Glamorous Or Charismatic?

Jeanne de France Joan of Arc poster Swann Galleries Writers often treat glamorous and charismatic as synonyms (as does this online thesaurus). Both qualities are appeals that draw in the audience, but (as I discuss in my DoubleX article on Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes, excerpted below) they work in entirely different ways, with different implications for the ongoing relationship between audience, object, and broader causes.

Charisma is a personal characteristic like intelligence.  A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. Charisma moves the audience but flows from the charismatic person. Even unsympathetic audiences can feel its power. (Charisma in someone hostile can be quite frightening.) Glamour, by contrast, is a quality like humor that emerges in the exchange between audience and object; its existence depends on the audience’s receptive imagination.

If you think of Barack Obama as a charismatic president, it is hard to explain why he has so much trouble persuading the public that elected him to support his policies. But if you understand his appeal as glamour, in which the audience, not the subject, supplies the meaning, then it’s not surprising that Obama means different things to different people and thus has difficulty rallying his supporters in favor of a given policy.

A still photograph best captures glamour; a live performance most powerfully conveys charisma. Glamour operates at a distance; it requires mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the details with its own desires. The most effective live performers are charismatic on stage. They may also be glamorous, but that depends largely on the relationship between audience and the performer’s off-stage persona.

Andrew Jackson military horse Charisma disappears with death. Charismatic figures are thus remembered only through accounts of their charms or the effects of their actions. As time passes, their personal magnetism becomes less and less understood, especially if there are no live recordings of their performances. Historians can tell us plenty about Jacksonian democracy, but we can’t fully comprehend why Andrew Jackson was its representative. Dolley Madison was famous in her day, but her charms are lost. Her only memorable action seems to be saving the Stuart portrait of George Washington when the British sacked Washington. Given the roles available throughout much of history, it’s not surprising that we remember far more charismatic men than women. Generals, politicians, preachers, and entrepreneurs change nations and leave behind institutions. Hostesses, courtesans, and teachers generally do not.

After death, charisma is sometimes transmuted into glamour. The charismatic figure loses his or her individuality and original appeal to the audience’s myth-making desires. Joan of Arc may be the preeminent example of this phenomenon. “Instead of a bold and charismatic leader, talented soldier, and quick-witted girl, she was recast symbolically as an agent of God, a simple peasant girl chosen to humble the great and powerful,” writes historian Larissa Juliet Taylor in The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc, a new book that seeks to separate the woman from the myth. (Something similar happened with Dolley Madison's image, though to a much lesser extent.) By contrast, the evolution of Princess Diana suggests that, in life, glamour can sometimes be replaced by charisma—as the personal magnetism of the flawed “People’s Princess” substituted for the fairy-tale mythology of the youthful bride.

[Jeanne de France poster image courtesy of Swann Galleries. Andrew Jackson engraving from Library of Congress collection.]

Glamour Vs. Charisma: Aviators Amelia Earhart And Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes Amelia Earhart women pilots 1929 Powder Puff Derby © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?

It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.

In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.

During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual complexity—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.

Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.

Read the rest and see a Pancho Barnes slide show on DoubleX.

[Photo of Pancho Barnes (left), Amelia Earhart, and participants in 1929 Women's Air Derby © and courtesy of Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.]

The Glamour Of Glass

“I have very expensive wallpaper.” So said Philip Johnson, architect of the modernist masterpiece Glass House, which he designed as his own residence in 1947 and inhabited until his death in 2005. Beyond its expense, Johnson’s glass walls create a glamorous atmosphere unique for a small suburban residence. Undoubtedly his lifestyle did much to enhance this feeling. The house was a setting for frequent salons and parties, hosting many luminaries of modern art and design. Johnson was so devoted to entertaining he had a hob in his kitchenette island removed so he could add an extra ice maker. glasshouse2 Crystal_Palace

But the glamour of the house isn’t just about what happened inside; it emanates from the structure itself. Similarly, countless other glass buildings, from the Crystal Palace to the Burj Dubai (which contains a breathtaking 20 acres of glass) transcend the idea of buildings, becoming surreal settings of fascination and desire. Something about glass captures our imagination and creates glamour like no other architectural material.

