Last Night's Television - Kirsten's Topless Ambition, BBC3; Desperately Hungry Housewives, BBC1
A nude awakening
Wednesday 29 April 2009
"Here's my quandary," said Kirsten O'Brien, "I've been a kids' presenter for 10 years, I've seen other presenters shoot past me in the fame game and quite often it's been because they've got their norks out for a men's mag. So, should I do it? Does it work?" The pitch for
Kirsten's Topless Ambition was admirably direct, including a bit of jaunty cleavage juggling of the kind that you wouldn't generally expect to find on CBBC. But it raised an immediate question, which was whether there was a market for Kirsten's norks. To give her credit, she voiced this objection herself, some 20 seconds after everybody sitting at home had muttered it, but for the purposes of her documentary she then had to pretend for at least 40 minutes that the answer wasn't glaringly obvious.
Kirsten's quandary had been provoked, she explained, by the recent death of Mark Speight, her SMart! co-presenter, an event which had got her wondering about how long she could continue to effervesce as a kind of electronic big sister. She does a bit of stand-up comedy, but she'd realised that wasn't exactly a high road to the feature pages of Hello! magazine and the fact that a close friend, Anjellica Bell, had bounced out of children's telly and on to The One Show, by way of a steamy lingerie shoot, had got her thinking. Anjellica, by the way, definitely thought Kirsten should go for it. "You've worked with an aardvark for how long?... Come on... you've got to do something drastic." Kirsten's informal street poll on her own celebrity status ("Do you know who I am?") confirmed that urgent action might be needed. A nice man in London's Old Compton Street wanted to have his picture taken with her, but even he concluded that she was "a bit too kiddie-kiddie" to be taken seriously.
Kirsten's dad thought she should make the move to current affairs, but Kirsten herself wasn't sure. "That wouldn't suit my personality at all," she said. "Because I cackle all the time." For a brief moment I had a tantalising vision of a Newsnight round-table discussion about the credit crunch, co-hosted by a giggling Kirsten and a boisterous puppet anteater, but then it faded, and Kirsten set off to embarrass men by asking them to explain exactly why it was that she hadn't been inundated with requests to get her kit off. Some looked awkward and complimented her. Some were brutally honest. "Men are not going to wank over you," said a stylist called Nick Ede, something of a good news/bad news package I would have thought. And when Kirsten finally got a go-see at FHM, to see whether they might consider making her image more adult, she eventually got the unvarnished bottom line from the deputy editor, Chris Bell. "I think you're kind of borderline... you've got an acceptable face, you've got an acceptable body... It's not absolutely knock-out." "No, no... that's just what I want to hear," said Kirsten pluckily when he expressed unease at his own candour.
In other words, Kirsten's quandary wasn't really a quandary at all. She didn't have to fret about trading self-respect for a career boosting double-page spread or sending the wrong message to the young viewers who might see her as a role model, because the serpent wasn't going to come sidling round to make the offer in the first place. Entirely understandably, Kirsten had a little weep at this conclusion. It's one thing to describe yourself as gawky and lacking in sensual glamour, quite another to have a strange man say it to your face. But I hope she will cheer up a little if she can bear to watch the film again when a little time has passed. It was, after all, something of an eat- your-cake-and-have-it deal, since she got to keep her clothes on, while simultaneously conducting an hour-long audition for more grown-up forms of presenting. And while I'm guessing that the right kind of external make-over and bustier would enable Kirsten to at least have a crack at matching Fearne Cotton on the glamour front, there's no makeover on earth that could enable Fearne to match Kirsten when it came to sharpness of response. The truth is that she doesn't really want to be famously sexy, she wants to be gainfully employed and since she can be funny and frank and natural on screen she shouldn't have a problem.
It would be easy to conclude that the anorexia and bulimia that featured in Desperately Hungry Housewives was another facet of the sexualised, appearance-driven culture, which was one of Kirsten's targets. But Suzanne Lynch's film made it clear that, while media images might play a part in these illnesses, there's no simple direct connection. The women in her film, all of them older than the teenage stereotype of those suffering from food disorders, had diverted deep personal grief and anxiety through their fridges and store cupboards. One can only hope that the claimed increase in older women suffering in this way was a bit of documentarist hyperbole, because it looked grim.
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