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Published: Thursday, 11/30/2000

Camera's eye gives official softer focus


When Katherine Harris addressed the nation Sunday, one could hardly help noting how polished she appeared.

Florida's Secretary of State had traded her usual business suits for a jauntier red and black jacket with a zippered front. Her auburn hair shone and her makeup looked professional and discreet.

In short, she looked like a new woman. An improved woman. A woman who did not have anything in common with the Tammy Faye look-alike she had been just a week earlier.

In short, Ms. Harris appeared to have undergone The Makeover, the one nearly all women have when they find the flashbulbs of the nation suddenly blinding them.

A heavier makeup look earlier this month. A heavier makeup look earlier this month.

The transformation has ample precedent. Her sisters in sudden celebrity - Marcia Clark, Linda Tripp, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky all come to mind - have trodden this ground before. All were once ordinary women until extraordinary trials thrust them in front of a battalion of telephoto lenses. Every one of them changed her appearance once she realized how her normal look played on TV.

(Even women who aren't strangers to the spotlight often find themselves tweaking their images. Three words: Hillary Clinton's hair. Two words: Princess Di. One word: Cher.)

Still, Ms. Harris got most of the press. This week's Newsweek called her “the star of the show,” saying she “looked as if she had stepped off the set of Dynasty,” while U.S. News & World Report wrote “ her makeup became almost as talked about as Monica's beret.” (Time appears to have abstained.)

To be fair, women aren't the only ones to schedule The Image Consultation. Ralph Nader was probably the only candidate this year who didn't buy a new tie or feather on a little blush for the cameras.

And we can read whatever we wish into all the commentary. Some would claim that women are held to a higher, and thus unfair, standard of attractiveness, that Ms. Harris' mascara was no more offensive than the wrinkled suits or protruding paunches of her male colleagues.

Others, including the Washington Post's Robin Givhan, say the way she presents herself to the world provides insight into her behavior.

“At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement , and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship,” Ms. Givhan wrote in the Nov. 18 edition of the Post.

Whichever camp you fall into, though, it's likely you couldn't help but notice the new image. Which means we can now safely ignore it as the electoral process stumbles on.

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