Funky old women

There's a new attitude among older women. Once expected to fade into invisibility, they're undergoing social reinvention. Respect, says Deborah Orr
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The Independent Online

Old women, convention dictates, are invisible. As our skin grows slack and our hair grows grey, we fade into the background, seen but not heard. We shrink in stature like our gums, like our backbones, until all we have left is our status in the home as wife, mother and grandmother, and a pathetic need to repeat querulous chit-chat to our bored but compassionate families about how we too once turned heads "in our day".

Old women, convention dictates, are invisible. As our skin grows slack and our hair grows grey, we fade into the background, seen but not heard. We shrink in stature like our gums, like our backbones, until all we have left is our status in the home as wife, mother and grandmother, and a pathetic need to repeat querulous chit-chat to our bored but compassionate families about how we too once turned heads "in our day".

It's not much to look forward to, so it's little wonder that convention is being told to bugger off to Harley Street and get itself an extreme makeover. Old women these days are not so much invisible as in disguise. It's not that they look younger than their age, exactly, although of course they look great. It's more that they look absolutely the best a person their age could possibly, possibly hope to, either in this universe or the next.

It helps, in the fight against decrepitude, to have a few bob. A Datamonitor consumer report confirms that, despite advertising's continual appeals to the youth market, one of the highest-spending groups is the "merry widows". Women over 50, who have outlived their partners, are buying expensive clothes, luxurious cosmetics and no end of products designed to pamper. They like to get out and enjoy themselves, and don't much care what others make of their social reinvention.

Esther Rantzen considers herself to be part of this group. "Who knows how much time we have left?" she declares. "Nobody can know that, whatever their age. The solution must be to enjoy and value every moment. And it's fun." While Cilla Black has not explicitly outed herself as a merry widow, the rash of speculation this week about her 65-year-old sex life confirms that the newspapers, at least, want this to be the role she slots into.

Yet, really, the "merry widow" category is just as out-dated a cliché as the one that dictates that a woman over 40 is over the hill. Merry widows have always been with us, and they have never been fully approved of. Typically they are viewed as gold-diggers who entered into an opportunistic marriage-for-wealth in the first place, then proceeded to dance on their husbands' graves.

This new crop of over-50s, who prefer hanging on a boyfriend's arm to manipulating a Zimmer frame, are instead continuing with a life that, no matter how much enriched by partner and family, also maintains independent identity and success. These are feminism's senior citizens, able to avoid being marginalised and discarded simply because they are used to deciding for themselves what course their lives should take.

Should women be suspicious that. in order to achieve post-menopausal acknowledgement-of-existence, we have to diet and exercise to nurture a decent figure, discount no possibility in the way of surgical assistance and "work looks" as hard as any fashion-crazy 19-year-old?

Some people - the effortlessly beautiful Germaine Greer for one - argue that "the change" should herald a different sort of liberation, in which women can embrace "old cronedom" and relax in the knowledge that at last they're no longer going to be judged on their looks. That's still an option, if it appeals.

Most of us, though, surely stare at this new generation of "merry widows" and breathe a sign of relief. They make old age seem far less lonely and scary than we once we believed it had to be. We can't all manage the high-maintenance façade that Joan Collins pioneered. But we can all invest in stern foundation garments and hair-dye. Once the women in Cilla's gang would have been derided as "mutton dressed up as lamb". Thankfully young girls are no longer seen as lambs to the slaughter. And old girls are no longer not seen at all.

Cilla Black, 61

Cilla was expected to throw herself into the grave after the death of her husband and manager, Bobby Willis, five years ago. For a while, she appeared unhinged with grief and rage, delighting the nation by resigning her job on live television. She looked like toast. Instead she has declared herself to have turned "sexty, not 60", announced plans to open a London nightclub and signed a big deal with Living TV. Not that she needs the work. She had her first number one pop hit in 1964, and has amassed a fortune of £15m as an entertainer. Can she blow it all on ginger hair dye? Only time will tell.

