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RIP the glamourpuss. By Charlotte Metcalf

Blog | By Charlotte Metcalf | Feb 29, 2024

Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Botox, fillers and surgery have made cosmetic perfection attainable and banal. And celebrities are constantly baring their souls or revealing their ‘truth’, rendering their over-shared life stories banal – and distinctly unglamorous.

How times have changed since Peter Sarstedt’s 1969 hit Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)? defined glamour. Allegedly about Sophia Loren, it portrays a beautiful woman pursued and fêted by the richest men in the world, gliding effortlessly between St Moritz, Juan-les- Pins and her Parisian apartment.

Only the singer knows of her humble beginnings in the backstreets of Naples. Even now her past is widely known, we still picture the movie star alighting in Capri from a Riva before being whisked off to a secret rendezvous in a scarlet convertible.

Rags-to-riches stories are nothing new, and many celebrities today have clawed their way out of modest, if not downright tough, working-class beginnings.

Yet what strips most of them of glamour is not their struggle but their propensity to talk about – even boast of – their pasts. Stories of depression, abuse, breakdown, drugs, alcohol and rehab abound, almost as a rite of passage.

Did we stop to wonder whether Cary Grant or Brigitte Bardot grew up in a trailer park? We knew Marilyn Monroe was emotionally vulnerable, but her reputation as an irresistible siren remained intact, mainly because she never sat on a sofa chatting to a cosy daytime-television host about being Norma Jeane.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton might have conducted their wildly volatile love affair in public, but the idea of either of them sharing images of their private life on Instagram or signing up for I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! is unimaginable.

‘Glamour’ no longer implies an elegant figure slipping into the Ritz behind stylish sunglasses. Instead, we think of raunchy underwear models or the scantily-clad compères of shows such as The X Factor or Love Island.

Even then, we’re bombarded with unflattering phone snaps of them caught unawares, or interviews about their collagen intake or fashion tips. Movie stars like Lauren Bacall have never seemed so distant.

The ease with which we can find out every detail about famous people today has rubbed the sheen from even the most impressive figures.

Take the American First Ladies. Jackie Kennedy was glamorous, remaining publicly dignified as a tragic widow before being rescued by a Greek tycoon.

Yet the First Ladies of recent years fail to make the grade. Melania is ruled out by dint of her gold-digging proximity to Donald. Hillary’s garish blue pant suits alone disqualify her. Michelle was making the grade until she tore up the rule book by over-sharing in her own book Becoming. To remain glamorous, preserving an aura of enigma is essential.

Princess Diana stopped being glamorous the minute she revealed her misery to Martin Bashir. The nation held its breath as she revealed her egocentric frailty, rendering her a pitiful victim rather than the hard-working, charming beauty we’d previously admired from afar. And we have only to look at her son and Meghan to witness the damage caused by endlessly communicating their ‘truth’.

We want our heroes and heroines inscrutable, like swan-necked Princess Grace. Yet we’re in an age of Instagram, tell-all Q&As, Hello! magazine, self-help books and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle

website Gloop. The word ‘lifestyle’ alone would be frowned upon by Nicky Haslam as ‘common’. It’s hard to imagine Marlene Dietrich selling a candle on-line that smells of her vagina.

The new exhibition Diva at the V&A sets out to explore how the diva’s role has changed and been subverted over the years. From performers such as Billie Holiday, Maria Callas and Vivien Leigh via Whitney Houston and Tina Turner, the exhibition turns to current divas such as Elton John and Lizzo.

It’s a fascinating subject for a museum famed for celebrating fashion to embrace, tracing how elusive glamour has given way to flamboyant extravaganza and camp spectacle. And this goes hand in hand with gushing emotion – just look at the recent Oscar acceptance speeches.

In his brilliant book Fracture, Matthew Parris, who presents Radio 4’s Great Lives, argues that many great lives are shaped by trauma. While that remains true, the constant exposure of our inner lives to public scrutiny has eroded glamour, even though the mental- health benefits of emotional openness are undoubtedly plentiful.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines glamour as an attraction or appeal that enchants, casting a magical spell.

The last time I saw anyone do that was in the early ’90s, when Audrey Hepburn, as a Goodwill Ambassador, made an appeal on behalf of UNICEF at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. In a plain, brown dress, skeletal with cancer and with hardly any hair, she talked passionately and eloquently about the children in need of our help.

She said not a word about herself and bewitched every one of us, not just with her compassion and beauty but with her humility and restraint – glamour personified.

The Diva show is at the V&A until April 2024