who now lives 2,000 miles away from where she grew up, decided as a young girl that she would never have children until she could figure out how to raise them better than her mother raised her.

Her mother refused to acknowledge her presence, making her sit in a chair in silence every evening until dinner was ready. When the family moved house when she was five, Sarah’s mother threw out all her stuffed animals rather than pack them up.
“I replaced them with imaginary ones and, later, with imaginary scenarios about how my parents weren’t really my parents and that my real parents would come and get me someday,” she told Streep.

While many of the women Streep spoke to weren’t obviously neglected – they had warm clothes and enough to eat – emotional neglect is a common thread.
Eleanor, now a therapist in her 50s, says that the best word she could use to describe her mother’s treatment of her was “indifference”. The only question she ever asked Eleanor when she got home from school each day was what she had for her lunch.

“The predominant feeling between us was emptiness, which made me feel that I didn’t really matter or, worse, that I didn’t really exist,” says Eleanor.

On the other hand, there were mothers whose overbearing and overcritical attentions literally suffocated their daughters. Jane, now an architect like her father (something her mother thinks unladylike), says her mother still refers to the day Jane got engaged as “‘the worst day of her life’ for no other reason than that the man I was engaged to and later married didn’t fit in to her vision precisely”.
Landscape gardener Gwen was a very pretty child and believes that her mother, who never felt attractive, was jealous of the attention she received.

At the age of 99 and living in a nursing home, Gwen’s mother is still making her criticisms felt. “I came to visit and she introduced me to another little old lady who was so wonderful and my mother said, ‘This is my daughter Gwendolyn – her hair always looks terrible.’ The other poor woman just didn’t know what to say.”
While Streep is careful not to excuse emotionally abusive behaviour, she does point to research that many ‘mean mothers’ are themselves daughters of women who showed no attachment to their children.

Eliza is 38 and the mother of a 19-year-old girl. Her mother and grandmother were both distant to their children but it has made Eliza all the more determined to mother her girl differently. “I decided early on that I was going to be more affectionate, emotionally available, and closely connected to my daughter,” she told Streep.

Neither do mothers, as Streep says, “operate in a cultural vacuum”. Even in the developed world, she argues, there can be a subconsciously higher value placed on boy children than girls. The comprehensive Gallup Poll has been compiling statistics about American society since 1941 and each year has asked this exact question:
“Suppose you could only have one child: would you prefer a girl or a boy?” In 2007, 37 per cent preferred a boy, 28 per cent a girl, and 35 per cent said they had no preference.

These results have barely shifted in 66 years – that is to say that there has NEVER been an overall preference for a girl.

But most of all, says Streep, the tales of ‘mean mothers’ she has uncovered shows that the notion that all mothers automatically bond with their children is a myth. Even where post-natal depression is not the issue, some mothers don’t become maternal just by the simple virtue of giving birth. They come to motherhood with their own personalities and baggage. Daughters in particular, made in their own image, can push their buttons in the way that sons can’t. Jealousy and resentment are huge issues in some mother-daughter relationships.

So where are the good fathers in all this? Streep devotes a chapter to them under the title: ‘Heroes and Co-Conspirators’. Her own father embodied this dichotomy. He was Streep’s hero as a child, “he rescued me in important ways”, teaching her the value of education and taking her away from her mother’s hypercritical eye from time to time.

“On Sundays, he’d drive me to church school and pick me up after, when, away from my naturally thin mother’s watchful eye (she always had the two of us on a diet), we’d steal off to the bakery to indulge in anotherwise forbidden treat,” Streep remembers warmly.

But there was a limit to his protection: an overweight, balding man, he adored Streep’s beautiful mother. As Streep entered adolescence and began to stand up for herself, he would actively side with her mother.

Another take on the father who distances himself from a mother-daughter conflict comes from Dr Linda Nielsen. In the book Embracing Your Father, she identifies ‘maternal gatekeeping’ where a mother keeps a father away from a meaningful relationship with his children because she believes it to be her territory, even in situations where the father might actually be better equipped to be a loving caregiver.

