Brian Edwards Media

Does it matter how a political leader looks? I offer some free advice to Phil and John

Does it matter how a political leader looks? The simple answer is: probably not a lot. But given that the difference between winning and losing an election may be no more than one or two percentage points, an  advantage in the attractiveness stakes may be significant. Being plain or physically unattractive, on the other hand, is of itself unlikely to lose an aspiring leader votes.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of this phenomenon. Kennedy, Clinton, Trudeau and Blair were all leaders whose good looks, charisma and sex appeal undoubtedly enhanced their electoral chances. Less attractive men – one thinks of Kirk, Muldoon, Lange – suffered no apparent loss of electoral support because of their size or appearance.

My examples are all male, in part because historically men hugely outnumber women among world leaders, in part because the pattern may be different for female politicians.

Sexism undoubtedly plays a role here. A female leader’s looks and grooming are considerably more likely to be commented on and critiqued than her male equivalent. A male MP can look like Quasimodo and display  the dress sense of an unmade bed – many do – but the fact will rarely come up in conversation, let alone be commented on in the media.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Helen Clark whose unruly hair, less than perfect teeth and deep voice were fodder for her political enemies and elements in the media, while her supporters spoke warmly of her beautiful skin and stylish wardrobe. Of less consequence than which side you were on in this debate is the remarkable fact that the debate not merely took place but began when she first entered parliament in 1981 and was still going when she left in 2008.  

Did it do her any harm? Seemingly not. She is one of a very small group of New Zealand Prime Ministers to have held the reins of power for three terms and arguably one of the greatest.

It’s possible that stunning good looks in a female politician might even be an impediment to electoral success, reflecting the male chauvinist view that beauty and brains are incompatible. There are, to my knowledge, no jokes about beautiful dumb blonde men.

On the other hand, but in the same male chauvinist spirit, having a beautiful/sexy wife – Margaret Trudeau, Carla Bruni, Michelle Obama – may enhance a male leader’s image.  What a guy!  

Husbands are probably irrelevant in this context. The often mocked Denis Thatcher seemed to do The Iron Lady no harm. Margaret Thatcher herself, neither unattractive nor a great beauty, was apparently possessed of great sexual appeal. Her admirers included Rob Muldoon, evidence in both cases perhaps of the dictum that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.

These ramblings were occasioned by the revelation that Phil Goff has been dying his hair and John Key has not. I have some advice for each of them:

You are both going grey and losing your hair. There is no cure for either. The best thing to do is accept the fact and age gracefully and with dignity. Your greying locks may even lend you an air of experience and wisdom. Grey, blonde and white strands are also less noticeable on a balding pate than brown or black strands. Check it out in the mirror when you’ve just had a shower. Thinning dark strands of hair make you look like The Baldie Man. So I think Phil would have been better not to have dyed his hair in the first place and should quietly let it go back to its original colour. We know how old you are, Phil, and we don’t mind.

Next, if either of you feel you have to have a makeover, do it slowly and discreetly. Voters are suspicious of makeovers, whether actual or courtesy of Photoshop. They want to see the real you.

Finally I see that New Zealand’s Next Top Model judge, Colin Mathuru-Jeffree, has offered to give Phil some catwalk training to correct his overly jaunty gait in parliament. On the whole I think it’s a good idea. On the other hand, we don’t want Phil doing a Danielle Hayes or a Naomi Campbell down the corridors of power. That would be terribly confusing.

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  1. Every time I see Phil Goff walking the corridors of power I am reminded of Gunfight at the OK Coral.

  2. Since we are talking appearances how about Maggie’s youthful supplied photo in today’s Herald. Not bad for woman in her 50s?

    BE: She does look radiant and youthful, doesn’t she. Must be all that fresh air and gardening.

  3. Ben: Sadly GW Bush walked in a similar way. Like young males who want to look tough with muscles so big that the arms are pushed out sideways as they strut.

  4. How a political leader looks becomes important when the public’s attention is drawn to it. In 1975 Bob Jones used props to liken Bill Rowling to a mouse. Rob Muldoon took up on the theme and added fuel to it. Admittedly there were other factors involved, but their actions helped change the course of New Zealand’s history.

    BE: Quite right. Jones and Jim Healey managed to get past the security guards at Avalon one night and appeared in the studio during a live interview I was doing with Bill Rowling in front of an audience of Labour faithful. He was now accompanied by a six foot mouse. The two pranced around the studio, the mouse (with Healey inside) squeaking until the security men managed to get them out. To be fair, Bob was even-handed. He was reponsible for signs around Wellington which read ‘Matt Rata reads comics’. A graffitto said, ‘No, he only looks at the pictures’.

