Growing up in the South, my friends and I had a unified theory of beauty: the more blue eye shadow you were wearing, the better you looked. We used as many shades as we could, buying big discount-store palettes and layering the stuff from lashes to eyebrow. I don’t know how this look got started or why it has such a regional flavor. But it was with a certain amount of nostalgia—you might say a shock of recognition—that years later, sitting in the makeup chair at Fox News, preparing to promote a book, I watched as the makeup artist lavished blue shadow onto my lids, so much shadow that I felt I should be wearing a sash and tiara.
Afterward, I made some inquiries among other women who had been guests on Fox and among the makeup professionals who work in the brightly lit warrens of the news-talk-show industry, transforming dozens of faces a day. I learned that while the vivid blue of my eye shadow may have been an aberration, its heavy application was not. “Pageant queen” was one of the kinder articulations I heard of the female aesthetic at Fox News and its financial counterpart, Fox Business; “glamour nighttime” was another. “At Fox, they look very painted,” a makeup artist at CNN said pointedly. (This makeup artist, like many of those I spoke with, preferred not to be named, for fear of losing future assignments.) A publicist who works with high-profile news makers recalled that Fox covered one client’s face with so much bronzer that she “looked like a female George Hamilton.”
Of course, TV news shows have always put a premium on appearance, more so for women than for men. And it’s hardly a revelation that some networks place more pressure on women than do others: C-SPAN has no makeup room at all, just a collection of powder compacts that guests can use if they are so inclined. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow is known to prefer minimal makeup, while other anchors want more, and the artists oblige with a range of choices, from neutral tones to berry hues. Bloomberg TV tends toward the corporate aesthetic; CNN favors a professional style that makes women and men look crisp, as if they have been ironed. As for Fox, suffice it to say that there is a YouTube montage devoted to leg shots of Fox anchors, who are often outfitted in body-hugging dresses of vibrant red and turquoise, their eyes enhanced by not only liner and shadow but also false lashes. A Fox regular once commented to me that she gets more calls from network management about her hair, clothes, and makeup than about what she says. “I just think of it as a uniform,” she said of her getup.
But here’s the newer development: It’s not just anchors who are pressured to look good while talking, it’s relatively ordinary women, too. For a contingent of female bloggers, ideologues, advocates, pundits, and writers, a Fox gig brings with it an unexpected dilemma. There you are, a renowned expert on nuclear proliferation/immigration policy/the Middle East, obliged to regard yourself in the mirror and ask: Will I really go on national television looking like a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and a waitress from Hooters?
Not that you have much of a choice. “I see that you like a natural look,” a Fox makeup artist said to me, then proceeded to paint a red line slightly outside the edge of my lips, and fill it in with ample gloss. A stylist curled my hair and teased it; when she asked if I wore it flipped up or under, I said under. She flipped it up, venturing that “up is cuter.” Other artists told me that if network executives don’t like what they see on a guest, the phone rings promptly. (Fox did not respond to requests for comment.)
Fox no doubt has several reasons for pursuing the look one guest described as “Fox glam.” The advent of high-definition TV screens is probably one of them: saturated colors (including, conveniently, red) work well in HD. And then there’s the management. Gabriel Sherman, a journalist working on a book about Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, notes makeup’s unique role in Ailes’s creation myth, which dates to a fateful encounter with Richard Nixon. When Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy, in 1960, many said that his fate had been sealed by bad makeup during a televised debate. Before an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show seven years later, Nixon groused about having to stoop so low as to go on television; Ailes, the executive producer for the show, persuaded him to embrace the medium, and the makeup. Nixon hired him to work on his next presidential campaign, and won.
Ailes, Sherman points out, under-stands that while TV news may be journalism, it is also entertainment. “He works like a Broadway producer,” says Sherman (indeed, at one point Ailes was a Broadway producer). That, Sherman says, is why Fox sets look like stage sets: “The colors are brighter, the camera angles faster. Everything pops on the screen more, everything is eye candy.”
But the best explanation for Fox glam may be the channel’s largely conservative audience. An argument can be made that conservative women are typically less squeamish than progressive ones about embracing what the sociologist Catherine Hakim calls “erotic capital,” otherwise known as using your looks to get ahead. See the gleeful Laura Ingraham/Ann Coulter school of beautyology, which holds that the angrier and better-coiffed you are, the more attention you will receive. The Republican Party welcomes looks in a woman—Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley—and so does Fox.
“They’re definitely pandering to a male audience,” says Meli Pennington, a makeup artist who runs a blog called Wild Beauty. Also, cable-news viewers tend to be older, so Fox may be specifically catering to the sensibilities of older men, she posits, by making women a little “brighter.” She means this literally. “You think of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends,” she says: “As he got older, they all get brighter and blonder. Look at Anna Nicole Smith. It’s like the large-print edition of women.”
The media critic Jack Shafer adds that the women you see on Fox are not just winsome, lavishly cosmeticized women, but winsome women paired with older men. He says the network almost appears to be taking a page from the theory of evolutionary psychology, which argues that women are attracted to prosperous (often older) men, and these men are attracted to women whose youth and curves signal fertility. “
The men are kind of frumpy older men,” Sherman agrees, “paired with hyper-feminine women. That kind of kinetic energy between the sexes is one of the reasons Fox is successful. Oftentimes the older male hosts—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity—in the prime time, at night, are paired with women, debating politics, and the women are generally much younger … It almost goes back to 1940s Hollywood.” For guests, the Hollywood screwball routine can be unnerving. It was for Nell Minow, a critic of inflated CEO pay, who was taken aback when a producer urged her to “attack the masculinity” of her debate partner.
A number of makeup artists pointed out to me that other channels are beginning to embrace the Fox approach to cosmeticization, and that plenty of female guests actually like being made over. Which brings us to a final possible motive for Fox’s approach to makeup: women. Most viewers of cable news—including, yes, Fox—are female. Could Fox be trying to entice not just men, but women, too? The truth is, women also like to look at pretty women. “I have to say: I don’t really enjoy the news they broadcast, but I am entranced by Megyn Kelly’s holographic lip gloss,” Meli Pennington, the makeup artist, says. “I see it sparkling in high definition, and it’s really cool. Even though it’s strange, I’m entranced.”
Pennington’s fascination with the women of Fox goes beyond makeup. “It’s that little scowling look they give you when they’re delivering the news,” she continued. “It’s like the bitchy girl in high school, [but] now she’s your friend, and you hate the same people.”