Public figures have always crafted their image to tell a story about who they are and what they stand for, but in the current era of social media and mass “personal branding,” image-making — and changing — is in overdrive.
One of the more notorious examples, disgraced biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, is back in the news, only now she wants to be known as Liz. The once-high flying tech entrepreneur was convicted of defrauding investors in Theranos, the blood-testing company that at its height was valued at $9 billion, denied bail pending appeal and will report to prison on Monday.
For her trial last fall, Holmes softened her look dramatically, abandoning her formerly ubiquitous black turtleneck, a look she swiped from the late Steve Jobs of Apple. And as cameras track her last steps outside for a long time, Holmes is attempting to further distance herself from her past with a new nickname and a full makeover as a wholesome suburban California mom of two.
Holmes opened herself up to scrutiny of her new identity in a New York Times feature earlier this month that drew criticism for its whiff of sympathy. Since then, the tabloids have been covering her every trip to the beach and zoo, a frenzy that hit its peak with a Mother’s Day image of her in a big straw hat with a dangling ribbon. She couldn’t have chosen an item to take her further from her Theranos look if she’d tried.
This 180 has shed light on how the public sees prominent figures, and how much impact a persona transformation can have, whether it’s successful or not.
Gabor Apor is a legendary Toronto communications consultant who has crafted the visual messaging for generations of political and business stars in Canada. He says he was instrumental in transforming David Peterson’s image when he was running for premier of Ontario in the 1980s. “Peterson’s signature red tie was my idea. It was recognizable and strong, while subconsciously communicating that he was a Liberal so that the messaging was clear in photos and on TV. Even if the public didn’t know who he was at the beginning, he was ‘the one with the red tie,’” Apor said. “Consistency is key!”
Celebrities employ signature style elements too — think Ariana Grande’s ponytail; Karl Lagerfeld’s sunglasses; Johnny Cash always in all black; Tom Wolfe always in all white. But Apor explains that image makers work very differently than the celebrity stylists we have become familiar with.
“For celebrities, there is always an element of which brand or designer they are wearing, whereas those in the business world use what they’re wearing to project aspects of their role, what they stand for and who they are, whether directly or implicitly.” In business and politics, the visual messaging is subtler and designed in tandem with consultation on what the players are saying, in good times and in crisis.
“A person’s image should tell their story before they even open their mouths,” said Apor. “But if people only remember you for what you wear, you have made the wrong impression. For each individual, there is a distinctive balance. This doesn’t mean you should try to blend in; simply that what you wear should be strategic, deliberate and should never distract from what you are really trying to say.”
Some looks are designed to convey that a leader is too busy to worry about something like fashion, even as they deploy its symbolism. To wit: Mark Zuckerberg’s ever-present normcore grey T-shirt; Bill Gates’ open button-down under a sweater. Both Albert Einstein and Barack Obama restricted their palette to grey or blue suits. (Except for that one time in 2014 when Obama wore a tan suit and no one ever let him forget it!)
Celebrities transform their style all the time: think Posh Spice, a parody of elegance, becoming the truly elegant fashion designer Victoria Beckham, or any Disney/Nickelodeon child actor transitioning to grown-up star (Selena, Miley, Zendaya). But for politicians and business leaders, rebranding a public image is a dangerous gambit and not often done unless necessary. In Holmes’s case, she needed to rehab her image for her defence’s sake. Her former look is loaded, particularly because she was so villainized for her rashly applied makeup, stick-straightened hair and consciously deepened voice.
Image makeovers usually only happen when leaders leave their office or business or change tack. Take the Obamas: Barack has traded his on-duty suits and off-duty dad jeans for sleek leather jackets; Michelle has ditched the relatable J. Crew cardigans as first lady for a career as author and speaker in technicolour clothes and natural hairstyles that seem to far better match her personality. Their lives are freer; they don’t really need to project their former images any longer.
Jeff Bezos shook off his Amazon bookseller nerd persona for an ultra-buff, often shirtless action guy look as he morphed into a tech titan and rocket ship owner.
I asked Apor whose style he admires today. The answers were varied. First, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine.
“Unlike other heads of state, he often wears a T-shirt or sweatshirt, clothes that are functional and utilitarian,” said Apor. “He has made this his consistent style and he exudes confidence and strength while projecting commonality in a non-conformist way. And despite being dressed down, his clothes always fit his frame.”
Next, he picked Penny Oleksiak, Canadian Olympian swimmer. “In or out of the pool, Penny always looks fantastic. She is young, confident and obviously sporty. But when in the public eye and not wearing athletic gear, she has fun with fashion, dressing in a way that is age-appropriate and inspiring to young women.”
And on the Canadian political scene, Apor chose Jagmeet Singh, NDP leader. “He takes pride in his identity. From his multicolour turbans to his bespoke suits, he signals his confidence and self-expression through his style.”
Apor says that there are simple things anyone can do to bolster credibility and project a sense of competence. “A good haircut. Clean shoes. Well-tailored clothing,” he said. “Suits, for instance, should always fit properly, whether off the rack or bespoke.”
But pick your signature elements wisely, because people get used to the message you’re projecting. Changing course, like the way Holmes is recasting herself as a soft, gentle, nurturing private citizen, can be disorienting. Judging from the backlash, such a dramatic change in image — and by extension, personality — is a hard sell.
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