...there's a manicurist, a hairdresser and a personal shopper. High-maintenance woman is here, says James Sherwood
"OBSESSING" is the latest American buzzword to have crossed the Atlantic. It could safely be said that the higher a woman climbs on the corporate ladder in the US, the more she "obsesses" about her image. She probably spends more quality time with her manicurist than with her husband. She doesn't always have a window for her children at 7.30am every Monday. That's when Oribe gives her a weekly cut 'n' blow. An American exec's eyebrows are waxed, her toenails are polished and her wardrobe is "edited".

Even in the public eye, high-powered English businesswomen have seemed to think low maintenance is part of the job description. Glenda Jackson MP's refusal to wear make-up was touted like a banner of New Labour no- nonsense. It was in stark contrast to a painted lady like Dame Shirley Porter, whose glamour was viewed as Eighties-style abuse-of-power dressing.

British women don't, and never will, obsess. But as they inch their way up the corporate ladder (there are now more women than men working) they are taking the essence of American high-maintenance living to heart. City analyst Marina Stewart has seen British businesswomen's style evolve over the past decade. "Power dressing in the Eighties was too masculine, aggressive and intentionally threatening. Bright red lipstick and big hair were definitely war paint. The backlash against that makes me wear quieter designer suits by Armani and Jil Sander. High maintenance isn't about wearing your style on your sleeve. I have my nails manicured every week, but they are French polished rather than painted talons. I wear the new season's suits, but the men in my office don't immediately recognise the designer and the price tag."

Caroline Parr, a high-powered public relations consultant, sports an elaborate chignon that looks as though it takes around five hours a day to create, but claims, "the reality is that I am a relatively low-maintenance woman who looks as though she spends a lot of time and money. A working woman in the Nineties doesn't have the luxury of time, so she has to cut corners." Still, she's not exactly Stig of the Dump. "I have my wardrobe consultant, Shawna Moss, who will edit my wardrobe each season and then shop with me for half a day to replace the cuts. Shawna is pounds 30 an hour, which is not a ridiculous amount of money when you consider how much time she saves me. I will buy suits which work for me from Caroline Charles or Paddy Campbell. But I will also buy cleverly at sample sales. My hair may look groomed every day, but I put it up myself every morning. Practice and time-saving are the secrets of high-maintenance London style. But my golden rule is to change for the evening, and I do have appointments practically every night of the week."

Unlike in New York, where manicured nails are essential be you a secretary or a director, high maintenance hasn't filtered down to the wider female workforce. Beauty salons in New York open from 6.30am. Over here, even the big salons, like Clarins Studio, Fenwicks Hair and Beauty Salon, Neville Daniel and The Sanctuary, don't open their doors before 9am. The good news is that manicurists in London hairdressers are now ubiquitous. The bad news is that where manicures cost about pounds 12 in America, in a London salon that would just about cover the tip. As Bette Midler once said, "When it's 2.30am in America, in England it's 1944."

"Nicky Clarke charging over pounds 200 for a cut may have been publicised as an extreme of high maintenance," says TV producer Ali Owen. "But you won't find a top professional woman in London who pays less than pounds 80 for her stylist. I still don't understand why colleagues - including women - try to demonise good grooming. Surely buffed, manicured nails look better than bitten? When I interview for staff and a girl comes in with unkempt hair and no make-up, I don't think English rose, I think she's a mess. If a woman can't take care of herself, how can I expect her to take care of business?"