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How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

by Julia Tulloh , August 13, 20141 Comment

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Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Part memoir, part style guide, Michele intersperses her journey from performing on Broadway as a child to her successful role as Rachel Berry on Glee with tips on how to be a hard-working, good-looking, well-dressed, financially secure, Gen Y celebrity. Michele’s dreamy life is presented in a girl-next-door tone, allowing readers to imagine themselves in her shoes. The result is a fun read with plenty of useful lifestyle tips, and Michele does discuss the importance of hard work and being a team player in order to succeed at your job. However, the book’s primary focus, a little disconcertingly, is on appearance.

Michele doesn’t really offer anything new in terms of beauty tips: she implores readers to drink more water, get enough sleep, eat plenty of fresh vegetables, remove make-up before bed… all the information anyone who ever read Dolly or Girlfriend as a teenager (or who has a good dose of common sense) already knows. What makes Brunette Ambition appealing, at least for Glee fans or those with an interest in the machinations of celebrity culture, is that Michele presents this advice through a combination of lists and personal anecdotes, replete with dozens of photos of herself illustrating different hairstyles, exercises, outfits and make-up combinations. She transforms basic health and style information into part of her own ‘real’ life, implying that readers are getting to know her in a meaningful way. Mundane tasks like the regular washing of sheets and taking the stairs instead of the lift become exotic and special (these are things that famous people do!) but not so special that they feel unachievable for readers.

I followed her instructions: I used coconut oil as restorative masque for my hair, started applying an astringent toner to my T-zone and now blow dry my hair with a cylindrical brush. I felt all of these techniques, basic as they were, improved how I looked. Michele also includes a bunch of healthy recipes, which are delicious: Italian Comfort Soup, Mediterranean Nachos, and Radicchio, Parmesan and Marinara Pizza. Whether or not Michele actually eats these foods, I can’t say. There was also a page on how to make ‘meal supplements’ (i.e. juices) and at one point she recommended substituting the tortilla of a veggie wrap with a lettuce leaf. Nevertheless, the book caused me to change my beauty routine and, consequently, feel better about my appearance.

That said, I felt mildly troubled that I was inspired by a book that so overtly emphasised physical appearance. Six out of ten chapters focus on style and looks, with the implication that a flawless appearance is integral to success. Michele’s job requires her to be beautiful all the time, but not all of us are television stars. She isn’t particularly critical of the pressure on women to look and dress a certain way, nor of how she might be contributing to such pressures.

In place of so much fashion advice, I would have liked to read more autobiographical content. The chapters that detail more personal aspects of Michele’s life are interesting – she describes her parents’ entrepreneurial skills; her Jewish background; her experiences as a child star; and the importance of particular friendships, including those with the Glee crew. She refrains from speaking about her relationship with Cory Monteith, who died last year from a drug overdose. Whether Michele’s shiny presentation is a façade or not, I couldn’t help but think of this tragedy, and admire her for retaining such a strong work ethic in its aftermath.

Paradoxically, I was both troubled and inspired by Michele’s focus on beauty, but perhaps that says more about me than it does her. My response to Brunette Ambition is a good example of the way fans participate just as much as celebrities in the circulation of ideas about what it takes to be successful, and also of how fun and pleasurable this involvement can be, even when the ideology behind it (i.e. that good looks are a priority) may be flawed.

Julia Tulloh is a writer in Melbourne. She’s working on a PhD on Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. She tweets at @jtul and blogs at juliatulloh.com.

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