Reese Witherspoon: Legally blonde. Physically flawed?

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The Independent Online

So Hollywood's Little Miss Perfect wants it to be known that she isn't so perfect after all. Describing herself as "prudish" and "nervous", 28-year-old Reese Witherspoon, the perky, pouty-lipped star of Election and Legally Blonde, revealed this week that she was so self-conscious about her body that she will never again be seen on screen wearing a bikini.

"I have cellulite," she told the magazine Vanity Fair. "I have stretch marks. My breasts are not what they were before I breastfed two children. I'm all about trying to make movies that have nothing to do with my body."

Witherspoon isn't the first Hollywood star to speak out about her imperfections. Kate Winslet, who is also 28 and has two children, has publicly compared her bottom to purple sprouting broccoli while older stars, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Demi Moore, have been more than upfront about their cosmetic surgery. While Witherspoon's remarks might be viewed as an attempt to convince us that she is a normal woman with the same insecurities and physical flaws as the rest of us, there's no reason why we shouldn't believe her. We know from the shots that appear in the centre spreads of gossip magazines revealing stars with cottage-cheese thighs and sweat patches that celebrities aren't as perfect as they'd have us believe.

Even so, few of us will be shedding tears on Witherspoon's behalf. While one can easily empathise with her neurosis - there aren't many who can flick through our holiday snaps without groaning at the sight of bulging stomachs, stretch marks and sunburn - it's worth putting things into perspective. This is a long-legged, clear-skinned, platinum-blond actress who in the past five years has commanded some of the biggest fees in Hollywood. She may not be conventionally beautiful, though, with her 1,000 watt smile and peaches-and-cream complexion, she is the epitome of all-American wholesomeness.

And it's this wholesomeness that Witherspoon has expertly subverted during her film career. In Election she played Tracy Flick, a dementedly ambitious high school princess in the running for president of the school council. In one of the film's many classic scenes, Tracy gets on her knees at bedtime and prays: "Dear Lord Jesus, now I really must insist that I win the election tomorrow." It was an inspired piece of casting that sent the actress's career into overdrive.

In Legally Blonde, Witherspoon played another sorority queen, albeit of a less poisonous variety, who goes to Harvard Law School. Her latest film, which is yet to be released in this country, is an adaptation of the classic novel Vanity Fair and sees her cast as the flame-haired schemer Becky Sharp.

At 28, Witherspoon is hardly washed up, though it's testament to the fickleness of casting directors that she believes her physical flaws could spell disaster for her career. She has remarked that comedy would be the key to her longevity, since "comedy doesn't sag". So far she has proved herself an actor of intelligence, ambition and great comic timing. Furthermore, she has cited role models that include Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter, all actresses known for their talent over their beauty. Witherspoon is attractive all right, but not threateningly so. She's an actress that young girls might aspire to be rather than the kind horny teenage boys pin up on their walls. Unlike her contemporaries Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles who seem to flit aimlessly between genres, never fully occupying them, Witherspoon has carved a niche all of her own.

Cellulite or no cellulite, for the next few years her future is secure.

Witherspoon has attributed her so-called prudishness to her Southern upbringing where, she claims, she wasn't allowed to wear black or bikinis. It was this background that she sent up in 2002's Sweet Home Alabama, a film about a successful New Yorker in denial about her down-home roots.

That's not to suggest that the real-life Witherspoon is just a simple Southern girl, mind you. Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon is in fact a descendant of the Scottish Calvinist John Knox and John Witherspoon who left Scotland for America to become one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon claims to have been a "dork" as a child who got by at school by making people laugh, though she excelled academically and in her final year "came out" as a debutante. She has described her parents, both of whom work in the medical profession, as "multi-achievers", and it was from them that she inherited her ambitious streak. John and Betty Witherspoon gave their stellar daughter the nickname "Little Type A", a moniker she used for her production company, Type A Films.

After leaving school she attended Stanford University in California to read English literature, but abandoned her studies after a year in order to concentrate on acting. Witherspoon began attracting the attention of casting directors in her early teens and made her film debut when she was 14, playing a lovesick tomboy in Robert Mulligan's Man in the Moon. She was also up for the role of Nick Nolte's sexually precocious daughter in Cape Fear but she fluffed the audition and the part went to Juliette Lewis. In the early Nineties, she appeared in a series of television movies, among them Wildflower, alongside Patricia Arquette, and Desperate Choices: To Save My Child, where she played a young girl with leukaemia. By the time she was in her early 20s she was landing decent roles in low-key movies including James Foley's Fear alongside Mark Wahlberg and Gary Ross's Pleasantville.

