Jilly Johnson on why, at 58, she loves the airbrush – whatever po-faced critics say

Yes, the camera does lie…thank heaven! Modelling legend Jilly Johnson on why, at 58, she loves the airbrush – whatever po-faced critics say



20:27 GMT, 8 June 2012

My day in London’s West End started so propitiously.

As I left the house I congratulated myself that I scrubbed up well for my age.

Dressed stylishly in a Michael Kors trouser suit, with my make-up immaculate and hair glossy, I felt buoyant and confident.

Jilly Johnson airbrushing

JILLY JOHNSON AS SHE REALLY IS: Here, I’ve had my hair blow-dried, and my make-up applied professionally, but this is the real me. You can see the sun-damage on my decolletage, the crow’s feet round my eyes, and the beginnings of crepey skin around my neck

Jilly Johnson airbrushing

WITH A LITTLE RE-TOUCHING: HERE, the wrinkles around my eyes and neck have been smoothed. My jaw has also been subtly sculpted, the vein on my forehead removed and the blemishes on my chest erased. My skin tone has been evened out, too

FULL GLOSSY MAG MAKEOVER: This is my favourite of the three images - although it bears little resemblance to the real me

FULL GLOSSY MAG MAKEOVER: This is my favourite of the three images – although it bears little resemblance to the real me. I love how the airbrush has blitzed all my wrinkles and plumped up my lips. My eyes are now sparkling and my jaw-line more defined

Then, as I ambled along chic South Molton Street, freighted with carrier bags from my shopping spree, the heavens opened and I got drenched in a torrential summer downpour.

Within seconds my hair was hanging in lank, dripping tendrils around my face and my mascara was running down my cheeks.

/06/08/article-2156562-00C2CE7100000190-457_306x455.jpg” width=”306″ height=”455″ alt=”Jilly in 1977. 'I feel I owe it to those who knew me in my heyday to preserve a glamorous image,' she said” class=”blkBorder” />

Jilly in 1977. 'I feel I owe it to those who knew me in my heyday to preserve a glamorous image,' she said

Yet there are two Jillys.

First there is the distinctly flawed real-life one, and then there is the glossy, preternaturally youthful one who appears in my professional photographs.

Indeed, only recently, the Daily Mail published just such a photo of me, modelling the new range of Janet Reger lingerie.

I was invited to do so because, as a young woman in the Eighties, I was among the first to launch the glamorous new underwear brand.

In those days, of course, I was naturally slender.

This time, the idea of exposing my burgeoning jelly belly in scanty lace knickers and bras filled me with fear.

Even so, the photographs elicited lots of kind comments. But I have to confess it wasn’t just clever lighting and a professional make-up team that made me look so gorgeous.

The images of me had also been air-brushed.

The photographer Brian Aris, a friend, is a fervent opponent of the magical technique, which can iron out blemishes, lift sagging chins and obliterate turkey necks.

Believe me: I had to do some pleading before he’d permit even subtle retouching.

I’m grateful, but I have to confess my only regret is that he didn’t use the technique to more dramatic effect — because I’m airbrushing’s most zealous advocate.

In the old days, we used to say: ‘The camera never lies.’

Today, it doesn’t just lie: thanks to the illusion of digital enhancement, it tells so many whopping great, fat porkies that photography becomes a work of fiction.

Consider the three images of me that illustrate this article. One shows me without retouching.

Granted, I’ve had my hair and make-up done by a professional.

But this is the real me: a grandmother of ten who’s got a bit of sun-damage on her chest from all the years of roasting in tropical sunshine, who has crow’s feet round her eyes, and a touch of crepe about the neck.

Next is the image Brian — grudgingly — approves. He calls it a ‘minimal retouch’.

The lines round my eyes, lips and neck have been softened. My jaw has been subtly sculpted and the blemishes on my chest eradicated.

My skin tone has been ‘cleaned’ and those irksome open pores have vanished. ‘Improved and pleasing — and it still looks like Jilly,’ is Brian’s verdict.

