Beyonce, J Lo, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Strange Economy of Showing Too Much Red Carpet Skin
There are two camps in Hollywood right now: the Skins (who show way too much) and the Prims (the serious actresses who show almost nothing) as attention vs. acclaim duke it out through clothing: "A dying career can be resuscitated by sexuality, but a live one can get murdered by it."
This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In Hollywood, a cultural divide has split the red carpet, with celebrities who could be considered "Skins" on one side and, on the other, "Prims." The Skins are the stars who pose and expose (parts of) themselves, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kates Hudson and Beckinsale, hyping sex and body image at premieres, events and awards shows. Forget #AskHerMore — #ShowThemMore is what Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian had in mind when they wore strategically placed sequins (and little else) to the Met Ball; Beyonce even changed her dress en route when she clocked the revealing red-carpet photos of her Skin-sational peers. As for the Prims: These are the covered-up, even modest, generally younger actresses, including Emmas Watson and Stone, who are playing for awards gold — which comes with a lower (i.e., more prestigious) payday. (The velvet- and Victoriana-reviving fall 2015 collections of Givenchy, Lanvin, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino seem to be on the side of propriety and these Prim Young Things.)
Yes, sex still sells. Taking almost all of it off can pay off in mammoth social-media followings, which are practically redeemable for cash: Beyonce has 32.6 million Instagram fans; Kardashian, 32.5 million; Lopez, 17 million. Celebrities can earn $2,500 to $75,000 for a single tweet, says Lori Sale, partner at Artist & Brand Management, which matches stars with endorsement deals. "A 'drop by' at an event can pay $18,000 to $25,000 for doing a red carpet; hosting from $25,000 to $150,000," she says. One A-list film agent compared the $28 million earned in 2014 by Kardashian to the disappearance of Hollywood's $10 million to $20 million project fees. "All my clients are complaining that movies will never get them Kardashian money. Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep are the only female movie stars making anything close to real money these days."
Most celebrities won't reap the sizable rewards of a Kardashian — but they can reap some, according to these new rules of nude economics. "Getting red-carpet attention for anything," explains a powerful publicist, "even 3-inch-long skirts or 3 feet of cleavage, can earn you maybe not A-list endorsement deals like Jennifer Lawrence or Charlize Theron, but C-list ones," such as Selena Gomez's Kmart junior fashion line that brings her a cool million a year. "Tabloid pics keep you on the radar, if only for controversy. For a lot of female stars, that's better than nothing." Paris Hilton and Jessicas Simpson and Alba have built billion-dollar fashion, beauty and lifestyle businesses off of their bombshell images. Sale confirms that "there's tasteful half-naked and tacky half-naked. A body that can accommodate [the former] won't harm endorsements. Brands look for talent that's relevant, names that make the weeklies — at least you're in demand."
But an actress can't expect to be a casting frontrunner for the next awards-bait project if she insists on baring everything but her soul. "I have friends who are casting directors," says a rep from one of the top three talent agencies. "I sit in a room with them and with producers and watch them all Google actresses. If lots of half-naked pictures come up, they take them out of the running." Another top agent observes: "When was the last time you saw Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson in an A-list movie with a serious role? A dying career can be resuscitated by sexuality, but a live one can get murdered by it."
Hudson and Cameron Diaz have been playing the body card throughout their careers, with the former not having had a significant movie role since 2009's Nine and the latter losing steam at the box office. Paltrow's red-carpet stunts, from Antonio Berardi sheer side-butt panels to minidresses paired with high heels, make her seem more like the country star of 2010's Country Strong than the 1998 Oscar winner in a Ralph Lauren princess gown. This, no doubt, despite the Skins' higher F-factor (what Hollywood producers calls "f—ability," skewered in comic Amy Schumer's viral video sketch, "Last F—able Day," co-starring Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus). In this town, it seems you gotta have f—ability, but unfortunately for the Skins, you just can't flaunt it too much.
Luckily, some actresses on the Skin-baring side now run empires and are not grasping for mere roles. Paltrow, founder of lifestyle e-tailer Goop, and Hudson, co-founder of fledgling athleisure line Fabletics, are not dependent on casting directors, TV producers or movie directors to earn annual revenue streams in the millions. As scantily clad ambassadors marketing the benefits of their health-conscious brands, certain Skins seem to display a head for business and a bod for sin. Curves (both covered and exposed) have brought Sofia Vergara commercials and endorsements that made her the richest woman in TV (Forbes claims she's worth $85 million), even without a major lifestyle brand — yet.
You can't take class to the bank, but female talent who dress more demurely do rake in nominations, magazine covers and coveted projects. Rising and established A-listers who keep themselves on the modest, fabric-friendly side include Felicity Jones, Alicia Vikander, Shailene Woodley, Kiernan Shipka, Carey Mulligan, Mia Wasikowska, Michelle Williams, Kate Mara and Reese Witherspoon (Southern belles remain prim no matter how hard they try to the contrary). During awards season, Prims wear minimal-seeming makeup and maintain fresh "girly" images even in major finery, often going for high lace collars and eschewing tight fits or exposure outside of arms and some rare leg. Clearly, these ladies are in it for the cred.
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If Prims (or prudes to the red-carpet crudes, as it were) possess sartorial instincts and work with a great stylist, they can graduate to the ranks of Hollywood fashion crossover icon. A-lister Theron never flaunts B&B (boobs and butt — or bass). The Dior spokesmodel exudes haute-couture hauteur, never outright sexuality. Of course, Theron is also more slender than curvy — body shape determining destiny in this arena (sorry, feminists).
Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore still earn the best parts and requisite awards noms as their images get ever more associated with designer fashion and high style. Their younger compatriots are Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Anne Hathaway, Lupita Nyong'o and Natalie Portman. "It does seem like the more talent you have as an actress," notes stylist and red-carpet commentator George Kotsiopoulos, "the less you take off. Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence get plenty of attention for their acting — they don't need to dress like porn stars for extra ego boost." Neither, in the pop milieu, does Taylor Swift — even though "we do expect pop stars to dress in extremes," says Gersh Agency senior managing partner Leslie Siebert. "You don't see [Swift] doing that," adds stylist Ilaria Urbinati. "She doesn't have to. It used to be cleavage or legs or tight. But you can't do them all at the same time and still be considered chic."
Talk about black and white: Gone are the days of Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Jane Fonda of Barbarella, when sex sirens were also considered serious talent. "But I think we're at the tail end of this trend," says Kotsiopoulos of the current great divide. "Now that everyone's traipsing down a press line in birthday suits, it's just boring. Baring all on the red carpet shall pass." Adds Urbinati: "A full-on reveal is not innovative anymore. It's not shocking and it's not new. What would be shocking would be if Beyonce showed up all covered up."