Hollywood Beauty: Does fame distort our perception of attraction?

In today’s era, American society follows the lives of a family made famous through association and scandal. The Kardashians are known as “American royalty,” simulating the fame of royal families famous by association and arbitrary nobility, perpetuated by the people. They are icons in the fashion and beauty industry and whatever they do, society mimics. Kylie Jenner’s lip kit, part of her new cosmetic line, has exploded on the market simply due to her fame. Everyone wants to look like Kylie because everyone admires Kylie’s beauty.

Today’s celebrities are known for their looks. While they may have entered the celebrity scene as actors, musicians, or models, society focuses on what makes them beautiful and what about their beauty can be emulated by society. The manner in which fame is evolving, from those with talent to those with beauty, begs the question: are celebrities truly more beautiful than the average person or do we allow the power of fame to dictate what is beautiful?

Anjan Chatterjee references this idea in his book, The Aesthetic Brain, proposing that perhaps we are just pawns to the “Hollywood machine” that is manipulating us into thinking that celebrities are more beautiful. The cause and effect of beauty and celebrity are called into question. Does beauty facilitate celebrity status or does celebrity status infer beauty? (This, of course, refers to natural beauty and ignores the increasingly common route from celebrity status to plastic surgery to a synthetic form of crafted beauty).

In a study conducted by Kendra Schmid at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a formula was created to measure and compare celebrity face attractiveness to the rest of the population. This formula used specific ‘feature points’ on an image of a face as measurements and took into account facial symmetry, neoclassical canons of facial proportions, and the golden ratio between facial features known to be aesthetically pleasing. The measurable neoclassical canons are as follows:

Forehead height = nose length = lower face height

Nose length = ear length

Interocular distance = nose width

Interocular distance = right or left eye fissure width

Mouth width = 1.5 × nose width

Face width = 4 × nose width

When Schmid compared these aspects of celebrity faces to those of non-celebrities, she found that the average attractiveness score out of 10 for non-celebrities was between 4-5 while celebrities tend to score at a minimum of 6. According to her algorithm, celebrities are significantly more attractive than non-celebrities with top scorers including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Kate Upton, and Miley Cyrus. (See the link below for graphic).

Using e-fits, a criminal facial mapping software, Chris Solomon surveyed participants in another study on what features they found most beautiful. After generating the e-fit photos, he compared their features to modern celebrities to rank those closest to these ideal images and ranked Natalie Portman and David Gandy as the top male and female celebrities.

Another study conducted in Israel and Germany created a “beautification engine” to adjust images of individuals to their most beautiful form. They used an algorithm based on participant input of attractive photos that measured facial features and trained a computer to alter the geometry of photos to recreate the ideal distances most similar to the original face. The before and after images were compared and those with the least difference were determined to have the most natural beauty. While most celebrity photos showed lesser difference than non-celebrities, James Franco’s image stood out as having few to no altered differences in the ‘after’ photo suggesting that he has the ideal natural form of facial beauty.

While these studies would both assert that celebrities are assuredly more beautiful than non-celebrities, other studies that look more specifically at the brain would suggest that the power of celebrity does not come from beauty, although it may have contributed to their rise to fame. One particular study, conducted by Baldeesh Gakhal and Carl Senior in 2010 evaluated the effects of fame and beauty on emotional responses to marketing. While measuring electrodermal activity (EDA), a physiological response indicating an emotional response, participants looked at celebrity and non-celebrity endorsements of both attractive and average conditions. The researchers found a main effect of fame and the highest EDA response was seen in the average celebrity condition. “The fact that fame (and not beauty) drove the subsequent two-way interaction suggests that famous models initiate an emotion-based response more so than attractive models” (337).

It is known, through various studies of facial profile compilations, that the average of all faces is seen as the most aesthetically pleasing. So why is the beauty of celebrities so salient? It is likely that this has a lot more to do with familiarity. Celebrities may be glorified for their beauty, but they are also household names and in this day and age are easily recognizable to the majority of society, with TV and computers making their image easily accessible and prevalent. It is possible that whether or not celebrities became famous for their beauty, our attraction to them increases as our familiarity with their image increases. A study on facial attractiveness using profile-image stimuli showed that increasing exposure to faces increased their perceived attractiveness (Peskin & Newell, 2004). This would suggest that celebrities become more and more beautiful to us as they become more and more familiar. This would explain why our emotional responses are stronger to those celebrities more familiar to us, regardless of their objective beauty.

Despite all of the algorithms of facial beauty demonstrating the evident above-average beauty of celebrities, perhaps Chatterjee’s proposed question is still relevant. Are we just pawns to the “Hollywood machine” that manipulates us into thinking that celebrities are more beautiful? Historically, celebrity was based more in power than beauty. Those who were recognizable in societies or nations were those who could afford to have paintings or sculptures made of themselves and seen by others. Those who were powerful were not always beautiful. Perhaps global cultural evolution has shaped our susceptibility to beauty. The more accessible and familiar the images of celebrities become, the more beauty drives fame and familiarity drives beauty. Perhaps Hollywood, the greatest distributor of our American cultural image, has everything to do with our concept of beauty.



Schmid’s celebrity face study grahic:  http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/d3/celebrityfaces.html

Chris Solomon’s e-fit study: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/11502572/Are-these-the-most-beautiful-faces-in-the-world.html

“Beautification engine” before and after photos: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/10/08/fashion/20081009-SKIN_index.html


Gakhal, B. and Senior, C. (2008), Examining the influence of fame in the presence of beauty: an electrodermal ‘neuromarketing’ study. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7: 331–341. doi: 10.1002/cb.255

Peskin M., Newell F. N. (2004). Familiarity breeds attraction: effects of exposure on the attractiveness of typical and distinctive faces. Perception 33 147–157. 10.1068/p5028

Schmid, K., Marx, D., Samal, A. (2008). Computation of a face attractiveness index based on neoclassical canons, symmetry, and golden ratios. Pattern Recognition, 41(8): 2710–2717.


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