Nude photos of pregnant celebrities are now more likely to draw a yawn than a second glance but are such images empowering or just tacky, asks Suzanne Harrington
TWENTY or so years ago, posing naked and heavily pregnant on the cover of a magazine would generally have happened only in specialist publications that arrived anonymously through your letterbox wrapped in brown paper.
Then Annie Leibovitz put Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, in an unforgettable image that quickly became one of the most iconic cover shots of the late 20th century. So captivated were we by the sight of naked late pregnancy as commercial art that the issue sold 548,000 copies. But could these kind of sales be replicated, or was pregnant Demi a bit like the first ever Big Brother — a fascinating talking-point, but essentially a one-off?
Other magazines jumped on it. Once our cultural queasiness around pregnancy had been transcended — remember, this was less than ten years on from when Princess Diana, pregnant with William, had worn the kind of hide-all maternity tents our mothers used to wear — the pregnant cover-star stampede began. Everyone who was anyone queued up to get their kit off in their third trimester; outside the pregnancy press, naked pregnant ladies on magazine covers abounded.
After Demi came Cindy Crawford for W magazine in 1999, Brooke Shields for Vogue in 2003, and Heidi Klum for Vitals Woman in 2005. The divine Monica Bellucci showed up pregnant twice on the cover of Italian Vogue, in 2004 and again in 2010, as did Claudia Schiffer on the cover of German Vogue also in 2010. Britney did it twice with the same pregnancy in 2006, naked and tasteful for Harper’s Bazaar, and in a frankly disturbing Lolitaesque lollipop-sucking bikini-wearing cover shoot for Q. You didn’t know whether to make her a cup of tea or call the police.
And the latest celeb to strike the pose is Jessica Simpson, currently posing naked and pregnant on the cover of Elle. She looks very nice. Lots of Barbie-blonde hair, and lots of perfect golden skin, naked but for a heavy covering of air-brush. She has adopted the classic side-view-with-hands-covering-nipples stance for maximum bump display, and in keeping with tradition, is entirely naked. But not in a Page Three way. Heavens, no. More in a tasteful show of fecundity, while conveniently unclothed. In terms of exposure, it’s a win-win; the madonna image couldn’t be purer, yet is accessorised by pregnancy bosoms. No matter how modestly she poses, she’s still starkers.
That’s the thing. Adding any kind of accessories or clothing to a naked pregnant lady shoot turns it into something else. Christina Aguilera, in her 2008 pregnant cover for Marie Claire, blew it by wearing a leather jacket — and nothing else. Then it stops being a study in glossy fertility and moves into brown paper wrapping territory. Somebody should have told her. But the shot that unambiguously gets the prize for Too Much Visual Information goes to the OK! cover for Mariah Carey, pregnant with twins, which sold 324,000 copies last year. She decided to bring her husband along for the shoot, so that instead of using her own hands to cover her nipples, she used his.
“I was feeling very vulnerable about taking pictures at all right now, but then I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to document this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Carey said. “My ultimate goal was to share this incredibly personal moment with my true fans.” And anyone else who happened to be walking past a newsagents that week. But that’s famous people for you — there is a certain sub-genre of celebrity which can no longer differentiate between public and personal.
The whole naked-pregnant schtick came full circle in 2006, when the Guardian printed a priceless picture of the very large comedian Johnny Vegas, looking doe-eyed at the camera in an hilariously grotesque inversion of the classic Demi pose. When the late Leslie Nielsen did the same pose for a poster to promote the third Naked Gun movie, Annie Leibovitz tried to sue.
So what does it mean when a famous woman gets her kit off for the cameras while pregnant? Is it a statement of empowerment, or just another PR opportunity? Well, both actually. Let’s look at the last one first. Famous people are famous because they either chase fame, or accept that promoting themselves is part of their job. When you’re at the Katie Price end of the market, you’ll pose naked and pregnant with your fully clothed then-husband for The Sun; when you’re Kerry Katona, you’ll go one further and invite MTV into the labour ward to film you actually giving birth.
We live in an era of reality television programmes which show the ins and outs of colonic irrigation, obesity surgery and sex; there is nothing people won’t do in front of a camera to get on the telly, or in the gossip press. The less famous you are, the more you will do for fame; once fame is achieved, the less interesting or talented a celebrity’s creative output, the more they have to flog the personal.
Yet at the other end of the scale are the Demis, Cindys and Heidis, none of whom need to pose naked — pregnant or otherwise — to enhance their already golden profiles. The cover of Vogue and Vanity Fair is a very different place from the cover of Heat or Take A Break. So why do A-list women do it?
It could be the fact that all celebrities are enormous show-offs. Otherwise they wouldn’t be celebrities, they’d be working in insurance or delivering pizzas. This need to show off applies to everyone from Hollywood royalty to Big Brother also-rans – the show-off gene does not discriminate in terms of talent. Wealthy A-listers do not need to let the cameras of Hello! magazine into their weddings, or their gracious homes, or their children’s naming ceremonies, or any other life events that the rest of us restrict to family and friends; yet they do, all the time. And so being photographed during pregnancy is just a natural extension of this propensity to live in front of the camera, promoting your brand — even as your waters break.
But how is being photographed naked and pregnant empowering? It may sound like a bit of a stretch, but until relatively recently, pregnancy was treated as a slightly unpleasant condition that ought to be hidden away. Pregnant women were swathed in marquee-like garments, and kept out of sight. Words like ‘smock’ and ‘pinafore’ were what you associated with late pregnancy, rather than a naked stomach in all its distended glory. We didn’t like to think too much about pregnant women, and we certainly didn’t want to look at them in terms of beauty and splendour.
So when a Jessica Simpson or a Monica Bellucci shows off their pregnant belly for the world to see, it redresses the balance a bit. Not entirely of course — the photographs are still pimped and primped to perfection, stretch marks, weight gain and exhaustion airbrushed out. But the image of a pregnant woman is a powerful one. What would be more powerful still is for the next boundary to be transcended, and for breast-feeding women to be regarded as symbols of beauty, power, creativity. Although culturally, we’re still probably some way off that one.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved