This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Cleavage. It's so two years ago.
Last awards season, legs were the way to lock eyes with the lenses -- till Angelina maxed out that long-limbed look. Yes, body parts -- even hers -- can be overexposed.
Cut to awards season 2013: It's bringing sexy back. Low-backed gowns are proliferating on the red carpet like asymmetric single-shoulder dresses did a few seasons back. Such Golden Globe nominees as Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway have bared their backs nearly to the butt for premieres. From thoracic vertebrae to the lumbar region, back cleavage -- with a hint of the formerly verboten bottom (note Sofia Vergara's gown split at the 2012 Emmys) -- is the new erotic display. And there's nothing like a toned scapula -- particularly that of an actress looking back over sculpted shoulders -- to turn heads.
When Hollywood coyly beckons, fashion provides. From Zac Posen to J. Mendel, Nina Ricci to Monique Lhuillier, the Spring 2013 collections were filled with myriad ways to show off a sleek and sensuous back. Gucci's high necklines contrasted with superlow backs; Michael Kors' strappy cutout backs were constructed with black jersey. Every vertebrae-exposing variety went down one runway or another: halter gowns with no backs, large keyhole backs, short sleeves with very low backs and even ruffly, semi-demure low backs.
Expect to see even more fashion- forward backs on red carpets as Hathaway, Cate Blanchett (who wore a white backless Givenchy to the London premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), Jessica Chastain (at the Venice Film Festival in Elie Saab) and Emily Blunt (wowing in an orange low-back Alexander McQueen in November) continue to crane necks -- theirs and others. These A-listers know that if one's back is sinewy with the right amount of muscle definition and tone, then it's as sexy as cleavage but without an ounce of tacky. Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth: These ladies gave good back -- and gave backs a good name.
"It's history when you do it right," says makeup artist Joanna Schlip, who works with Laura Linney and Christina Applegate. She recalls Hilary Swank's open-back, butt-grazing Guy Laroche blue dress at the 2005 Oscars, which garnered unanimous fashion raves.
But, warns Schlip, "If one thing isn't working, it's over." For actresses, perfection starts with workouts. During the weeks leading up to the Globes and SAG Awards, trainer Gunnar Peterson recommends "working the lower back, as well as upper back and rear shoulders," starting with "rowing and pulldowns." Yoga and Pilates make the back muscles long and lean and also, according to Mark Blanchard of Power Yoga in Brentwood, relieve lower back pain. "A pain-free back makes a more beautiful back," he tells THR. Masseuse Patricia Smits, whose clients include Lhuillier and Poppy Adlon, agrees. "If one or more muscles become too tight, your posture's thrown out. A massage will bring back alignment," she says. "The skin will look more beautiful through increased blood circulation."
Beverly Hills facialist Ronit Falevitch uses microdermabrasion for back skin "with vitamin C to remove blackheads," adding that a hydrating mask and LED light therapy make skin smooth and glowing. Back breakouts leave blemishes that darken with sun exposure. Beverly Hills dermatologist Peter Kopelson recommends his Kopelson Clinic bleaching cream, which fades pigmentation fast. "I'd also start a series of laser treatments alternating with a light machine on a weekly basis," he says. "They take care of shoulder freckles and tighten the skin."
If all else fails, a fast "skin finishing" by spray-tanning expert Fiona Locke -- what Olivia Munn and Gwyneth Paltrow do -- will even everything out in minutes. The new formulations are sans bad scents and stains and, says Locke, "do not come off on clothes." Schlip recommends her Red Carpet Kolour for "just this reason: I had problems with body makeup coming off on dresses. Once this dries, it won't transfer. I've had people go into Jacuzzis, and it doesn't come off!" She adds that bronzers and shine products bring out the bones. "The way light falls accentuates the back curve -- the red carpet is the new runway!" And most important when working your back: "Sell it," advises Schlip. "They see you coming -- and going."