  5. I enjoyed the way you phrased the comment about Margaret Thatcher “apparently” possessing great sexual appeal. “Apparently” is right, I think. It certainly wasn’t apparent to me, and, I’m guessing, you. I always thought she had roughly the same amount of sexual allure as the Auckland Harbour Bridge, or the First Church of Otago in Dunedin. Eye of the beholder, and all that.

  6. So all that and then he has ‘an overly jaunty gait’?
    Can’t win, best look his age and walk his walk.

    BE: ‘Jaunty’ was perhaps not the right word. It is a rather strange, almost robotic walk, which ought not to matter. But so many people comment on it that it can’t be helpful to his image. You may think image doesn’t matter. Sadly perhaps, it does.

  7. I think John Banks cornered the market for Red Neck Gaits

  8. Vladimir Putin has that OK Corral walk too. It may work in Russia but, personally speaking, it turns me right off.

  9. yes it does, no it shouldn’t, your point is? These two guys are running for the same office, one is republican, the other democrat – can you tell which is which?

    No, but you’d simply have to ask: which of you is for guns and god?

  10. Helen Clark walked(understandably)like John Wayne with constipation,come to think of it Wayne was more feminine as well,yet some people still voted for her . Says a lot about the national I.Q.n’est pas?

    BE: Now the trouble with this sort of gratuitously offensive comment, is that you refer to the national IQ then proceed to show off, unfortunately with mangled French. It’s n’est-ce pas, mon cher.

  11. Even though she’s a raging ginga, Maggie B still gets my vote. Very attractive lady – for an old trout.

    JC: Hmm, would she – or anyone – want your vote, given your attitude, TT?

  12. BE: “Next, if either of you feel you have to have a makeover, do it slowly and discreetly. Voters are suspicious of makeovers, whether actual or courtesy of Photoshop. They want to see the real you.”

    Well, I woulda thought so. But, man — those billboards showing Helen Clark flashing her flawless Macleans’ smile etc., wasn’t so much a touch-up as it was a complete re-creation. The dude who photoshopped her, must’ve gone down the aisles with an extra trundler. A great plug for Adobe, however. Amazing!

    BE: You’ll be surprised to learn that I don’t entirely disagree. The hoardings and, as it happens, the cover shot on my book, Helen Portrait of a Prime Minister, both attracted negative comment. As I say, voters want to see their politicians as they really are.

  13. I have to say I am surprised at Goff doing a makeover (especially as he makes so much of having been in the freezing works and constantly talking about motorbikes).
    Miss Gillard seems to be suffering the same nonsense that Helen suffered, her mortal sin was to turn up at the floods looking immaculate, following day it was in a t shirt without the hairdo.

  14. Mr Edwards,you will sometimes have to endure the use of language in the colloquial,which in your lofty milieu you seem unaware of,n’est ce pas?

    BE: I have no idea what this means. Are you referring to ‘colloquial’ English or ‘colloquial’ French or something else again? Perhaps you can enlighten me.

  15. Well since you ask JC, at only 23.2% in the IPredict poll, I reckon Maggs would be very pleased to get my vote, attitude or not……(O:

  16. @ Murray: “N’est pas” is used as well; usually, tagged on at the end of a sentence.

    No one here is unhaling the rarefied air of “the lofty milieu”. We all use idiomatic language and we all like to swear.

  17. Merv,n’est pas is,as you say used at the termination of a statement,it is in fact more often used than the grammatically correct n’est ce pas.

    BE: I have a message for you from the French proprietor of one of our Ponsonby shops, to whom I put your explanation re ‘n’est-ce pas’ and ‘n’est pas’. ‘ Please tell your correspondent that he is talking, as we say in French, bullshit!’ Pronounced ‘bullsheet’ in French by the way, Murray. And also, by the way. ‘n’est pas’, meaning ‘isn’t’, is pronounced ‘nay pa’ and could never be used as an abbreviation of ‘n’est ce pas’. A case of bullshit not quite baffling brains perhaps. Seems my Ph.D. in modern languages wasn’t a total waste of time after all.

  18. In my eternal quest for scatological enlightenment I discovered that bullshit in French (using an online translator) is baliverne which translates back as nonsense. However bull shit translates as Merde a la hausse which translates back as “shit in increase”. I quite like the latter definition.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic under discussion but I thought you might like to know.

    As regards Julia Gillard both her appearance and her voice cause me to think of the Munster family. As you might say this says more about me than it does about Ms Gillard but I cannot help the reaction.

