New Faces on the Block

Jenny Diski

  • Venus Envy by Elizabeth Haiken
    Johns Hopkins, 288 pp, £20.50, January 1998, ISBN 0 8018 5763 5
  • The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty From Ancient Egypt by Dorothea Arnold
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, 192 pp, $45.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 8109 6504 6

What happened to Rosa Travers, after she’d been skinned (carbolic acid and phenol), had her nose snipped, received paraffin injections in her breasts and was irradiated to remove undesirable body hair? That would have been the first part of her prize. When all was done, she had an opera audition. Rosa Travers was a sweatshop worker who in 1924 had the distinction of winning the New York Daily Mirror’s competition to find the ‘homeliest girl in New York’:

A plastic surgeon has offered to take the homeliest girl in the biggest city in the country and to make a beauty of her. All you have to do is to send your photograph with name and address to Homeliest Girl Contest Editor. We will not print names, and the photographs will be ‘masked’. Our art department will paint the masks on the photographs to obviate identification. Here is the chance for New York’s homeliest girl. Her misfortune may make a fortune right away.

Somewhere in the archives of the Mirror, a masked Rosa Travers gazes out in muted triumph. Some time later, the new-model Rosa would, I suppose, have been unveiled. Unless the carbolic acid caused a third-degree burn, the scalpel slipped, the paraffin migrated or she developed paraffinoma or ‘wax cancer’. In which case, there would, presumably, have been no ‘after’ picture. Worryingly, in her history of cosmetic surgery, Elizabeth Haiken ends the paragraph on Rosa Travers with a parenthesis: ‘what happened afterwards was not reported.’ At the very least, it suggests that Rosa’s misfortune did not make a fortune for her after all. Or shall we cheer ourselves up by assuming that the face-lift did wonders for her vocal chords and she lived happily ever after under the name of Kirsten Flagstad?

We don’t know whether it was homely Rosa or a friend with her interests at heart who sent in her picture and immortalised her as the phantom of the face-lift. If it was Rosa herself, she wouldn’t have been the only or the last woman to have been caught between the pressures of self-improvement and the puritan values of America. What’s a girl without congenital wealth to do if she hasn’t been blessed with some class-effacing talent or exceptional looks, when she knows that success in life is the result of an individual’s effort? Grasp the opportunity; go for surgery – which, it would seem from the association of beauty with an opera audition, is likely to take care of both. And what’s a girl to do if it all goes unpleasantly wrong on the operating table? Expect to be dropped like a burnt potato by her sponsors and informed by her friends that vanity reaps its own rewards.

If that strikes some as unfair, it probably wouldn’t surprise Rosa and her sisters. What’s fair about being born plain, flat-chested, or bandy-legged in a world where appearances are very nearly everything? Even talent in Rosa’s day didn’t quite compensate for an unsatisfactory face. Fanny Brice was the first famous woman to announce publicly – in 1923 – that she had had cosmetic surgery. She didn’t lack ability or appreciation as a comic actress, but she had a large, irregular nose and felt that her hankering to play Nora in The Doll’s House would never be fulfilled without recourse to surgery. Dorothy Parker sniffed that she had cut off her nose to spite her race, but Brice was just trying to enlarge her repertoire. Things may be thought different now: Barbra Streisand has climbed the heights of Hollywood stardom without a nose job. Her big movie break, however, was playing an unreconstructed Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

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