Ava Gardner, I once read, pulled up loose skin on her face with hooks and stuffed it under a wig. That was her makeshift face-lift. Joan Crawford is said to have smothered her acne with a mortician's layer of makeup. Marilyn Monroe's scalp was reportedly visible to intimates, shining scarlet from the scalding bleach she used. She was also, legend has it, going bald.
These are the US' greatest beauties, but they would never have gotten away with it these days. Those gorgeous Life magazine spreads of Gardner, the fresh-faced, green-eyed brunette: She was life's crisp and sparkling perfection.
Today we would never gaze placidly at those photos, dazzled as if by a Vermeer. If Ava were still around, she'd appear on idontlikeyouinthatway.com or dlisted.com and we wouldn't ogle her face as much as her hairline and the microscopic mysteries of the snagged skin -- each hook tugging gruesomely at the flesh.
And there would be a caption, angry, as if Gardner had intruded on us, and not we on her: What the hell is wrong with Ava's face?!
Like so many other 20th century US institutions, Hollywood beauty is now regularly treated as a fairy tale only for dreamers and chumps. Readers with any sense are supposed to recognize its strategic function, but otherwise acknowledge it as a lie. The availability of plastic surgery and the widespread use of tooth bleach and self-tanners and finally the photo manipulation that any grandma can do to brighten up her Canon PowerShot photos has somehow made even transcendent beauty manifestly suspect.
Celebrity magazines that in earlier incarnations used to peddle a fantasy of loveliness now traffic in dismantling that same fantasy. In collusion with ever more Johnny-on-the-spot Web sites, tabloids have invited viewers first to evaluate photos of celebrities for signs that they are human and now for evidence of monstrosity a la Nicole Richie pregnant at 40kg and loaded on 73,000 pills.
Certain celebrities lend themselves especially well to the new form of high-resolution scrutiny. Displaying weight loss and gain, unstable pigmentation, shadowy pregnancies, ocular dilations and erratic body language, figures like Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears have become favored specimens, inviting analysis and -- like little Mona Lisas -- repaying those who are willing to look and look and look again.
IMP OR URCHIN?
In a recent tabloid photograph, Richie, who in the last few years appears to have transformed from a jolly imp into a gaunt urchin, is shown leaving an office building in Los Angeles with a pink smoothie in hand and wearing a thigh-length, gathered T-shirt-dress.
The image invites speculation on multiple fronts: Would that be a fetus-harming caffeinated drink? Or a calorie-laden one? In which case, does that mean Richie is eating again? And if so, is the pregnancy confirmed?
Similarly engrossing photos appear almost daily of Britney Spears, whose rather stockier and more off-balance figure in slovenly summerwear suggests master narratives about her maternal and filial shortcomings, as well as her fall from fit superstardom.
Lindsay Lohan, who seems to have altered her ethnic inheritance entirely in becoming a tan blonde, appears in disguise even when barely dressed.
No question is too small or insignificant for Web sites like TMZ, X17online, PerezHilton, idontlikeyouinthatway, justjared, egotastic, wwtdd, dlisted and pinkisthenewblog, where the sites' hosts post photos with commentary ("Parasite Hilton: Her Face Is Growing Stuff"), and invite others to do the same.