  19. BE: I have a message for you from the French proprietor of one of our Ponsonby shops,

    The “French proprietor” you refer to, might not have had the benefit of a High-School education. Or, maybe, his education was waaay too formal. My understanding, is: “N’est pas” is in widespread use, verbally and in written-form. It’s just an abbreviation of its more fancy cousin, in invoking an affirmation by way of the rhetorical presumption. And I’d adorn it with a “?”

    But check it out with a lecturer in French, for your own peace of mind.

    BE: I will. But this isn’t really what this post was about.

  20. These ramblings were occasioned by the revelation that Phil Goff has been dying his hair and John Key has not.

    Trevor Mallard suggests otherwise.

  21. Who are Phil Goff’s advisors? The received advice seems largely unsuccessful. As far as dyed hair goes, Murray McCully has hideously unflattering dyed hair even if John Key, as claimed, does not.

    BE: I actually don’t know who Phil’s advisors are. But they might well not have been consulted about the wisdom of dying his hair. Had they anticipated his being asked about his darker hair, the best advice they could have given him was to be straightforward and unapologetic about it – to brush it off. (No pun intended!) The worst advice they could have given was to be coy about it and refuse to answer the question. Which unfortunately is what he did. However, with Key announcing that he intends a limited sell-off of state assets, Phil needn’t worry too much about it. He’s just been handed what may be the grand prize.

  22. “However, with Key announcing that he intends a limited sell-off of state assets, Phil needn’t worry too much about it. He’s just been handed what may be the grand prize.”

    Wishful thinking on your part I am afraid. If the best Phil can offer is a Matt and Lisa speech, a ‘few struggle street’ cliches and $5000 that will go to the rich pricks as well as those who need it, Key has nothing to fear.

    Goff can dye his hair whatever colour he likes but he could do with some orginal ideas and a new speechwriter.

  23. As I spend very little time in french restaurants and even less time discoursing with PhDs I will quietly shuffle off clutching the tattered remnants of my dignity[until next time]

    BE: Well said, Murray. Your dignity is restored. Look forward to hearing from you.

  24. Honestly, if Phil Goff wants to die his hair purple and get a mohawk, it doesn’t bother me really. I’m only interested in Labour’s policies and how effective they are being in Opposition. Are we really so shallow as to give our votes to another candidate because we don’t like someone’s hair? Seriously? As for poor Helen Clark, the venom she had to put up with just for having the audacity to be plain of face and quick-witted of mind, and not particularly keen on wearing skirts, was unbelievable. It made me embarassed to be a New Zealander knowing that we are still so sexist and expect women to conform to a particular ‘look’. Why does it matter? I don’t want to bonk a politician, I just want them to run the country and make wise decisions that will benefit everyone in the long run! Go Phil, if it makes you feel better to dye your hair, then you go for it with my blessing! – as 99% of women already do because we don’t like our natural hair colour. I’ve been dying mine since I was 16, the natural colour is ash-mouse-brown and it’s hideous. I’m sure it’s only men who have a problem with Phil Goff dying his hair because they secretly wish they’d started dying their own hair in their early 40s before everyone noticed it was going grey. So to make up for their own discomfort and sense of lost youth, they have to be all macho and ridicule him for it.

    BE: Goff with purple hair and a mohawk, Clare – it might not bother you, but it would destroy any chance he had of winning an election. The issue really is that politicians should avoid any action that invites derision. I also see no reason why a man shouldn’t dye his hair if he wants to. But if you’re in politics it would be best to do so gradually. Having everyone say, ‘Oh look, Phil Goff’s dyed his hair,’ really isn’t helpful. For one thing, the question will be asked: why is he doing it? ‘Out of desperation’ is likely to be one answer. Check out this article from today’s Herald.

    By the way, your nom de plume appears to mean ‘lover of hair”. Does it?

  25. Perhaps you’ve read the article by Anne Summers, “Hairstyles the least of leaders’ worries”, in the smh two days ago? ( The author quite rightly asks, “why was the fact Lara Giddings is single relevant on the day she became Tasmania’s premier?” This concern, and the apparent public (or is it media?) preoccupation with the wardrobes of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard amidst the recent floods in Australia do give substance to claims of double standards based on gender. Summers writes, “we seem to fear that power erodes femininity, which just goes to show that we still retain unexamined, and perhaps unconscious, assumptions about political power being masculine.”

  26. I like the Goffinator’s walk, it’s full of life, bounce and it shows some personality. You go dude!