But while parents might be quixotic creatures, surely siblings are bonded through their common experience of going unloved? Not necessarily says Streep. Her own brother’s arrival only left her more isolated than ever: “With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn’t me.”

Some of the women she spoke to in Mean Mothers speak warmly of the special bond they had with their siblings. Psychologists refer to the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ relationship in which siblings become each other’s caretakers in the event of parental cruelty or neglect. But this is only one outcome. Elizabeth, now 50, and her younger sister were both treated badly by their mother as children. They coped with it differently, one becoming wild and rebellious, the other trying to gain approval by being the ‘good girl’ and it drove them apart.

Even more poignantly, Jody tells how she was born about a decade after her two older sisters. Her mother wanted little to do with her unplanned daughter and her older sisters, far from filling in as surrogate mothers teased her with comments like, “Jody, why don’t you go play in traffic?”

Even had Jody’s sisters treated her more kindly, Streep argues that a woman who has not had a loving mother will always feel the absence of it in her life. Therapy will help, and she firmly believes that a mind can be rewired to accept that it wasn’t you, the child, who was unlovable – it was she, the mum, who couldn’t love.
Streep got to the age of 39 when she made the momentous decision to cut off all contact with her mother who has never changed, and at that stage believes Streep, never would. Years later when her brother called to say their mother was dying, Streep made the decision not to go see her. “I didn’t go and I have never regretted it,” she says, now 60.

While closure is the buzzword in therapy circles some mothers, it seems, are incapable of giving it. Gwen, mentioned earlier in this article, tells of how her mother told her she loved her one day towards the end of her life.

“I was so taken aback – my mother never hugged me nor did she ever really talk to me – that I turned and, without thinking or censoring myself, said, ‘Excuse me?’” recalls Gwen.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Your brother told me I was supposed to say that’.”

• Mean Mothers by Peg Streep is published by HarperCollins and is available for import from

The daughter and wife of the late TV mogul Aaron Spelling have been estranged since Tori split with her first husband and eloped with her second, Dean McDermott. Later that year, 2006, Aaron died – which Tori has claimed she learned via text message from a friend.
The feud between Candy and Tori has since escalated into a series of very public and hurtful ripostes, traded on TV shows, Twitter and celebrity mags. Candy posted an open letter to her daughter on her website earlier this summer saying she wanted to work things out, “in private”.

Keeping the press out of your business is difficult enough without your mother letting them in for a look-see. Jen and Nancy fell out when Nancy spoke about her daughter on a tabloid TV show in 1996 and then tried to make amends by… er… writing a book about their relationship.
It took the breakdown of Jen’s marriage to Brad Pitt (Nancy wasn’t invited to the wedding) for the pair to get back on speaking terms a decade later. Jennifer said this year that “It’s ok. Things are now fine between us.” Although she did add that her mother had since moved from California (where Jen lives) to Colorado so perhaps distance makes the heart grow fonder.

This split was sparked by Meg getting engaged to Dennis Quaid in 1989. Mom didn’t approve as Quaid had a cocaine habit at the time.
Quaid overcame the habit and has come and gone from Ryan’s life, but mother and daughter are still estranged. Meg’s father Harry Hyra has called on her to mend bridges calling Susan “a good mother”, as has Susan’s second husband, who went on record to say: “There’s an element to Meg that is quite shocking. It is all steel and determination and ruthlessness.”
Sounds like there might be two of them in it.

Despite occasional reports of reconciliations, Drew said this year that she currently has “no contact” with the mother from whom she became legally ‘emancipated’ as a 15-year-old.
Jaid probably didn’t help the ET child star stay on the straight and narrow when she took a pre-teen Drew to clubs like Studio 54. Drew, of course, began messing with drink and drugs and ended up in rehab at the age of 13.

Grief and stars and love

No sign yet of the online link, so here's my interview with Hermione Ross (aka Hennessy), daughter of the late and wonderful singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy, published in the Indo's Weekend mag yesterday. Above is a photograph of Christie as a new, 19-year-old dad, in London with his beloved Hermione as a baby.

