Marilyn Monroe, photographed on 3 December 1961, when she was 35. Photo: Archive/AFP/Getty
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From Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn: why dead women make the ideal brand ambassadors

The trend for using long-dead actresses to front campaigns aimed at female consumers is at best tasteless and at worst insidious.

Despite having been dead for 52 years, Marilyn Monroe has landed a job that many contemporary actresses would kill for: she has been hired as the new “face” of Max Factor. “We are thrilled to announce that glamour icon Marilyn Monroe is our new Global Ambassador!” the cosmetics company announced on social media to a decidedly mixed response.

Given the nature of an ambassadorial role, one might assume Monroe to be an impractical choice but, thanks to technology, death is no longer an obstacle when it comes to advertising. If anything, it’s an asset. In Forbes’ annual list of top-earning deceased celebrities Monroe ranked number 6, bringing in $17m last year for Authentic Brands Group, who own the rights to her image.

Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 Dior campaign

Nor is this Monroe’s first posthumous appearance for a beauty brand. She was resurrected in 2011, along with Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich, to star in a Dior perfume advert. Similarly, Audrey Hepburn, who died 22 years ago this month, could recently be seen scoffing chocolate in an advert for Galaxy, (somewhat incongruously, given her famously svelte figure).

Audrey Hepburn advertising Galaxy chocolate

However, this trend for using long-dead actresses to front campaigns aimed at female consumers is at best tasteless and at worst insidious.

If still alive today Monroe, Hepburn and Kelly would all have been in their 80s. Dietrich would have been 113. But the images seared into public consciousness – and proliferated by advertisers – are of these women at their aesthetic peak. The same, youthful photographs are continuously recycled on social media (sometimes emblazoned with a wrongly-attributed inspirational quotation), in print and online, effectively reducing Marilyn et al to the status of cartoon characters.

While Monroe was 36 when she died, meaning there are no photographs of her as an older woman, Kelly and Hepburn were 52 and 63 respectively when they passed away. You wouldn’t know it from a cursory image search online though – the results are mostly photographs of both women in their 20s and 30s. In fact, the first image of Hepburn looking visibly older comes via a Reddit post titled “’Cause people seem to only post the 20-something Audrey Hepburn”. One commenter replied: “I honestly assumed she died in her twenties because I’ve never seen a picture of her any older.”

Audrey Hepburn photographed in Amsterdam on 24 April 1990, when she was 60. Photo: Archive/AFP/Getty Images

This confusion is beneficial to brands whose customers have grown increasingly savvy to digital manipulation. Adverts with contemporary actresses and models have lost their impact because we know (or, at least, suspect) that the women they display have been cut, plucked and starved into perfection even before the retoucher has taken to them with his Adobe toolkit.

Conversely, we have a habit of romanticising golden age Hollywood as a more honest time, when women were voluptuous and technology was not advanced enough to airbrush pictures. In truth, little has changed. Monroe had a chin implant and nose job; whispers of anorexia have long been attached to Hepburn (let’s put it this way, she certainly wasn’t binging on Galaxy chocolate bars). And the National Portrait Gallery’s excellent 2011 exhibition, Glamour of the Gods, revealed that airbrushing was rife. One print of Irene Dunne featured scribbles on her forehead where she had been marked for retouching. Another series of images showed Joan Crawford: in one picture she has freckles and forehead lines, in another they’re gone.


Moreover, while retouching a contemporary actress or model is futile when a paparazzo is around every corner ready to give the lie to their billboard, there is no chance of Hepburn or Monroe being papped at their local newsagents looking saggy or, even worse, doing something inappropriate or illegal that could reflect negatively on the brands they are representing.

Dead women are ideal brand ambassadors: compliant, submissive and easily manipulated, both figuratively and digitally. Thus it is unsurprising that Max Factor’s slogan for their new campaign (“From Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe – created by Max Factor”) not only takes full credit for Monroe’s make-over but eliminates any agency Marilyn might have had in her own transformation. Luckily, she isn’t alive to argue otherwise.

Sometimes, of course, the women are themselves complicit in the ruse, sacrificing their contemporary selves in order to preserve the idealised image we have of them. In her 80s Dietrich, by then a recluse, agreed to participate in Maximilian Schell’s documentary about her but refused to be filmed, instead agreeing only to audio interviews so that she would only be remembered as she was at the peak of her career. Similarly Bettie Page, also in her 80s, was happy to license her pin-up image to lingerie and adverts but refused to be photographed at signings. "I want to be remembered," she told the LA Times, "as I was when I was young and in my golden times.”

While some companies have headed in the opposite direction – last year L’Oreal hired Helen Mirren, 69, as their global ambassador and this week 80-year-old Joan Didion was revealed as the face of Celine’s latest campaign – there are surely countless other beauty brands waiting for former screen sirens such as Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot to kick the bucket so they can begin exploiting images of them in their prime, without any worry that they might be snapped in the present day to remind unsuspecting consumers that the only real cure for aging is death.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era