Sunday, 26 October 2014

Renee Zellweger, youthfulness and identity

Photographer: Hugh Gilbert. Model: me

Oh no, I hear you say, not her again. Not Renee Zellweger. We have been swamped with news and detailed discussions of her appearance. Who cares if she has had 'work' done to her face? I totally agree, it IS a most trivial matter. But Zellweger's appearance has become an issue because of the way the media and the public have reacted and because what underpins it is the issue of ageing.  So I feel compelled  to comment, as this concerns me, as an older woman and an older model.
Briefly, in case you were away on Mars and further afield for the past week or so: Renee Zellweger, best known for her interpretation of Bridget Jones, for which in order to portray the character she had to pile up the pounds, only to lose the extra weight  immediately after filming,  recently made a public appearance and  sent the media in a frenzy because she looked 'different'.  How different? Well, she is 45 and is a Hollywood actor, struggling to get roles because by Hollywood standards she is somewhat past it.  Like many women in her position and tinsel town dwellers, she has allegedly had botox and cosmetic surgery to ensure she looks youthful. But somehow the surgery, according to observers, seems to be obvious and her eyes seem to be somewhat rounded, in comparison to what they were  before - when she was younger. The result is that people decry she is no longer the Renee audiences fell in love with, the Bridget Jones that stole our hearts, and all this because apparently the eyes look different, now that her face is more angular.

Renee Zellweger. Google images

This is quite bizarre. Even if she had not had any work done to her face - and we do not know for sure -, even if she looked CONSIDERABLY older, which she does not, she still would not have looked they way she did when she was Bridget Jones. Everyone changes. I certainly do not look like I did at twenty or twenty five. And yes, eyes do change! Look at mine in this photo of me at three.

I recently met a woman I had not seen in years. I did not recognise her at all, she was larger, her face was not  as I remembered, she had to remind me of her name and the occasion of our meeting  before I could recollect who she was and truly, she looked nothing like her former self. Not worse, just different and older. Like I do too, to anyone who meets me after a long gap.
Zellweger looks amazing, a very well preserved 45 year old, great figure, great face. So why are people suddenly saying she does not look like herself? What is it that makes you who you are? Your hair, your eyes, your legs? Or is it something else altogether, such as your personality?
This twisted notion of having to look youthtful at all costs really bothers me. It is really warped. According to it one should be youthful but  at the same time it should not be obvious that the youthful look has been achieved through an external intervention. Zellweger's 'sin' is that she does not look ageless, she looks merely youthful, yet different from what she used to be.
I am very troubled by this idea of 'effortless agelessness', apparently women should aspire to have  a 'classic ageless' look, whatever that may be. In practice this means showing some very minor sign of ageing - perhaps a touch of  grey hair, if the hair is beautiful, but definitely an unlined or only mildly lined complexion, blemish free, and a toned, slim body, are de riguer. If you have cosmetic surgery, it should be subtle. By all means remove thread veins, and any other 'unsightly' blemish but do not let it be guessed.
It's fine to be ageless, less so to be youthful with evident help. The problem with either looks is that neither bears any resemblance to your younger self, no matter.
I will not address here the strain of unwarranted comments by those who feel entitled to a 'holier than thou attitude' and find faults with the fact that some women do have recourse to cosmetic surgery, as they grow older, claiming that this is anti-feminist. I will discuss this in a different post. All I will say is that these are personal choices, like that of dying one's hair or shaving one's armpits. Sure, they are often taken because there is pressure to look youthful, especially in the entertainment industry, but I think that  pitching one celebrity against another, claiming that one is more feminist than the other only because the 'work' she has had done is less visible as to appear non-existent, is complete nonsense.
The good thing for Zellweger is that she has received so much attention, it cannot be to her detriment in the long run. Perhaps an unplanned yet very effective PR exercise?
As we ponder on which part of our body is likely to encapsulate our 'identity', a notion the media seems to have embraced in connection with the Zellweger case, I invite you to view the inimitable Russell Brand and his comments on the case. Enjoy! (click here if you are using a mobile device)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair: when images become iconic

Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley. Google Images

If there is an iconic image, it has to be that of Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair taken by Lewis Morley in 1963. Keeler is nude but the back of the chair covers her, so nothing can be seen.
I was visiting a photographer friend on Tuesday, with the idea of doing a shoot in his studio. He showed me an original print of Keeler's photograph taken by Morley and signed by Morley. It was so beautiful I practically begged him to photograph me in a similar pose, I really wanted to do my own version of this iconic image. I really wish to thank Hugh Gilbert for humouring me. You can see the image here.
Shoot ended and on the way back home, I could not help reflecting on why this image of Christine Keeler has become so famous and is so embedded in popular consciousness. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an entry on it in its online catalogue , as a gelatin silver print of Morley's endeavour is now part of its photographic collection.  Morley claims this was an accidental shot, the last exposure on the film he was using.
An exhibition of the photograph at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 prompted Jonathan Jones to write in an article published by The Guardian that "Keeler was in a tradition of unrespectable women in the public eye that goes back to Restoration royal mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. Compare her with Charles II's lover" also at the National Portrait Gallery.
It is very hard to say why a particular image captures the imagination of millions and thus becomes iconic. Maybe it is that the image strikes us at a deep emotional level, maybe it is because it  perfectly captures an instant which cannot be replicated and has a ring of truth, no, authenticity, about it.
It is not just photographs that achieve this status of being instantly recognisable, of speaking directly to someone at an emotional level. Paintings do too. Or images like the wayang (Javanese shadow puppet theatre), replicated even on tees, which have become signifiers of Indonesian culture.
As author Martha Tedeschi states,  “Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”
I guess Christine Keeler's astride a chair has achieved this status, starting off as a popular image and making its way into repositories of high culture, such as museums and art galleries. 
 Martin Kemp  writes that truly iconic images accrue legends:  extraordinary images demand an extraordinary explanation. Morley's photograph of Keeler shares in this tradition, stories about it abound.
Why so? I am not sure. We all recognise iconic images but it becomes enormously difficult to say why they are so. This mystery makes them even more alluring, enhancing their iconicity.

A friend and member of deviantArt wrote the following comment (I usually  plug my blogposts on dA):
The nature of the "iconic" also interests me... how does an image become so? It's easier, I suppose when it directly captures a specific moment of triumph or trauma shared by millions... the moon landing, The crowd at Martin Luther King's death pointing toward the shooter, etc. In part that photo was associated with a moment in history, the Profumo Scandal, as well as a visual allusion to the newness and differentness of social mores of the time... it helps that Keeler was such a beautiful young woman... who better to be the face of such a moment? But even now that Cold War politics and the pretence of "respectability" amongst those in high places have washed away, the image remains and still has power. I sometimes liken it to parapsychologists' hypothesis of how a haunting works... a moment of such emotional energy occours that it leaves some kind of "print" on a place that some people can feel. Don't know if I truly believe in ghosts... but socially, the iconic image, the moment that leaves behind a symbolic impression that encapsulates an entire experience seems to work like that.

Very well said!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Galliano: forgive and forget?

John Galliano modelling. Google images

I have been thinking a lot about John Galliano, after I was given a link to an interview he gave to Ingrid Sischy for Vanity Fair, over a year agoIt was an interesting read, not least because it highlighted one of the endemic problems of the fashion industry, how it saps the energy of  the creatives that are involved in it, with its imperative to produce, produce, produce. Galliano's meltdown, following an alcohol and drug binge, went viral in 2011, when he hurled anti-semitic insults in a Parisian boite. At that moment he crossed a line and he had to go, there could be no further tolerance of his drug and alcohol fuelled idiosyncratic behaviour. So he relinquished his position as head of the Maison Dior. He  had no choice.
But the fashion industry needs talents like Galliano's and he seems to be sufficiently contrite and remorseful to warrant him a second chance. After all, was Kate Moss not called back to model following her cocaine snorting incident? Miss Moss is an iconic model - here it is, the dreaded little word I discussed in an earlier post. And Mr Galliano is an iconic designer. So why should he not  do what he is best at?
Drugs and alcohol can play havoc with your ability to control your thoughts and behaviour. I have often wondered whether things would have been different if the insults hurled by Galliano had not been videoed and gone viral. In hindsight it is a good thing the video was seen by so many people as it forced Galliano to take stock and do something about his addiction. And he has.

Galliano's Fall 2007 collection
Galliano is no ordinary designer. He has a great team but no collection of his goes without his personal input in conceiving the clothes and the way they are going to be presented. There are designers whose main ability is that of putting together a brand and market it, and designers who create the look from scratch, who are practitioners of the craft - an art really. They are the designers as practising artists. Think of Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen as opposed to, say, the Victoria Beckhams of the fashion industry.
Galliano has great originality and a vision. His shows were true spectacles, great performances, in which the clothes themselves were 'performed'. His sense of theatricality is supreme. The move of fashion shows into the realm of the spectacular  is very clear nowadays, we only have to think of the recent Paris Fashion Week and the show put on by Karl Lagerfeld.  Unlike Lagerfeld's, whose ironic take on feminism could be construed as trivialising,  Galliano's theatricality does not have a hint of the trivial or cheap.
So yes, I think Galliano should be given another chance. It is rumoured he might take up a position with Maison Martin Margiela. I hope it is true.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Gravity, age and the body.

