BY Emily Bick in Profiles | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Big Hair Day

Glamour Shots

BY Emily Bick in Profiles | 01 JAN 02

When I was 14, I had my portrait taken at Glamour Shots. The results had me in ecstasy. I was swathed in taffeta, living out my fantasy as a prom queen in a John Hughes film. A year later I returned, but by then my idea of glamour had more to do with grunge and Courtney Love. The studio's beauticians slathered me in paint and added four inches to the height of my hair, wrapped me in feathers and black lace and posed me like the bad girl in an Aaron Spelling mini-series. I left in tears, and within months I had made sure that my hair was a scraggly shock of fuchsia, never to see hairspray again.

Glamour Shots studios are found in shopping malls throughout the United States. Since the late 1980s its customers (mostly women) have been enticed with the offer of make-overs by skilled beauticians and soft-focus photography with fantasy props and costumes. Photographs of 'Glamour-ized' clients line the studio walls. When I had my portraits taken, an array of girls and women ranging from toddlers to octogenarians smiled red-lipsticked grins, draped in feather boas and fur wraps that saucily exposed a good deal of skin. It was as if a random cross-section of the female population had plundered the wardrobes and make-up trunks of Joan Collins and JonBenet Ramsey.

In the late 1990s Glamour Shots decided to update its image. The new logo is a blatant appropriation of Calvin Klein's, with a large 'GS' replacing the 'CK'. The boudoir lighting and postures have been exchanged for white backdrops, taupe eye shadow and all-American toothy grins. The portraits on the Glamour Shots website resemble small-town television anchorwomen more than Colbys or Carringtons. Hair is still lacquered, but without the ornately teased curls. Babies are posed in flowerpots or on cabbage leaves, like Anne Geddes' prints; older children are captured in black and white prints that are then overlaid in pastels, producing a result akin to sentimental greetings cards. While the specific styles now favoured may have softened, the desire to be made-over to conform to universally recognised mass-media ideals of fashion has not.

Most television chat shows feature make-over specials, where sulky Goth teenagers are forced to wash off their black lipstick and remove their piercings in exchange for preppy haircuts and wardrobes from Gap. Everyone who appears on these shows, from biker mamas to garden-variety frumps, gets the same sartorial treatment. As the made-over chat-show guests are paraded on stage to rounds of applause, their discomfort is visible. Still, as the applause indicates, their revamped clean-cut look is the one most people want. And this is the most popular look Glamour Shots offers: American politicians running for local office have used Glamour Shots on their campaign posters, estate agents use them on their calling cards and teenage beauty queens use them in their modelling portfolios. Photographs of high school seniors, made up to look polished and serious, are a speciality, traded like baseball cards among friends. But cancer patients also have Glamour Shots taken to improve their self-image and brides use them to commemorate their special day. Undoubtedly the make-over process and photo-shoot make clients feel special, pampered, worthy of attention - some sitters have never looked better. Yet when these pictures are displayed side by side to an outside observer with no personal connection to the subjects, they all look flattened out, as blandly similar and dismissible as the faces smiling from department store catalogues or staring down from billboards.

These days Glamour Shots has become more flexible in regard to wardrobe. The company's website insists that its portraits are supposed to reflect a subject's personality and inner beauty. Customers are encouraged to select an outfit from the studio's collection, but can 'use some of [their] own favourite things' instead, if they prefer. Glamour Shots is adept at transforming America's high school princesses into the wholesome Tommy Hilfiger advert fantasies that plaster their lockers. But who's to say that they can't turn their punk rock sisters into Sue Catwoman or Patti Smith with the help of a sympathetic make-up artist and appropriate props from home? I wonder what my 15-year-old self would have made of that, or, more to the point, what Glamour Shots would have made of her - pink hair, tattered slips, snarl and all.

Emily Bick is deputy editor for The Wire Magazine and a writer on music, art and technology, based in London.