Renée Zellweger is my celebrity look alike – or at least she was until last Tuesday. For years, people have told me I look like her. Same squinty-eyed smile and chipmunk cheeks, same stringy blonde hair and embarrassed smile that says, "Please stop staring at me, okay? Please? Hey look over there, it's Angelina Jolie!" The resemblance was apparently most striking when she was in London making the Bridget Jones movies and had gained enough weight to put her in the dreaded Hollywood category of "normal." Back then, people stopped me on the street and asked me how my relationship with the rock star Jack White was going. I'd just purse my lips, give them my best apologetic squint and ask that they please respect our privacy.
But my lookalike days came to an abrupt end this week when my facemate stepped out on the red carpet at the Elle Magazine Women in Hollywood Awards in L.A. after five years out of the limelight. Within minutes of the 45-year-old actress posing for cameras in a little black dress, the Internet exploded – mostly with vitriol – over the fact that her face had changed.
Imagine! A Hollywood actress changing her appearance! It's utterly outrageous and practically unheard of, isn't it? And yet this was how so many people felt. I'll admit I felt it too – and not just because it was our face she'd apparently cast off. Gawking at Zellweger (who looks very nice by the way, not at all puffed up or frozen stiff or otherwise cosmetically freakified – just a healthy, attractive 45-year-old woman who in no way resembles Renée Zellweger), I was reminded of my distress as a four-year-old when my father shaved his moustache. "Where's my Daddy? Give him back!" I supposedly shouted at the strange, naked-lipped stranger before bursting into tears.
When people change their faces beyond recognition, they seem to alter the very essence of themselves. This is irrational, of course, yet that's how we instinctively feel. The face tells us a lot – but we are overly invested in it.
There is, for instance, a widely accepted but entirely fictional belief in our culture that we can understand the inner workings of another human being by looking "deep into their eyes." We are still shocked when people lie "straight to our faces." Why the eyes and not the chest or the thumbs? Because human eyes – like a horse's ears – are particularly expressive. As countless facial-recognition studies have concluded, the brain's ability to recognize faces is centred around a visual response to the eye area. Humans are less able to identify the faces of others when this facial region is hidden. Hence, sunglasses are a good disguise.
But as we ought to know from watching any talented actor, the eyes are no more a window to the soul than the wrinkles on your palm are a map of the future.
Renée Zellweger's face, just like her body, is entirely her own and what she does with it is none of our business. Given that she's an actor, it should hardly be surprising (let alone galling) that she might wish to change her appearance to suit her craft. When she gained weight for the Bridget Jones series, after all, we collectively venerated her for it. So why the outcry over her face?
The answer is not, as some commentators have insisted, entirely to do with the raging sexism endured by female celebrities, though of course that's part of it. The main reason we are so upset by Zellweger's changed face is because she is no longer recognizable to us as a celebrity, and we can no longer cling to the delusion that we "know" her. All the emotional baggage we projected onto her famous squinty-eyed smile is suddenly revealed for what it really is: A complete waste of time and energy. It's our "Where's my Renée? Give her back!" moment.
In a wonderfully passive-aggressive statement released this week, Zellweger thanked the braying hoards of haters for "noticing" her changed appearance, saying it was all down to happiness and "healthy lifestyle changes," though she didn't mention what these were.
It's safe to assume she didn't mean to set fire to the collective unconscious and expose the emptiness of fame-worship by debuting her new look. But that is exactly what she has done. By simply changing her face, Renée Zellweger has engaged in a brilliant act of celebrity subversion – one that makes the entire artistic oeuvres of Lady Gaga and Marina Abramovic pale in comparison. With her new mug, she has offered us all a stark reminder of the fallacy of celebrity culture as a whole – the notion that we know these people just because we know what they look like. We just think we do, but only because we look at them so much.
And that, if you really think about it, is far more freaky and disturbing than any cosmetic procedure or "lifestyle change" could ever be.