about face

The crime writer PD James said that, had Salman Rushdie been better looking, he would never have written a nasty book like 'The Satanic Verses'. Rushdie tells this story in our photo essay by Steve Pyke, in which public figures describe how much their appearance affects what they are and do. The novelist Geoff Dyer begins by examining the relationship between photography and self-image. Interviews by Rose Shepherd
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We are so accustomed to being able to see what we look like that it is good to be reminded of the historical novelty of this ability. According to Milan Kundera, Adam, leaning over a well in Paradise, "never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself." For DH Lawrence, the ancient Egyptians "fumbled in the dark, and didn't quite know where they were, or what they were. Like men in a dark room, they only felt their own existence surging in the darkness of other existences." Fernando Pessoa considered man's "being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes" one of nature's great gifts. Even the posture it was necessary to adopt when looking into a river or lake was symbolic of "the ignominy of seeing his own face. The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul."

This seems rather harsh on mirrors which, when all is said and done, spend most of their time hanging around, blank and empty, waiting for us to put in an appearance. And they never talk about us behind our backs. Not like photographs, which are constantly informing on us. By the terms of that suggestive image of Kundera's, the fall from Paradise coincided with the click of the camera's shutter. The fundamental change in the history of human self-consciousness ushered in by the photograph was, in Roland Barthes' famous formulation, the advent of the self "as other".

With typical prophetic impatience, Lawrence had actually hinted at the same thing in 1925: "As vision developed towards the Kodak, man's idea of himself developed towards the snapshot. Primitive man simply didn't know what he was... But we have learned to see, and each of us has a complete Kodak-idea of himself. The picture of me, the me that is seen, is me." Not DHL himself, of course. Hating pictures of himself, he liked to think that he was photo-resistant (they showed, he said, "some sweet fellow with a black beard I haven't got"). The bulk of the world's population, though, has been more than happy to let the camera answer the question - Lear's - that rang through the pre-photographic darkness: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?"

We get occasional glimpses of what it must have been like, this not-knowing, but, as is the case with the sensation of deja vu, it disappears the instant we become conscious of it. It occurs when we see someone approaching us in the almost-darkness of an unfamiliar house - before we discover that the doorway framing this (usually slightly intoxicated) figure is actually a mirror (as happens to Harry Angstrom in Updike's Rabbit is Rich).

It is very rare, on these occasions, that we like what we see. I have always enjoyed being tall, slim, attractive. Photographs have tended to bear out this perception of myself but, on odd occasions, a shop window has accosted me with a wretched glimpse of how I suppose I appear to the world at large: gangling, skinny, ungainly, grim-faced. I don't know that person. More accurately, I don't want to know that person.

To avoid bumping into him, I compose myself before being photographed, and I always do this in the same way: I feign intensity. This is one of photography's great achievements: you can look intelligent without ever having had a thought in your head. Does this picture look like me? Well, it looks like me as I look in photographs: it looks like the self that I try to create for the camera. I like it because I have succeeded in hoodwinking the camera. And yet, when I see photographs of myself that I do not like - that have taken me by surprise - I react like the ugly old woman who, in one of Karl Kraus's little parables, insists that it is the mirror that is ugly: I blame the photograph(er).

For most of us, photographs of ourselves would probably be intolerable had we not developed some kind of filter, whereby, although they show us as we look, we still manage to see in them how we aspire, however briefly, to have been seen.

Besides, if we don't like one photo there are plenty more to choose from. In terms of our lived experience, the camera has been around for ever, and as the turnover of images has increased, photos serve as evidence not of how we look under the gaze of eternity (there is something utterly archaic about the way passport photos are expected to last ten years) but, on the contrary, of how we no longer look as we did at that moment preserved in a photograph. Pessoa spoke of the terror he felt on finding an old portrait, "clearly of myself, yet showing someone of a different stature, with unrecognisable features that are still indisputably, frighteningly mine". Today we would experience a shock like that only if we saw such a photo moments after it was taken. And it might yet happen: research is probably already under way to develop a Polaroid which shows us as we will look five years after it is taken.