DAUGHTERS are supposed to adore their daddies. Some fathers do their best to justify that expectation; some, sadly, turn out to disappoint.

Hermione Hennessy has never doubted to which category her late father, singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy, belonged. “He was just the most incredible person,” she says.

When news of Christie’s death from cancer caused by asbestosis broke two Christmases ago, the airwaves were flooded with tributes and an outpouring of grief. RTE’s Liveline was extended by an unprecedented half an hour to facilitate those paying their respects to the artist who Christy Moore described as the “most beautiful of men”.

Most remembered Christie’s good humour, his charm and his warm onstage presence. “Dad had always been quite shy,” says Hermione, “Mum remembers the first time she saw him on stage, cracking jokes and falling off his chair to make the audience laugh, and she thought, ‘My goodness, who IS this man? I’ve been married to him for five years and this is a different person!’ Dad was such a great storyteller and so comfortable with language. And he was so naturally funny.”

Then there were the songs. Some of his seminal tracks were made famous by other people: he wrote the Francis Black hit All The Lies That You Told Me, and Christy Moore’s recording of his Don’t Forget Your Shovel has been described as Ireland’s alternative national anthem. The influential BBC DJ John Peel championed Christie’s music from the early 1970s but it was only with the triple platinum-selling album The Rehearsal in 1992 that Christie - at the age of 47 – found himself in the limelight as a performer.

In the following 15 years, up until his death on December 11, 2007, his gently quavering voice and story-based songs of what Juliet Turner once described as “grief and stars and love” finally put him in his rightful place in the canon of classic Irish balladeers. The public sense of loss was palpable – one can only imagine the private devastation felt by the Ross family (Christie’s original surname; Hennessy was a stage name).

“When Dad died, I was in such a blur,” says Hermione, Christie and wife Jill’s eldest child, his longtime manager and sometime duettist. “I knew people were paying all these wonderful tributes to him, we were aware that it had hit people, but I didn’t want anyone to visit. It was overwhelming.”

Asbestosis is a particularly cruel disease – it has its roots in prolonged exposure to asbestos, a material that was often used in buildings and manufacturing. It often incubates for decades before a virulent cancer develops, aggressively attacking the body. In Christie’s case, it “knocked him for six”. He was diagnosed from the disease and died in the same year. His family believe he contracted it while working on building sites in London in the 1960s like so many young men forced to emigrate from Ireland’s economic wasteland at that time.

“I remember when I was a child, seeing him coming home covered in this white stuff,” says Hermione. “Once the warnings were out there, he wore a mask, he was diligent about it. It took 40 years to incubate and show up. He never drank, smoked, did drugs. He ate well. He was always doing the right thing for other people, and he also did the right thing by himself. So it’s really tragic that he probably got it in his very late teens.”

Hermione is now patron of the Asbestos Forum, offering support and information to others facing the “horrible, horrible” fate that Christie suffered.
She is as softly-spoken as her late father, and her voice drops almost to a whisper when she speaks about the ongoing impact of his loss on the family, her mum and her younger sister and brother, Amber and Ross. “Talking about him will never get easier,” she says, smiling sadly, “but then I have spent most of my life talking about him (as his manager and promoter).

“I said to a girlfriend after he passed - she had lost her mum when she was about 14 – ‘How do you cope with this, does it get any better?’ She said, ‘It doesn’t get any better, you just get more used to it.’
“And that’s the truth. You get used to it but you miss them even more.”

One way of coping has been to throw herself into projects that keep Christie’s memory close. Hermione’s sweet vocal harmonies appear on some of Christie’s best-loved tracks, from Messenger Boy to I Am A Star, but she had always resisted her dad’s encouragement to record her own solo material. Before he died, he wrote out a list of songs he thought would suit her voice.

“The choices in the list were so spot-on,” she says, “He thought I could sing a female version of Hallelujah – and this was way before the Alexandra Burke thing on X-Factor. And he was right as he always was because Dad was a great producer as well as everything else. I started managing Aled Jones at one stage to get dad to produce his album. It worked out so well.”

