The official portrait of first lady Melania Trump is jarring because her face appears to be heavily retouched, or perhaps just photographed through a lens smeared with Vaseline. It is devoid of fine lines and pores. It is not just the near-perfect face of a former model; it is a face that does not look real. The artificiality of her visage is even more acute when compared to the long, chestnut locks that frame it. You don’t have to squint to make out individual strands of hair. The hair is in sharp focus. Her face is not.
She is wearing a black Dolce & Gabbana jacket and a bedazzled kerchief. Her arms are folded across her torso. And it’s impossible to ignore that ring. But it’s the face that gives you pause because it is so unabashedly, unashamedly given over to a doll-like perfection in this image taken by celebrity and fashion photographer Régine Mahaux.
In the culture of high fashion, intellectualism and feminism, that’s not necessarily considered good. But in some quarters, it’s glorious.
It has become popular
in certain circles to rail against airbrushing and other examples of contrived perfection. Stars such as Kate Winslet have pitched public fits over photographic touch-up jobs that they considered to have resulted in utterly unrealistic representations. Magazines such as Allure have dared celebrities to pose nude, publishing the images without editing out any of the cellulite. The singer Alicia Keys inspired an entire genre of feminist thinkpieces dedicated to the cultural ramifications of her going out in public as a celebrity with a makeup-free face.
Fashion loves to tout a more natural glamour. Makeup artists will spend an hour working on a model’s face to achieve the illusion that she’s wearing no more than a bit of mascara and lip balm — when in fact she’s slathered with a concealer, foundation and five shades of “nude” eye shadow. Up-do’s are supposed to be messy these days. Curls should be tousled — as if you just raked your fingers through them.
But beyond those circles, there is another definition of glamour and style. Take a look at the women of the enduring “Real Housewives” franchise. They are practically in full drag makeup for Sunday brunch. Celebrities walk the red carpet offering up odes to 1950s starlets and viewers adore them for it. Instagram thrives on its filters, which give people the ability to cast a golden glow on their selfies and create their own magical reality. And yes, Glamour Shots are still a thing.
So although Trump’s official portrait might give a certain segment of the population pause, there’s another part of it that will just as forcefully declare it beautiful, admirable and aspirational.
There’s plenty that one can infer from Trump’s official photograph. The body language is reminiscent of boardroom posture. It’s powerful and confident. But it’s also closed off. The framing is a close-up with little context. Yes, it was taken in the White House, but the window in the background could almost be anywhere. The photo emphasizes her, not the setting, which one could argue reflects the subject’s desire not to be defined or confined by the White House. Indeed, she is not living there.
The picture is strikingly different from the first official portrait of Michelle Obama. Although both women wore black, Obama was dressed in a sleeveless Michael Kors sheath. Her bare, muscular arms — her signature feature and a nod to her interest in fitness — were at her side. The swag of the White House drapery and the eagle-print chairs of the Blue Room are clearly visible. Trump’s portrait is closer in style to that of Laura Bush. In her first official portrait, taken in 2001, Bush wears a black blazer and her arms are folded in front of her. But notably, she shares the frame with the Mary Cassatt painting “Young Mother and Two Children,” which hangs in the background. If there were any question about Bush’s priorities or her interests, the photo suggests, just look over her shoulder. Both former first ladies are photographed in a flattering light. Airbrushed? Probably. Nearly all portraits are touched up — a little or a lot. But the effect wasn’t obvious.
Mahaux has given the public a two-dimensional version of Trump: just the gloss, just the facade. Trump is the fantasy, the dream. She’s not trying to speak to the judgmental types who are quick to sneer at new money, but to folks who would be thrilled to have all that crisp, fresh cash loaded into the back of a fancy car with gold rims. She has given them virtual reality. An Instagram first lady. And maybe that’s good enough. But she has not given them Melania Trump.