Jenna and Barbara, in Uniform
Profile Shows Pretty Smiles, Not Personalities, of the President's Daughters
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page C01
The president's daughters have emerged from their media-free zone of comfort into the flattering spotlight of Vogue.
The August issue of the fashion magazine includes an interview with the recent college graduates as well as two portraits by photographer Patrick Demarchelier. The opening picture features the two young women in strapless ball gowns. Jenna's ruby red dress is by Oscar de la Renta, a designer favored by her mother. Barbara is wearing a similar ivory gown by Calvin Klein. They are accessorized with an array of borrowed diamonds. The dresses are classic designs -- styles that a designer would keep on hand in the showroom but wouldn't bother to put on the runway.
The 22-year-old twins look like debutantes, minor royals, or that particular New York species of well-groomed, pedigreed and socially connected woman known as the "Bright Young Thing." For much of the time their father has been in the White House, they were kept under wraps. Occasionally they emerged from their protected world to be snapped attending a fashion show or traveling with their mother. The only significant ink on them has been on police reports detailing their ill-advised underage drinking.
This public debut is occasioned by their having graduated from college and deciding to campaign for their father during this election year. "The decision was completely up to Jenna and Barbara. They made the decision in late winter, early spring after thinking about it for some time," says Gordon Johndroe, the first lady's press secretary. "They thought this would be a nice interview to start with."
Barbara made her campaign debut yesterday, accompanying her father on a trip to Michigan and Minnesota. Jenna's first foray was on Friday. So far, they have been quiet cheerleaders and are unsure of how they might ultimately be dispatched. But in Vogue, Jenna makes clear that they are not interested in political process and are doing this for love of Dad.
Both the president and first lady have seen the story and the accompanying photographs and "they like it," Johndroe says. "They think their daughters look great and it's a nice article."
What's not to like? The story notes that the daughters' post-graduation plans include Jenna's desire to work for a charter school and Barbara's interest in working with AIDS-afflicted children in Eastern Europe and Africa. Both girls have surrounded themselves with a group of good friends who say such nice things about them that readers might be led to believe these young women have never burped publicly, let alone had a grumpy day.
The story's headline promises that the daughters are about to "give the country a glimpse of who they really are by joining their father on the campaign trail." But those who spend any time on such trails argue that the goal is not to reveal one's real self but a perfectly polished and eloquently scripted facsimile.
The same can be said about making your debut in Vogue. This is not the kind of magazine that traffics in humanizing reality -- one that finds reassurance in warts, foibles and missteps.
The people who appear in Vogue never look like their true selves -- they look better. They become their own fantasy. The magazine put Oprah Winfrey on its cover in October 1998 and the media mogul admitted that at long last she was convinced of her own beauty. When Hillary Clinton appeared on the cover in December of that year, during the impeachment proceedings, her spirit got such a boost that she thanked the magazine's editor in her autobiography. When Marion Jones appeared in 2001, the photographs not only reiterated the sex appeal of the athletic female physique but also pronounced it fashionable in the most rarefied worlds. And when Vogue shot Sean "P. Diddy" Combs at the haute couture shows in Paris in 1999, the spread helped legitimize Combs to the fashion establishment as an ebony-skinned Cary Grant and pronounced young minority millionaires among the logical heirs to couture.
In Vogue, there are no pimples. Everyone glows. People are more elegantly groomed and styled than they will ever be again. In the instant that their photograph is taken -- when the stylists, the makeup artist, the hairdresser, the lighting person, the assistants have all stepped out of the frame -- there is perfection. Not stilted or stodgy, but an unreal perfection nonetheless.
Demarchelier is known for a style that is natural but beautiful. He photographed Laura Bush for Harper's Bazaar in 2001. He is not a trickster in the manner of David LaChapelle, whose photographs are filled with saturated color, his subjects transformed into caricatures. Demarchelier does not offer the cinema verite quality of Ellen von Unwerth, whose subjects often seem to have been captured unaware in a melancholy reverie. And he does not engage in the homoeroticism of Bruce Weber or the sexual provocation of the late Helmut Newton, whose vision of this shoot might have employed leg braces, whips and a donkey.
Instead, the photographs that Vogue offers are coolly beautiful, aloof and controlled. The opening portrait, shot in Manhattan at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute with the two women dressed in their classic ball gowns, could easily hang alongside those of their mother as first lady. Barbara's conservative Calvin Klein gown is particularly striking. She has a well-documented interest in fashion, attending shows by her friend the designer Zac Posen and interning in the Proenza Schouler showroom in New York, but this dress hardly suggests an adventurous spirit.
In fact, the young women are not particularly interested in such gala gowns and their accouterments. "They've always shied away from the pampered, debutante image," says Julia Reed, author of the accompanying story. She describes herself as an "acquaintance of the family" and has spent significant time writing about it.
The clothes transform the daughters into archetypes; they do not reflect the personality of the wearers. Their debut has all of the intimacy of a state dinner receiving line.
But the portrait does offer this: They are ready to play a new role. In the picture's formality and control, it reflects their emergence as public, political daughters.
In their life story as told in public photographs, they've gone from indiscreet college students to Stepford daughters. One longs for photographs that tell of the intellectual curiosity that took them abroad or of the "natural effervescence" that Reed found so compelling.
The second photograph has the twins dressed in more casual attire. Barbara wears an Alberta Ferretti camisole and Max Mara skirt. Jenna is in a Moschino top, Tommy Hilfiger jacket and trousers from Joe's Jeans. (The twins wear Italian and American labels but no French.) They are walking toward the camera, perfect teeth lighting up their pretty faces. Here they play the roles of chic girls about town. The setting is Schiller's Liquor Bar, one of those downtown New York restaurants where town cars idle out front and the menu is voyeuristically working class, with a wine list that is cheap, decent and good.
They wear another kind of uniform, one that speaks of youth, hipness and moneyed polish. The clothes tease the viewer, offering the faintest whiff of the twins' personalities. Is Jenna in jeans and jacket because she is more casual? More urbane? One wishes that the caption said something like: Jeans, model's own. The restaurant is empty. It was closed for the shoot. There's none of the liveliness that makes it such an enticing place. No "cheap" or "decent" wine on the tables. It's just a tidy backdrop for two perfect smiles.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company