Witherspoon's first starring role arrived in 1999 with Election, the scathing satire that earned her a Golden Globe nomination and a Best Actress Award from the National Society of Film Critics. The film was released amid a glut of sharp low-budget films, among them Being John Malkovich and Boys Don't Cry. It was a good year for independent film-makers in Hollywood and Witherspoon's demonic performance suggested a bright future in interestingly off-beat roles.

In fact it heralded her move into the mainstream and a more appetising screen image. Now, it seems, the fluffy, pink-clad dolly bird from the Legally Blonde films has stuck fast. "A few years ago I thought Reese Witherspoon could be a very rare creation - charming but crazy. But now the business seems set on making her sweet and adorable. And you can see it killing her," wrote the film critic David Thomson.

To be fair, Witherspoon hasn't always been the relentlessly perky all-American prom queen. In Pleasantville she played Tobey Maguire's sex-obsessed sister, while in Twilight, in which she went topless for the first time, she played Susan Sarandon's and Gene Hackman's sex-crazed daughter. As the only reason to watch the otherwise dire 1998 rom-com Overnight Delivery, she played a stripper who falls for Paul Rudd's college student. More recently, perhaps not wanting to overshadow her husband Ryan Phillippe, who starred in I Know What You Did Last Summer, she has turned down roles in a number of teen horror films in favour of period dramas and teenage rom-coms.

Perhaps most surprising is that Witherspoon has only just revealed a chink in her armour. Until now, she has exuded the steely confidence of a military general who has never lost a battle. Her plucky screen persona masks a sharp operator behind the scenes. Right now, she is at the top of her game, commanding up to $15m per picture. Her last film, Legally Blonde 2: Red White and Blonde, for which got a producing credit, took $150m worldwide. Given her earning potential it's no surprise that two years ago Hollywood Reporter ranked Witherspoon as the fifth most powerful actress, behind Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Jodie Foster. Indeed, with her huge smile and Southern beginnings, she is deemed by the American press as the natural successor to Roberts who, 10 years ago, was the queen of the romantic comedy.

Roberts, however, at least had the decency to have a few failed marriages behind her. But Witherspoon's personal life appears to be as charmed as her professional life. Five years ago she married Phillippe, whom she met at her 21st birthday party and with whom she starred in Cruel Intentions, a teen remake of Dangerous Liaisons. There have been suggestions of rivalry between the actress and her husband - when the Phillippes presented an award at the Oscars two years ago, Ryan handed his wife the envelope, saying: "After you, you make more than I do." Yet the couple have denied suggestions that their marriage is under strain due to their unbalanced pay cheques, remarking that such gossip-mongering can only stem from envy.

The fact they attend marriage counselling sessions, they say, is their way of keeping their relationship on track. "I'm not interested in the fallacy of the Hollywood relationship - 'We have perfect children who never cry; we never have problems; we never argue.' That's just not true. Ryan and I are normal people with normal problems," Witherspoon has said.

Indeed, the only blemish on the Witherspoon record has come courtesy of her brother John, 29, who was arrested in October 2002 for aggravated burglary and sexual battery after entering the home of his neighbour. John Witherspoon claimed to have been drunk and entered the building thinking it was his. His sister remained silent about the case and it seems to have had little impact on her reputation.

By all accounts, Witherspoon is a woman who has had her cake and eaten it. Her standing in Hollywood is such that she can carry a film by her name alone while being a stay-at-home mom. Our Reese is no slave to the red carpet, and is more likely to be found enjoying a night in with her husband and children than at parties and premieres. Try as they might, the press can find no dirt on her, which may account for her desire to reveal some flaws. This week's revelations are unlikely to do this squeaky-clean Southern girl any harm. In the often degenerate world of celebrity, a few stretch marks are forgivable.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 26 March 1976 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Family: Married to the actor Ryan Phillippe, with whom she has two children Ava, five, and nine-month-old Deacon. Her father John is a surgeon; her mother Betty is a paediatric nurse. Her ancestor John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence.

Education: Harpeth Hall, Nashville; Stanford University, California (English literature, dropped out).

Career: Made her screen debut at 14 in Robert Mulligan's Man in the Moon. In 1996, she landed a part in James Foley's Fear. A starring role in Alexander Payne's Election earned her a Golden Globe nomination and a best actress award from the National Society of Film Critics in America. Has since starred in The Importance of Being Earnest and in two Legally Blonde films.

She says... "Being Southern and a blonde, it's not a good combination. Immediately, when people meet you, they think of you as not being smart."

They say... "She projects a fundamental niceness that makes it impossible to begrudge her all the goodies that flutter into her lap like candy sequins raining down from Barbie doll heaven" - Stephen Holden, The New York Times

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