Joan Collins, 71

At the dawn of time, Ms Collins was a pretty British starlet, who despite getting all the breaks, never seemed to make it big. Then, in the neolithic period, she starred as a sex-crazed older woman in kitsch classic movies such as The Stud and The Bitch (based on novels by her equally age-defying sister). Most celebrated as Alexis Carrington in US soap opera Dynasty, Ms Collins is famously fond of younger men. Currently, she's married to yet another 40-year-old. When asked about the age difference, she airly replied: "If he dies, he dies."

June Brown, 77

Ms Brown, better known as Dot Cotton, has been appearing in EastEnders for 20 years now, and she was playing an old lady even back then. In the early days, she once appeared vamped up on the cover of a magazine emblazoned with the deathless line: "She's hot ... She's Dot". In the soap, she played the mother of Nick Cotton, whom she once boarded up in her living room to help him kick heroin. In real life, she helped her godson quit crack by going to Thailand's Thamkrabok monastery. She now helps raise money to send other addicts there, and was instrumental in persuading new best friend, Pete Coherty of the Libertines, to give it a try. If there was an older woman with a backstage pass at Glastonbury this year, we'd love to hear from her.

Honor Blackman, 78

It's 40 years since Ms Blackman played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. But her recent role in Coronation Street, playing Rula Romanov, the oldest swinger in town, is testament to how enduring her image as a sex bomb has been. Annoyingly, Ms Blackman has no advice for others who wish to look as good as she does - unless you count good genes, having fun and carrying on working (not quite so efficacious if you toil in a canning factory). Asked if she was proud to be considered a glamorous granny, she replied it was better than "being a lump". She's probably on to something there.

Barbara Windsor, 67

Back in the days when she was the comedy sexpot in the Carry On movies, no one imagined that Barbara Windsor was anything other than a piece of expendable meat with a big future as a has-been. For years she conformed to her Cockney sparrow stereotype with a marriage into a shady East End family, and a propensity for standing by her man in a sad Tammy-Wynette sort of way. A role in EastEnders helped to relaunch her career, and while ill-health has recently kept her off the screen, she is tipped to bounce back as brassily life-affirming as ever.

Esther Rantzen, 64

The toothy television presenter has shown herself to be more than enthusiastic about being single again after Desmond Wilcox, her husband of 22 years, died. So keen was she to get back into the dating game, that Ms Rantzen appeared on a television show, Would Like To Meet. Now she's swooning like a schoolgirl over her young partner in hit Saturday night series Strictly Come Dancing, and has become a passionate advocate for thongs as the only style of knicker a woman should consider wearing. Which no fan of That's Life ever foresaw.

Shirley Bassey, 67

Born in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Shirley Bassey's career has spanned 40 years without any noticeable diminution in vocal volume or personal style. She semi-retired to her home in Switzerland in 1981 (she also has an apartment in Monte Carlo), but came storming back in 1997 and celebrated her 60th birthday with nine sell-out concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. Celebrated in the current Black British Style exhibition at the V&A, she once said: "You don't get older, you get better." What a Dame.

Joanna Lumley, 58

Joanna Lumley retains a special place in the English heart not just because she is and always has been preternaturally lovely but also because she has a posh voice, and therefore embodies the mix of sex and class that British men find more sexy than sex. Oddly, this doesn't stop women from adoring her too, even though in the 1970s, as Purdey in the Avengers, she persuaded women that helmet hair was something they, not just she, could carry off. Lumley, who has just published her second autobiography, is still a role model for funky older women since Patsy, her character in Absolutely Fabulous, wrote the book for them. She still looks great, even though there is plenty of evidence that surgical help is not for her - not yet anyway.

Sandra Howard, 63

The former model and wife of the leader of the opposition is the funkiest of old political wives. When Michael Howard became leader, much was made of his wife as some sort of secret weapon who could burnish his appeal before the voting public. Sadly, as graceful and accomplished as Mrs Howard is, the course of events has proved that however powerful the visible older woman has become, she cannot be expected to perform miracles. For those among us who are already feeling the pressure, the news is welcome.

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