The author on the red carpet for The Falling. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
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Back in front of the cameras this week – and posing doesn’t get any easier

The more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder.

I've had my photo taken quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, being at the start of another promotional merry-go-round, and it never fails to amaze me how difficult it is; how, after all these years, the simple process of having a camera in front of my face can reduce me to jelly. I know I’m not alone here, and in fact I wonder whether the great joy of the selfie lies in the absence of any photographer looking at you. No human eye staring and judging, just that impartial lens, and you can delete and delete until you’re happy with the result.

At a photo shoot so much depends on the social skill and personality of the photographer. Thrillingly, one of them told me recently that I was “very photogenic” – and astonishingly this was after a menopausal hot flush had postponed the start of make-up until a fan, or air-conditioning, or a window to stick my head out of could be found. Then at a different shoot a few days later, the film director Carol Morley and I were reprimanded for being “hopeless at chilling”. Guess which of those two comments made me more relaxed in front of the camera?

So they vary, these sessions, and can go either way. I used to love working with Juergen Teller, with his camera-in-each-hand, gunslinging approach. Point and shoot, point and shoot, he’d go, sometimes while wearing a sarong. There was a hint of danger, but it was arty danger, not pervy danger, and at least he never minded you looking like yourself. Pretty wasn’t the point, interesting was. And Marcelo Krasilcic – who took the photos that produced Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded album cover – made me and Ben look like a glamorous version of ourselves; again, he seemed to like what he found and just wanted to make the best of it.

On the other hand, there’s a photographer out there who apparently describes me on his website as the most unpleasant person he has ever had to work with, and I imagine that’s because he frightened and brought out the worst in me, back when I was young and fear made me snappy and defensive. Equally, it can be frustrating that editors often have their own, predetermined idea of how I should look, so I can stare defiantly down the barrel of the lens for 19 frames, but turn to gaze wistfully through the window on the 20th, and that’s the shot chosen.

Being photographed and looked at is rarely easy for those of us without model/film-star looks. Sarah Millican wrote last year about her experience of attending the Baftas as a nominee and presenter. Thrilled to be there, she was nonetheless intimidated – “I had a few awkward photos taken by the wall of paparazzi. Awkward as I’m not a model (I’m a comedian), have never learnt how to pose on a red carpet (I’m a comedian)” – and devastated afterwards by cruel comments about her dress. In a moment of honesty that brought cheers of support and recognition from other women, she confessed that the criticisms had been “like a pin to my excitable red balloon . . . My dress . . . was destroyed by the masses . . . I cried in the car.”

I’ve put up with this kind of stuff throughout my career, albeit on a smaller scale, as most of my pop-star days pre-dated the internet (for which, in this instance, I am extremely grateful). But I remember make-up artists and cameramen huddling and whispering as they tried, not very tactfully, to work out how to prettify me. I remember being told to hold my stomach in, despite weighing eight and a half stone, and I remember a video where my make-up melted and my ears went red, and how I had to keep singing despite feeling ugly. I look at the video now and think I look beautiful. Of course I did: I was 23.

But I tell you all this not in a downhearted way, or fishing for compliments, but more in a spirit of hope that the more we say these things out loud – as Sarah Millican so wonderfully did – the more we acknowledge that it hurts when someone is cruel about your appearance, the closer we might get to being kinder. And then being photographed will be easy! Some hope.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 April (for more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com) and Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on 30 April (newstatesman.com/events)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.