Nigella Lawson, columnist and critic

I have no memory of what I look like if I'm not looking at myself in a mirror. If someone asked me to describe myself, I'd manage pretty well - dark eyes, thick brows, brown hair, but I don't retain a picture of myself, and when I see a photograph, whether it is flattering or unflattering, I always feel I don't look like that. I don't think Steve Pyke's photograph looks like me from the outside, it looks more like how I feel. It has that slightly anxious aspect, and probably I am quite an anxious person. When I look in the mirror, it's to put my contact lenses in or just to check that I look all right before I go out, so that kind of penetrating, anxious stare is how I'd look in the mirror just before going out.

I don't know if it's true that, because you always see yourself back- to-front in the mirror, you can have no idea what you look like. When Steve took this photograph, he said, "Which is your better profile, left or right?" I said, "I have absolutely no idea. I've never thought about it." I'd always thought my face was fairly symmetrical, but he said the two sides are completely different.

It's very difficult, if you're female, not to be always concerned with what people think of your appearance, and the fact that I forget what I look like in between looking at a mirror is, I think, a desire not to have that imposed upon me, and not to be reliant on other people's reactions, although I do realise it might indicate the opposite.

I would possibly have felt differently about these things ten years ago. When you're in your early twenties, you're so much more concerned with your appearance, and certainly ten years before that one is incredibly bound up with looks. In my early twenties the idea of being seen without make-up would have horrified me, which is mad, because at that age one probably looks better without it. Whereas now, although I'm not sure if I would go to a party without make-up, it wouldn't occur to me to wear it every day. When you're younger, you're aware of being judged all the time. But as you get older, with any luck, you are slightly more at ease with yourself. You become less nervous, or less conforming.

In a funny way, I suppose you always think of yourself as a certain age, and because you look at yourself in the mirror most when you're about 14 or 15, that's the image that sticks. So if I'm going out, and I'm made- up, or in the middle of a party, if I go to the loo and look at myself in the mirror, I am taken aback to see that there's a woman looking back at me.

As I get older, when I look in the mirror, I begin to see more of my mother, and that's what holds my attention. I do so hope not to become someone who minds ageing, and yet when I notice things beginning to go, I do mind, it's difficult not to. Then, because my mother died young, I don't have a model for someone getting older. She died at 48, and although she was wonderful looking, when I notice I'm beginning to look like her, it is the look that she had later in life rather than when she was younger. In an awful way, because she was someone who was more dependent on her looks, I think there was a part of her that was relieved she was dying before it all did cave in, which is a terrible thing.

I don't know if strangers get me right or wrong from my appearance. I think some people think I'm haughtier than I am, and I don't know why, because I don't feel that I have particularly imposing looks. When they get to know me, they say "I thought you were quite a distant person, but you're not."

Having said that, there are people who have the kind of looks that others automatically take against, and I don't have those. One of the great advantages, in that sense, is not being thin. I think people hate you to be thin more than anything. And also I'm not a well turned out person, I'm not polished, I'm not well put together, I have tangly hair, I'm on the slatternly side. An American friend tells me I am at an age when I should get into maintenance. I try, but it only lasts for three days. I have all the wrong sort of vanity, I have the sort that makes me anxious about whether I'm looking good or not, but none of the sort that would actually make me put on face cream.

I would hate to be the sort of person whose clothes were noticed rather than how they looked. And, in a similar way, I don't want to be noticed for my make-up. You could say it's a form of vanity, because maybe one doesn't want to be in competition with one's clothes and make-up. I remember, when I was about 14, my father said to me, "Women notice what you're wearing, but men notice what you look like", and I've always found that quite reassuring. Not that one always goes out to please men, but it means you don't have to be straining after an effect with them. I feel quite liberated for not having to do that. You can just get a uniform that suits you, and the same with make-up

I've looked the same now since I was 17, I've had long, dark hair and that's it. And one of the difficult things about growing older is that I shall have to change. I don't want to get to that stage where, when I turn round, people's faces will drop because they imagined I was going to be ten years younger. I've already had a bit off my hair. It's to my shoulder blades. It will grow to my waist but I took the decision to cut it.

It's bad to become dependent on anything. Why should one become dependent on having long hair? It's such an idiotic thing to do. But I've got so used to it, and it has the great advantage that I've never had to have a hairstyle. The idea of having to go to the hairdresser regularly fills me with horror. If you never change how you look, you never have to think about it, so change becomes daunting.

