Top French brands L’Oréal and Christian Dior are leading the hunt for fashion "ambassadors" who have a story, and substance, behind the pretty face.
CANNES -"They're signed Lanvin heels," reveals Aimee Mullins, looking tenderly at her artificial feet, which she slips into the shiny black shoes. "I'm crazy about shoes -- I have a hundred pairs. They go with my 15 different sets of prosthetic legs, among which one made of sculpted wood."
The beautiful 34-year-old American was born without a fibula, but became an actress and an extraordinary athlete nevertheless (semi-finalist at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta). She took on a new role at the just completed Cannes film festival: ambassador of L'Oréal Paris, the world leader in beauty products.
Over are the airhead models with perfect bodies, the armada of young Caucasian beauties. Now is the time for women of well-developed character. This year, the Christian Dior house was seduced by Natalie Portman, an actress with a B.A. from Harvard, who became the Muse of Miss Dior Chérie. Gérard Darel has turned to an elegant, spirited 45-year-old woman: Robin Wright Penn.
But it's L'Oréal that has ventured the furthest away from the well-traveled roads of stereotypical beauty. In addition to Aimee Mullins, the French company has surrounded itself by Jane Fonda, a gorgeous septuagenarian, Leïli Bekhti, an Algerian actress who has undergone a cesarean section, and the rousing Inès de la Fressange, who is in her 50s. These are celebrities with "multiple beauties," who are able to attract as many women as possible.
"Beauty is not limited to the perfection of physical features and measurements," says Cyril Chapuy, general director of L'Oréal Paris. "Aimee Mullins, whom I had discovered in the United States, touched me by her determination, confidence, and sense of humor. Our ambassadors personify, by their charisma, that which is the DNA of L'Oréal, summarized by our 40 year old slogan: ‘Because I'm worth it.""
The way companies are viewing beauty has changed. In 1999, the appearance of the "handicapped model" Mullins at one of Alexander McQueen's fashion shows in Paris had triggered some sympathetic remarks. "I wanted to show another side to beauty," McQueen had attempted to explain at the time.
"He was way ahead of everyone else," Mullins says today. "I think that my place was there. What I am today, I deserve it. If I am an example, it's that of a person who has the power to overcome a hard reality through imagination: each human being has the right to invent his or her life, and to reinvent himself or herself to take on the tyranny of nature," the doctoral candidate affirms. In the meantime, she has slipped on her longest set of prosthetic legs, which gives her the look of a Barbie collectible.
The good news is that beauty comes, in part, from the inside. Unfortunately, these new ambassadors of beauty raise the bar so high that only a Wonder Woman can reach it. Inès de la Fressange, the ex-ambassador to Chanel, mother and current ambassador of the luxury shoemaker Roger Vivier, confirms this tendency: "I did a lot of things in my life, but it's necessary to do so in order to become a real person!"
As for Jane Fonda, she offers the ultimate lesson: "I worked for a long time in order to reach the point where I could say, ‘I'm happy." When I turned 60, I gave myself this challenge: to show that a woman can be old, but feel good about herself, with a strong mind, and in good health. To be the image of beauty today is a crowning achievement," says the American actress in nearly perfect French.
Aren't these exceptional women utterly out of reach? "I need ambassadors who make people dream, and who are credible," Cyril Chapuy says. "Our profession, which deals with bodily health, with aging of the skin, with make-up, and thus with seduction, is a little deeper than fashion. Our clients are looking for something more than eye powder."
Frank Hocquemiller, General Director of VIP Consulting, an agency that advises others in choosing celebrity talent, says the strategy is quite clever. "At one point, the icons all looked alike, smooth-skinned from computer-image retouching. It was time that more place be given to natural beauty," he says. "These women have a great aura and carry hope, which triggers a process of identification and gives consumers the desire to buy."