Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: Celebrities often feel they need cosmetic surgery - but for how long can you fight Father Time?

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich

By Mary Kenny

Actresses - yes, some women in the performing arts still prefer not to be called "female actors" - and songstresses often avail of cosmetic surgery. Looking younger than they are is part of their job. So it isn't surprising that Debbie Harry, the American singer, actress, songwriter and model, now aged 74, has compared facelifts to a flu injection - just a regular procedure. In her profession, it is.

More poignantly, she has said that getting older has been "hard" on her looks, and that the focus on her appearance throughout her long career has made her wonder if she's ever achieved anything beyond her image. There's a cost for everything, and the cost of curating your looks so assiduously is that it may take up too much space in your head.

The more usual approach - for ordinary mortals who don't need to present an eternal fresh face for professional reasons - is to care less about your looks as time goes by. There is even a comforting tendency towards egalitarianism between the formerly beautiful and the formerly less beautiful in old age.

I met an old pal on a train the other week - hadn't seen her for years. Remembered her as a stunning beauty with perfect cheekbones - she'd been compared to Ursula Andress - and perfect everything else. A spirited old gal now, but the faultless face was lined and the peerless figure bore sagging skin as well as some of the afflictions of time: arthritic knees, teeth implants, hearing aids. I had once been so envious of her fine beauty and voluptuous figure; but now, age had equalised us, and we met as comrades and veterans on life's journey rather than noticeably unequal competitors in the ballroom of romance.

It's rot to claim that looks don't matter. I never bought into Naomi Wolf's theory of "The Beauty Myth" - that the pursuit of beauty was a form of oppression against women, all got up by big business. Beauty has been pursued since the dawn of time, as the story of Helen of Troy attests. We just have more pharmaceutical assistance with it now, and it's somewhat safer. But women have died in the pursuit of cosmetic enhancement - Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, perished from the mercury found in 18th-century make-up.

Looks are a source of anguishing anxiety to young women, and always have been. Improving social tracts and high-minded novels tried to tell girls that it was character that counted, but young women have always known that the world judges by appearance. They know it by experience, or they can test it by experiment.

Say you're an ordinary-looking 20-year-old and you walk into a crowded room along with a 20-year-old friend who is an outstanding beauty. All eyes will automatically fix on the beauty. It's not a plot by toxic masculinity or a conspiracy confected by Revlon: it's an entirely spontaneous, natural reflex.

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Beauty is power. But, as Debbie Harry says, vast amounts of energy and focus have to be committed to preserving it, with the passage of time: and even then it does not endure. In some cases, it is harder for a woman who has been beautiful to see her beauty decline than for a more average-looking person to notice that gradual deterioration.

Some women can be attractive old ladies: they age well and can still look sweet in a twinkling old-lady way. They can look great for their age. But they're not going to walk into that crowded room and make the same impact as they did when they were 20.

There was a legendary beauty called Lady Diana Cooper in London society in the last century. Her pulchritude was so luminous that other women wouldn't stand next to her at a soiree. Then one day she looked in the mirror and realised that she had hit middle age and her youthful look was gone. "Right!" she told herself. "From now on, it's personality!" Instead of seeking to preserve those fabled looks, she focused on personality. Good attitude.

Not all legends can hack it in old age. Marlene Dietrich had plenty of "work" done on her appearance, and she looked great, if a little mask-like, well past her 60s. But then came the day when she just couldn't disguise the ravages of time any longer, and she became a recluse. She did a documentary film about her life, on the condition that only her voice appeared - not her face.

If fighting Father Time matters to some people - and especially those in the public eye - good luck to them: go for it. Lots of women have all kinds of discreet tweaks - one of the reasons why 60-year-olds seem to look younger these days. But those who don't bother have the consolation that in old age, generally, it matters less what you look like - and that, in itself, is a kind of democracy of the body.

Beauty and appearance are important to young women (and to some extent, to young men too): the care they take in just designing their eyebrows attests to that. But eventually it will all matter less and plain Jane and pretty Kitty will find themselves on an equal footing in the same (metaphorical) railway carriage.

Work it: Debbie Harry
Work it: Debbie Harry

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