Rachel Whiteread, artist

Steve Pyke's pictures are incredibly particular, they really show warts and all. This photograph of me was one of a set that he took at a stressful time; it was just after House, and I was doing photographs all over the place, and in most of them I was scowling.

Appearance isn't something I'm concerned with. I'm not one of those people who is obsessive about their looks, put it that way. I mean, of course I'm vain, everybody's vain. But I don't like being photographed, although when you're in the public eye it is difficult not to be.

People do recognise me in the street, not all over the place, but in certain situations. I'm not happy about it. I'm not comfortable with it. I don't like to be scrutinised. I prefer to go unremarked. I see my job as being very much in the studio, and my sculptures speak for me, rather than me speaking for them. I think I'm very vain about my sculptures, put it that way.

During the House situation, when I was in the media a lot, I remember even newspapers like the Guardian were commenting on what I was wearing. It was "Rachel Whiteread, short, fiery redhead, in dark overalls and gumboots", or whatever. If it had been a guy, they wouldn't have taken any notice of what he was wearing. I thought that was rather silly.

I think I look as I am, which is a feet-on- the-ground sort of person. I don't have fancy hairdos and I don't wear make-up, or only a very tiny amount.

No, my looks have not shaped the course of my life. It's quite extraordinary if you see ex-models who are in their sixties, and who still have this incredible way of walking, way of standing, way of looking at the camera. It's completely rehearsed, it's part of their lives. To me that would mean that you can't be yourself any more, you have to be this image of yourself.

A lot of people get obsessed with their self-image, and do kind of alienate themselves; they have to live through that severe face they put on for the camera. I try not to be alienating. I'm just me.

Salman Rushdie, writer

People have this image that I'm trying to be invisible, but I'm trying very hard to get back to having an ordinary life. I wouldn't say I turn heads in the street, but people do recognise me, and so far that's always been very friendly.

I don't particularly like having my picture taken, I think it's a necessary evil, and I don't like most pictures of myself. I'd sooner not have my picture on dust jackets, but there's no choice about it.

One of the frustrations of being a writer is that everybody has to have their own picture of you. It doesn't matter how many photographs of you there might be on file; every single journal that wants to run anything about you must have their own picture, so it becomes an inevitable chore of having to talk to the press. There's a bit of me that thinks there's plenty of pictures of me around, so why do they want another one?

I get these mystifying requests, "Will you send three signed photographs of yourself?", and I'm afraid the answer is no. I should feel very embarrassed about having a stack of signed images of myself to send out to the world.

My looks aren't really high on my list of things that impinge. There was a point at which I was sad that I lost my hair relatively young, but I got over that a long time ago. I used to have quite thick, long hair when young, so one has to accustom oneself to a new thing, but it's so long ago, it doesn't bother me now. When my son was very little, he would tell me that I looked like any bald man who happened to be passing, and the reason for this was that we both had, as he put it, "bits of hair missing".

In recent years, in certain parts of the media, people have with great relish written articles about how ugly I am. There have been quite a lot of those. There have been a number of pieces in the tabloids about how hideous I look. It may be appropriate or inappropriate, but it's still extremely rude. "Rushdie ugly", say captions to pictures. It's just nastiness. I remember one newspaper running a huge, whole-page article about why no woman could possibly be attracted to me. I thought "Thanks a lot! Two women have obviously been too stupid to notice." I wish I could say it wasn't hurtful, but it is.

There was a piece written in which PD James was interviewed, and she said that, if I had been better looking, I would not have written The Satanic Verses. She said if I'd looked like Imran Khan I would not have written such nasty books. So, insofar as I am aware of my appearance, it is in this interesting context. Ugly people write ugly books, I suppose that is what it's about. Of course, not true, by the way. The history of literature shows that some of the greatest authors of the world were no oil paintings.

No, no, I don't describe myself as ugly, but there has been a bit of an effort to paint me that way. And every so often it seems that, because I wrote a novel called The Satanic Verses, there's an effort by some photographers to make me look, as one might say, "satanic". It's possible to light my face in such a way as to make me look like that, which is what happens.

