Just occasionally, however, one hears something so completely extraordinary and incredible that the really-how-fascinating response fails, somehow, to surface. And you find yourself saying, "Oh, come off it - you must think I'm completely thick." I hesitate to repeat this piece of information, just in case it's an elaborate practical joke designed to make journalists look utterly foolish, but there it was in black and white. Apparently, Hillary Clinton, the wife of the president, is about to appear on the cover of American Vogue, and has a colossal fan club, all of whom are willing to put their names to the proposition that she is the "sexiest woman alive".
Well, I've nothing against Hillary Clinton, and she seems an intelligent sort of woman with the right sort of ideas. I know as much about the sexual appeal of women as I do about Wyoming. But this seems a very surprising thing to say. Even trussed up in the best of American couture, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, set down in a Second Empire setting, she looks cosy, perfectly amiable, jolly clean, but not exactly glamorous. Her hair seems to have sneaked up and surprised her from behind; her faintly squirrel expression is cheery rather than come-to-bed. I gazed and gazed, but if this is the sexiest woman alive, I am Kristin Scott Thomas.
Perhaps the answer is that, well, if you don't think Hillary is up to much now, you ought to have seen her 30 years ago. It's certainly true that some fairly massive capital expenditure has gone into her physical improvement, and she is now a very attractive 51-year-old lawyer. Hillary's sexiness, as far as one can divine, lies not in her appearance, but in the fact of the improvement. She resembles a one-woman version of that extraordinary American TV phenomenon, the make-over show, where the viewer is invited to contemplate not sexual appeal, but physical improvement.
This fact of American life is rather hard to understand in Europe. Here, I think, the icons of sexual appeal have always been rather more baroque; the demure girl with a thousand lovers; the wicked old woman of whom one says, "How beautiful she must have been when she was young"; or Napoleon's famous letter to Josephine, "Coming home. Don't wash." In America, the fantasy is one of improvement, not nostalgia; of the moment when the shy secretary takes off her glasses, puts on a corset and is suddenly transformed.
It's a hugely appealing idea on a hungover morning, as one gazes into the bathroom mirror and gives way to feeling generally appalled. All it would take is a new hairdo, and a new diet, a few hormone pills and a bit of investment in the wardrobe, and then everything would be all right. The forces of mutability and gravity would be defied, and the possibility of remaining not only sexually active but sexually appealing into a hideously randy old age becomes a real one.
Before one gets too carried away with the idea that anyone can go from myopic drone at 20 to the cover of Vogue - even American Vogue - at 51, there is a more realistic example worth citing. Emerging from La Sante prison on Wednesday, the ex-MI5 officer David Shayler was seen to have shaved off his beard.
To incurably trivial people like me, Shayler's beard was one of the most fascinating features of the whole affair. On fleeing the country, he didn't have one. Then he surfaced, with a beard of rare horror. It looked like two caterpillars copulating on the surface of a melon. Now, on release from prison, he has shaved it off, and bears a curious but unmistakable resemblance to Anne Widdecombe.
All very fascinating, these attempts to change his appearance, but not exactly effective. I can't help thinking that, when the television lights are switched off, and the new hairdo grows out, the result, for the devotees of the cult of the makeover, is always going to be closer to David Shayler than to Hillary Clinton, with her army of stylists and the undeniable allure of power.Reuse content