Burjdubai Glass’s glamour arises from its physical properties: fragility, luminosity, and transparency. Rigid but delicate, glass is notoriously difficult to work with. It first appeared in architecture in ancient Rome around 100 AD, adorning only the most important buildings and expensive private homes. It remained a luxury through the middle ages, typically found in palaces and churches. Though glass is now ubiquitous, its use at large scale still feels lavish, and it wasn’t until the middle of the last century that technology allowed for the construction of multi-story glass facades such as those on Bunshaft’s Lever House and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and the many other glass skyscrapers that comprise the Manhattan skyline.

Glass’s precarious nature, combined with its scintillating reflective surfaces, give it a jewel-like quality at any scale. Cinderella’s slipper was glass, embodying hope, fantasy, and royalty in one fragile token. The glass structures of the world are like Cinderella’s slipper writ large, containers of dreams that always feel a little bit impossible. I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, and the cube above the Fifth Avenue Apple Store that references it, have this gem-like presence. The same can’t be said for structures made with transparent plastics like acrylic or polycarbonate; poor cousins, too optically inert to stir our emotions.


Like all truly glamorous things, glass eludes us. It moves in a perpetual dance between two kinds of ephemerality. Lit from outside, it is luminous and reflective, taking on the character of what surrounds it. Johnson’s Glass House feels alive, an ever-shifting pattern of trees shimmering across its surfaces. Glass skyscrapers literally become pieces of sky, translucent blue by day and inky black at night. In this state, glass is like a mirror, restless and mysterious.

But light a glass structure from within, and it vanishes in another way, revealing its contents to the world. This glass is deceptively sheer. It yields to what’s behind it, inviting us to peer inside. It’s this invitation — to admiration and to voyeurism — that makes glass so special.


Inscribed in any glamorous object is the gaze which makes it so. Pull back from the object. Zoom out, and there is always someone watching and wanting, infusing it with the desire that is glamour’s driving force. Without a viewer through which fantasy can be filtered, there may be elegance or sophistication, but there can be no glamour.

Glass, with its tantalizing non-presence, creates the illusion that inside and outside are one. But not so fast. As anyone who has accidentally walked into a freshly-washed glass door will tell you, it’s a formidable barrier. This impenetrability is also part of its glamour. Glamour is an expression of a paradox: a fantasy so close you can feel yourself inside it, but so distant you must admire from afar. Glass facilitates this illusion better than any other material. Think of shop windows, museum exhibits, and jewelry display cases. Glass says look but don’t touch. It beckons to you to lose yourself in fantasy at the same time as it precludes you from making it a reality.

Standardhotel Playing directly with this paradox, the Standard Hotel has captured the essence of glass’s glamour in its 18-story New York tower. The hotel touts the spectacular views of the Hudson River from the picture windows in each room, but the real story is guests’ exhibitionist behavior, encouraged (and sometimes engaged in) by staff and management. Ostensibly about looking out, the allure is really about looking in. The glamour is in feeling admired and coveted inside the glass box — exposed, yet protected.

Johnson supposedly prized his house for its outward views. A nature-lover, he lit the house with the intention of making the natural surroundings visible rather than calling attention to the architecture, and he slept facing out towards his favorite view. But the house is also undeniably about looking in. Johnson considered the threshold to be outside the house, at the first point when you get a full view of it just past the stone wall that runs alongside the driveway. In the foyer of a typical home, you acclimate to the new environment whilst inside it; in Johnson’s schema, you are welcomed first by standing outside looking in. You must appreciate before you enter.


Glass is not a comfortable material, and Johnson was well aware of this. He never aspired to comfort in his home, but to an aesthetic purity. The Glass House existed not to coddle his senses, but to stimulate them. He has said:

...Comfort is not a function of beauty... purpose is not necessary to make a building beautiful...sooner or later we will fit our buildings so that they can be used...where form comes from I don't know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.

Glamour, like glass, is beautiful but rigid. It doesn’t bend to our convenience; rather, it offers a fantasy, and if we desire it, we conform ourselves to its standards. In this way, glass it like countless other tools of glamour — corsets, stilettos, sportscars — enforcing an uncomfortable, even painful transformation. It is not easy to be glamorous, just as it is not easy to live in a glass house. But it is beautiful. And for some, it’s well worth it.

