As Ed Miliband made yet another "relaunch" speech last week, I looked across the room where I was lunching and spotted a geeky-looking bloke with bog-brush hair, wearing a pristine white shirt and a red tie – his brother David, impossible to ignore. He looked too scrubbed up, a bit otherworldly. Gary Lineker was nearby, but he blended into the hustle and bustle, a regular-looking chap with a bit of a tan. What is it about the Milibandroids that sets them apart from us, no matter how often they say they understand our aspirations and our concerns?
It has been a gruelling time for Ed: even his brother says people in the party are "very frustrated". A former policy adviser thinks Labour's leader lacks direction. His sidekick Ed Balls was on the Today programme yesterday (more damage limitation) announcing Labour, too, is ready to wield the axe. John Humphrys caused the biggest stink in Ed M's week of woe, by floating the notion that Labour's leader might be handicapped by his appearance. Humphrys was referring to Robin Cook's 1994 remark, that he was "too ugly" to run as leader. Cook was witty and excellent company, but did Humphrys have a point, even if he thought it might seem crass and trivial? Do we respond positively to leaders who are pleasing on the eye?
Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague are two smart blokes who wouldn't object to being described as lacking in the looks department. The reason they were flops as leaders, though, was nothing to do with follicle failure and everything to do with presentation. I used to think IDS was on the verge of bursting into tears every time he made an important announcement. He exudes sensitivity, too much angst. Now he's championing the underclasses, a little of his misery message goes a very long way, and David Cameron has wisely sidelined him into a role out in the political boondocks. Foreign Secretary Hague has spent a lot of time changing the way he speaks to make his anodyne statements of the obvious sound important and worthy of a foothold on the world stage. Hague is an incredibly personable guy, but, like David Miliband, he doesn't play well on telly or radio, managing to sound just the slightest little bit superior and condescending, as if the interviewer's questions were insultingly facile. Churchill was no looker, but he had leadership in spades.
Ed Miliband countered that if Humphrys followed him around the country he'd see a different person. Losers like to claim that the nasty media misrepresents and trivialises them, when they are fully rounded human beings, but it won't wash. The problem with Ed is not the hair, the uncanny resemblance to Nick Park's plasticine Wallace; it's the suspicion that if you accidentally spilt a beer on him at your local, he'd come out with a soundbite that included the word "challenges". Everything about Ed is carefully assessed by spin doctors before being unleashed on the outside world – like that disastrous Christmas card on which he's wearing a nasty T-shirt.
Our most popular television shows are full of characters who have spent a huge amount of effort on their appearance, from Cheryl Cole to Katie Price and that weird Harry from TOWIE. But there are plenty of exceptions. Take the grizzled Mr Humphrys, still hosting Mastermind, and David Dimbleby on Question Time. You'd hardly call Brucie glam either, or Gregg Wallace. Of course these are blokes, and God forbid a woman of similar wrinkle count should front a flagship BBC show, but for men, at least, age and appearance have nothing to do with appeal.
Most important, leaders need to exude conviction, even when they are spouting absolute balls. Margaret Thatcher had it in spades. Gordon Brown always appeared brooding, a moping score-settler. Voters didn't warm to a man they suspected was working to his own agenda rather than for the common good, and who could not do anything as mundane as smile for the camera without looking as if he was about to have a fit. I haven't mentioned policies, because in modern politics they are not that important when it comes to winning elections. There's very little difference between the parties.
Sadly for Ed, he exudes desperation, and that's never an appealing quality in any man.
Madge wants publicity? Well, here's a little more
It was a week for headline-grabbing Madonna soundbites. Promoting her film W.E. about a spoilt, unattractive British royal and a US divorcee most of her fans have never heard of, Madge has been giving carefully stage-managed interviews. The story of a love affair played out decades before she was born, involving an abdication, is not an easy concept to get across to a generation used to messaging and downloads. The result has been a masterclass in PR. The fact that the film was poorly received when it premiered in Venice, and then re-edited, has been forgotten.
First, motivation. Madge told Radio Times she made the film because she found herself "in a strange world" after her marriage to Guy Ritchie ended. Next, obsession. In The Sunday Times, Madge revealed that she lives near Wallis Simpson's old apartment, and used to stand outside imagining the king driving up daily for cocktails. Then, commitment. Madge lent the movie her jewellery and furniture. Finally, she tells Graham Norton that she dreams of being swept off her feet by a knight in shining armour. Result – pages of quotes the day after the premiere. Job done.
Knocking spots off Fassbender
Steve McQueen's film Shame is a joyless experience, although the artistry of McQueen is evident in every frame. The unlikeable characters have no backstory, no context and few aspirations. Michael Fassbender is brilliant, but by the end, you think: "Why did I bother?"
Critics often cite Damien Hirst as the master of the superficial. Last week, his Spot paintings opened in 11 Gagosian galleries worldwide: Hirst and his assistants have completed over 1,500 Spot paintings. One critic called them "as unsatisfying as cigarettes, calming but addictive".
I get more joy eating breakfast contemplating my Hirst Spot print than from hours staring at Fassbender's naked backside.
That's not stress – it's fussing
Last week, research showed that shop workers made to smile and tell customers to "have a nice day" can end up emotionally exhausted. Another study claimed some users are so addicted to their iPhones and BlackBerrys that stress levels soar and they experience "phantom vibrations", imagining the device is buzzing in their pocket. Even meeting by the photocopier is fraught.
One council worker took time off for stress after a workmate placed his hands on her shoulders in what he claimed was "a friendly gesture". Her complaint was upheld, and the chap underwent diversity-and-equality training. When I wrote that the definition of depression had become too broad, Alastair Campbell went ballistic. Surely we can all agree that the word "stress" can be made to cover almost anything.