THE BACK PAGES

A new look for The Great Leader

Celebrities from Castro to Pavarotti knew the potency of the beard. Osama is no different.

ROSALIND MILES October 1 2007
THE BACK PAGES

A new look for The Great Leader

Celebrities from Castro to Pavarotti knew the potency of the beard. Osama is no different.

ROSALIND MILES October 1 2007

A new look for The Great Leader

fame

Celebrities from Castro to Pavarotti knew the potency of the beard. Osama is no different.

ROSALIND MILES

Fundamentalists don’t do irony: they have a hotline to reality, the only one that counts. So Osama bin Laden can denounce Western decadence while yielding to the seduction of the image in a world where the camera is king. In the most recent al-Qaeda video of the dear leader, accepted as genuine by intelligence agencies in the U.S. and U.K., he’s dyed his sideburns and beard. In place of the grizzled caveman locks and badger-striped whiskers, he sports a shiny new coal-black fuzz.

Osama, how could you? The high priest of Islamic purity proving himself as image-conscious as any petty celebrity of the West? Pavarotti burnished his beard with bootblack, and Paul McCartney endures regular roastings for his hennaed highlights, but that’s showbiz. Entertainers get paid to delight the fickle public by appearing ever youthful, or at least ever ready to delight.

And celebs do more than colour their hair. In its heyday, the Hollywood machine merrily yanked out ribs and teeth, laid toupées like Astroturf and broke jaws. Dean Martin and Peter O’Toole had nose jobs, while Clark Gable and Bing Crosby suffered for their jughandle ears. Today, Michael Jackson is turning himself into a look-alike of Elizabeth Taylor before she got old and fat.

Politicians are different. The higher the stakes, the greater the demand for authenticity, yet contestants must also look youthful and vigorous, never worn and grey. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential candidacy faltered under smears that the former war hero resorted to Botox and a spray-on tan. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder faced down allegations that he dyed his hair by dragging his barber into court to swear that the suspiciously maroon-

brown mane was all Schroder’s own.

Today, as entertainers become politicians (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson), so politicians have to entertain. Schwarzenegger’s thinning thatch is not the same colour as in his glory days, but so what? The former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi straddles both worlds and makes no bones about wanting to look good. From his hair-plug transplants to every nip and tuck, Berlusconi has broadcast his bodyworks to the world.

Arab leaders too understand the curse of fame. Yasser Arafat’s trademark head scarf blessed his withered dome with warlike authority, while Saudi royals on state visits to Britain often break out better frocks and headgear than the Queen herself.

But Osama’s not a royal nor a politician. His celebrity is founded on avoiding the burden of government in favour of subjecting the world to the gospel according to bin Laden. So what’s the deal with the facial hair? Once it was the mark of the patriarch, lending authority. No one thinks about Hitler without his black moustache, a sinister extra eyebrow under which his mouth glared like a third eye. Johnny Depp’s scrawny little goatee gives him the air of a small-town pimp, but it’s unforgettable. It’s an age-old signal of potency, wearing your pubes on your

chops, as the CIA knew when they plotted to destroy Castro by making his beard fall out.

So what’s driving a terrorist who has fostered the destruction of others’ looks and lives all his adult life, whose followers send thousands screaming to their deaths? Is Osama the charmer chasing eternal youth, like an aging rock star? Is it renewed vitality he’s after, the Viagra effect of looking glossy and hirsute? Or is he just trying to look healthier than in his last movie, when the world was gleefully buzzing with rumours about his liver and praying for his swift demise?

He’ll never tell us. But this much we know. When the camera rolls, the shameless lust for its caress makes fools of the wisest, and a sense of righteousness offers no protection at all. Preaching jihad and invoking his holy martyrs, Osama is still promoting himself as naively as any C-lister, betrayed by his selfevident urge to look good. That’s okay. The guy may be a monster but fame is a bigger monster still, and his own vanity and selfseeking have delivered him into its maw.

Yet where camera is king, there’ll always be the King. Maybe the deathless monarch of the jet-black hair isn’t flipping burgers in Tuscaloosa but is alive in Tora Bora, schooling Osama in the ways of winning fame through that international weapon of destruction, black dye. If so, listen to your Uncle Elvis, Bin my boy. Forget mass murder and reach for the bottle—there’s a great career ahead if you can lighten up and learn to sing. M