“Welcome to Fox News. I’m blonde.” So spoofed Jane Krakowski on the hit US television series 30 Rock. Well, I appear regularly on the notoriously conservative Fox News television channel and – I admit – I am blonde, even if I am a “liberal”.
However, after speaking to women who work in both US and UK television, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this does not reflect any grand conspiracy. It does, however, have to do with certain sartorial small-screen conventions that became increasingly clear to me when I started appearing on US television three years ago.
Turning up on Fox’s Morning Show with Mike and Juliet in smart dark trousers and a blue shirt with a slight flash of cleavage, (the exact outfit I had worn on the UK’s GMTV), I felt completely out of place. All air-destined females on the programme that day may have had bare legs but their necklines were uniformly high.
Television has always followed certain sartorial rules on both sides of the Atlantic (“simple, classic, unfussy lines, in clear colours”, according to Angela Rippon, the BBC’s first female news anchor; “what works on television is usually what works in the boardroom”, according to Jonathan Wald, executive producer of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight). However, the US and UK diverge in their attitude towards certain issues, cleavage prime among them.
It is taboo in the former, but in the latter, the belle poitrine tends to be visible (whether Holly Willoughby’s plunging necklines on ITV1’s Dancing On Ice or Daybreak’s Kate Garraway, whose neckline was so extreme during one programme that she changed halfway through).
Trousers, meanwhile, are OK for the US television show host Barbara Walters, but prompt hate mail when I wear them on Fox News’ late night cult show Red Eye – which actually has its own “legs chair”, a stool almost exclusively inhabited by the show’s female panellists that provides a glimpse of their legs in long shots.
The UK and the US are poles apart on hair and make-up too. Flick from the news on BBC America to an American news network and you could briefly assume you’ve switched to the southern belle movie Steel Magnolias by mistake.
As Katie Nicholl, a regular on US and UK television as royal correspondent for the Mail on Sunday puts it, “The Americans definitely like big hair,” while the UK is “a bit less worried about volume”. On one US appearance, Nicholl says, a “make-up artist used pink eyeshadow on me and so much HD [high-definition] make-up [that] I looked like I had stepped out of the 1980s”.
Within the US itself, there seems to be a consensus that conservatives – or their network(s) – are more appearance-focused than liberals. However, I have never been told by any producer, including those at News Corp, what to wear or how to dye my hair. On the other hand, Fox does employ highly skilled hair and make-up artists, with separate people for each task. At other networks, however, one person is often responsible for both – and perhaps, as a result, Fox’s talking heads may appear more high-gloss.
So I have adopted strategies to fit in: my wardrobe is now full of block-colour shift dresses with high necklines from Theory and Diane von Furstenberg, including a purple one, which prompted its own fan mail when I wore it on Red Eye. Shoes-wise, I rely on nude tones to elongate the legs. I knew I was on the right track when one of the Fox soundmen affixed my microphone to my blue DVF number and said he’d seen another presenter wear it the previous week. Effectively, I have embraced a transatlantic uniform – which means I can finally forget about what I’m wearing and concentrate on what I’m saying.
Imogen Lloyd Webber is author of the ‘Single Girl’s Survival Guide’, Skyhorse, $12.95