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Stylish politics

January 14, 2012

HILLARY Clinton is right: when you're a politician, hair matters. In fact, let's be frank, in today's media-driven and ultra-wired world, politicians seeking a place in the sun need to look good.

They need not be breathtakingly good-looking, but looking untidy, unkempt and unpleasant is not going to propel them into the top seat. Actually it's not about beauty, it's about good grooming and looking likeable. In her address to Yale in 2001, the US secretary of state said the 'life lesson' she has learned is that 'Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. Pay attention to your hair because everyone else will'. She should know. Hillary Clinton's transformation from an ugly duckling to an almost-swan over the last two decades has been impressive. She is a vivid example of how some women can get better and better looking as they get older.

But more about Hillary and women later. My interest in politicians' looks and their electability was triggered this week after British Labour leader Ed Miliband faced growing criticism over his leadership, including comments that he was failing to connect with voters because of his 'appearance' Frankly, I find nothing wrong with Mr Miliband's appearance. British politicians are hardly known for being heart throbs (although former premier Tony Blair did get some pulses racing in his younger pre-Iraq war days) and Ed looks decent enough. But that's not the opinion among British critics, some of whom have likened Mr Miliband to Robin Cook, the late Labour cabinet minister, who once said he was 'too ugly' to run for party leader.

John Humphrys who interviewed Mr Miliband on BBC Radio's Today programme recently suggested the Labour leader could be 'handicapped' by a similar problem with 'theway you perform, the way you appear'. Mr Miliband, however, dismissed the attacks as 'noises off' and declared that he had a 'very strong inner belief' that he would steer the party back to power.

We shall see. Meanwhile, across the ocean in the US, hairstyles and lifestyles are making and breaking presidential candidates. US President Barack Obama still has the cheeky grin and the eloquence that helped to get him into the White Housethree years ago. Since then, his hair is greyer and the smile slightly less exuberant. But both he and his wife remain style icons, with Michelle Obama ahead of her husband in the fashion and popularity stakes.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are having serious problems with their candidates. Mitt Romney, the front-runner, has been criticised for being too polished, a 'Ken doll with shiny teeth' In comments reminiscent of the ones that dogged John Edwards in the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr Romney's hair is getting most attention as being too dark, too slick and too perfect. The only one who can compete with him in the hair stakes is billionaire candidate Donald Trump.

Rick Santorum, another Republican presidential hopeful, is making the news because of his controversial views on homosexuality but, interestingly, a recent article was also devoted to his predilection for V-neck sweater vests. In case anyone is interested, Mr Santorum's rivals are biased towards sleeves, the article said, adding that Mitt Romney likes his crisply pressed oxford shirts, often under a blazer and Ron Paul is partial to suits, albeit ill-fitting ones.

Presenting an uber-youthful, not-a-hair-out-of-place look are the two Russian leaders, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The jury is still out, however, on whether Mr Putin's cool, macho look will get him re-elected later this year. Black hair remains the favourite look of Chinese leaders, although many of them should by now have at least some grey in their locks. While many Asian male politicians have no qualms about dyeing their hair jet black past their 60s, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder famously took a newspaper to court for suggesting his dark hair came out of a bottle.

Current German Chancellor Angela Merkel is by no means either a beauty queen or a sartorial icon but she is neat and well-groomed and if newspaper reports are to believed, has apparently had a little 'minor work' done on her face. She has not confirmed. However, Merkel and Clinton's metamorphosis is nothing compared to the total image makeover undertaken by the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

As the movie Iron Lady spotlights, Ms Thatcher tailored her look to the demands of consultants, giving up her hat and lowering her voice to sound more convincing and credible to voters. She apparently insisted, however, that her favourite pearls were 'non-negotiable'.

Pakistan has also produced its share of elegant politicians.

The late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was certainly one although I remember thinking even then there was something unfair about putting the entire Pakistani male population into crumpled 'awami suits' while he spent most of his time in slick Savile Row suits and the army men strutted around in crisply ironed uniforms.

Fatima Bhutto wrote in a recent edition of Vogue magazine about her family's fashion style and waxed lyrical over her grandfather's suits and shirts. She also very rightly remembered her grandmother Nusrat in her elegant saris. In contrast, Benazir Bhutto probably could secure an 'A' for effort.

But she did not quite capture her mother's sartorial magic.

Modern Pakistan can boast of Imran Khan and Hina Rabbani Khar as good-looking, paparazzi-worthy, style icons. Certainly, both are much better to look at than any of the current crop of politicians and, if nothing else, are giving Pakistan some muchneeded positive coverage by western and Indian celebrity magazines. As things stand in the country today, I suppose Pakistanis should be grateful for such small mercies.

The writer is Dawn's correspondent in Brussels.