But I have a guilty confession. The photo I like best of all is the one that has been most radically enhanced; the one that gives me the lustre of a Hollywood star and actually bears little resemblance to the real me.

I love my flawless skin, my sparkling eyes and sharply-sculpted jaw-line. I look as if I’ve had a facelift without having to go under the scalpel!

Yes, of course it’s false — and I’d be deluded if I believed I looked like this. But who wouldn’t be delighted to suspend disbelief for a while and revel in the glory of such false perfection

'In those days I was naturally slender,' said Jilly (pictured in 1980)

'In those days I was naturally slender,' said Jilly (pictured in 1980)

And in response to those po-faced advocates of the natural look, who would say I’m guilty of dishonestly manipulating my image, I’d reply: isn’t it equally disingenuous to pretend that the photos of yourself you most cherish are those that show you in an unflattering light

Do you really choose to display the warts-and-all shots that depict you emptying the bins in your dressing gown

There are limits, of course, and I believe they are breached when airbrushing is allied to advertising to make misleading claims.

Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority banned a heavily airbrushed image of actress Julia Roberts which accompanied an ad for a Lancome foundation, one of L’Oreal’s brands.

No consumer should be hoodwinked into believing that any make-up product could miraculously transform their own skin into a replica of such peachy perfection. But my airbrushed photos are simply flattering portraits of me and are neither harmful nor misleading.

The art of improving on reality is, of course, as old as the hills. For centuries, portraitists have doctored the image of their subjects.

Few wealthy patrons of the arts would have paid to have brutally realistic representations of themselves adorning the walls of their grand homes; instead artists depicted them as regal, handsome and beautiful if they wanted more commissions.

And, of course, my vanity and ego are similarly inflated when I see an airbrushed photo of myself.
Some may consider that, as a mum and granny, my advocacy of airbrushing is irresponsible. I’d beg to differ.

I would never promote the pursuit of physical perfection to my grandchildren: all round my home, the photos displayed are just impromptu family snaps.

Neither would I suggest to my eight-year-old granddaughter, Grace — who delights in pointing out my ‘wobbly arms’ — that airbrushed images are real or attainable.

So let’s not be too censorious about it: airbrushing is a delightful fantasy and we’ve been practising similar deceptions for years.

In the old days, we relied on clever lighting, make-up artists and darkroom techniques such as scraping out dark shadows under models’ eyes from prints with scalpels.

I’d travel the world on glamorous shoots and the make-up artists would rely on pan-stick foundation to cover a multitude of sins. If our eyes were bloodshot from late-nights or hangovers, we had recourse to the simple remedies of eye-drops and ice cold water.

Now models have no need to bother with such cures: a technician just digitally expunges all signs of the previous night’s excesses.

There is a downside to this: models and celebrities have, I think, become more slovenly about their grooming.

The reason Airbrushing exempts them from the tedious business of getting up early before a shoot, washing their hair and arriving in the studio looking kempt, because digital enhancement eradicates every flaw.

Despite all this, I’m still a devotee of the airbrush. My mind knows that the image I see — a beautiful, younger version of my real self — is false, but if I’m cheered by this glamorised version of myself, I see no harm in it. It’s less costly than surgery, but achieves the same results in an instant.

And I feel I owe it to those who knew me in my heyday — to charming men such as the cabbie — to preserve a glamorous image. So if airbrushing can sustain the fantasy I will continue to embrace it.

It also allows me to maintain two separate and disparate personalities. In photos I can be freeze-framed for ever as that Jilly Johnson; the eternally youthful one who posed unselfconsciously in scanty lingerie.

But if I want to remain incognito, to wander unrecognised in the supermarket, to stroll in the countryside with my grandchildren, I can merely abandon my make-up, put on jeans and wellies and no one will realise I was — or, indeed, have ever been — Jilly Johnson, at all.

Interview: Frances Hardy