The age of indignity

They hit 30 and it's down with the neckline, up with the skirt and out on the town. They call it 'middle youth'. Hettie Judah calls it embarrassing
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Think back over Milan fashion week and what springs to mind? The highlights, the hysteria, the trashiness, and more than anything the sheer international embarrassment that is Donatella Versace's dress sense. As if any grown woman would suddenly look at Donatella and shriek, "I got it all wrong; all this time that I have been dining out in grey cashmere I could have been flaunting inappropriate bits of flesh and squeezing myself into too-tight nylon micro skirts. Nigel - throw out that Next catalogue; I must have a boob tube else I shall expire."

Of course it would never happen; for this is the function of Donatella; a sartorial caveat to grow old gracefully. Or one would have thought so, anyway. But curious things are afoot in the world of mature female celebrities and bit by bit the victim-of-a-love-rat pack have abandoned their goody- two-shoes images and made embarrassing attempts to raunch up their style.

Anthea Turner, Julia Carling, and even Carol Smillie have suddenly started putting themselves about in a most unladylike manner; out have gone the checked shirts and flat shoes, welcome to lipstick, legs and hoiked-up cleavages. These are the women who have taken the idea of "middle youth" - that glossy-mag-generated licence to behave ten years your junior - and swallowed it whole.

The international template for this ageing girl-next-door-goes-Jezebel manoeuvre is surely Ms Mariah Carey, who has recently developed an addiction to gold tummy chains and Jamie Theakston. Mariah built a career on insipid blamelessness, but after she split up with super-controller husband Tommy Mottola she started flinging her bits around in a disconcerting and highly suspicious fashion. Standing with Whitney Houston to promote their duet, Whitney, veteran of dodgy rebel relationship with dodgy rebel Bobby Brown, is wearing a trouser suit, whilst Mariah is wearing a bosom-thrusting, knicker-skimming bit of brown silky raunch-cloth. Such brazenness follows on from a selection of questionable rap collaborations.

The reason for all this is that Mariah has seen her future, and her future looked very much like Celine Dion. Mariah's old market is being taken over by Charli Baltimore, heavily tattooed ex-gangsta girlfriend of Biggie Smalls and other similarly underclad new recording artistes. The new generation of successful women is ignoring the squeaky-clean, super-serious approach; they are proud to be bad girls and Mariah wants in on the act. Mariah Carey - nu skool rock bitch; grrrr! Somehow not; for all the thrusting and pouting, it's hard to believe that anyone will take her bad girl image seriously.

I can't truly claim that Anthea Turner is Britain's answer to Mariah Carey, but there is a certain parallel in their rise to the top on the squeaky-clean blandwagon. Anthea's recent decision to pose in nothing but a python and a pint of Elnette was, given the timing, understandable, even if the snake message was a little confused (I can't have Grant Bovey so I sold my soul to the devil? You should have seen the size of the one that got away? I may have been dumped but actually I'm an irresistible temptress?).

As with Mariah's transformation, however, the naughtiness of the whole escapade somehow doesn't ring true. Not only did Anthea maintain that impossibly mumsy flicked hairdo while apparently writhing around in primeval ecstasy but also the airbrushing department so removed any hint of humanity from her exposed body parts that she could have been wearing a body stocking.

Mercifully, Anthea's rebel-rebel phase expired fast enough for her to be back posing for the Blue Peter 40th anniversary in sensible grey stretch pants. Her husband-pinching and botty-flashing may be over for now, but at the time it was fairly evident that while Ms Turner was never going to be seen out slamming Slippery Nipples with Chris Evans and Danny Baker, something about her "Princess Tippy-Toes" image was starting to irk.

The nudie delights of Mariah and Anthea have nothing on the spectacle known simply as Julia Carling. Who is this cleavage-flashing vixen, smouldering out from the tabloid pages in skintight viper wear? Why! It's Julia, darling, didn't you realise? Julia-darling has gone a whole hog on the image change, and this time it's here to stay; at least as long as she fronts VH-1's Something For The Weekend, and has the arm of record exec Rod Stringer to cling onto (which leads one to the gruesome possibility that she might actually start singing. No! Bring back Mariah Carey; all is forgiven).

The former Mrs Carling, former love-rat victim, former girl-in-pearls, former ice cold blonde; is apparently sick of her old image and happy to be hep. Julia-darling in an interview with Satellite TV Europe, also provides a telling key to the death of the girls-next-door; "I'm going to Dublin shortly," she informs us "and I'm dying for a Guinness". Yes, Guinness; it's that alcoholic stuff, served in tall glasses; no straw, no parasol, no slice of lemon. Boys drink it, in pints.

Now, run your minds back a couple of months. Who else drinks pints? Why, it's those naughty ladette types there was all that fuss over: Zoe Ball, Denise van Outen and Ulrika Jonson; and aren't they all doing terribly well? So well, indeed, that they never seem to be off the telly. Unlike Julia-darling. Stange, that. Could it possibly be that our newly rebelled- up heroines are getting a mite worried about these naughty young women nibbling at their ankles?

Much as we may have mocked the whole "ladette" construct, once one disposes of the football/farting/curry myth that grew up around it, this new approach to celebrity makes a great deal of sense. At a time of almighty prurience, to exude don't-care sexual cool in the face of the press makes one a very difficult target. Julia and Anthea have both had their fair share of suffering at the hands of the tabloids and it is easy to see why the idea of a hardened- up laddy image might appeal to both of them.

The problem is that they just ain't got it right; for all Julia's bleating after pints, it is impossible to imagine her queuing for a late night kebab, let alone heaving it up over the paving stones half an hour later. We know that Julia isn't a hard rock-chick just as sure as we know that Victoria Adams isn't really posh. All that she and Anthea have achieved by trying to cantilever their images is to publicise their own confusion; instead of newly confident they just look more vulnerable, afraid to be themselves. There is nothing wrong with trying to change, but in trying to change to be more like the younger talent, they have only reinforced the suspicion that their stars are in freefall; rather than looking like Denise, they ended up looking like Donatella.

TRYING TOO HARD

Mariah Carey

Anthea Turner

Julia Carling

Donatella Versace

Carol Smillie

Madonna

Liz Hurley

Isabella Rosselini

Patsy Kensit

Sheryl Crow

MAKING IT LOOK EASY

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