Through one of those involuntary subscription switch-and-baits that seem to occur with increasing frequency lately, Us magazine started showing up in my mailbox last month. For the first few weeks I tossed it directly into the trash. Each cover, it seemed, featured an alarming photograph of some starlet over a caption of feigned concern: "Is she too thin?" Inside, anonymous copywriters speculated about whether Paris or Britney or Jen had put on or taken off weight, looked frumpy, or had gotten dumped, hitched, or arrested. But as the issues kept coming I couldn't help wonder what exactly kept them coming.
Us, of course, is a publicist's dream machine. Celebrities may moan about paparazzi, but those candid photos seem to prove that even Julia Roberts and Carmen Diaz lug groceries just like the rest of "us." And the more we identify with the stars, the more attention we'll pay to their upcoming movies, shows, or CDs.
Here's the thing, though: Men make up half the entertainment audience -- and play about 75 percent of the speaking roles in movies, yet they are clearly not "us." In my current issue, photographs of female celebs outnumber men by a ratio of about 20 to 1. And the ads, mostly for cosmetics and diet products, are exclusively aimed at women. So this is a magazine about women for women that pretends celebrity power belongs to women just like "us."
Really, the "stars" in the photographs have nothing like the power that Us implies by showcasing them. And their lives, whether at, above, or below their target weights, have little in common with that of a reader who, say, works 10 hours a day in a factory or is a stay-at-home mom. Yet millions of women ogle these pages every week, comparing their marriages, their mothers, their children, their clothes, and especially their bodies with those in the pictures.
Why do we give these celebrity images such power? Can we take so little confidence and comfort in ourselves? I don't believe that for a second. I do think, though, that the publishers of tabloids like Us, as well as the publicists and paparazzi that feed them material and the advertisers who underwrite them, are doing their utmost to dupe us.
They are banking on the twin myths that every woman's power depends on how she looks -- and that all women should look alike. But the most powerful women in America most emphatically do not look -- or think or act -- alike. Nor do they appear in the pages of Us.
Many of America's most powerful women are, by celebrity standards, overweight. Many would be decimated by the Us Fashion Police. Many lead lives that may superficially appear as un-sensational as our own; these women are too busy creating art, running companies, legislating governments, or administering justice to attract the attention of paparazzi. But whether we're talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton or Maya Angelou, Sherry Lansing or Toni Morrison, we're talking about women whose fame does not depend on how they look but on what they do and think and contribute to the world in which we all live. They are living proof that to "succeed" as women we need not imitate, much less become, Us.