I've had my picture painted a couple of times, and that's a very different experience, because it happens over a period of time and it's quite interesting to watch. There's a picture of me in the National Portrait Gallery, which is done by an Indian painter who's a friend, and it started off completely naturalistic, a very accurate likeness. I thought, "Well, that's good, he's got me completely." Then he kind of assaulted it, put his style on it. The final result is a much more interesting painting, I like it, I still think it's a terrific picture, but it looks less like me.

The trouble with photography is that there's no process. There's a click, and it's either good or it isn't. There was a long period when everybody wanted pictures of me looking miserable. I could smile in 99 out of 100 shots, and no matter how cheesily I grinned, if there was one where I wasn't smiling, that was the one that was used. So all the pictures of me that anybody ever saw were gloomy, even though I'm not a particularly gloomy person.

Now I've noticed, with some relief, that I'm allowed to smile again. No doubt pictures in the next year or two will show me hysterically laughing, weeping with laughter. All the pent-up laughter that's been behind seven years of misery and gloom is going to burst out. It's amazing how images are constructed. Anyway, I'm very happy to be allowed to look cheerful again.

Howard Marks, former drug smuggler

It's sometimes been said that I'm handsome, but I don't agree with that now, I think I was a lot more handsome when I was younger. I've always been quite comfortable with my looks.

In the past, and particularly when I was a fugitive, I was always very conscious of what occupation people might think I had. My favourite image was a kind of Monty Python accountant type. I was nervous of being recognised. I quite enjoy it now, but it was terribly inconvenient then.

I loved disguising myself, I had a great deal of fun. I did it probably more than I needed to. I'd grow moustaches, wear wigs, glasses, change hairstyle, change facial hair. These can have quite a dramatic effect. Anyone who had seen me in the flesh, or on film or video, would probably have recognised me, but anyone who had only seen my photograph would not. Obviously glasses are quite a good disguise. I remember once I wanted to get a pair of glasses, and I didn't want to steal them, and I wasn't sure how I would do it. Then I read somewhere that if you get very stoned you have a certain long-sightedness, so I smoked a lot of dope, went to an optician's and of course they gave me a set of glasses. They were very blurry to look through when I was straight, but they were fine when I was stoned. Plain glasses are not good, there's no distortion and that's immediately suspect. If you get bifocals, no one suspects you.

I think I have quite a friendly face. I have wondered if it's the kind that arouses suspicion. I think villainy and criminality do come across in one's face, yes. Mine has been rehabilitated.

I wouldn't change anything except my teeth. I have false teeth, and I think they distort my face slightly. They took them all out in prison. I was at a place where you either had to have a tooth extracted or put up with the pain, so you would suffer for weeks till you could take no more of it. It's all part of the punishment. When Steve Pyke photographed me I still had very, very bad teeth, I was terrified they'd fall out when I talked. They've improved now a lot. In prison they give you a lump of plastic to bung in there. They're very careful not to give you any cosmetic treatment, and they draw the line way short of that. I remember when I was in Bangkok there were stalls selling false teeth that were stolen from corpses. You would just try them on. I'm reminded of that a bit.

I enjoyed the session with Steve Pyke more than any other ever. He gets so close to you with all these contraptions, he's like a dentist in fact. Oh yes, I love to have my picture in the papers, but they tend to choose bad ones. When they can make you look like a glassy-eyed nutter or a philosopher, the former seems to be chosen more often.

'Mr Nice', an autobiography, will be published by Secker & Warburg in September, price pounds 15.99

Paul Micou, writer

Anyone seeing me for the first time would immediately notice my only remarkable feature, which is a port wine stain birthmark beneath my lower lip. I am reminded of its existence approximately three times a year, by children or, oddly, Swiss people. I don't know what it is about the Swiss. I never go to Switzerland if I can help it, but if I do I make what my parents used to call "personal remarks" as often as possible.

A birthmark might have been useful to me had I chosen a less physically anonymous field of work.

In my musician days a friend suggested that if I became a pop star I might be responsible for hundreds of thousands of teenagers tattooing port wine stains on their faces - it would have become all the rage.

Meera Syal, actor and writer

I actually think I look quite dreadful at most angles. There's one particular angle where I look passable, but there are some angles where I look a bit like a hamster.

I found it rather scary having this picture done, actually. But I did it because I was intrigued to see what Steve Pyke would see. I did worry about the camera coming so close, but then I thought, "Oh, well, sod it, if it's an interesting picture, if I see something in my face, or an aspect of me, that I didn't know was there, that'll be really interesting." I know that we all carry a thousand different expressions on our faces every day.

