I'll never forget being at a party in London years ago when a woman turned to me and said, "Sure you're pretty, but your looks are expected." Even if she needed a few lessons in manners, she had a point. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed is somewhat banal. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another."
It is much more interesting to look at something that is slightly imperfect, slightly askew - whether it be a room (MC would purposely pull her curtains off one or two hooks) or a face. And who else but the French would come up with a term for this? "Jolie-laide" or "pretty-ugly" is hard to define, and perhaps, like many French expressions, isn't meant to be.
I posted a few days ago on Les Dames de Bois de Boulogne which featured the actress Maria Casares whom I referred to as jolie-laide. A reader - in France no less - disagreed that she qualified, and immediately served up Bette Davis as a prime example.
Mr. Worthington sent me the 1963 cover of Harper's Bazaar (top photo) which apparently caused quite a stir: "Only recently it occurred to me that there was an elaborate insider's joke going on~ Richard Avedon was channeling Diana Vreeland with this model's navy blue hair, makeup, cigarette holder (inside the magazine, the same model wore a snood). Then, Walter Winchell ran a squib which implied that the model was in fact not a real woman at all! It was never verified and has intrigued me ever since...."
And intriguing is the point of the jolie-laide.
Click here for an excellent New York Times article exploring this elusive quality.