[Images: Glass House images, © Ingrid Fetell. Crystal Palace, Wikimedia Commons. All others via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license: Burj Dubai by Paolo Rosa, Seagram building by gmpicket, Louvre Pyramid by carlos_seo, and Standard Hotel by laurenatclemson.]

Glamour In The Wizard Of Oz

Old Hollywood glamour is Jean Harlow lounging suggestively in a white satin gown or Fred Astaire sweeping Ginger Rogers across a ballroom floor; Rita Hayworth peeling off long black gloves or Greta Garbo staring mysteriously off to sea. It is decidedly not a gingham-clad, jolie laide farm girl and her scrappy little dog. Dorothy, Toto, and their companions may be beloved—familiar family friends introduced by each generation to the next. In our fond memories, however, they do not qualify as glamorous.

But now that The Wizard of Oz has survived its 70th anniversary and is about to get high-definition release in theaters and on DVD, it is time to reassess. The Wizard of Oz is actually one of the studio era’s most emotionally sophisticated explorations of glamour. It does not offer us a luxuriously attired starlet or languid, sexy scenes. Instead, the movie shows us how glamour works. Glamour offers a lucid glimpse of desire fulfilled—if only life could be like that, if only we could be there, if only we could be like them, if I only had a …

In The Wizard of Oz, the principal characters aren’t the objects of glamour. They’re its audience: the dreamers who imagine their lives transformed and who learn, over the course of the film, that even illusions can reveal inner truths.

Read the rest on DoubleX.

The Wizard of Oz will be shown in theaters on Wednesday evening. For information on locations and tickets, click here.


Glamour And The Multiplicity Of Desire

StRandall’s post on modesty as “anti-glamour” provoked an interesting discussion in the comments. “It’s funny that you should regard modest clothing traditions (headscarves, veils, etc.) as inherently anti-glamour. Didn’t a piece about the glamour of nuns appear in this space not too long ago?” challenged commenter bearing. She noted the glamour she finds in Franciscan habits, as well as her young daughter’s attraction to the clothes worn by some Somali playmates.

In his post and subsequent comments, Randall seems to equate glamour with sex appeal, beauty, or opulence, while Bearing has something more emotional and multi-faceted in mind. Their back-and-forth raises fundamental issues about glamour and desire. And, much as I admire his thinking, I have to disagree with Randall. Modest dress is not intrinsically anti-glamour. It all depends on the audience.

One of the central themes of my book-in-progress is that glamour is not a style but a quality that stokes desire—of many different kinds—and inspires imaginative projection. Glamour concentrates what the Japanese call akogare: desire, longing, aspiration, and idealization, with a suggestion of the unattainable. Its promise of transformation and escape taps longings for whatever the audience finds absent in real life. The common desires to be beautiful, wealthy, or desired are particularly amenable to glamour. But there are many forms of desire, and thus of glamour, besides luxury and sex. The desires glamour expresses—for love, wealth, power, beauty, sex, adulation, friendship, fame, freedom, dignity, adventure, discovery, self-expression, or enlightenment—vary from person to person and culture to culture. Many of those desires are quite compatible with modest dress.

Pioneer dress portrait

It seems obvious to me, for instance, that the nostalgic dress of Renaissance Faires and other historical re-enactors is all about glamour, however modest the attire may be. (And, as Randall notes, it is not always modest.) Here’s my version circa 1968 (don’t you love the crooked bangs?), wearing the antithesis of the miniskirts that were my normal school attire. My mother made this “pioneer girl” dress for me as a Halloween costume, and it was my favorite. I wasn’t exactly nostalgic for the 19th century, but the difference between that dress and ordinary life did make me feel special. As a child in the 1960s, where short skirts were the norm, I found long skirts glamorous. Reserved for the past and for adult special occasions, they appealed to my desire to escape the everyday.

Bearing’s comment about Franciscan habits reinforces my book's most controversial argument about glamour: It can take religious form. One can yearn for unity with God, for righteousness, for a special spiritual state just as one can yearn for wealth or fame. And, just as glamour can be used to sell movies or fashion or beach holidays, it can be used to sell religion. Much, though by no means all, traditional art traffics in glamour. It uses mystery and grace to encourage viewers to project Sharah_medium themselves into the scene, where they might witness in person the exemplars of their faith and feel their own spiritual yearnings satisfied. The simplicity of a Franciscan habit can thus be glamorous to someone who sees in the garment the fulfillment of spiritual desires, overlooking the drawbacks and the quotidian practicalities of Franciscan life.