In May 2008, Hermione went on the Late Late Show to sing Messenger Boy to mark the release of an album of duets Christie recorded just before he died. A busy music industry creative herself (currently working with the likes of Bette Midler and Elaine Paige), she was just off a plane from LA, and was hazy on what was to happen with the performance. “I thought I was going to be duetting or doing backing vocals with this band!” she recalls with a laugh, “They said Christy Moore might come in or Ronan Keating or somebody. Then they went: ‘Get up there and sing’. My heels were too high, I thought I’d fall over on the walk over to Pat (Kenny) after the song; I just thought, ‘Oh God, I’m a disaster’.”

She wasn’t a disaster, of course. She performed beautifully and her friends began to insist that Christie’s instincts had been correct. Nick Stewart, the man who signed U2, gave her the name for the album: “I still wasn’t sure what I was doing or why I was doing it and he just said, ‘Daisy, listen to me, don’t be stupid, it’s Songs My Father Taught Me, isn’t it?’”

So, at the age of 44 – not that the incredibly pretty woman in front of me looks a day of it – she has recorded her first solo album, produced by brother Tim and featuring sister Amber on violin. The final song, Soho Square, a duet written by Christie and featuring his vocals, is particularly moving.

The family affair will continue when Hermione, Tim – also a talented pianist – and Amber take the album on the road next month (SUBS: April). The family already live close to each other in south London, and to their mum. Hermione feels a real sense of purpose to the time they will spend together touring, remembering, healing and enjoying unexpected time together as siblings. She explains: “Tim is 19 years younger than me and Amber is 6 years younger. Mum was 40 when she had Tim, and 19 when she had me so there is the same gap between Tim and me as there is between me and Mum.

“It was really hard having Dad gone and it’s really hard to find your way in your early 20s anyway so I’m delighted for Tim. It’s a lovely thing for us all to be able to do.”

The familial get-up-and-go is clearly inherited from Christie. That album of duets, The Two of Us, was conceived and recorded even as Christie was in his final months. His online diary on shows that he was still touring as late as August 2007, charming all-comers as he went. One night he obliged a wedding party with an impromptu sing-song when they recognised him as he returned to his hotel one night – on another occasion, he found himself playing special requests for an enclosed order of nuns in Ennis, Co Clare when they spotted he was playing the Glor theatre opposite their convent.

His conviviality perhaps stemmed from the fact that he never took his belated success for granted. Christie left school in Co Kerry at the age of 11, an undiagnosed dyslexic, unable to read and write. By 15, he was working on the building sites of London. At night though, he was playing in bands and Hermione remembers him arriving home after a day’s work, washing and changing and heading out again to catch a train or a lift to a gig. At one point he had a breakdown, something she says was “absolutely, definitely down to overwork”.

She adds: “He was always trying to help people by talking about the things that challenged him in his life, including his mental illness. He would answer every letter from every fan.”

Such extraordinary kindness will be remembered for a long time to come. As Hermione sees it, her job now is to ensure his musical legacy is strengthened and carried on. At the time of his death, Christie was signed to a two-record deal and had just finished composing a musical which was to open in the Gaiety in Dublin. As he recorded all his material on to tapes and videos to be transcribed later by someone else, Hermione has been sifting through a mountain of material to rescue his hidden gems.

“It took two years before I felt I could do it,” she says. “I decided I was going to view it quite dispassionately and I spent the time between Christmas and New Year going through them. There are hour upon hour of tapes of him doing all the different characters for his musical, with all the accents. He had an incredible all-round talent.

“There would be bits of him singing, or then talking a bit, it was organised randomness but random. And then right in the middle he would break off and sing Danny Boy, beautifully. Pick up his guitar and sing Messenger Boy.
“Dad had big dreams for stuff, and he had big plans. I hope I can bring some of that to people now. I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

• Songs My Father Taught Me, Hermione Hennessy’s album, is in record shops now. Details of her April tour dates in Ireland are at
• Christie Hennessy’s 1972 debut, The Green Album, has also been re-released through RMGChart – this was the album that brought Hennessy to the attention of John Peel with classics like Messenger Boy and Don’t Get Yourself A Shovel (re-recorded as Don’t Forget Your Shovel by Christy Moore).

