nothing you see is real

in fact, neither is this article

kylie in gq So the nice men at GQ have given me another article to write by taking liberties with Kylie's bottom. Before you all start making up your own stories (stoppit at the back there), I'm talking about airbrushing. The new issue of the magazine features the gorgeous Ms. Minogue on the cover in a recreation of the famous Athena poster of the tennis player lifting her skirt to scratch her bum (when I describe it like that it seem a whole lot less sexy). The newspapers gleefully reported that Kylie was upset with the cover because when she had posed for the picture she was wearing a g-string. Before the image made it to the cover, the magazine's picture editor saw fit to remove the signs of any underwear with a computer. The full size, high quality image that we see on the shelves of the magazine stores never actually happened and does not represent Kylie's modesty or her taste in underwear.

The defense put forward for such a free attitude to reality is no more than that everybody does it. From Vogue to Hello, from Naomi to Yasmin, barely a photo is taken without being scanned, corrected, altered and improved before we get to see it. The reasoning is impeccable - we the public are expecting to see perfection in the beautiful people, and on those blotchy morning after the night before photo shoots, perfection needs a helping hand. It's vaguely reassuring that even supermodels get spots, but though the information makes us feel a little smug, we really don't want to see the close up pictures thank you very much. So digital technology moves in and makes eyes and teeth whiter than white, skin flawless and blemishes a mere rumour. That makes sense.

Whilst we're at it, why stop with a little bit of high-tech makeup? If a picture is going to be displayed in large format in a magazine, it needs to be a pretty good image. Distracting things in the background can be easily removed - like wall sockets, triffid-like house plants and the mother-in-law. Other unintentional visual gaffs can also be corrected whilst we're at it. After all, if they'd seen the picture as it was being taken, surely the model would have wanted us to remove that wayward bra-strap, that fly away spike of hair, oh, and that intrusive g-string? Ooops.. Suddenly a picture that was of our model in a crowded film premier appears to be of a woman standing nude in an empty Odeon foyer. How did that happen?

Apparently, the answer is that often it happens with the full knowledge of the model. Sometimes it's just not practical or possible to get reality to match the concept in the photographer's head. That bra strap might be part of a major priece of engineering resposible for keeping everything in place, or the model might (quite rightly) not want to take her bra off just to get a nice bare shouderline. In one recent case the re-touching extended to completely replacing one designer swim-suit with another when the magazine in question was running a feature on a competing fashion house. Models can go into a photoshoot, pose and then later join the picture editor to approve the little corrections that turn the snapshot into a photograph worthy of publishing. This might just involve making sure that the eye-whitening doesn't make them look like they're some sort of alien, but can include changes to hair, clothes and their surroundings.

It is a slippery slope however. I've already written about the impossible ideals that the media today impose on us in terms of the perfect physiques that so many of our role models display. Gone are the pop stars and actors with 'characterful' faces and bodies (think Noddy Holder, Janet Street-Porter, Freddy Mercury and the Smurfs) and instead we have interchangeable whitebread blonde girls and handsome baywatch boys. There is also the danger that the changes are less innocent and (as apparently in Kylie's case) unwanted. This is a misrepresentation and a very definite intrusion into someone's life. To some extent I'd have to accept the publisher's argument that it's so much a part of modern media that any famous person should be aware of it and even take part in the process. But what part of your 'famous person's contract' gives you control over every published photo the media can generate?

Here at Claudia's Diversity I re-touch most photos to tidy up backgrounds, but apart from occasional fixes of 'scanner noise' that's about it. Of course I have the advantage that I have fairly tight control from one end of the process to the other, so I only bother to show you the pictures that worked in the first place. Other personal pages can be less honest however, which to my mind is worse than the little deceits in magazines and newspapers. Some of the rather narcissistic sexual homepages found on the web hold up pictures of people that simply don't exist. This paints a very poor image of communities that are already on the fringe of society, and though some sites will proclaim 'look what I can do with a paint package', most do so only to decieve and gain attention.

In fact the anonymity of the web means that rather than just fixing imperfection, the unscrupulous web site owner can choose to switch heads and bodies at will. The practice of turning genuine girls into 'she-males' with the aid of a little virtual organ transplant is not unknown. At the simplest level some sites just use someone else's photos and proclaim 'this is me'. I had the address of a site that set out to expose some of these frauds, but sadly I've since lost it. It made interesting reading, but though I guess we're all aware that we should take what we see on the internet with a pinch of salt, the long list of 'fake' sites was quite depressing.

So where does this all leave us? It seems we can't trust anything we see any more. If you're looking at magazines or the web, don't sit there wishing you had a body like that model because you possibly already do. If you're famous, you could very quicky become infamous when snapped playing the banjo in the nude - even if you never played a banjo in your life. Perhaps though this is just the very start of a much more amazing development, where we stop using computers to simply re-touch models, and start using them to create them in the first place. At the moment we can see Lara Croft advertising soft drinks on television. Before too long those images will be harder to tell from reality. In future, perhaps Naomi will be only too pleased to have her underwear virtually removed when it gives her the edge against a 'cyber-supermodel' that relies on a motion actress, voice talent, body designers and a powerful computer to give a flawless performance 'on demand'.

On the other hand maybe we can only take so much perfection. Those candid shots of Madonna going to the shops in unexcitingly baggy clothes are reassuring - if she's famous it's because she's talented, not because she's trailed round by a team of artists. Similarly, knowing that Kylie didn't want to bear all in front of a photographer makes her just as self concious as we are, even if she can throw it off to perform in front of an audience of millions. I suspect that the future is no more perfect than the present, because we want that genuine human touch in what we see. Sadly this will never stop the march of the made-up people invading the web, but even there reality tends to intrude when a sparkling virtual presence has nothing more to say for themselve than 'look at me' and not show any signs of matching personality. Maybe there's hope for me yet.