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Essay

40, but Sporting a $38 Million Figure

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C01

Let me be the first to wish Sarah Jessica Parker happy birthday. The actress, who became a television icon playing sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City," turns 40 on Friday. Somebody send her a bunch of red balloons, a la Mr. Big, to mark the occasion.

Her milestone birthday might have passed relatively unnoticed but for the unceremonious dumping by the Gap, which announced Monday that Parker is being replaced by 17-year-old British singer Joss Stone as the clothing company's celebrity spokesmodel.


Joss Stone, performing in London last year, will be the face and voice of Gap but professional models will sell the clothes, the company says. (Yui Mok -- AP)

Let me also be the first to predict that indignant equal-opportunists will fling their Manolo Blahniks across the room and loudly decry yet another example of the sexism/ageism/injustice that afflicts the modern woman. Middle-aged actresses will sigh dramatically on "The View," dime-store feminists will offer the "how little society has really changed" exegeses and Gap executives will join Harvard President Larry Summers in the politically incorrect woodshed. Cue the violins and pour the cosmos.

Time out for a reality check.

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate, given that the Gap just unrolled its spring commercials with the khaki-clad Parker trilling "I Enjoy Being a Girl." It's tempting to assume the plotline of this particular celebrity breakup is "great older woman loses out once again to younger replacement." But remember, what "Sex and the City" did so brilliantly for six years was to slice through the stereotypes of modern sexual politics and teach that the easy explanation wasn't always the correct one.

A quick review: The last season of "Sex" wrapped up in February 2004, and shortly thereafter the Gap announced it had signed Parker to promote its casual wear. It was the first multi-season contract in the company's history, and the glamorous fashion icon was paid a reported $38 million to star in ad campaigns that started in fall 2004 and were to end this spring.

Let me repeat that: $38 MILLION. Assuming she started work on the project a year ago, that comes to roughly $3 million a month, or $104,109 a day -- not that she worked every day. (I'd give you the exact figure, but you know how tough math is for women.) This is in addition to her new HBO deal, her perfume deal, her closet full of amazing clothes, shoes and handbags . . . but I digress.

Gap was desperate for housewives, singles and anyone else to punch up sluggish sales. "I think they felt the need for an iconic but contemporary face to represent Gap. . . . I think they were perhaps feeling a little insecure, a little in need of some high luster around the brand," said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail. Parker, worshiped for her quirky urban chic, was supposed to draw in millions of women who wanted to look just like her. Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York market-research firm, calls it " 'Field of Dreams' branding" -- except in this case they didn't come.

So now the retailer is opting for professional models to sell "our product story of white denim" for the summer season, with the teenaged Stone and her music featured in television commercials, according to the company's statement Monday. It added that the company has "no future plans" to sign any more multi-season deals.

Substituting a 17-year-old celebrity for a 39-year-old celebrity could be another bonehead choice by Gap executives, but it's a free market and they are within their rights not to renew Parker's contract. Officially, Parker says the split is mutual, although the tabloids are already buzzing that she's really humiliated -- not because she's been replaced by a younger woman, but a virtual unknown.

Numbers are catnip for those who like to divide the world into the Favored and the Forgotten. But for the record: Forty is not the "new 30" no matter how cute you are, and most teenagers don't want to look like any 39-year-old, no matter how chic. The reality is that 40 is still 40, even with Botox and really cute khakis. The eyes still go, the knees aren't quite as flexible, and sometimes older and wiser is not a fair trade for crow's feet or alimony. The question is not if we age but how gracefully we do it.

Are ageism and sexism real problems? Yes. Are they the problem in this case? Impossible to know for sure, but to label it as such trivializes real cases of discrimination for qualified people desperately fighting to hold onto their jobs.

Please, please, please. Pay me $38 million for a year's work, then drop me faster than one of George Clooney's girlfriends. I'll live. Trust me.

And Sarah Jessica? Girl, go buy yourself a 40-carat diamond and laugh all the way to the bank. You earned it.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company