A photograph in the CD sleeve of Songs My Father Taught Me has a poignant arrangement of some of Christie's most treasured belongings. Hermione talks us through them...
• Christie’s rosary beads: he was a deeply spiritual man.
• His Superman wallet: “He was obsessed with Superman, he would tell hilarious stories on stage, pretending to be Superman. It was a metaphor of sorts for him, positive and aspirational – that anything is achievable, that we all have some superpowers in us.”
• Desperate Dan figurine: “We would buy him Dandy and Beano annuals for Christmas – he used to get a real kick from them. Not being able to read, he loved comics, the pictures, but he also had a sense of wonder about him, a sense of the child.”
• His most personal belonging; his watch.
• Beatles memorabilia: “Dad was a Rolling Stones fan to begin with, a total Mod in his day, but as he grew older and more into songwriting, he really adored John Lennon.”
• His St Patrick’s Day badge: Decades in London never dimmed Christie’s pride in his Irish upbringing and his native Tralee.
• Christie’s reading glasses: Although his severe dyslexia meant he left school unable to read and write, Christie taught himself to use diagrams to compose music.
• Music box: Hermione bought him this as a present – “He was fascinated by music boxes and sometimes included them on his tracks. He thought they gave a sense of magic.”
• Backstage pass for his The Rehearsal tour: That 1992 album brought him belated commercial success.
• Book of Norman Rockwell posters, a favourite artist – resting on top is his Pioneer badge. A lifelong teetotaler, “he came from a family of drinkers,” says Hermione, “I think, and this is just my guess, that he saw the odd disturbance here and there and decided that wasn’t for him from an early age.”

Just be happy, can't you?

By Susan Daly

Friday March 12 2010

IT seems no-one believes in fairy tales these days -- not even those living in one.

Take Nicolas Sarkozy, France's pocket-rocket President. He might be a small man at 5ft 5ins but it would be hard to think of one other single area in which his life comes up short.

He overcame a difficult childhood to become the most powerful man in his country. He lives in a real, actual, gilt-edged palace. His wife doesn't just look good in fancy French knickers: she made a career out of it.

It's like some secret fairy godmother took him aside as a child and said: "Listen kid, I know you weren't exactly hit by the handsome wand, but I swear I'll make it up to you."

All his life is missing now is some magic beans and a few talking bears to make his porridge in the morning. And let's face it, you don't need them when you've got a gardener and a cook stashed away in the Elysee.

So why the whispers of discontent? Why the rumours that he's been having an affair with one of his junior ministers? When you've reached the top, must the only way forward be down?

We've seen too much of this before. I hate to say the 'T' word again in case I wear it out but, okay, Tiger Woods is a prime example. He had the success, the talent, the riches and the beautiful, blonde wife. Now all he's got is a world of pain and middle America praying for his soul.

As for his opposite numbers in the "beautiful game" across the water? Well, it's all gone ugly there too. Some people just don't seem to know when they're well off.

I'm starting to think that not only is youth wasted on the young, but success is wasted on the successful. That the same drive and over-arching ambition that gets them to the point of having it all is also what makes them perpetually dissatisfied with their lot.

That's not to say that anyone ever thought Sarko and Bruni were a match made in heaven. There were a few sniggers behind the hands when they got married after only four months of meeting -- and five months after his previous wife left the marital bed.

If it's any fairy tale, it's a strange, sideways one where the princess kissed the frog and he stayed a frog. Neither is it a fairy tale where the princess stayed in every night embroidering pillowcases for her trousseau and waiting for her prince to come.

In an interview she gave before she married Sarkozy, Bruni said that monogamy bored her. And how. This is the woman who slept with the father of a man who fathered her son. Figure that one out.

So, forged in heaven, no. But sex, power, glamour and beauty are a pretty attractive mix on earth. And Carla looked very cute in her mid-height heels beside her president-on-a-box.

