Brian Viner: Julie Christie falls for the beauty myth

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The April issue of Vanity Fair magazine contains a photograph of the actress Julie Christie at 60, in fact nearly 61, "looking half her age and still as stunning as ever". Christie, celebrated these days mainly for eschewing celebrity – "I feel that the media is a voracious power that completely distorts our brains," she says – poses for photographer Herb Ritts wearing a white silk shirt with plenty of cleavage showing, a saucy tasselled skirt that is half Emma Bunton, half Annie Oakley, and leather boots.

Christie lives far from the madding crowd in rural Wales – "to escape the American media"; heaven knows, those doorstepping hacks from The Wall Street Journal can be persistent buggers, unlike their gracious counterparts on British tabloids – but in yesterday's excited report in a national tabloid she is lying in a flowery boudoir fondling what appears to be a conch shell. Very un-Welsh behaviour.

Beneath are snapshots of her in her 20s ("fresh-faced charm"), 30s ("softly sensual"), 40s ("eternally alluring") and 50s ("timeless beauty"). These snapshots make two things very clear. One, that the paper's caption writer has missed a vocation in the branding of perfumes or perhaps toilet rolls.

Two, that Christie is indeed a rare beauty. As for the main picture, the Vanity Fair's public relations director says: "I'm sure a little bit of retouching was done, but she looks fabulous for her age." She sure does, although when Herb Ritts takes your photograph for Vanity Fair – "he shoots women really well," gushes the PR woman – and in the strictly professional sense touches you up, then it becomes almost meaningless to look fabulous for your age. It's like saying the Lake District looks fabulous for its age; age has next to no bearing on the matter.

Moreover, without wanting to sound catty, I know somebody who sat near Christie at a dinner party recently (somewhere in rural Wales, safely away from the endlessly prying American media, I'll be bound) and observed yesterday that the woman he met that evening, while undeniably elegant, looked like someone getting on in years, and almost nothing like the woman gazing sultrily alongside vast capitals declaring "STILL SEXY AT 60".

So what are we to make of all this? The odd thing is that Christie, in her ever decreasing public utterances over the years, has often expressed the view that physical beauty ain't worth the candle. Admittedly, this was a bit like the Sultan of Brunei saying that material wealth is not the be-all and end-all – it's a sight easier saying nobody really needs it when you already have it – but still it was rather reassuring.

After all, the rest of us might mourn the lost looks of Brigitte Bardot and Robert Redford, two other sixtysomethings who have taken a public stance against cosmetic surgery, but it's kind of nice to know that they don't.

Besides, the attempt to stay looking young can land you in all sorts of embarrassment, which is what recently happened to yet another sexagenarian, Joan Collins, who, prior to her appearance in a West End farce, was photographed wearing a lacy black basque and very little else. But when the show bombed, she publicly and indeed farcically blamed producer Bill Kenwright for forcing her to expose herself. Oh yes, we thought, Joanie always has to be bullied into acts of shameless self-promotion involving lots of leg.

Christie and Collins, of course, are very different animals. And yet four years ago Christie admitted that she had, despite all her misgivings, had a facelift. "It's hard, very hard, going to America where people who are older than you appear to be younger," she said.

She will find it easier from tomorrow, when the new issue of Vanity Fair hits the US newstands.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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