Finally, and most trivially, within a culture where modest dress is the norm, a given outfit may be more or less glamorous, depending on how the viewer imagines feeling in it. A woman browsing the Sharah Collection of clothes for Muslim women is clearly meant to imagine herself transformed by its offerings every bit as much as a woman browsing any other fashion catalog.

The obliteration of identity created by a full burqa may be incompatible with glamour, but other forms of modest dress are not. As Randall himself notes, veiling may increase glamour by fostering mystery and grace. Just check out the cover photo on Len Prince's About Glamour.

[Stained glass window from the convent of San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia, by Flickr user jimcintosh, who has a set of Franciscan images here. Used under Creative Commons license. Woman in scarf from Sharah online catalog.]

Naomi Wolf And The Phenomenology Of Angelina Jolie

Unlike Junod’s earlier piece, Wolf’s article on Jolie is not a standard celebrity profile. There is no interview, no encounter between the author and the object of her affection. Jolie remains an ideal, and the article is explicitly about the “life narrative” Jolie has “crafted,” the “persona that [took] her to global icon.” It declares itself an essay about artifice and image. What makes the piece so compelling is Wolf's palpable yearning to believe.  In the guise of analyzing Jolie’s image, she succumbs, forgetting that glamour is an illusion.

Naomi wolf beauty myth autograph

Certainly she never reminds herself, or her readers, how much Jolie’s life depends on unusual gifts and extraordinary wealth, and she never addresses the tradeoffs involved in living with all those tabloid headlines. Instead, Angelina Jolie's life functions as proof that the desires that inform Wolf's own oeuvre are all attainable: to be effortlessly beautiful and thin (The Beauty Myth), to participate in high-level public debates (Fire with Fire), to indulge sexual desire without condemnation or consequence (Promiscuities), to become a mother without hassle or pain (Misconceptions).

Most revealing is the way Wolf, a divorced mother of two, projects her own desires onto Jolie’s (short-lived) status as single mom. She completely ignores the standard tabloid narrative, an anti-feminist storyline casting Jolie as the womanly mother figure against Jennifer Aniston, the careerist punished for her insufficiently feminine ambition. Instead, Wolf reads Jolie’s story as the triumph of the Single Mom as Ideal.

Then there is the plane. Women are so used to being dependent on others (certainly on men) for where they go, metaphorically, and how they get there. Flying a private plane is the classic metaphor for choosing your own direction; usually, that is a guy thing to do, yet there was Jolie, with her aviator glasses on, taking flying lessons so she could blow the mind of her four-year-old son. That is the ultimate in single-mom chic: Even before she had reconstructed a nuclear (or postnuclear) family with a dad at the head of it, she was reframing single motherhood from a state of lack or insufficiency to a glamorous, unfettered lifestyle choice. Paradoxically, having done so, she makes the choice of a man to help her raise her kids seem like one option among many for a self-directed woman rather than either a completion of a woman or a capitulation.

This much-mocked paragraph takes aviator glamour — which is, in fact, a long-standing element of Jolie’s appeal (see the magnificent photos Annie Leibovitz did for Vogue) — and turns it into a story about what Naomi Wolf wants. A plane becomes a symbol not of general human freedom, mastery, and escape but of “single-mom chic.” Jolie rescues the aviatrix archetype from the inconveniently married-and-childless Amelia Earhart. (In the same issue, Bazaar does feature 12 pages of Earhart-inspired fashion photography by Peter Lindbergh.) And Wolf rescues Jolie’s kick-ass physicality, including the real-life flying and motorcycle riding, from its action-movie appeal to men.


“Jolie’s image is not just a mirror of one woman but also a looking glass for female fantasy life writ large,” Wolf concludes her article. Glamour is most powerful when it encompasses multiple longings, in this case, not “female fantasy life” but “females’ fantasy lives,” both universal and particular. That Wolf can project so many of her own yearnings onto Jolie demonstrates why the actress is such an icon.

