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Grande Dames

By Tina Brown
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page C01

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel luncheon celebrating the Matrix Awards for New York Women in Communications on Monday there was something so glorious about the confident roll of Oprah's behind in its tight couture suit as she powered up to the podium to present an award to Amy Gross, the editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine. "When I interviewed Amy," the queen of all media declared, "I knew right away she was a real woman, not an aging female." All the estrogen in the packed room seemed to answer with a collective hot flash of recognition.

In Talk magazine, of which I was editor five years ago, Texas writer Mimi Swartz wrote that as she turned 45 she felt she was starting to disappear. (She should have tried living in Hollywood, where you're in Harry Potter's invisible cloak after 35.) Men, Swartz noted, now looked through her as if she didn't exist. "Messenger boys in bicycle shorts, executives in pinstripes and countless males in between seemed to be nudging me aside and unless I was very quick allowing the door to slam in my face."

Host Diane Sawyer, left, perfectly at ease with singer Mariah Carey on 44th Street during Tuesday's "Good Morning America." (Teddy Blackburn -- Reuters)

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But something has happened since Swartz wrote that piece. Women in their fifties are finally blowing past the men who didn't hold the door. They've been in the workforce for 30 years -- and they're unapologetic about their sense of success.

I've been at past Matrix Awards ceremonies where the acceptance speeches alternated between the embarrassingly grateful and the stridently self-promotional. But this year the speeches -- by the likes of CNN's Christiane Amanpour; Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson; Nina DeSesa, chairman of McCann Erickson; and sex-crimes-prosecutor-turned-novelist Linda Fairstein -- were honest, self-effacing and funny. Women of a certain age can inhabit their achievements now, it seems, rather than brag about them. And many look better than they ever did at 35. Amanpour, 47 and fresh from covering the pope's funeral, was wearing a chic combat zone-like pantsuit with a T-shirt that read "SEXY."

It's the same with the morning show divas. On Tuesday's "Good Morning America," 59-year-old Diane Sawyer stood on a makeshift stage on 44th Street east of Broadway, introducing and bantering with Mariah Carey. Carey is 35, but in her metallic hourglass get-up she projects anxiety about her appearance. Sawyer is so confident about hers that she can sleepwalk right through the indignity of all the dumbed-down stuff she has to do with perfect aplomb.

Some of the gains in techno-grooming simply reflect the march of science. Beyond the access to all the new info about diet and exercise and style, there's Dr. Lookgood's ever-more-skillful Filler. The first wave in the attack on wrinkles suffered heavy casualties. That Nancy Reagan face with wind tunnel stare and rictus smile is no longer necessary. George Orwell once said that at 50 we have the faces we deserve, but thanks to a closet full of new products or a lunchtime trip to the dermatologist, we now get the faces we can afford.

Surfaces, in any case, are at most only half the story. The best Camilla Parker Bowles moment last weekend was not about the clothes or the wonders wrought by facials. It was at the blessing at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle when we heard her posh baritone firmly "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed." The queen reportedly once referred to Camilla as being "rather used," but being "rather used" is what gives Camilla her edge. All that marital drama, pain and abuse in the press has been absorbed now under her feathered Philip Treacy hat. Camilla has wounds. She has memories. She has wisdom. It gives her self-confidence the subtle glow of power.

That was what struck me most at the Matrix lunch: how all the women on the dais were so much more interesting because on the way to equilibrium they had been knocked around. Scardino talked about how a good failure goes a long way with women because we honestly believe we can be fixed. Fairstein described how, as one of seven women on a staff of 200 lawyers, she panicked when she found that all the guys had gone out to lunch and she was left alone to craft her first summation. "Only one response seemed natural. I sat at my desk and cried. The boss heard my sobs -- 'Who died?' he asked. I explained the problem and he gave me his wise solution. 'Do what we do whenever there's a crisis. Go into the restroom and throw up like a man.' I rejected his advice -- but I never cried at my desk again."

Introducing Fairstein was a woman who has been knocked around as much as Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby": Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It's easy to attribute Hillary's evolution to her escape from the long shadow of Bill. But it's about a lot of other things, too. "Empty nest" has always been such a mournful phrase, evoking droop-feathered mother crows keening in some bedraggled tree. The dirty little secret is that for women who have struggled to do justice to their love for their children at the same time as their ambition, there's a heady, cackling joy to being free of guilt at last. Chelsea is off on her own. Bill has forfeited his rights to complain. Hillary has done with her makeover stage. She's at home with the promise of what she wanted to be at Yale Law School, and it tastes good.

Hillary's clean-lined black pantsuit solution is the end of her negotiation with style. She seems to have gone down in size as she has grown in stature. She's earned it and she owns it. As her campaign for the White House slowly revs up, the "Stop Hillary" campaign revs up, too. But they won't stop Hillary. Her scars are spurs. At the Matrix lunch the message was: Nothing is sexier than survival.

© 2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company