Fugly rumours

Observations on celebrity

The internet has always been the ultimate playground for professional celebrity trashers. But now the sport is becoming an art form. An extraordinary website, Planethiltron.com, shows celebrities as they might easily have been if they were the same as the rest of us, by using Photoshop to transplant a mugshot of their face on to a picture of a "civilian" (Liz Hurley-speak for a non-famous person).

The idea is so simple that it's hard to believe it hasn't been done before: the merging of the face is cleverly done, so that it doesn't just look as though the celebrity's head has been transplanted on to an ordinary body. Planet Hiltron's vision allows you to imagine that celebrities are just like you or me - they just have more time to exercise. In fact, the pictures make you realise that potential celebrities may well be living among us mere mortals, walking around undetected, trapped under layers of lard, bad wardrobe choices and poorly moisturised skin.

The pictures tap into the common fantasy that we could all be rich, beautiful and famous, if only we had a more flattering haircut and one fewer chins. The results are peculiarly endearing: David Beckham in cardigan-and-suit ensemble in the fierce grip of a chubby Victoria in a pink Crimplene frock; Jennifer Aniston with jowls, white-trash jewellery and bingo wings; Britney Spears with podgy cheeks and a lumberjack shirt (perhaps not too distant from reality in the near future, that one). Check out Anna Wintour, complete with towelling shorts and thunder thighs, and Nicole Kidman minus the cheekbones. The site is so popular it crashes on a regular basis.

Another key mover in the burgeoning anti-celebrity universe is Gofugyourself.typepad.com. This site has hijacked the term "fugly", used in fashion circles to indicate someone who usually looks beautiful but is having a bad day sartorially. It posts up pictures of the great and the good in red-carpet meltdown. The definition of fugliness goes something like this: if someone is ugly, you can just call them ugly. If they usually look good, then in aberrant moments they are not ugly but fugly. (Clincher: if a picture of this person provokes the incredulous reaction, "What the fug?!", then this is a clear-cut case of fugliness.)

If this sounds like a bit of bitchy high-school fun, think again: the influence of the self-appointed fugly police has been noted in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time and Vanity Fair. The site's founders have had to remove their comment threads because they were becoming so numerous and vitriolic that they were impossible to regulate.

Which leads us to the thinking behind these sites. Although they are undeniably funny and most likely harmless, there is a certain nastiness to them that reveals the true feelings of civilian viewers towards celebrities: we do not wish them well.

Such pictures serve a desperate need in our air-brushed times: we want a break from beauty. Image quality on television, film and magazines is increasingly distant from reality - and certainly many miles from the flaw-filled images that assault our eyes in the real world (and in the mirror). Nasty celebrity gossip magazines and the internet are the last refuge for those who want to see pictures of other human beings looking anything but their best. They are a safety valve for a society sick of aesthetic perfection.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power