Notoriously sensitive about his height, or lack of it, Sarkozy has been snapped standing on a pedestal to make a speech beside his taller counterparts Gordon Brown and Barack Obama.

At a French factory, only the smallest workers were allowed to stand behind him for the official publicity photographs. He's even been seen standing on tippytoes during a photoshoot with Michelle Obama.

Now it appears that's not the height of his folly.

The thing is, Carla was reported to be in the throes of an affair of her own, with a younger musician. So what's going on here? It could be a hoax -- and there are plenty who never bought into the Bruno-Sarkozy fairy tale. They would readily believe that there won't be a happy ever after.

Or could it be that the pair have agreed amicably to an "open" marriage?

The French are very practical about this kind of thing. They don't generally care if their politicians have lovers or mistresses or second families as long as it doesn't interfere with the job in hand. (Well, the other job in hand). They call one's private affairs 'des jardins secrets' -- literally 'secret gardens' -- where no-one else should trespass.

Perhaps Sarko is not a malcontent sitting up in his ivory Elysee wondering what next to do for fun. Perhaps he and his princess bride have come to some 'arrangement'. If that's the case, then he's not only living the fairytale these days -- he's living the dream.

Studio Red lay down the blueprint for architects

My latest foray... into the property pages. Better to write about a place than buy one, I suppose.
These girls are aaa-mazing. Check it out...

Take advantage ... it's a client's market
Architects have been among the hardest hit by the property crash, with almost half of graduates unemployed. Now is the time to take advantage of their experience and make the most of your home. Susan Daly reports

Friday March 12 2010

ARCHITECTURE has been one of the most unfortunate victims of the property bust. Long-standing firms that have weathered the storm so far are struggling to keep busy and many have been forced to let go highly trained staff.

Setting up a new design practice in such an inhospitable climate might seem brave at best. Nicola Ryan and Grainne Dunne did just that, however, establishing their Studio Red practice in 2008.

"The first few years of a company are always going to be hard," says Dunne, "but as it turns out, if we had stayed with a larger company, we would definitely be unemployed now, or in another country."

The 30-year-olds had spent several years working in larger practices before they decided to set up their partnership.

The saving grace for their new company has been the pair's willingness to adapt their skills to a range of projects, large and modest.

"It really is a good time for clients," says Dunne. "We have to have a happy client because our next project depends on that.

"That can be said for every architect out there and that might not always have been the case."

People sometimes dismiss the thought of using an architect unless they're looking at a large-scale new-build, but an architect can be invaluable in reimagining the use of an existing space.

"Houses have to last now," says Ryan. "If people are going to stay there for 20, 30 years, the house needs to grow with them. We have to see all the different roles that house will play in that family's life."

It is what Dunne calls "future-proofing" -- literally, a design for life.

"You don't know if your mom is going to be in a wheelchair in 10 years' time and living with you; you don't know if your kids are going to be rugby monsters and need somewhere to dump all their mucky stuff," says Dunne.

When the pair enter a prospective client's house, they ask that the place not be tidied up beforehand.

They want to see how the household operates and identify what changes they can make to the light, space and flow of the rooms to improve the quality of living.

While redesigning and adding a two-storey extension to a 1930s redbrick house on York Road in Dun Laoghaire, for example, storage was a clear problem for the family who live there.

"In their new open-living plan, we used a lot of fitted furniture, lots of shelving, we used any kind of recesses or nooks in the rooms. It was bespoke and, despite what people think, bespoke doesn't cost the world."

As labour and material costs have dropped across the board, Dunne and Ryan are able to secure quality craftspeople and the finest building materials for about half of what it would have cost in boom times.

It's a similar story on a kitchen renovation the pair designed for a house on Whitebeam Road in Milltown. All is air and light thanks to new double doors, rooflights and a shadow gap around the bottom of the walls which replaces the skirting board and makes the wall appear to float.

The ingenuity in the design also proved hugely economical. "The brief was that they wanted an extension for a living, utility and kitchen area," says Dunne.

