Pop Idols go large

Is the 'Big Girl with the Big Voice' a triumph for fat sex or a bad advert for obesity?

Jennie Bristow

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So a fat girl has won ITV1’s second Pop Idol contest. Is this a triumph for ‘real women’ over seven-stone super-waifs, or an indictment of the UK public’s slobbish complacency in the face of a growing obesity crisis?

Does it show the victory of musical talent over aesthetic appearance – that the popstar’s equivalent of ‘a great personality’ need not always mean a lifetime of obscurity? Or is it a mere blip, showing that the public’s choice will never match the record labels’ spontaneous signings, and that we will always need Therapy TV to compensate for the unfair expectations of Real Life?

This is only a handful of the wild and wacky opinions that have been aired in the wake of Saturday night’s Pop Idol final, in which 15-stone Glaswegian Michelle McManus triumphed over ‘Yummy Brummie’ Mark Rhodes. Pete Waterman, one of the show’s judges, was reportedly so disgusted with the result that he stormed off the set and refused to attend Michelle’s victory party later on. Mirror columnist Tony Parsons has lambasted the outcome as ‘a triumph for political correctness’ and complained: ‘Nobody had the nerve to come out and state the obvious – sorry, but there’s no way a woman, never mind a popstar, that young should be that fat.’ (1)

On the other side, the Sun argues that Michelle’s victory ‘is a triumph for girls everywhere who don’t conform to the pop princess image’, and castigates ‘grumpy old Pete Waterman’ for not caring what Pop Idol voters think (2). And on the night of the contest, Pop Idol’s ‘Mr Nasty’ Simon Cowell veritably gushed: ‘If you weren’t in the final it would have been boring. You’ve broken the norm. I’m interested.’ (3) And yes, so are the rest of us – but not because of what the triumph of Big over Beautiful says about the ‘norms’ of the pop world, so much as what it reveals about our screwed-up attitudes to body image.

Viewers of Pop Idol and other shows in its genre will know that breaking ‘norms’ has become an entirely predictable thing. A gay man won the previous series, while the runner-up suffered from a serious stutter; a lesbian won the BBC’s Pop Idol copycat Fame Academy, and all manner of misfits have triumphed in Channel 4’s Big Brother, where it is not even pretended that singing will be on trial, and looks and ‘personality’ count for everything. If the fat girl had lost out to Wolverhampton’s Mark, the pop world’s norm would have still been broken by choosing for an ‘idol’ somebody so everyday. ‘I look at you and, I don’t mean this rudely, I think Ordinary Bloke Idol’, said Simon Cowell. What a compliment.

The profile given to fat girls in this latest series (remember Kim, who also made it into the final 12?) is slightly different, though. While today’s spirit of self-conscious tolerance loves gay boys and speech impediments, society’s attitude to fat people is more ambivalent. We are in the midst of a government-sponsored public health panic about obesity, which is leading to calls for bizarre measures like banning junk food advertising and making gym attendance compulsory, and which means that GPs are expected to give routine lectures to their tubby patients while parents force-feed celery to their kids and treat crisps and sweets as toxic substances.

Yet at the same time, we are living through a moral panic about the evils of promoting ‘stereotypical’ images of thin, beautiful women. New labels such as ‘looksism’ and ‘size-ism’ have sprung up to describe these new prejudices, and a paranoia about schoolgirls’ tendency to diet and dislike the way they look gives rise to endless ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns about eating disorders and self-esteem-boosting sessions promoting the philosophy, ‘Love yourself’. Aesthetically, to say that ‘thin is good’ is a crime; medically, to reassure oneself that ‘fat is fine’ is dangerous and irresponsible. No wonder we’re so confused.

There is a common logic here, however, which is revealed with frightening clarity by the Pop Idol final: and that is the philosophy of low expectations. Today’s society seems to have nothing better to do than watch its own weight; and such is the narrow, obsessive focus of our times that political leaders can think of no campaigns more worthy of their attention than those which dictate, meal by meal, what we should ideally eat.

All of this makes obesity out to be far more serious a problem than it actually is in the UK today. Yes, there are some Michelles out there – but if as many people were like that as those who worry about the ‘obesity crisis’ would have us believe, she would hardly be reaping the rewards of novelty value. Furthermore, she might be visually unappealing, but she hardly seems unhealthy. If the authorities weren’t hell bent on ramming home the message that Chips And Burgers Kill, they might take some reassurance from the fact that obese young women can put on demanding pop performances without keeling over.

Which would be fine if Pop Idol was a medical check-up instead of what it actually is: a talent contest. More than that – it’s not just a talent contest to find the best voice (allegedly, Michelle’s saving grace), but to find a Pop Idol. That surely means somebody capable of looking and behaving like a top popstar, as well as sounding like one; and for all the wishful comparisons with Alison Moyet by Fat Michelle’s fans, Pete Waterman’s original verdict – ‘You’re not a Pop Idol, you’ll never be a Pop Idol’ – sounds pretty fair enough. In the superficial world of manufactured pop – which is a world apart from singer-songwriting – looks really do matter. It indicates something of today’s low ambitions that we are reluctant even to admit this, for fear of damaging the self-esteem of the less-than-beautiful.

The bizarre way in which the medical war on obesity is reconciled with emotionally correct attitudes towards body image is summed up in comments by a ‘health expert’, who BBC News online found at Glasgow University. ‘I’m delighted for her success, although I think Scotland has an obesity issue that it must confront’, Professor Phil Hanlon said of Michelle. ‘So, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t undermine people that are overweight and rather, gives them confidence and a sense of self-esteem to confront the problem – that’s the challenge.’ (4) So in order to have the confidence to lose weight, fat people have to feel good about being fat? Anything for a soundbite, I suppose.

The real indication of Pop Idol’s low expectations, however, is the way it oozes ordinariness from every pore. Whether it’s Mark ‘Ordinary Bloke Idol’ Rhodes or Michelle ‘I could be working in McDonald’s in six months’ time’ McManus, celebrity today is not about people turning themselves into stars but in becoming famous precisely for being ordinary. Just as all reality TV seeks to provide a window on to people’s lives as they are, Pop Idol celebrates the regional accents, bad dress sense and social awkwardness of youngsters who can sing. ‘It should have been called Karaoke Idol’, wrote Emma Cox in the Sunday Mirror – and indeed, had the whole contest been held in some pub , what would it have lost? A lot of nonsense commentary and water-cooler speculation. Still, that’s entertainment.

And it should be left firmly in the entertainment box. Since the success of Pop Idol’s first series, the show has been lauded as evidence that our disengaged, disinterested society still has the will to participate in decision-making and the desire to make judgements. At least the fat lady’s singing saga shows this conceit up for the nonsense that it is. Simon Cowell’s pantomime tough-guy routine barely masks the fact that the judges and viewers alike seem less interested in making judgements than in simply striking blows at the status quo, and the push-button participation that this show invites is unconvincing even at the level of predicting a popstar. And this is supposed to be a model for the next general election?

(1) Tony Parsons: a sizeable victory for the PC brigade, The Mirror, 22 December 2003

(2) ‘Pop off, Pete’, Sun, 22 December 2003

(3) ‘Michelle our belle’, Sunday Mirror, 21 December 2003

(4) Pop Idol winner is ‘role model’, BBC News, 22 December 2003

(5) ‘You’ll be history by 2005’, Sunday Mirror, 21 December 2003

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