The mirror is an inapt metaphor, however. A mirror reflects an accurate (if reversed) image of reality, while glamour always presents a blurred picture, concealing much of the truth. The yearning audience is thus allowed to fill in the details. As Jezebel’s Sadie Stein sagely notes, despite Jolie’s  tabloid omnipresence her glamour depends on mystery.

Brangelina are totally enigmatic; we don’t know anything about them except the Harlequin-worthy synopsis. People like them because they can project whatever they want onto them. Maybe moms fantasize about Angie reading to her kids at night, then having hot sex with Brad. Those who want to turn their lives around probably are inspired by this scion of movie star and model who’s fearlessly pursued a course of growing up. Doubtless somebody somewhere has taken up flying as a result. Hopefully a few have turned to good works. (Ideally no one, anywhere, will allow Angelina Jolie to have any impact on her decision to adopt or not.) Some woman involved with a married dude may stay with him that much longer because of her tabloid happy-ending. Some people will see The Last Kiss and think it’s profound. And Naomi Wolf will look at Angelina Jolie and project her own fantasies: a feminist icon whom women love because they think the right way.

Glamour is an objective illusion, but it reveals subjective truths. The Harper’s Bazaar profile may tell us nothing true about Angelina Jolie, but it’s an x-ray into the soul of Naomi Wolf.

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[Beauty Myth autograph photo by Flickr user liberalmind1012 under Creative Commons license.]

Carrie Fisher On Star Power

Debbie reynolds mural

We’ve all heard the expression, “Star Quality”—that ineffable something that makes certain people focus pullers. It’s my theory that they shine. Something glows out of their eyes, –as though they’ve swallowed some of the spot light that follows them around onstage—and people get caught in their magnetic field and are drawn to them.  It might even be possible that one of the reasons that celebrities are called stars is because of this shine. And maybe if you hang around these beaming people, some of it will rub off on you. Whatever this thing is that glows out of them that makes them preferred above most others, if you touch them, talk to them, walk with them, live with them—maybe you can get anointed by this wattage.

Anyway, my mother had this thing, this sublime light, and it’s been spilling out of her ever since she was sixteen, shine that poured out of her and all over everyone. People followed her in the street, flocked to her shows—wanted a piece of her because she reminded them of the best version of themselves. And to get that piece they applaud her, write her, love her in all the ways they know how, and my mother appreciates it. Especially when she performs. She gives everything she’s got and in return the audience celebrates her and this makes her feel a little like she’s going to live forever. And she is. She’s going to take some of that shine of hers with her and leave the rest of it to glow out of the eyes of the people that love her.

“Star light star bright, the rest I cant remember right”

[Debbie Reynolds mural photo by Flickr user DominusVobiscum under Creative Commons license.]

Dance Week: Juliet McMains On DanceSports' Addictive Glamour

Juliet McMains headshot After a childhood of ballet, tap, and jazz dance lessons, Juliet McMains was mesmerized the first time she attended a professional ballroom-dance exhibition. "There must have been a man in the partnership, but I only remember the woman," she writes in her 2006 book, Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. "She was unbearably sexy and sophisticated, and I made up my mind right then and there to become the heroine I imagined her to be." McMains had discovered the glamour to which she soon became addicted, a "perpetual longing" for the perfection she glimpsed in that dance.

I suppose my initial fascination with ballroom dance sprang largely from the romance it portrayed, its impossible promise of happiness and acceptance, the assurance that every woman would be accessorized with an adoring male partner, the clothes that signified such elegance and classiness, the inflated importance of each motion of an arm or an eyebrow—in short, the Glamour of it all.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Juliet did, in fact, become a successful competitive dancer—not the typical Cambridge extracurricular activity. She eventually turned pro, teaching in studios in Boston, California, and Florida, and winning championships in the U.S. and Canada before retiring in 2003, the year she received her Ph.D. in dance history and theory from the University of California-Riverside. She now teaches at the University of Washington. As both a scholar and a participant, she agreed to share some of her insights into the allure of DanceSport, the world of competitive ballroom dancing.

DG: Dancing with the Stars is wrapping up its eighth season. What do you think its attraction is for people who don't themselves dance? What do you think of the way it portrays ballroom dance?