Cast no shadow: photo by Isaac Julien

I owe choreographer Russell Maliphant two things: a love for Sicily and an introduction to Rolfing. Let me explain. When I was in New York in November 2007 I went to see Cast No Shadow which combined choreography by Maliphant and filming  by Isaac Julien.  Parts of the film  had been shot  on the coast of Western Sicily. It sparked the beginning of my passion for the island of my ancestors, which I had not ever visited till then.  That evening I spoke briefly to Maliphant to congratulate him on his work and found out about his being a certified Rolfer, among other things.
 I never really got into Rolfing however until this year, never felt the need for it, but circumstances have changed. I have been suffering from severe back problems. A traumatic fall when I was much younger has left a mark on my spine and though for years I ignored the occasional ache it has now become increasingly difficult to pretend it is not there, so I have embarked on a tailor made programme, tailor made by me I should say, to try and find out what can be done. The conversation I had with Maliphant all those years ago and an interview with him I read online reawakened my curiosity and I decided to do  a course of Rolfing. It is a course because you need to do  ten sessions at regular intervals for it to be effective. It will help you to realign and learn a new way of inhabiting your own body. It also brings about new thinking and a new body awareness, which sadly most of us do not have.  Apart from Rolfing I am doing as much as possible by way of yoga, exercises for my spine to increase its flexibility etc. I am also pursuing a proper diagnosis through conventional medicine to find out whether I have low bone density and the beginning of osteoporosis, thus am undergoing scans. There is a history of osteoporosis in my family and having seen my mother being painfully crippled by it I am determined to fight it off.

Me in public speaking mode. Photo: City Academy

As I look around it really dawns on me that we are generally so unaware of our bodies. We focus so much on the way we look but we never learn to really pay attention to the way we feel in our body, the way we hold ourselves. As I am doing my course of Rolfing I am also having great conversations with my Rolfer. We tend to talk about the body of course  and in my last session we touched on  the relationship with gravity. Gravity affects us all and interestingly we have two ways of going about it: we either fight it, as I have been doing, in the sense that I always want to pull myself up and stretch as much as possible, sometimes being rather forceful in the way I handle my body -  I am talking more about a feeling, a sensation, than real actions - or we feel oppressed by it, which leads to allowing the body to curve as if carrying a massive weight - and we do carry that massive weight because gravity puts a lot of pressure on us. But there is another way of relating to gravity and that is becoming aware that gravity actually supports us. This change  in attitude can do wonders in the way  we stand, the relationship we have with our feet on the ground. For me it is something that at the moment engages much of my thinking and my actions. I also notice when I look at people in the street how ageing bodies have this tendency to shrink, the upper back develops kyphosis and that is most often, though not always,  the result of poor posture and unawareness.
There is so much that is being written about ageing and so much focus on what to do to conform to that ideal of agelessness that is being touted as what we ought to aspire to.  Though there are many articles that exhort us to exercise and pay attention to nutrition in order to be youthful there is absolutely nothing that  discusses our relationship with our own body and body awareness. This is such a glaring gap. I care little about how my body can look better if I wear x and y. I care a lot about the way I stand, I sit, I walk and I bend.  I care about being aware of my body.
As I age, to me this is the most important thing about my body and my person.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The quest for the perfect gym spa

Outtakes from a shoot with Vanessa Mills
A friend of mine always used to joke that in a former life I must have been a Spartan because of my love for gyms and spas. Not sure the Spartans had much to do with the latter, spas were more of a Roman thing, later taken over by the Arabs and Turks through their hammam,  but basically, yes,  it is true that I spend a great deal of time in gyms and spas and am currently on the look out for the perfect combination of the two.
This undoubtedly should prompt some reflection on the commodification of  fitness  in our contemporary society and the proliferation of health centres, gyms and spas.  Though I acknowledge that fitness is a socio-cultural phenomenon and that I am totally caught up in the fitness discourse, believing that fitness and health are essential to the quality of my life and that they are both linked with life satisfaction and fulfilment, this post will not tackle such issues in a broad, general way. I am merely reflecting, here,  on my personal quest for the perfect gym and what kind of feelings and emotions it evokes.
Some brief background. After being a regular member of a well known gym chain, at a very local club with swimming pool, and a tiny sauna and steam room plus the usual gym equipment and a range of group classes, I got very bored with it and totally fed up with the fact that most of the time one lane in the swimming pool is blocked off for lessons. I was also not happy with the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the changing rooms.
Then I discovered the gym+spa combination and that, I must admit,  is most appealing. So I am in the process of trying different spas which also have a gym and a proper pool.  My, there is so much to choose from. The most expensive ones are not necessarily the best - I was appalled when visiting a 5* hotel with a pretentious set up of just one room with equipment, unmanned, a relaxation pool, a relaxation room and that was it, for £95 a month plus treatments, very expensive,  to be paid for separately. Treatments will always have to be paid for separately, that's not the point. But facilities should be good, considering the fees.

