My Beauty Icon: Marilyn Monroe

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Novelist Mhairi McFarlane on why Marilyn’s face still takes her breath away.

To paraphrase D.H. Lawrence, beauty isn’t an arrangement of features, it’s a feeling, which is an elegant excuse for not being able to explain precisely what I find so compelling about Marilyn Monroe.

The familiar image is the baby-doll pretty ‘50s starlet with Milkybar hair, peachy cheeks and blood-red lips, but the Marilyn I love is in the informal, candid, soulful photographs by Eve Arnold and George Barris. Larking in a men’s cardi and bathing suit on holiday, or charcoal-eyed with bed hair, smoking a cigarette over a Manhattan balcony.

In all her images, she had a spooky, otherworldly glow. In newsreel footage, surrounded by pug-like men of the press corps, she sits among them like an alien, a shimmering being from an alt-verse where everyone’s made of moonlight and champagne.

Many beautiful faces are intimidating – impressive but not inviting. Marilyn’s expression always pulls you inside the picture, into her confidence. She could look crushingly sad. As much as she encouraged lustful fantasies, Marilyn makes strangers yearn to be her friend. Like Elton John in Candle In The Wind, I was convinced I could’ve saved her – all a troubled star really needed was a chubby kid from Milton Keynes to go on bike rides with.

In contrast to clothes horses like Hepburn or Kelly, Marilyn herself was always the main attraction – even her most famous outfits played strict second fiddle to her carnal appeal. Everyone remembers the woman and her ripe, bombshell body before the couture. One gown in Some Like It Hot is so revealing, it’s less a dress, more a gilding of the breasts. As if the costume designer gave up, accepting any fabric was merely an unwanted support act to the headliner.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of Marilyn’s iconic, irreplaceable beauty is in the impossibility of casting her as a role. However stunning and accomplished the actress, she can simply never be stunning enough. She will always be a poor substitute for the original. There has been no Marilyn since Marilyn.

Mhairi McFarlane’s novel, You Had Me At Hello, is out now.

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