There’s something pleasingly retro about a magazine cover making news, and I always feel a rustle of gladness when it happens. And PAPER, the New York-based culture mag, has become famous for headline-making covers. They popped champagne with Kim Kardashian’s greased-up arse; got Lady Gaga naked on the toilet; convinced Miley Cyrus to roll around in mud and cuddle a pig. Their covers are lush, boundary-pushing and designed to reframe the narrative around how we see our favourite celebrities. This week, they released their most talked-about cover of the year: Christina Aguilera, without make-up on.
Passing it on the news stand, you might not even know it was her. The 37-year-old singer looks like a dreamy-eyed Sofia Coppola character, her skin sun-kissed, her eyelashes brittle, her irises so blue they look like the light might hurt them. She’s beautiful – we always knew that Christina was beautiful, the minimum-level requirement for any 1990s pop diva – but the portrait is striking because of how fragile she looks. It occurs to me that, for as long as I have “known” Christina Aguilera, I have never truly seen her face.
Aguilera, who recently appeared in the Season 10 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race as a guest judge, was introduced by RuPaul as a “new queen entering the competition”. The other contestants are shocked – it’s not unusual for Mama Ru to pull stunts like this – before Christina Aguilera is brought on stage. And with her pink wig, thick lashes and rhinestone dress, the room is momentarily fooled. And they’re right to be – Christina Aguilera might not be a contestant, but she’s one of the fiercest drag queens on earth. Her character has been perfected over two decades: she has every expression, every look, every tiny nuance down pat. Her persona is part 1950s screen siren, part banjee-girl, part Ella Fitzgerald. Like Dolly Parton, she’s developed a look so specific that a child could draw her with two crayons and everyone would know exactly who it was. You could pass Christina Aguilera make-up free on the street and have no clue who she is. Which, presumably, is part of the point. The other point is armour. Armour against a public that ridiculed her, ruthlessly compared her to her contemporaries and dismissed her as a punchline. She uses make-up the way all women do: not just as a physical mask, but an emotional one.
We need to remind ourselves, periodically, that we’re living in a falsehood
In 2002, Christina Aguilera’s first real drag persona made its debut: the leather chaps, the muddy face, the panda eyes, the clumpy blonde dreadlocks. This, remember, was the year after that Eminem verse: the one where he wanted to “sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst / and hear ‘em argue about who she gave head to first”. For whatever reason, she had been deemed a slut by the mainstream media, and decided to form her Stripped identity around it. She wasn’t showing any more skin than a normal popstar, but it was the way she was showing it that disturbed people. Here was a beautiful girl making herself feral, and tough, and Dirrty. Her eyes disappeared for over a decade, as though the outside world had lost the right to see them. It’s an armour that all women develop eventually: to draw on the lips or the eyes for the person you’re supposed to be, a first line of defence for the person you are.
After Stripped came vintage-Hollywood Christina. Her wigs are so wiggy that it feels like she’s constantly reminding the public that this is a costume, this is fake, this is candy floss. It’s a kind of joke femininity that reminds us that all femininity – from corsetry to Botox – is a kind of costumery. An illusion that we want to believe is real, and one that the beauty and fashion industries tell us is. Even this photograph of a pop icon’s bare face is subject to the kind of lighting and retouching that ordinary people can only dream of. The “real” Christina is still a construction of sorts, just a less showy one.
All of this is a reminder that we spend so much of our time looking at images that aren’t real. It’s a lesson that we teach teenagers – my generation, I think, were the first to have assemblies on Photoshop and self-image from secondary school – but need constant reminding of as adults. Femininity and beauty are made-up concepts, and that’s a lesson we have to re-teach ourselves everyday. Instagram feels less oppressive if you think of it as a video game – one where the users compete to create the highest-scoring, most-convincing images of traditional beauty. Fashion week is a circus, YouTube beauty tutorials are sci-fi, billboards are propaganda selling a lifestyle that has to be exclusive in order for it to be expensive. We’re presented, every single day, with an elaborate fiction that is packaged as reality, and attempting to deal with the long-term effects of it. I look at my mother’s generation, the first to be taken in by the 1970s obsession with fad diets, and am stunned by the idea of a whole class of women who ate nothing but cabbage soup, for weeks at a time, and whose eating habits have been fucked up for a lifetime because of it. I wonder what my future daughter’s generation will think of me: a woman who came of age in the time of the front-facing camera and Facetune. How will my insecurities show themselves in 20, 30 years' time?
We need to remind ourselves, periodically, that we’re living in a falsehood. What better reminder than a photograph of Christina Aguilera – a woman that you’ve seen thousands of photographs of, whose face you don’t even know?