I've never had a pretty face. I've always had quite a strong, mature face. When I was more juvenile-lead age, I would never get those parts, I would always get cast older. And now, ironically, I'm getting cast my age or younger. I was never the conventional, pretty Indian girl that everybody wanted in their films or plays, or whatever. I was never going to play the Indian princess.

I started out in the business about ten years ago, at 22, and I think I fell into doing comedy and character parts because I didn't have the face to do a pretty, romantic lead. Mostly, I play funny, quirky, off- beat characters, though sometimes I'm someone very controlled and cool, because that's how some people see me. There's no fooling the audience into thinking that I'm the love interest.

I spent my youth agonising over my big nose, and my big tits, and my big feet. I wanted to be the five-foot, doe-eyed beauty with the monsoon- black, waist-length hair, and I just wasn't. I'm very tall for an Indian girl. I'm five-seven, which is sort of average for an English girl, but most Indian girls are five-two, five-three, and very fine boned. And I'm big. So, agonies when I was younger. Also, when I started, most of the parts written for Indian women were written by white men. They have a very specific image of what Indian women are supposed to look like, and it ain't me.

I don't spend time on make-up, in fact that's why I found the Soldier Soldier part so difficult, the whole process of sitting in make-up, and knowing they were working really hard to make me look as if someone would want to have an affair with me. It was a bit agonising.

Anyone who has been fat will tell you that you think fat for years and years. It can make you more insecure than you need be, so that when someone tells you you're attractive you never believe it, you always think they're having you on.

I'm in this short film called It's Not Unusual, which is about to come out, and I had to age up for it. I play a 45-year-old Asian woman cabbie who has a crush on Tom Jones. She's a really sad, defeated character, she has a dreadful marriage, she has no self-image - and it was such a liberation. It was brilliant, I didn't have to go into make-up at all. You know, I just got on set, my hair was scraped back, and I was completely comfortable. Whenever I try and look glam, my friends just laugh, anyway.

I think as long as the person or the people you want to like you, like you, that's all that's important. Being objectively assessed as a beauty or a non-beauty doesn't bother me at all. To be honest, I don't think much about how I look unless I'm going for an interview. I dress down totally. I've got a very sad wardrobe of mainly black things. I'm stuck in the Eighties, me. I wear black with a few bright accessories.

It's funny. When I'm dressing Western I tend to be subdued, but my Indian clothes are absolutely vivid, the sort of colours you wouldn't see on English fabrics, and I'm so at home in them. I wear them always to Indian dos, weddings and things, but often it's just not practical, tramping around Soho in silks.

I've never looked in the mirror and thought I looked beautiful. But I really do believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's much more important to me to be well thought of by my friends than to be thought pretty, and, frankly, a lot of men I know find conventionally pretty women frightening.

Bob Monkhouse, entertainer

I was fat as a child, and I had no idea that I was even a presentable figure until I was about 28, when I was given the juvenile lead in Carry on Sergeant. The producer said, "You're the sort of good-looking young man we need for this." I had never, ever heard myself described as good-looking before.

When I saw my face on the screen for the first time in a film, I didn't care for it at all. I thought it lacked any kind of inner life, it seemed to me somewhat superficial and shallow; there was no character there. I couldn't see anything likeable or trustworthy.

Quite a number of critics took an intense dislike to me on television, which was hard to justify in terms of the comedy I was doing, so it could only be that they found my personality repellent, and I took that to be something about my smooth, rather unruffled, urbane, plasticky image. And they accused me of things I wasn't offering; they accused me of being insincere, when I made no pretence of being sincere. I was bewildered by it, more than resentful. Oh yes, I was hurt as well, because you don't want people to hate you. Some of the more vitriolic things that were written distressed me. They would constantly refer to my being dimpled, which I am, I suppose... Well, it's more like a wrinkle now, but I had dimples. And "toothpaste grin". Well suppose I did have a grin that irritated them. And also "perma-tanned". They seemed to resent very much, as only the British can resent, someone else having a tan. Mostly it was make-up, because I have a condition called vitiligo - hueless patches on my skin - so I had to fill those in.