"We did a survey and drew what we thought would work and we said: 'You've got buckets of space, you actually don't need an extension'."

Friends and former classmates at DIT Bolton, where they earned first-class honours degrees, it's clear Ryan and Dunne share a passion for making good design available on all budgets. They see the role of the architect expanding rather than contracting with the tough times.

"People think you're going to do them a drawing and then they're on their own and terrified," says Dunne.

"No. We'll liaise with the builders to make sure the contract is completed as agreed. We'll advise you what heating system to put in, and so on.

"For example, we would have researched maybe 30 window companies, looking at price, how the window performs, how it looks. People are so vulnerable out there trying to do this stuff on their own. We take away that worry."

For more info visit or tel 01 4451772

How to make the most of your architect...

1 Ask for recommendations from homeowners who have used your architect.

2 Don't clean up for the architect's first visit to your home. They want to identify your needs: Underpants on all the radiators = need for a laundry room!

3 Be clear to the architect about what you want more of, eg, light/storage/ floorspace.

4 Talk to your architect about your budget.

Your architect can administer the building contract fairly, ensuring that the contractor builds what they are being paid to.

5 The architect can also specify materials, supervise the building and certify that they are in accordance with building regulations.

6 Our movements in our home tend to be hardwired but be open to the fact that just because the kitchen has been on a particular wall for 10 years, it doesn't have to stay there.

7 The simplest of tweaks can be effective -- an increase in lighting levels and the reconfiguration of space can revolutionise your home life.

8 If you are uneasy about an element of the design tell your architect. It may just need clarification but the worst thing would be to stand in a built project with regrets.

9 Consider maintenance. If you're not into polishing, then a high-gloss kitchen with black granite worktops is not for you.

10 Bespoke fitted furniture can give a sense of spaciousness and despite popular perception, it need not cost the earth.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Angie, Aaaaaaangie

I was very nearly christened 'Angela' but my mother was put off by my father's insistence that he would call me 'Angie'. Mother hates diminuitives in names, for some reason. So I was named Susan instead (because clearly, Susan, can't be shortened to anything... er... Sue, Susie, Suze etc.?)
If you're the type who believes in nominal determinism, you might wonder how differently I might have turned out if my name was Angie...

From today's Irish Independent:

Would you trust your man with Angelina?
Susan Daly on Hollywood's number one femme fatale

Thursday March 11 2010

Who's afraid of Angelina Jolie? It's now apparently the turn of Johnny Depp's missus. Vanessa Paradis, his partner of 12 years, was reportedly unhappy to discover that Depp's latest film The Tourist requires him to film a long and steamy sex scene in the shower with La Jolie.

Either Ms Paradis has environmental concerns about water wastage or she is worried Jolie will try to take a bite out of Johnny. Perhaps the whole story is trumped-up publicity for the movie but it says something about the widespread belief in Angelina Jolie's magnetism. French songbird Paradis might have the second-sharpest pair of cheekbones in showbiz (after those of her paramour) but Jolie is, we are constantly reminded, a maneater. Ooh oh, here she comes, and she's coming for her co-star.

What is it about Angelina Jolie that -- six children later -- she is still considered Hollywood's top vamp? Clearly, the looks have something to do with it. Vanity Fair readers have crowned her the most beautiful woman on the planet. The perfect symmetry of her facial features has been used by scientists to illustrate the ideal of female beauty, and its proportions directly compared to those of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.

Jolie has admitted that she looks a bit odd. "I sometimes think I look like a funny Muppet," she once said. Her beauty is so extreme, it is almost cartoonish. From the moment in 2001 when she was poured into rubber and Lycra to bring to life the pneumatic video game heroine Lara Croft, she has become fetishised. The poster for her 2004 film Taking Lives took for granted that she has one of the most scrutinised faces in the world -- it featured only a close-up of her instantly recognisable lips.

Jolie's other-worldly appearance tips over from being every man's fantasy into the realm of the merely fantastical. Jennifer Aniston, the woman she will forever be pitted against as long as she remains with Brad Pitt, is arguably the more conventionally desirable star. Women imagine that with the right personal trainer, dietician and stylists, they could come close to emulating Jennifer. Men imagine that in similar circumstances, they might be in with a chance.

