Beauty can be a terrible burden — the maintenance alone can feel like a full-time job. So when it fades, it’s not the tragedy you might expect.
As Italian-Australian actress Greta Scacchi, 62, said last week: ‘It’s been a relief for the past 20 years not to have pressure on me to be the beautiful one.’ Time and time again in our culture, fairy tales (movies, too) show beauty equated to finding true love.
The problem? We have been sold a lie, as the recent spate of celebrity splits, all involving fantastically beautiful women, demonstrates.
Take the news that model Emily Ratajkowski is divorcing her filmmaker husband Sebastian Bear-McClard on the basis of his ‘serial cheater’ status. Billionaire Kim Kardashian has recently split from her new partner, Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson.
And Aquaman Jason Momoa and his stunning actress wife, Lisa Bonet, separated after 17 years together.
None of these relationship breakdowns surprises me. Clearly beauty, even when paired with fame, talent and great wealth, is not, and has never been, enough to hold onto love.
Antonella Gambotto Burke and her teenage daughter Bethseda. Antonella says: ‘Clearly beauty, even when paired with fame, talent and great wealth, is not, and has never been, enough to hold onto love’
I would go as far as to say that in fact true feminine beauty, far from attracting true love, deflects it, blinding onlookers to a woman’s true value.
I have known something of this pain. And indeed the surprising — and welcome — flipside when your looks dwindle. At 18, I was considered beautiful enough to be approached in the street by a scout from a major modelling agency. My hair unwashed and wearing an unremarkable summer dress, I was standing at a bus-stop when the scout bounded out of a car.
I was confused. Who was this lean, elegant blonde and what did she want from me? Handing me her card, she said she wanted me on her books.
I stammered that I was far too fat and had the wrong face to be a model. She replied that weight was easy to lose and that, in fact, I had exactly the right kind of face.
While that may, or may not, have been true, I certainly lacked the confidence, and so my Kate-Moss-discovered-in-an-airport moment fizzled to a dinner party anecdote.
‘In my late teens, however, I underwent a metamorphosis of sorts. I became slim and my face widened, making my nose seem relatively proportionate,’ Antonella says
Throughout my childhood, my mother had always told me that my mouth was ‘vulgar’ and that I was too heavy and too strong-minded to be happily married.
I may have been smart, but my best friend, who was tall and slender, with green eyes and a button nose, was the beauty.
Of course, I idolised her. Oh, to be so lovely! Half the boys were secretly in love with her. Meanwhile, my nickname was ‘The Nose Who Always Knows’. I accepted what I understood as my plainness and figured there was no point in wanting what I would never have — a willowy frame, a symmetrical face.
Instead I focused on friendships and schoolwork.
In my late teens, however, I underwent a metamorphosis of sorts. I became slim and my face widened, making my nose seem relatively proportionate. This was not my imagination; a former school friend, on bumping into me, went so far as to ask if I’d had a nose job (I hadn’t).
Despite this, I still felt unattractive. I genuinely had no idea why men were beginning to swarm around me.
At 18, I fell in love in the way only a teenager can, with a boy in a band. Even now, I marvel at his perfect beauty in photographs, but at the time, I marvelled over the fact that he fell in love with ugly me.
The whole idea was preposterous. Feeling unworthy of tenderness, I ended the relationship. Ugly girls didn’t deserve to be loved.
I look back now and feel sorry for the girl I used to be.
Reluctant beauty: Antonella in her turbulent youth. ‘At 18, I was considered beautiful enough to be approached in the street by a scout from a major modelling agency,’ she writes
My love life went downhill fast. With only a few exceptions — he was one — the men with whom I was involved in my youth treated me badly.
Some were fantastically cruel, others were mean and others stalked me.
I was accused of affairs I’d never had. One even verbally abused me over the reactions of other men — responses over which I had no control. The common thread, I now realise, was jealousy.
At the time, the behaviour of my partners hurt and bewildered me. I had no understanding of the impact of my appearance on men, nor how badly they wanted me. It is only now that people tell me I was ‘gorgeous’; no one ever said that to me at the time.
Australian model and entrepreneur Elle Macpherson told me the same thing during an interview: no one, she said, ever complimented her on her appearance, even when she went to great lengths to look beautiful.
Why? To have done so would have been the same as praising water for being wet: they assumed it was obvious.
Antonella pictured in her youth. ‘I was accused of affairs I’d never had,’ she says. ‘One even verbally abused me over the reactions of other men…’
Eventually, it became easier for me to avoid relationships altogether, which I did for many years, preferring to focus on friendships and work.
While girlfriends were enjoying devoted relationships, I kept to myself.
It never occurred to me that none of the girlfriends in question was conventionally beautiful, and that this made it possible for them to not only safely enjoy themselves, but to be loved for who they were.
I envied them, without understanding why they apparently found it so easy to be happy in love.
Looking back, I think it was the kind of men they were attracted, too — less status-driven, less alpha, less insecure.
As I worked in women’s magazines, I met a number of extraordinarily attractive women — tall and lithe, some world famous. Without exception, they were treated badly by men.
