RUMOR HAS IT that Ava Gardner used to pull up loose skin on her face with hooks, and stuff it under a wig. Marilyn Monroe's scalp was reportedly visible to intimates, shining from the scalding bleach she used. She was also, legend has it, going bald.
They'd never get away with it nowadays. If Ava were still around, she'd probably appear on every celebrity news site and we wouldn't ogle her face as much as her hairline and the microscopic mysteries of her skin.
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 American 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 bleach, self-tanners and photo manipulation has made even transcendent beauty suspect.
Hollywood magazines used to peddle a fantasy of loveliness. Now they deal in dismantling that fantasy. Tabloids have invited viewers to evaluate photos of celebrities for normalcy (Stars: they're just like us) and for monstrosity (Nicole Richie: pregnant at 85 pounds)!
Certain celebrities lend themselves to the new form of scrutiny. Displaying weight loss and gain, unstable pigmentation, pregnancy rumors, dilations and erratic body language, figures like Richie, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears have become favored specimens.
Engrossing photos appear almost daily of Britney Spears, whose stockier and more off-balance figure in slovenly summerwear suggests master narratives about her maternal shortcomings, as well as her fall from stardom.
Meanwhile, actress Lindsay Lohan, who seems to have altered her ethnic inheritance entirely, appears in disguise... even when barely dressed.
No question is too small or insignificant for sites like TMZ, X17online or Perez Hilton, where the sites' hosts post celebrity photos along with their commentary ("Parasite Hilton: Her Face Is Growing Stuff"), and invite others to do the same.
Why are we looking so hard? And what do we expect to find?
It's almost hard to remember now, but the old frustration was that celebrities made no false moves: a phalanx of publicists and stylists monitored them so closely that they always seemed composed, styled, scripted and (in the bygone idiom) "airbrushed."
Us Weekly and copycats quickly reinvented celebrity photos, eschewing the traditional production stills and party pictures in favor of snapshots.
But they didn't only go for red-carpet fashion photos, or the "gotchas" that come along once in a lifetime: Gary Hart with Donna Rice, Kate Moss with cocaine, etc. Instead they focused on the mundane: stars in supermarkets, dog parks, parking lots. In all that natural light they looked indistinct, sometimes homely.
Jennifer Aniston looking pensive occasioned a headline on her misery since her divorce from Brad Pitt. The caption drew readers to the eyes. What was Ms. Aniston thinking, now that she'd been left for Mr. Pitt's co-star in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the tattooed siren Angelina Jolie?
Over the following months there were some other secrets her body told: muscles meant a comeback, while casual clothes suggested depression, party clothes told tales of desperation. A tan signaled a rebound, as did a haircut. Un-made-up eyes indicated grief.
Perez Hilton, the alias of Mario Lavandeira, the reigning celebrity gossip maven who runs PerezHilton.com, prides himself on the sensitivity of his readings of photographs.
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