Como Shambhala spa in Bali. Google images
I have appointments at several establishments to check them out. What am I after? A thermal experience - I love the whole set up of scented steam rooms, saunas, plunge pools, relaxation room - plus a gym, some group classes such as yoga and pilates, a swimming pool with at least three lanes. There is nothing like immersing yourself in a meditation while sitting in a steam room or a scented sauna.  What else can you do when sitting still in a heated environment? Everything slows down, even your thoughts. I also love the feel of cold water in a plunge pool and the struggle I go through before immersing myself in it - oh it does take a lot of will power. I love the wetness of a steam room and the casual conversations one strikes with other people sitting there.
If I could, I'd go to a hammam every day. Good for the skin, it seems.
Perhaps I will, once I sort out membership details.  But with the dance classes, the gym, the swimming pool, the hammam - can twenty four hours be enough? And what will I do for relaxation? Apart from having to squeeze some work in...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The state of being iconic

Photographer: Vanessa Mills. Model: myself  Designer: Sparklewren

A recent conversation with a friend forced me to rethink the widespread use of the word 'iconic'. Once upon a time 'iconic' was a term mostly used by art historians and with reference to images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints, as found  in Orthodox churches. Or to Byzantine art.
Then came the use of the word in the sense of cultural icons, with reference to very famous faces and characters such as, in no particular order and by no means limited to these names,  Che Guevara, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison and brands, such as Coca Cola.
We are now inundated with icons and iconic objects. Victoria Beckhams' designs are iconic and she is regarded as an icon of style and  brands, apart from the already mentioned Coca Cola, are also iconic.  Views from the veranda of a luxury hotel are iconic, Californian red elmwood is iconic, basically everything including iPhone/iPad apps, is iconic. Of course I know that those little images on Apple computers are called 'icons' and have been called so for a very long time, but this post is not about those. Apple by the way, as a brand, is also iconic.
Some people complain of an  'overuse' of the word iconic. Is there really an overuse?
So it is that while sipping our iconic cappuccinos, my friend and I began to consider what cultural icons, or better still, the state of being iconic, or iconicity,  is  about.
Let's refer first to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines icon as "a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration". From there iconicity would then refer to the state of being this representative symbol or  symbol of veneration.  This is a broad definition that allows us to throw in some interesting variants. So if we think of cultural icons we can agree that they are not only representative symbols, they often personify them. So far, so good.
But the dictionary does not tell us about the process of becoming or establishing something as a cultural icon.  And this is quite important and perhaps knowing about it can allow us to understand the discontent of those who believe that we are iconizing everything (yes, the word exists, it is American English).

Photographer: Vanessa Mills. Model: myself. Designer: Sparklewren

The crux of the matter, as my friend was quick to point, is that if iconicity in cultural terms is to do with the non-discursive and non-verbal element of cultural and social life, it is also the case that it is linked with consumerism. It is to do with branding and marketing strategies, thus a hotel view becomes iconic through the branding of the tourist industry.
Iconicity creates consensus, in markets, culture or politics, as Woddward and Elliott write in Iconic Power: materiality and meaning in social life.
Well, these are some initial thoughts, would love to continue to explore the issue but not in just one post. Comments always welcome.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A very brief post

Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti. Model: me. On the cover of Her Edit

I have been rather busy, in every possible way!
I have some excellent news (well, for me that is): I am on the cover of Her Edit issue 7, which is about age and I have also an article in there, about being 'an older ' model.
I also did a fabulous editorial shoot with Vanessa Mills wearing Sparklewren designs and am really pleased with the results, which will be submitted to a magazine.
I am also about to embark on a Rolfing course as a Rolfee, I have found someone and I have great hopes. I feel I need to be completely realigned, I have postural problems. Rolfing is a technique created by Ida Rolf, you can read more here, not chiropratic nor massage but it involves manipulation of the fascia.

From the shoot with Vanessa Mills

This post is extremely brief, but I promise to write a more substantial one soon enough. It will be about Professor Dawkins whose rhetoric I truly care little about. As a friend of mine says, Dawkins used to be amusing but not anymore. All in good time.

Have a great week!