Who’s a pretty pollie?

CELEBRITIES, for the most part, aren’t allowed to be ugly. Hirsute warts, sniff-round-corner snozzes, complexions that fester and belch: all these imperfections are screened out by the fame machine so our deified red-carpet dwellers remain easy on the eye and pleasing to the lens.

Even beautiful people aren’t permitted to be celebrities unless they strive to look more beautiful than they already are. Plastic inserts, trowel-strength make-up, towering hair that’s bouffed and burned.

All these interventions are required, not so Hollywood hot-shots look their best but so they look their usual.

Thanks to the popularity of stars-caught-without-make-up magazine spreads, fans do know these incandescent celebrity Jekylls have dark sides: spotty, blotchy and cellulite-y Hyde sides.

But such is the supremacy of the manufactured celebrity image that the usual order of things has been inverted: the painted, spritzed and surgically lifted has become the norm while the untouched celebrity face is now the perversion. These developments put the average (and average-looking) politician in an extremely awkward position.

In an ideal world, the mechanisms of governance would be immune to the spectacular opportunities and crushing tyrannies of glamour.

In an ideal world, we’d vote for candidates because they had substance rather than Angelina’s pout or Brad’s outrageously geometric jaw line.

Yet all the evidence suggests that the spheres of political celebrity and pop cultural celebrity have overlapped to the point where aspiring statesfolk who opt out of the glamour paradigm may be kissing their careers as baby kissers goodbye. When Angela Merkel was campaigning for Germany’s chancellorship, the 50-something “iron frau” gave short shrift to those who dissed her ye olde apparatchik appearance. “Anyone who really has something to say doesn’t need make-up,” she snorted.

But the onslaught of abuse about her pudding-bowl hair-do and frumpy pants-suits grew too great and eventually she relented, feathering her hair, painting her face and hiring a stylist. According to The Times, she even received television training which taught her to smile in a way that revealed her dimples.

In Brazil, looking comely on camera is especially important for politicians because of low literacy rates and the supremacy of television over newspapers. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is reported to have undergone botox treatments and a chemical peel, while another of his peers, Roberto Jefferson, had surgery to staple his stomach and remove excess skin. Jefferson told colleagues that: “The return a good appearance brings in terms of votes is incredible.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also notorious for embracing the growing trend for voters to view au naturel as ewww naturel. The media mogul, who once accused left-wing female politicians of being less foxy than those on the Right, has had a facelift and hair transplants. “It’s a way of showing respect to those who expect you to represent them on an international and national stage,” he’s said.

In other words, rectifying ugliness — or even bog standard ordinariness — isn’t just a campaign strategy, it’s a political responsibility.

So much for the old saying about politics being show business for the unsightly.

All this, of course, is the context that must be considered before condemning the Republican Party’s decision to spend $US150,000 ($234,000) on Sarah Palin’s clothing and pit-bull lippy.

For starters, Palin is hardly the only contender in the American presidential race who’s paid top dollar to tart themselves up. John Edwards spent $US400 on a hair cut and Hillary Clinton paid $US3000 for two. John “How Many Houses Do I Own Again” McCain is campaigning in a $US520 pair of imported calf-skin Ferragamo loafers with silver-tone Gancini-brand buckles.

The ugly truth is that it is we the punters who are pressuring pollies to look as uber human as our other celebrity pin-ups. According to recent Australian research, we’re far more likely to elect beautiful men and women than candidates donged by the ugly stick. This sort of lookism may even swing results in marginal seats.

Once we get to know politicians, the eye candy factor fades in importance. In the interim, however, it is the height of hypocrisy to castigate our flesh-pressers simply for supplying what too many of us weren’t careful enough about wishing for.

- originally published in The Australian on 30-10-2008.

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