The idea of being Angelina Jolie -- or being with her -- doesn't seem a possibility for mere mortals. No wonder we feel that should Jolie want something, or someone, not a person on earth is powerless to stop her. The alleged Paradis paranoia we have seen before: in 2004, pop star Kylie Minogue -- again a much-desired woman in her own right -- felt the need to fly to the set where her then-lover Olivier Martinez was filming with Jolie and hang out just off-camera.

What is surprising is that Jolie still has the power to make tongues wag six years later -- it was claimed recently that she once had an affair with Mick Jagger while he was married to Jerry Hall -- despite being in the most settled relationship of her life.

In recent years, especially since the trauma of her mother's death from cancer three years ago, Jolie's slim frame has grown terribly gaunt. Too rich? Not when you and your lover are passionate philanthropists; but too thin? Probably.

Also playing against the old 'homewrecker' perception is the fact that her personal likeability is supposed to be on the up. Her Q score -- a US index used to decipher how positively the public feels towards a celebrity -- has increased since her union with Brad Pitt, the creation of their family and her high-profile work for the UN. Jennifer Aniston or Laura Dern (who was dumped in favour of Jolie by her fiance Billy Bob Thornton) may not consider Jolie to be a friend to women but feminist writer Naomi Wolf has given the actress her influential stamp of approval.

Her paean to Jolie as the new embodiment of 'having it all' graced the cover of Harper's Bazaar last summer. "Polls show that her appeal and magnetism play at least as powerfully in the fantasy life of females," argued Wolf.

It is true that Jolie has thrown off some of the scent of crazy danger that she used to trail through her early to mid-20s. Back then, she spoke freely about bisexuality, her knife collection and self-harming. Her short marriage to Hackers co-star Jonny Lee Miller was notorious chiefly for her wedding outfit of skin-tight leather trousers and a white shirt with Jonny's name written on it in her own blood. The second marriage, to Pushing Tin co-star Billy Bob, was written in tattoos, vials of each other's blood worn around the neck and public displays of groping.

Her new role as matriarch of a family of eight seems Brady Bunch by comparison. Yet the frisson of distrust remains. The Pitt-Jolie relationship is still tarnished by the "uncool" (Jen's word) revelation by Jolie not too long ago that she and Pitt fell in love on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith, while he was still married. She might claim the pair didn't get "intimate" until after Aniston and Pitt separated, but the notion of her homing in on her alpha-male mate like a heat-seeking missile is hard to shake.

Jolie hasn't entirely lost her mystique by becoming a mother. When she was married all those years ago, she was far from a Stepford wife. In the same way, now that she is apparently 'settled', she is still subverting societal norms by not marrying Pitt.

Like her or loathe her -- and few have no opinion at all on Jolie -- she is undeniably a woman of power. That, even more than her pillowy lips, is most seductive of all.

DELILAH: The emasculation of the male is a big hobby of the femme fatale -- Delilah managed it by giving her husband Samson a bad haircut.

She's just one of many Old Testament temptresses but the only one Tom Jones ever sang about.

THEDA BARA: The film industry loves its femme fatales and every star from Rita Hayworth as seductive cabaret singer Gilda to Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction has Theda Bara to thank for the blueprint.

Her predatory roles popularised the term 'vamp' (short for vampiress) in the silent cinema era.

AVA GARDNER: As sexually notorious off-screen as on was La Gardner. An excellent biography by Lee Server, Love is Nothing, detailed Gardner's insatiable carnal appetites.

She had countless lovers and a callous attitude towards those obsessed with her beauty -- including her third husband Frank Sinatra.

MATA HARI: The Dutch exotic dancer picked up her sexy moves while married to an army officer in Java, and exploited them when she moved to Paris in 1903.

She manipulated her rich lovers to pay for her luxurious lifestyle but in World War 1 she was tried for spying for the Germans and executed.