Model Jerry Hall, who recently filed for divorce from billionaire Rupert Murdoch, was, in the flesh, the most beautiful woman I had ever met.
Yet even she had to swallow her tears when, during our interview, I mentioned Carla Bruni, the supermodel who was rumoured to be having an affair with Hall’s then husband Mick Jagger.
I remember another friend, who went yachting with Hall and Jagger, observing how ‘disrespectful’ Jagger was towards her.
The stunning Antonella in her youth. She writes: ‘The more beautiful the woman, the more badly she was treated…’
I met models who were perpetually harassed by men — some even shared terrible stories of being repeatedly molested.
But it wasn’t confined to models: a staggeringly lovely receptionist in her early 20s at one of the magazines I worked for told me of her excitement at being asked on a date by a handsome young advertising executive, only to find him sexually vulgar and quite horrid towards her on the date itself. Life, it seemed, was not at all like fairy tales.
The more beautiful the woman, the more badly she was treated.
I began to see that the psychology of some men was oddly distorted in regard to female beauty — on the one hand they craved it as a symbol of their own status, but on the other simply could not handle the thought of other men desiring ‘their’ woman, and the prospect of her desertion as a result, no matter how unlikely.
The beauty when she was younger. She explains: ‘The male ego, however, feels catastrophically threatened even by the possibility of betrayal…’
When the roles are reversed, women are better equipped at dealing with it, with many rationalising that as long as he takes care of them financially, the women will turn a blind eye to a man’s indiscretions.
The male ego, however, feels catastrophically threatened even by the possibility of betrayal. It’s those kinds of men who show off their beautiful girlfriends and wives in public, but humiliate them in private.
Once I even asked a boyfriend — a man I was crazy about — why he was so horrid to me. Honestly, at times he was vile. What had I done to deserve such emotional manipulation, such hostility?
He actually laughed at me. ‘Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen,’ he replied, absurdly. And yet this was genuinely what he thought — the best way to keep a woman was to take her down a peg or two. It was his way of removing my power.
A beautiful woman has so many options, after all, and a certain kind of man thinks his best bet is to blind her to them.
Eventually, I did fall in love again — madly in love — and this time I married. Our daughter Bethesda is now 16, but my dream of a forever marriage was dashed eight years ago when we divorced.
I reconciled myself to a life of singledom. What man, I reasoned, would be interested in a single mother whose face and body had, frankly, seen better days? Unfiltered photographs drove the reality home: I looked tired, overwrought and overweight.
Antonella explains that as she grew older, things got better. ‘For the most part, the dates I had were gentle, friendly, funny, human. That awful charged sexual aggression I had experienced throughout my younger years had gone…’
For the first time and with not a little sadness, I realised that not only had I been beautiful in my youth, but that my beauty had fled.
This sadness soon evaporated. My life was so frantic — with mothering, work, and friends — that the ideal of beauty eventually came to seem redundant, as it has with Greta Scacchi.
Which is why, after I re-entered the dating arena in 2018, I was flabbergasted to find men flocking: more than 1,000 replies to one dating app ad alone within 48 hours (yes, my real age, 52 then, was listed and no, I was not available for hook-ups).
For the most part, the dates I had were gentle, friendly, funny, human. That awful charged sexual aggression I had experienced throughout my younger years had gone. This wasn’t simply because the men I dated were older, although most of them were. The younger ones were equally charming and sweet.
Of course, there were some disasters and some weirdos, but plenty of gentle enjoyment, too.
My friends counselled me to compromise and settle down with one of these nice men. Some, I could see, thought I was mad — as I was losing my looks, who was I to insist on passion, to demand romance? I would end up alone!
Hurt, I told them I wanted a John Lennon to my Yoko Ono, not a Wolf Of Wall Street to make me a lady who lunched. My goal was love, not a pairing based on financial or social status, and I refused to settle for anything less.
A beautiful young Antonella. She says: ‘Rather than acting as a beautiful mask, my 56-year-old face allows my character to shine through, and it is that, and not an unflawed face and body, that my partner loves…’
Entirely coincidentally, I then met a man I absolutely adored, and almost overnight, my whole life changed. In his 50s, he is like a great big puppy — affectionate, endlessly enthusiastic, so happy. We never stop talking. He constantly surprises me with thoughtful gestures — boxes of fudge delivered to my door by Fortnum & Mason, black cherries, foot massages.
We are giddy together, ridiculous. He tells me he feels like a lovestruck teenager.
Recently, I had my head in his lap under a full moon on a park bench in Richmond, laughing as he told me stories of his life, and in a fortnight, we’re off to explore Iceland together on horseback.
I believe that this relationship, and the many dates that preceded it, are and were so different to the turbulent connections of my youth because I am now as pleasingly ordinary as the women I once envied.
Men are no longer worried that I will be swept away by a dastardly interloper, and no man feels the need to dominate me for fear that I will, on a whim, spring away. The threat has gone.
Rather than acting as a beautiful mask, my 56-year-old face allows my character to shine through, and it is that, and not an unflawed face and body, that my partner loves.
- Antonella’s new book, Apple: Sex, Drugs, Motherhood And The Recovery Of The Feminine, is available now. Follow her on Instagram @gambottoburke