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)