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The latest celebrity bling? Now there’s a mouthful

It's some comfort to know that the ancient Romans did weird things with their teeth, too. Back then, they whitened them using urine. It had something to do with the ammonia.

Now, though, the cultural history of teeth – our oral narrative, as it were – has a new, bold chapter: mouth bling.

At the recent MTV Video Music Awards, there stood Katy Perry, baring her blinged-out teeth for the cameras. In gold and diamonds, her custom-made, removable grill spelled out ROAR, the name of her new single. (The trend gives a whole new meaning to drooling over expensive jewellery.) In her leopard-printed outfit, her hair in a tail and her lips pulled back to reveal her ferocious teeth, was Perry making some ironic statement about the celebrity jungle, where attention is food and people will do anything to get some? Well, it's probably more accurate to say she was not being ironic. It is a jungle, and you die a quick death if people aren't tweeting about you.

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Consider the number of celebrities sporting grills, helping to push the accessory once confined to men in the hip-hop world into the mainstream. Madonna, always game to do anything to get attention, appeared recently with a golden mouth. "Don't hate me. Hate my #grillz," the 55-year-old tweeted. (She knows that, even if people think she's a little too, er, long in the tooth to be trying so hard to look hip, they're still talking about her. It's just unfortunate that her grill made her teeth look yellowed in an unhealthy, medieval sort of way – not the effect she was hoping for, one imagines.)

It would seem that, if you want to be a Golden Girl, you have to wear a Golden Grill. Not long ago, Rihanna provided the world with an Instagram shot of her mouth with a gold-plated grill in the shape of an AK-47. Beyoncé, meanwhile, has a vampire-inspired grill. Miley Cyrus told Harper's Bazaar that she carries three in her bag, including her "chill grill," a simple gold bar that she affixes to her bottom teeth like she might put a bangle on her wrist. (She contributed to the the new Mouth Moment big time with her raunchy VMA performance, which saw her wagging her decked-out tongue a number of times, presumably so we would wag ours about her.) Others who have bitten into the trend: Kim Kardashian (who tried on a grill in an episode of her reality show), Lana Del Rey (who recently accessorized with one gold tooth cap, proving that there's such a thing as understated mouth bling) and budding Madonna-like shape-shifter Justin Bieber.

Last year, at the Olympics in London, early adopter Ryan Lochte showed up for his media photographs wearing a $15,000 grill featuring an American flag made of rubies and diamonds. (The swimmer was banned from wearing the accessory during the official medal ceremony.) "It makes you easy to recognize," offers Johnny Dang, creator of mouth bling to the stars, including Perry, Lochte, Beiber, Snoop Dog and Kanye West. "When [Lochte] wore the grills, he get a lot of attention worldwide," he told me on the phone from Houston. "You don't stand out if you wear just a necklace or a watch. This is one more part of the body to decorate."

But it's a loaded part of the body. In Grillz, a 2005 anthem to the dental accessory, the rapper Nelly says, "Smile for me daddy/ (What you lookin' at)/ Let me see ya grill/ (Let you see my what.)" Indeed. Your teeth are your what. They say everything about you (health, wealth, sexual appeal), the mouth being an orifice that we use and show off in public for all to look into, one that carries complex layers of meaning. Emblematic of life – we need our teeth to eat properly – they're also bone-like, reminding us of death, that we're just skeletons temporarily clothed in flesh. (Who hasn't seen skulls with a full set of chompers still intact?) And they're the oldest things in the vertebrate fossil record, revealing secrets of evolution.

One of the first things we notice about other people, teeth can be a source of embarrassment (missing or malformed ones are shielded with the hand), of fear (trips to the dreaded dentist), of charming differentiation (think Lauren Hutton's famous gap-toothed smile) and of ridicule (see: Austin Powers). We live in a world of dental snobbism, which explains the multibillion-dollar dental-hygiene business. Given all the varieties of toothbrushes, cleaning devices, flosses, pastes, mouthwashes and whitening strips, a trip down the toiletry aisle is more disorientating than rush hour on a freeway. Teeth are the multi-ethnic, universal, unisex source of personal-hygiene insecurity.

And that just scratches the enamel when it comes to the meaning of teeth and the significance of mouth bling. I haven't even mentioned recurring tooth dreams.

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