Still, thank God, somehow I've survived. And survived to the point where the photographs that Steve Pyke has taken show a face I vastly prefer to the one I used to have. I've been looking at UK Gold on Sunday nights, at a series recorded between 1983 and 1986, and I irritate myself. I would have been about 54 through 57, and I don't look it; I look much younger, and that's annoying.

When I started hosting Opportunity Knocks, I put on weight and my face began to crumple up, and people seemed to get less annoyed with me. And now that I've entered my senior years, people seem either to have forgiven me, or, if they're young enough, they weren't cross with me in the first place, so I'm much more tolerated. When I look at my face - with my glasses off so that I don't see too much detail - it seems to me to be a chummy old sort of mug, nothing very irritating about it.

I was cast as a particularly cold-hearted bastard in a thing called All Or Nothing At All with Hugh Laurie, about two years ago. I asked the producer why he had cast me, and he said "Because your face, in repose, looks like a very crafty, old ruthless man." I played the part as he asked me to, and it seemed to be quite effective, but I don't see my face like that, I see the benign feelings that I have.

I don't think I am, in real life, very vain. But in my professional life I do think it's important to present to the audience an agreeable appearance. I'm no longer on the strict diet that I observed for 34 years, but I do eat sensibly, and try to make sure that my skin and bones and hair get the nutrition they require. The elasticity is still in my facial skin, which enables me to pull faces without having the whole thing sag into the look of a bloodhound.

I study myself only because I want to know what effects I can produce, otherwise my looks are not of much interest to me. Just keeping up a professional front is the main thing. And, fortunately, my wife and my cat both like my face.

Will Self, writer

I go about in complete anonymity. I'm never recognised in the street, or barely ever. I only ever notice myself being recognised after I've done telly. If you're not on television, or even if you are, people don't know how big you are, and that's an important factor in identification. I'm very tall, six-five.

I don't think I'm a vain person. I think I'm vain in lacking vanity, possibly, as an affectation. I probably should be more practically vain, in order to be less existentially vain. It's a kind of psychic legerdemain, or prestidigitation.

I had a typically miserable adolescence of thinking I was hideously ugly, and probably quite rightly. I think, objectively, I didn't look that hot. I had really crooked teeth, I was anaemic, I had bad skin. I was quite goofy but, in my early teens, I had all the molars taken out and it sorted out as I got older. I've never much liked looking in the mirror. I don't check myself out. I see it as a very adolescent thing, squinting in the smoked glass of shop windows. I'm glad to be somewhat delivered from that.

People do make wrong assumptions about me. I mean, in some senses not wrong, because I think I've sort of lived up to the image, but in some senses profoundly wrong. I think people see me as being, or appearing, fairly tough and aggressive, and the great, enormous height doesn't help. I used to get called out a lot in pubs, people would pick fights with me, but not any more. You get over that in your early thirties; it's a young man's thing.

I'm described all the time as "cadaverous" and, because I'm an ex-junkie, as looking like an ex-junkie. It's true, I've got high cheekbones. I've got a big, fat, flat-bridged nose. I've got very deep, sharp blue eyes and blah, blah, blah. What adjectives would I use to describe myself? They wouldn't be very flattering. Acromegalic. And pitted. I've always said my face is fairly genital, in a way, fairly exposed, like a set of genitals. I think that's partly the Semitic bit and partly having big features. I mean, obviously I realise that I'm not exactly repugnant to people, but I think, just as one loathes writers or artists who talk unselfconsciously about the posterity of their work, so one loathes, with a visceral intensity, people who seem to acknowledge the fact of their attractiveness with any candour. Nobody wants to hear a beautiful woman say "Of course, as a beautiful woman, I feel..." What we're all looking for in people is the sort of vanity that comes with not being vain.

I don't find photographs that scaring because one's used to that 2D representation, but I've had my photo taken quite a bit, and I'm pretty fed up with it. Film and television really are quite alarming. To see the massivity of your head, and its peculiar dimensions, and your expressions, can be quite disturbing. I never really want to get in front of the camera, and I've adopted various attitudes and poses, partly in order to be stylised, because it makes you less vulnerable, because it's not me exactly, it's a personation. I'm also a lover, and a father, and a friend, and various other things to people, which I don't particularly want to have revealed in photography or in any other way.