How to Be An Unconventional Beauty
From The Westchester Guardian, 5-28-15
By Rozsa Gaston
Striking. Breathtaking. Someone with a certain je ne sais quoi (a certain something, literally, “I don’t know what,” in French). What does that sort of person have and does it really boil down to beauty? I say no. What it boils down to is attitude.
Let’s talk prom for a moment. Or next month’s graduation ceremonies. Perhaps you’re going away to college for the first time this fall. How are you going to carry off your own special style of being you?
Not a beauty? Neither are most of us. But why not decide right here, right now, that you are? You can practice on prom night, then you have the entire summer to dress-rehearse your new attitude about yourself before shipping off to school at the end of August. Fake it till you make it. And if you never really make it, just keep on faking it. People around you will buy what you’re selling, if you sell it well enough. Let the world admire your unconventional beauty, if yours is not the conventional type.
Cleopatra was a genius at presenting herself well. So was Nefertiti. Her image is gorgeous in this postcard photo from the Berlin Kunst Museum. But why does she look so beautiful? Is it because she is, or because of the way she carries herself: the arch of her neck, the serene, “I am an undeniable knock-out” expression on her face, or that fabulous hat that could hide anyone’s worst hair day?
Photo of Cleopatra engraving by Bettmann/Corbis
The French have an expression for a person possessing unconventional beauty: jolie laide. Literally, it means “beautiful-ugly.” A jolie laide is a sort of person who above all carries herself or himself well. He may be sporting a bump in his nose, possibly two. He raises that nose high in the air and lets it lead him around like a luxury cruise liner. Lesser vessels fall into place behind. Surprised? Think Napoleon.
Did you catch the Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts on PBS earlier this year? When we consider Teddy Roosevelt, we think machismo, muscularity, power. Yet Teddy Roosevelt was no conventionally big strong handsome sort of guy. In actual fact, he was dumpy, wore thick glasses, and had rather unpleasant looking teeth. But none of that matters. What matters is that Teddy Roosevelt reinvented himself from a sickly, weak child into a man the world remembers as big, strong, powerful, and charismatic. Roosevelt was a mother of reinvention and the jolie laide is all about reinvention.
Who are some of the great jolie laides of the 20th century? Inarguably, Coco Chanel. Chanel personified chic, beauty, timeless elegance. She had them all except for beauty. Yet the mention of her name brings beauty immediately to mind. By sheer force of will, French peasant girl Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, whose traveling peddler parents left her to be raised by nuns, transformed herself into one of the world’s most famous icons of luxury and chic. Her biography, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney makes for great summer reading, especially in that all-important summer before becoming a college freshman. It’s your big moment to redefine yourself. Get on it now.
Diana Vreeland, L. photo by George Hoyningen-Huene/ R. photo by Horst P. Horst
Another renown jolie laide? Former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who quipped “You don’t have to be born beautiful to be wildly attractive.” She was right. Then there’s Vreeland’s friend, French aristocrat and fashion designer Countess Jacqueline de Ribes. Voted “Most stylish woman in the World” by Town and Country in 1983, de Ribes served as muse to Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Guy Laroche. Who needs beauty when you’ve got presence?
Jacqueline de Ribes, photo by Richard Avedon
Ask yourself or your mother if there was someone you or she went to school with, who wasn’t gorgeous, but somehow ended up being the most popular, most powerful girl in her class. How did that happen? Not by accident, but most likely by inner drive. Have you got it? If not, why not try cultivating it?
Remember Julia Robert’s husband of several weeks, country western singer Lyle Lovett? A classic jolie laide, male variety. One who stares out at us every Sunday in the New York Times Style Section is the male model for the Paul Smith ads (PAULSMITH.CO.UK). He’ll be in there again next Sunday, audaciously challenging us to turn the page. We’ll hesitate, because he’s mesmerizing. Light blue eyes, tousled blond hair and a cupid’s bow mouth do not add up to conventional beauty in this model’s case. But is he striking? Undoubtedly. Eye-catching? Absolutely. Eye candy? Not so much.
Not all of us are meant to be eye candy. Who wants to be someone else’s candy anyway? Personally, I would rather be something hearty, tasty, and well-seasoned, first of all satisfying to myself. That means a signature style, not a garden-variety one.
Wife of Bath, courtesy of jkhadijah94 on Glogster.com
One of Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c. 1340-1400) most interesting characters in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is the Wife of Bath. Not a conventional beauty, Chaucer describes her as sporting a gap between her two upper front teeth. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath has been four times remarried, most recently to a man much younger than herself. It isn’t the Wife of Bath’s beauty or pilgrim-like behavior that captures us, it’s her outsized personality that grabs us and won’t let go. How many other characters do most of us remember from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? The Wife of Bath stands head and shoulders above the others in both Chaucer’s descriptions and I’d wager in most of his readers’ memory banks. The bawdy, large-living Wife of Bath knows how to carry herself; she has a certain air about her, an ebullient sanguine energy that attracts men to her like a magnet. Good on you, girl.
What are your plans for reinvention this spring and summer? Why not reassess and rework your own brand of beauty? Use what you’ve got and make it something others notice and want. At the end of your years in the sun, you will feel a deep contentment inside remembering how effectively you created your own signature style. Your achievement won’t have depended on good luck or good genes. It will be a result of the force of your own will. That’s the kind of satisfaction that no one can take away from you. Ever.
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Rozsa Gaston is a Bronxville author who writes playful books on serious matters. Women getting what they want out of life is one of them. Her novel Paris Adieu was inspired by time in France and can be found on amazon.com in paperback, eBook or audio editions. Main character Ava Fodor is on a quest to be comfortable in her own skin. Until she gets there, she fakes it till she makes it. A discussion of jolie laide can be found in Chapter Three. Suitable for ages 21 and up, Paris Adieu is a coming-of-age tale of life lessons, romance, and self-empowerment wrapped in the sights, sounds, and smells of Paris. Find Gaston at http://www.facebook.com/rozsagastonauthorand leave a message. Or drop her a line at email@example.com.