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On Culture

Letting Her Hair Down, but Still Keeping Up Appearances

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By ROBIN GIVHAN
Sunday, May 18, 2008

There are countless style outlets, but only Vogue takes as much glee in the public transformation of buttoned-up political types and businesswomen into glamourpusses.

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Other magazines do makeovers. They doll folks up and indulge in artistic portraiture. But Vogue aims for iconic imagery that strikes at the core of how this culture defines and relates to beauty. A lot of elements come into play in crafting these photos, but ultimately, the question comes down to: How does she look? The answer is generally: Better than she ever has before . . . and possibly ever will again.

What to make of those snapshots of female splendor?

The images of Cindy McCain in the June issue of the magazine were taken by Norman Jean Roy, whose photographs of non-models generally have a sun-kissed vitality. Roy, for instance, was responsible for a striking Vogue photograph of the designer Donatella Versace -- post-rehab -- sitting on the beach in jeans and a T-shirt and without the usual Crayola palette of makeup on her face. Her multitude of excesses had given way to a picture of healthy restraint.

Roy excels at capturing a quiet joie de vivre, and he often seems to find it on a beach and accompanied by windblown hair.

So that is where one finds Cindy McCain, wife of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain. She is stretched out on a chaise longue at her waterfront condo in California. She's wearing Lucky Brand jeans, which the story later tells us are a size 0, which we will accept without comment, and a Michael Kors sweater. Her feet, with a red pedicure, are bare. She's twisted on her side with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her blond hair -- loosed from its usual controlled coif -- is blowing in a breeze.

If there is one word the picture seems to be aggressively striving to evoke, it would be "relaxed." McCain's studied repose is in direct contrast to the image she projects in campaign photographs in which she is pressed, polished and so stiffly poised that she often looks like a wax replica of a political spouse. There's nothing especially natural or nonchalant about her Vogue portrait. One can almost see the fingerprints of the assistant who adjusted her hands just so and one wonders how long she had to hold her head at what looks to be an uncomfortable angle. But the implied message is unmistakable: I am not a Stepford wife.

McCain appears to be working to shatter a public image of the pretty -- but starched -- accessory. She recently joked with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" and the host seemed almost dismayed at her willingness to converse with him. Her philanthropic work receives significant attention in the accompanying Vogue story. And in the photos, when she's not sunning in a chair, she's reclining on rocks and looking more like a California starlet than a traditional first lady.

Michelle Obama, the wife of the kinda-sorta-probably Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, was Vogue-ified last fall. She was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, who has a reputation for getting celebrities to do practically anything for her, including, if one is to believe Miley Cyrus, de-Disney-fy oneself by flaunting her naked back in the pages of Vanity Fair.

In contrast to the informality of the McCain image, Obama is photographed far more formally. She is shot in profile from the shoulders up with her hair scrunched into a loose French twist -- a style she suggested after nixing an intentionally messy hairdo that she said made her look "like I just got out of bed." She's wearing a single drop earring and is depicted as a cross between Jackie Kennedy and Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring." The photograph shouts traditional, classic and controlled. Even in a secondary photo of the family sitting on the grass in their back yard, she's wearing a strand of pearls.

Obama's photos seemed crafted specifically to help the viewer imagine her in the role of first lady. She is a study in little black dresses, conservative pearls, preppy hair and restraint. Again, the implied message is unmistakable: I am neither subversive nor threatening. I am not some scary "other." I am Camelot with a tan.

McCain's image aims to excite the eyes. Obama's offers reassurance.

So far, Bill Clinton has not been glammed up by Vogue. Hillary Clinton was offered a sitting and declined. One wonders if she had taken advantage of the opportunity to craft a photo what it might have said. Would she have chosen to be photographed in working-class Wranglers and a brightly colored blazer? Or would she have gone in a more regal direction?

By now, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain have gotten used to the constant presence of photographers. They know they're being watched and their appearance parsed. Indeed, sometimes McCain doesn't just look as though she has been made up to be camera-ready -- she veers into the Norma Desmond, ready-for-my-close-up territory. The chances of getting a candid photograph have become slim. Nothing remains uncalculated when one's public life is lived in the shadow of a Secret Service detail and a press pool. So it becomes more difficult to glean something honest from one of their photographs.

So one is left examining photos that are posed, the ones that have been created with a village of stylists, sittings editors, lighting experts, retouchers and advisers. Those images may not provide a window on the subject's soul, but they do say something about the way in which she would like to be perceived.


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