JM: The show’s portrayal of personal transformation through hard work and perseverance in the face of physical and emotional adversity is pretty seductive. I don’t think the show would work without all the shots of contestants struggling, falling, and crying in rehearsal. Seeing celebrities, who are usually portrayed in some idealized state, at their most vulnerable is perhaps the most important aspect of the formula. I also think the wide variety of contestants ensures that viewers of any background can relate to someone. The balance of different ages, races, professions, body types, and social backgrounds is quite clever in this regard. I also think the wide range of contestants’ natural dance abilities is pretty important. Each season, there is at least someone who is so awkward that living room viewers can be assured that they could do better than him or her. So fans can relate not only to the contestants, but they can becomes judges themselves. And of course the glamorous costumes and bodies are essential.

I think it portrays ballroom dance with a touch of irony and less seriousness than the ballroom dance industry takes itself. I think this is a healthy thing. Ironically, because they take themselves less seriously, they have managed to make ballroom dancing much more important to the general American public than the ballroom industry has ever done. It’s not mastery over the “right way” to dance that makes dancing powerful. Its power is in its ability to transform people as they get in touch with their own bodies.

My big complaint about the show is the music they choose for the Latin dances. It’s almost never Latin music and completely unrelated to the genre of dance they’re supposedly portraying. Latin dances are defined by their relationship to a particular style of music, so to extract the steps from the music/dance complex and call these Latin dances is a gross misrepresentation of Latin dance.

Juliet McMains Radim Lanik DG: In your book, you write about how your partner in Florida designed and made some "amazing dresses" for you. But, you say, "It was never as much fun being in the dress as it was imagining being in the dress, touching it from afar." What did you picture from afar? What did the dresses represent in your imagination?

JM: To me, the dresses represented perfect mastery of the technique, a perfectly disciplined body. I’m sure there was some conflation of that perfect body with fulfillment of emotional needs. If my body had achieved perfect mastery over movement, any feelings of inadequacy would vanish, my desire would be fulfilled, and I would be blissfully happy. It seems so naïve, but I suspect we’re all susceptible to similar fantasies.

DG: You point out several times that DanceSport has no backstage. How does that affect how participants and observers perceive the performances? Can a dance ever seem truly graceful and ideal if you see the dancers "off stage" before and afterwards?

JM: But the catch is that the professional dancers are never “off stage.” They know that they must always perform their glamorous identity even when they are not dancing. This is why I think that DanceSport’s Glamour Machine is particularly pernicious. Professionals loose touch with any experience of themselves other than the Glamorous ideal they’ve learned to perform.

DG: You're both a scholar/analyst of dance and a teacher/participant. How do those roles conflict? How do they complement each other?

JM: They conflict in that I really couldn’t continue to participate as a competitor in the DanceSport system once I had come to these conclusions. As a teacher, it means that I also have a hard time encouraging my students to compete if I think it’s going to be unhealthy for them. But I still continue to teaching ballroom dancing, and I do think there are ways to participate in competitions that are healthier than what I’ve described in my book, so I do hope that my experience can help others find a different way to interact with the system.

Juliet McMains Rick Elliott 2003 DG: To an outsider, especially a pale outsider like me, one of the strangest conventions of dance competitions is the spray tan. What is that all about?

JM: Participants will tell you it’s just makeup to make pale skin look better under stage lights. But I think there are many other levels. Many Americans and Europeans have internalized the idea that tanned white skin is more beautiful than pale skin, which is linked to the fact that most people work now indoors and do not have the leisure time and money to sun themselves outside. But I think the racial dimension is more troubling. When I’ve written about this practice, I’ve called it “brownface,” comparing it to blackface minstrelsy. Both are theatrical traditions in which performers paint their skin darker to perform stereotyped caricatures of a racial or ethnic group that has less power than the performers themselves. White competitors are putting on brownface to compete in Latin dances where they perform stereotypes of oversexed, overemotional Latinos. The ballroom Latin dances are not actually dances that are practiced in Latin America, but are American and European reinterpretations of them. So it’s not just the tan I’m worried about, but this history of appropriation and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes that it’s tied up in.

