Just suppose I looked like Leonardo DiCaprio . . .
on the pros and cons of lookism
Saturday 21 March 1998
I don't mean the film-star thing, I'm just talking about how my life might have been different if, instead of looking like this (dear reader, please supply your own mental arrow to the picture above), I had looked like this (now create your own mental picture of luscious Leonardo, in the unlikely event that there isn't already one somewhere in the pages of this Saturday edition). What village sex god lies buried here?
Let's start at age 10. In the third and fourth years at Gospel Oak primary school, as the Beatles sang Love Me Do (and the Rolling Stones belted out the - to us - incomprehensible Let's Spend The Night Together), all the boys in my class were rated by the girls, from Number One downwards, on personal lists. The chief criterion for a high placing was a pre-pubescent version of fanciability - what the Americans call "cuteness" - though pre-feminist caprice played its part too, fortunately.
These lists were prepared once a week, ruthlessly, for two years. That made about 60 lists in all. And I came top just once, one golden week when caprice won out over cute. Otherwise, I hovered around 10 - above the obese and one-eyed, but well below the sex gods. On a par with Edward Fosbrook. No; badly dressed, large featured and scowly, I was always more in demand for quizzes than for kisses.
Nor was I ever interfered with by strange men. The rather mild perverts who hid behind trees on Hampstead Heath in the Sixties, camouflaged in gaberdine, left me well alone. They were simply not that desperate. I was always slightly offended by this, although, like being a milk monitor, it was only because I hadn't been asked - not because I actually wanted the job.
Now, if I had looked like Leonardo ... I would have been top of those lists every single time. Their publication would have held no terrors for me at all. And every gaberdine from the Lido to Jack Straw's Castle, would have opened at my approach. But let's move on.
And let's skip adolescence. Being astonishingly good looking in an all- boys comprehensive school is of limited benefit. The only quality that is truly valued there is a bone-headed athleticism. I guess Miss Hunnable, the gorgeous blonde teacher who once, unwisely, confided mild details of her sex life to Cosmopolitan, might have taken more notice of me. That's it, though.
But now we reach the part where it really matters. And can I get one thing clear? When I was Leonardo's age, I was no fatter than he is now; I did not discover food until I was 25. Still, I was not often going to be able to persuade beautiful young women into bed with me by virtue of my looks alone. Other talents had to be put on display, other tactics deployed. Seduction, for the unfair of face, is a branch of the arts. It involves timing, sensitivity and - above all - speech. Most of us learn to become Cyranos.
So, I compensated. I wooed with words and diffidence. I cajoled. Above all I constructed a self of immense sweetness, strength, humour and reliability. If you can't fancy this man's face, the message went, at least check him out as a father to your unborn children. Sometimes I begged.
Mostly, however, I failed. No, that's wrong. Mostly, I didn't bother even trying (which was sometimes- paradoxically - a very effective come- on). And if ever I did succeed, I behaved (on the whole) with a decorous regard that shouted to my pretty partner, "Thank you for having me. And please, please let me come again." I tried.
Ah, but what if I had looked like Leonardo? If a teeny leer or suggestive smile had been enough to furnish my student bedroom or bachelor house with the nubility of British womanhood? Would I have tried then? Would I have displayed such elaborate - and functionally unnecessary - regard for the feelings of my partners? Would I hell. If every ticket you buy wins the lottery, why spend any time on choosing the numbers? That's what I always say.
So, young Leonardo DiAaronovitch probably does not become a writer. And, aha! We move on to middle age, and by now I am probably ahead. I have settled down with a woman who is (by common consent) much better looking than I am. Brighter, too. But how might my Leonardo self have fared? He - I'm fairly sure - would be on his third marriage, leaving a trail of maladjusted children and vengeful ex-wives, all of whom simultaneously hate and adore him. Trapped into wedlock by a ruthless model at 26, it is all downhill from there. By the time we are both 45, I will be loads happier than my Leonardo alter ego.
And yet. A few minutes ago I took the lift down from the offices of the Independent to the concourse where they sell coffees of the most complex kinds. There were three young, okay-looking women and me. For 18 floors, and through three swing doors, we travelled together. And not one of them so much as glanced at me. I was invisible.
But Leonardo would not have been ignored. One would have smiled at him, one would have blushed, and the third would have brushed his thigh with hers. Bastard.
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