They mandated the nation to transition to digital television, yet some members of Congress may be having trouble making the change themselves.
Makeup artists who worked both the National Republican and Democratic conventions, the presidential debates and in the U.S. Capitol say most lawmakers are unprepared for the toll that high-definition television is taking on their appearances — and that that could translate into lost voters in the 2010 elections.
When former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Washington powerhouses gathered at the Newseum last month for the National Clean Energy Project summit, high-definition cameras broadcast their roundtable discussion to screens around the building for spectators.
Some members in the crowd were struck by how the leaders looked.
“Clinton looks older than T. Boone Pickens,” one bystander murmured.
Retirement hadn’t aged the former president an extra 20 years, but the crystal-clear resolution and the liquid crystal display screens had.
The nation’s conversion to high-definition television is nowhere near complete, as television studios and homes continue to function with a mix of old and new equipment, producing various degrees of image clarity.
But as the technology becomes more prevalent, the age-old tradition of caking on layers of makeup to cover scars, big pores and blemishes will be more damaging than helpful.
“The screen is making everything look larger than life, every wrinkle line, every pore, every imperfection,” said executive speech coach Lindsay Strand, president of Lindsay Strand Associates Inc., a strategic communications consulting firm. “You used to be able to put makeup on with the putty knife and look good. Not anymore.”
“There is no question politicians will lose votes, actors will lose jobs and news anchors will lose paychecks,” said digital television guru and TVPredictions.com President Phillip Swann. “The elements of the Kennedy-Nixon debate haven’t changed. People still vote for people who translate well on television.”
Sen. John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard Nixon debated each other in the first televised presidential debate in 1960. Pale after spending two weeks in the hospital, Nixon refused to wear makeup and was a stark contrast to Kennedy, who had a tan after campaigning in California.
A number of congressional regulars on the national Sunday talk-show circuit, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), say they rely on the studios’ trained makeup artists to get them prepared for the shows. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) does most of her makeup herself, allowing the studio artist to make small touch ups.
Others, including freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are holding tight to their less-is-more regime.
“He is a no-makeup person,” said Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet. “It would take significant discussion and some sort of proof before he would consider regularly wearing it. But Mark Begich is 46 and looks very young ... so having a few wrinkles on his face isn’t a concern. In my view, Alaskans do not want their senators looking like movie stars.”
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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is more concerned with presentation than appearance. “She is Congress’ proudest grandmother. Baby Jack comes up in almost every conversation,” said Blackburn spokesman Claude Chafin, referring to the congresswoman’s only grandson. “On the way to interviews, we’re talking about what we want to say and what the message is, not about how she looks or what she’s wearing.”
But when it comes to the local TV interviews often done from the Capitol’s television studio, makeup artists aren’t always available.
And artists say lawmakers, especially men, are continuing to show up seconds before a television hit wearing either no makeup or pounds of cakey foundation, making them appear pale and aged. If the trend continues, it could mean bad news for lawmakers whose constituents see them mostly through local media.
“We often have to remove their makeup and start over again,” said Rose Procopio Barondess, a freelance artist who works at the Senate recording studio and has done the makeup of Washington’s political elite for years. “I’ve learned to be prepared for whatever disaster is coming my way.”
Some consultants are making money by helping people avoid a high-def train wreck. In California, Political Icon image consultant Patsy Cisneros has found clients by tracking down less-than-polished looking politicians she finds on television shows. “We reach out to their staff with recommendations,” Cisneros said. “It’s a great public relations technique.”
Most makeup artists are using either airbrushing or special high-definition makeup to counteract the aging effects of digital television. Both options are designed to apply makeup that is lighter than normal but that can still disguise blemishes.
At the conventions last summer, makeup artists said they struggled to adjust politicos to new makeup standards before hitting the big stage, including former presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, who moments before his speech at the Republican National Convention arrived in the makeup booth in disastrous shimmery makeup.
“He had been advised to put something shiny on his face to eliminate aging, and whatever it was, we couldn’t get it off,” one artist said. “He wasn’t really patient, and it was such a difficult situation because makeup is a personal thing.”
Sometimes the problem can lie with the assistants, not the politicians, experts warn.
One Republican convention makeup artist remembers having a “difficult time” with the makeup for then-First Lady Laura Bush. “Her handler wanted her to wear a deep red-orange lipstick, and she looked drawn in it,” said one Republican convention artist. “We put red on her the first night. But the next night, the handler wanted me to put this orange lipstick on her again.”
Each artist has developed her own way of urging politicians to wear makeup.
NBC makeup artist Patty McFarland has a sign hanging in her studio that warns, “Remember Nixon.”
Barondess tells clients about her scuffle with Ross Perot when she urged him to wear makeup for his 1993 NAFTA debate against then-Vice President Al Gore.
“I did get into an argument with him, but when he went on stage, he didn’t have makeup and he lost the debate,” she says matter of factly.
Barondess — who counts Gore, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among her clientele — has rolled out her own line of television-ready cosmetics and is developing a line of HDTV makeup.