DG: You write that "The power of Glamour," by which you mean the "Glamour system" of DanceSport, "is located in its ability to suspend consumers in a state of perpetual longing, intensifying their desire by dangling symbols of its fulfillment within sight while simultaneously preventing its ultimate satisfaction." What are people longing for? What are those symbols?

JM: I think what people are really after are basic human emotional needs like love, recognition, validation, acceptance, and companionship. Almost any commodity can be associated with one of those needs so that students believe if they buy a dress or more dance lessons or a competition or the right dance shoes those needs will be fulfilled. It’s the basic premise of advertising, really. I just think it’s intensified by the DanceSport system. One of my students told me that she’s learned this same principle in her marketing classes. “Imagine how much more successful your marketing campaign could be if you spent hours in the arms of your customers,” I told her.

[Juliet McMains and Radim Lanik, Sarasota Dance Spectacular 2001, by Alliance Consulting. Juliet McMains and Rick Elliott,  Florida Superstars 2003, by Park West Photography. These photos and more from Juliet McMain's site at]

Disney, Shulman, And The Glamorous Ideal

Shulman house While was wasting time this morning (I mean, “getting smarter reading the internet”), I came across this brief article and slideshow on Julius Shulman, the 98-year old architectural photographer famous for his iconic photos of mid-century L.A. homes. His photo of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 (at left), an impossibly futuristic home perched over glittering Los Angeles at night, represents my absolute ideal of glamour. I’m viscerally drawn to the modern home, the breathtaking view, and the people inside, just beginning a night (and decade) full of potential for fun and drama.

I’m not the only one to look at this image and see “glamour” defined, but it’s not everybody’s glamorous ideal. So why mine? How did I develop an affinity for that kind of image vs. something else? When?

While I’m not so sure about the “how,” I do have an idea about the “when” and also the “where”: Orlando, Florida, 1981. My first trip to Disney World or, more specifically, my first trip to Tomorrowland.

At first glance, Disney World isn’t terribly glamorous. It’s full of tired, sweaty parents and their whiny kids, nothing’s even a little bit authentic, and it’s more heavily merchandised than The Mall of America. But just as Disney teaches kids about manners and social mores, Mickey and friends play a critical role in helping America’s youth develop their attitudes toward glamour.

Space mountainFor me, it was Tomorrowland and its streamlined futuristic aesthetic that took hold. But it could’ve just as easily been Cinderella’s castle that resonated, as it does for thousands of little girls. Or the bordellos-and-brawn-lite version of the Old West that is Frontierland.

So now I’m all grown up and Shulman’s photos have replaced Space Mountain (mostly) when I think “glamour.” What about you? Do you have a glamorous ideal or icon? Can you trace it back to what you loved when you were a kid?

[Space Mountain photo courtesy of Flickr user russes.]

Constructing Glamour: The Sequel

Thanks to everyone who commented on my original Constructing Glamour post with the Toni Frissell photos. These two were the favorites, both among commenters and people I happened to talk to.

Glamour exists in the audience's mind, so there's no right or wrong answer. But I believe the evening shot on the right is by far the most compelling of the group.



As the comments made clear, having a pretty model in a luxurious outfit isn't enough to create the magical quality called glamour. Glamour must invite the viewer into a special world, one that holds the promise of escape and transformation. In both these photos, the model seems to be in such a world. In both, she appears graceful and self-contained, also qualities that create glamour.

But the lighting in the evening shot adds drama and mystery. In the daylight shot, the dress looks heavy and a bit dull and wrinkled. In the evening shot, it glistens, and its weight is less obvious, enhancing the model's grace. As commenter Irene noted, the photo's glamour comes in part from the allure of light and shine. That allure is not just glitz, however. Shadow and contrast are just as important. To see the shimmer of the dress, you need the shadows. Similarly, the distant obelisk is more compelling in the evening shot. In contrast to the flat form in the daytime, light and shadow play on the shaft as it rises from the trees, and its tip glints with just a spot of light.

As commenter DMC noted, in the daytime shot the model does have an appealingly confident "queen of her empire" quality. I prefer the more contemplative evening shot, with its active hands and hint of yearning. But what really makes the difference between the two is not the central figure but the background: the enticingly illuminated monument, lights on the opposite shore, and a barely seen boat sculling along the river. (You have to look at the large version of the shot to see it.) The scene shimmers with possibility.