Comment: Don't ask me to ape Cherie or Linda

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AFTER RELIGION, politics and fame, the biggest peddler of hypocrisy, deceit and myths has got to be the creation to which today's woman is allegedly incurably addicted: the role model. It is the RSJ of the daft conviction that the chosen few among us are Having It All. These few are supposedly fulfilled in work, family, sex life, love, friendship and wealth without so much as a bruise to relationships, integrity, leisure and sanity. In short, they achieve the impossible.

The role model has become a modern-day goddess to be worshipped and admired and emulated. Except that where she has magical powers (also known as housekeepers, nannies, fitness trainers, plus a PR machine that knows a hundred ways of disguising from the outside world - until the price is right - crumbling marriages, resentful children, work half-done and periodic depression), the rest of us have only ourselves to fall back on.

We fail (and blame ourselves) but we expect only a continuum of coping from the best of the RMs. So it's all the more dangerous when a role model- cum-goddess proves to be just as mortal as the rest of us.

In yesterday's Daily Mail, Cherie Booth, promoted as a role model (more dutiful wife than over-stressed career woman) by Labour's spin masters, wrote as patron of the charity Breast Cancer Care, about Linda McCartney. The charity is selling one of her photographs, Stallion and Standing Stone, to raise money for the support it gives to those suffering from cancer.

Cherie Booth says of Linda McCartney, "Nearly everyone... reflected on what a strong role model she was, not only as a wife and mother, but also as an original creative woman." And she adds, "Many also admitted to the terrible anxieties that her death had triggered in them. A common theme of their letters was, 'if Linda McCartney can't beat breast cancer, what hope have I got?'"

Linda McCartney's death was tragic, as are the deaths of even younger women, among them the journalist Ruth Picardie, who wrote so movingly about her anger and sorrow at leaving very young children. We can admire Ruth without transforming her into a role model. What drew many of us was not that she embodied an illusion of perfection but that she was heart- breakingly human; just like us. Everybody hoped, but few truly expected her to win the battle. Role models, in contrast, are required to have an illogical, near-mystical ability not only to live life in the round but also to defy premature death.

Mythology surrounds our role models like wrapping around an Easter egg - there's a lot of it, and it doesn't amount to much when examined with a clear eye. It doesn't lessen the courage of Linda McCartney to say that she was a woman with a sound marriage who was a good enough mother, loved animals, took OK photographs and couldn't sing, but seemed to know how to make the best of life. Vegetarianism didn't grant immunity but it did provide her with a healthy income from her products. If the image-makers hadn't determined to turn her into a role model (not least as a boost to sales of soya sausages), cancer patients wouldn't now be feeling defeated and in despair because Linda lacked what they believed she had to possess: the luck of the gods.

A few years ago, I met a woman who was successful in the City, wrote novels, and had two children. How did she squeeze it all in? She explained that she spent a couple of hours a day writing in office time. She couldn't tell the truth in interviews because that would reveal to her bosses that she was short-changing them. A year or so later, we met again. She told me that a son had become involved in drugs and her marriage was under strain. Profiles, interviews continued to appear, buffing up her image as the one who Had It All. In her wake, no doubt, dozens of gullible women (and, yes, we all need to read between the lines a little more adeptly), rise at 5am to write the novel, before an over-long day's work, returning too late to read a bedtime story, before sinking exhausted into bed repeating the mantra, "If she can do it, so can I." The truth is, she can't, without a price to be paid. Every choice has a consequence.

Women, in the main, carry the burden of balancing work and home so they are hungrier than men for mentors. Even so, they should become more like men - admire a person's individual actions without nursing illusions about the success of an overall life, setting impossible standards to attain. In short, treat role models as fairy stories for grown-ups. Then, as with the death of Linda McCartney, it wouldn't come as quite such a devastating shock for some when the happy ending is, sadly, sometimes denied.