Ellie Levenson: Politicians should spend more on make-up

If your appearance becomes the news then no one will remember what the real message was
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The Independent Online

Oh, enough of the make-up puns already! News that Downing Street has spent more than £1,000 on make-up for Tony Blair in the past six years has been greeted in certain circles with derision. I snorted in surprise too, but that was at how little he spent. The average British woman spends £195 on make-up and skincare every year, which also adds up to more than £1,000 in six years, and most of us aren't photographed everywhere we go, nor are we regularly grilled under the harsh lights of a television studio.

The trouble is, when it comes to our leaders, we want the impossible. We want leaders who look good but seem to do so effortlessly, and certainly without artificial help. We want a prime minister who works 20-hour days, can visit several countries in a week and doesn't snub the canapés when at official receptions, yet we're not forgiving enough to accept that this behaviour leads to dark circles under the eyes, the odd spot and a bit of a tum.

After all, it's not as if Blair's office is nipping out to Harvey Nichols to buy the latest in sparkly green eyeshadow and deep plum lipstick, though if they were they would certainly be up with fashion trends for the autumn. Rather, they are buying basic make-up to ensure that he looks his best on television and at public appearances.

This isn't as vain as it may sound, for leaders have frequently been criticised for their appearance. Think back to John Major, who incidentally it has been reported had a fondness for Clinique foundation, and the accusations of "greyness" that dogged his premiership. And Blair has learnt this the hard way, for any time he has failed to look his best, his appearance has become the news. Think back to the first time he wore glasses on television. Do you remember that? Of course you do, it was analysed in the news for days afterwards.

What about that time he gave a speech and was pictured with patches of sweat under his arms, remember that? Yes, I thought so. Now here's the crunch. Anyone remember what he was saying either of those times? No, of course not - if your appearance becomes the news then no one is going to remember what the real message was. That's why it's important that politicians use whatever means they can to avoid looking bad.

If Blair appears on Newsnight with shiny skin because we decide the public purse can't stretch to a little bronzer, then there's no point him appearing on Newsnight at all for nobody will care what he is saying, least of all Jeremy Paxman who during the last election asked Blair whether he was wearing fake tan. Great question, Jeremy, and no, I don't mind at all that it took time away from important issues such as public service reform, the war on terror or relations with Europe.

Of course it's not just the make-up that costs money, but the make-up artists employed to help Blair get ready. Ann Widdecombe on the radio yesterday spoke of how she thinks perhaps Blair should learn to apply his own make-up instead of wasting money paying someone to do it for him. I am surprised she thinks this is the best use of the Prime Minister's time.

But Blair no doubt employs his own because he has learnt from experience that you cannot rely on television programmes to do your make-up. They are remarkably inconsistent. I have turned up wearing no make-up to some programmes I have been appearing on, assuming the in-house make-up person would make me look presentable, only to find out that there isn't enough time and to be ushered on set bare faced, reliant on a quick self-administered pinch to my cheeks to ensure some colour and the well-tested technique of biting my lips to ensure they go red while not biting hard enough to draw blood. At other times I have turned up having given myself the full treatment, only to have it all wiped off and reapplied by the make-up staff.

If I had the resources, I, like Blair, would employ my own make-up people to take with me. After all, people notice these things. After a recent stint reviewing the newspapers on a breakfast television show, a contact of mine sent me an e-mail: "Saw you on television this morning. Sound was off so no idea what you said but your make-up was nice."

So I am happy for Tony to wear make-up. It's nothing to do with being in touch with his feminine side, or vanity, though even if it was my response would be "so what?" But if Tony ensures there is nothing remarkable about his appearance - no pimples to comment on or bags under the eyes, then we can concentrate on the politics, and ensure the only blemishes on his record are political ones.

ellie@levenson.net

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