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Hey, Would You Want Your Back Fat on the Cover of Redbook?

Photoshopping May Offend Some Self-Righteous Bloggers, but Sometimes Retouching Is Necessary

By Published on . 1

OK, I'm going to 'fess up. While working as a magazine editor over the years, I have aided and abetted blatant magazine-image Photoshopping -- and now I've decided to humbly reflect on my complicity in glossy reality-distortion.
Blog Jezebel called out Redbook for altering an image of Faith Hill.
Blog Jezebel called out Redbook for altering an image of Faith Hill.

But first I'll note that I've been inspired by the continuing kerfuffle surrounding Jezebel.com's publication of an unretouched photograph of the country singer Faith Hill for Redbook magazine's July cover -- which, when seen side by side with the published image, shows that Faith's body was obviously streamlined in multiple ways (e.g., arm thinned, back fat excised) and her crinkly, baggy, 39-year-old eyes were transformed into eerily pristine peepers. Jezebel had offered a $10,000 reward for such a leaked image and finally scored one a couple of weeks ago. The bankroller of the mischief is puckish multimillionaire blog-publishing provocateur (and, um, noted feminist?) Nick Denton; Jezebel, part of his sprawling Gawker Media empire, is his bid to reach more female readers. The Jezebel blog post about the Faith Hill cover has racked up a rather astonishing 750,000-plus page views to date and even prompted a five-minute "Today" show segment last week.

But back to my shady past. Because I'm sensitive to the feelings of Photoshopees, I've decided to reveal image tampering in only two postmortem cases; in one instance the subject is now literally dead, and in the other the subject's movie career is all but dead.

First, the Rev. Howard Finster -- the "outsider" folk artist who rose to fame when he was championed by the likes of R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, both of which commissioned him to produce iconic album covers. He died in 2001. But before he shuffled off this mortal coil, while I was working for a short-lived lifestyle magazine titled Special Report (published by the now-defunct Whittle Communications and partially bankrolled by Time Inc.), we shot the elderly Finster in his art-filled garden in Summerville, Ga. Unfortunately, on the day of the shoot the good reverend had something going on in his pants.

Something ... impressive.

Something you don't usually expect to see looming within -- make that straining at -- a man of the cloth's trousers. We were, all of us, editors and art staffers alike, a bit taken aback. (Some of us even doubled over in laughter.) Now, maybe our journalistic obligation was to call up Rev. Finster to ask if he was in the habit of storing, perhaps, a large D-cell flashlight in his trousers and, if so, inquire as to whether he might be willing to be photographed again but with said object removed. But we didn't really have the budget for a reshoot, and so we de-bulged the reverend's pants without ever consulting with him.

The second instance of Photoshopping I want to own up to involves the comedian Pauly Shore (whose career, arguably, isn't entirely dead, since he recently guest-starred on HBO's "Entourage," but whatever). When I was (improbably) an editor at Seventeen, we shot him because he had some crappy movie about to come out. One day, the magazine's design director stopped me in the hallway and told me that Pauly, that wacky guy, had insisted on pulling down his pants and underwear on the photo shoot (don't worry, his shirttails covered his boy parts) as a (hackneyed) sight gag. Anyhow, the design director was clutching transparencies from the photo shoot, which he held up to the fluorescent light right there in the hallway.

My apologies if you're reading this before lunch, but Pauly's self-de-pantsing revealed Nascar-strength skid marks. It was an image, I confess, that we conspired to, uh, "clean up" without Mr. Shore's knowledge.

What's my point? Sometimes celebrities get shot in a way that's not terribly flattering. But unlike with the Shore and Finster shots, it's usually the celebrities themselves, more than magazines, that are most complicit in what Jezebel calls the "cover lie." In fact, to return to the controversy at hand, aging, image-conscious entertainers with crinkly, baggy eyes and a bit of back fat have been known to employ small armies of makeup people, personal trainers, dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons to keep reality at bay.

I mean, geez, look at the unretouched Faith Hill Redbook image. She's sporting an over-the-top raccoon-eyed look -- which is her schtick, not something that Redbook imposed on her, and it's commonly seen in the publicity shots that she and her people control. It's clearly meant to not only draw attention away from the actual condition of the skin around her middle-aged eyes but to suggest a more youthful, Olsen-twins-esque Faith. She's been known, shockingly enough, to toy with her God-given hair color. And, it should be noted, Hill's somewhat awkward pose in the Redbook shot -- leaning forward coquettishly on one arm -- probably not only caused her dress to bunch up in such a way as to squish up her (surely minimal) back fat, but made her arm look unnaturally huge since it was considerably closer to the camera lens than her face. At any rate, Ms. Hill has remained conspicuously silent about the controversy, so far failing to denounce Redbook for making her look younger and thinner.

Let's get real: The magazine industry's "cover lie" is actually the core deception of the celebrity-industrial complex, which most Americans (willingly) buy into to some degree. But the larger, really obvious truth here is that fewer and fewer Americans -- females especially, but males, too -- have the strength of character to age gracefully or entirely honestly. Which is why even Jezebel has to take money from marketers such as American Apparel -- the pervy, hipster brand that's all about worshipping dewy, cellulite-free, half-naked youths -- and even, yes, Clairol Herbal Essences hair color.
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