by Judith Williamson
The London Olympics had a quality that was widely felt as a breath of fresh air, even by those who had been initially sceptical: uniquely in contemporary culture, this was a hugely media-covered event that centred on people who were not celebrities, but athletes, both known and unknown, followed for their prowess in actual physical actions. Some were better known than others, but all gave off the refreshing sense of being ‘real’, unglossed by PR. Not only did these real people dominate our screens for many weeks, and become the focus of widely felt admiration, we also experienced their journey to significance in real time. The athletes we followed during the Olympics occupied a unique position in a culture where being a celebrity means entering the image currency: they were seen in the very process of becoming known, we witnessed the very acts that gave them their meaning, before that meaning had yet congealed. Watching Mo Farah desperately surging forward to win the 10,000 metres made the spontaneous passion of his gestures afterwards not empty posturing, but a full human response.
Celebrity culture has the tautological capacity to create celebs out of people simply by giving them media currency. If glamour photos of littleknown models or singers getting in and out of taxis are splashed often enough in the gossip pages, they take on a status a bit like paper money – their actual substance may be very little, but they carry value, in this case ‘media value’, as long as they keep circulating. Olympic and Paralympic athletes, however, bring an intrinsic value to the currency: they are known for something concrete, an achievement whose physical basis is not in appearances but in action. No matter how often they are photographed, their value lies elsewhere.
So the figures that emerged from the Olympics into contemporary media culture embodied, at least initially, the exact opposite of that culture. Plenty of product endorsements preceded the games: Jessica Ennis, for example, had featured in many ads prior to the Olympics, but this only made her actual presence feel all the more authentic when she appeared unmade-up on our screens daily. No amount of glamour can win a heptathlon, and nobody cares what your mascara is like when you have just won one. Victoria Pendleton, too, was a ‘Brand Ambassador’ for Pantene before the games had even started. Since then, however, the full machinery of celebritisation has wheeled into action – and nowhere is this more apparent than with Pendleton. The stages of celebrity are by now well defined; a season on Strictly Come Dancing is a typical turning point (its tried-and-tested alchemy turned the staid and reactionary Ann Widdecombe into a National Treasure). Pendleton is not only appearing on Strictly, but has also been writing a ‘Strictly diary’ every week in the Radio Times, accompanied by a photo of her in a purple tasseled cut-away dress that shows her navel.
Strictly is not just a key vehicle for celebritisation: it is part of the massive camping up of our culture, a camp that has nothing to do with any particular style but everything to do with a knowingness about, and therefore slight distance from, the forms it inhabits. Interestingly, Pendleton’s diary of her Strictly experience reveals a still-real sensibility, sitting in an uncomfortable mix with this celeb exercise, not least because she swaps consummate skill in her own field for complete beginner status in another. This too is part of the new camp culture: anyone can try anything, and it is all a laugh!
This brings us, finally, to the ad opposite. It is running in women’s magazines, just one of dozens of remarkably similar shampoo ad images, all showing women’s faces, flawlessly made up, with peculiar, ethereal gazes directed out of the picture, and framed with impossible amounts of glossy, shining hair, fanned out and frozen in mid-toss. Thus far, the Pantene ad follows perfectly the form and style of its genre, whose key trope is the enormous quantity of brilliantly lit hair, dominating the image. The hair in this ad is in the centre of the top half of the page, exactly where you’d expect the face in a portrait; and it occupies at least twice the space of Pendleton’s face.
It is photography that makes possible these gravity-defying arrangements of hair, capturing the ‘moment’ of movement that gives it an apparently independent existence. In most shampoo ads no narrative explanation is given for this moment: it is simply there. Victoria Pendleton, however, offers the perfect rationale: she is cycling, her hair streaming out behind! Here the ad parts company with the genre it so camply follows, and introduces an even greater act of camp: presenting Pendleton in a gold sequined top and black shorts, apparently riding an all-gold bicycle. The same carefully lit glow illuminates both her body and the bike itself, whose sleek contours look as airbrushed as the gleaming skin on her arms and legs. Pendleton’s far-away expression looking upwards out of the picture conforms to classic glamour photos, her lashes raised, her lips parted: if she was actually cycling, she would be headed for an accident, but this merely highlights that the image is, deliberately, the very opposite of realistic.
Its tone is precisely a camp knowingness about that fact. The ad coins Victoria Pendleton as glamour currency (even the sequins are like a mass of gold coins) but in such an over-thetop way that it suggests a tongue-in-cheek relationship, not only to the advertising and glamour paradigms it inhabits, but to Pendleton’s actual status as Olympic gold medallist. Pendleton is not just any model: her cycling achievement is the reason for her being in the ad in the first place, and rather than leaving it behind, using just her face, the ad draws that achievement into its world of camp. The reality of her Olympic performance resonates even as it is, as one might say, Strictlied. The sequins reference not only coins but gold medals, and on the fantasy bike, even the brake cables are gold!
Of course, Olympic gold is awarded for the greatest speed: this ad, with its frozen hair, gestures towards movement, precisely while arresting it.