Sia is the most famous woman in the world that most people wouldn’t recognize if she passed them on the street.
Since launching her comeback in 2011 with the David Guetta-produced “Titanium,” the Australian singer-songwriter (née Sia Furler) has amassed an enviable string of Top 40 hits, including “Chandelier,” “Elastic Heart,” and “Cheap Thrills,” which currently sits at no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. She has worked with artists as diverse as The Weeknd, Eminem, Flo Rida, and Giorgio Moroder and written songs for Katy Perry (“Double Rainbow”), Carly Rae Jepsen (“Boy Problems”), Beyoncé (“Pretty Hurts”), and Britney Spears (“Perfume”).
But if Sia’s ambition and prolific output are unmatched in modern pop music, there’s one thing that is rarely part of the conversation: the way she looks. The singer regularly hides her face behind a oversized, two-toned wig when she performs live, adorned with a giant black bow. The choice is reminiscent of artists like Daft Punk and MF Doom, who mask themselves when performing to disappear inside their personas.
Sia presents herself as a cipher, frequently using reality star and dancer Maddie Ziegler (who shot to fame at the age of eight on Lifetime’s “Dance Moms”) as her stand-in. There’s a performance art aspect to the gesture, as if she’s killing the self in order to best express the universal truths of her music. Although “Chandelier” deals with the singer’s history of alcoholism, the top-10 hit is expertly designed to be the soundtrack to your life, the song you listen to when you cross the finish line at your local 5K.
But for Sia, masking is both an artistic statement and a pragmatic decision.
Working with some of the biggest names in the industry, the singer has learned a lot about what it means to be famous, and she’s clearly taken notes. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, her frequent collaborator, exercises tight control over her public image (even having images of herself on the Internet she doesn’t like removed) as a way to maintain privacy. You only know about Beyoncé what she wants you to know—which, especially for someone of her worldwide renown, is very little.
“If anyone besides famous people knew what it was like to be a famous person, they would never want to be famous,” Sia wrote in a Billboard op-ed. She compared fame to “the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world.”
“If I were famous, I might want to see what is happening on the news channel, or on CNN.com,” Sia continued. “But I couldn't. Because I would know that I might run into that mother-in-law there, sharp-tongued and lying in wait for my self-esteem. And she's not just making cracks about dying before I give her some grandkids, she's asking me if I'm barren. She's asking me whether I'm ‘so unattractive under those clothes that her son/daughter doesn't want to fuck me anymore,’ or if I'm ‘so dumb I don't know what a dick is and how to use it.’”
By making herself invisible, Ms. Furler has managed to sidestep the pervasive sexism famous women are subjected to in the media, in which their looks (or rather their relative fuckability) is treated as the only thing that’s important. This isn’t a hypothetical thought experiment. For women like Sia, Renée Zellweger, and Margot Robbie, it’s a daily reality.
Zellweger, once a household name after a string of roles in hits like “Jerry Maguire,” “Chicago,” and “Cold Mountain,” took a six-year hiatus from acting after 2010’s little-seen “My Own Love Song,” a biopic of George Hamilton. The 47-year-old actress returned to the public eye two years ago on the red carpet of the 2014 Elle Women in Hollywood Awards. The appearance stoked public outcry when it appeared that the Oscar-winner, like many actresses before her, had gone under the knife, debuting a new look.
Many argued that if she looks different than she used to, she must be a different person. “Can I still call you Renee Zellweger?” asked The Atlantic’s Megan Garber. “Are you still Renee Zellweger? … Was it Botox? Or an eye lift? Or a cheek lift?”
In the past two years, those questions have been treated as the only questions, with Zellweger’s face subjected to intense scrutiny every time the public is reminded she exists. Most recently, longtime Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, now the senior film critic at Variety, revived the interrogation of her looks in a misguided op-ed about the trailer for “Bridget Jones’ Baby,” the forthcoming installment in the British rom-com series. (This is despite the fact the trailer technically debuted months ago.)
“I didn’t stare at the actress and think: She doesn’t look like Renée Zellweger,” Gleiberman said. “I thought: She doesn’t look like Bridget Jones! Oddly, that made it matter more. Celebrities, like anyone else, have the right to look however they want, but the characters they play become part of us. I suddenly felt like something had been taken away.”
Gleiberman is a good critic, but he falls into a trap that’s very common when we’re discussing famous women: The rest of Zellweger’s life is treated as much less interesting than how she looks.
Think about it. You’re sitting down with Renée Zellweger, and you have the chance to talk to her about her long, varied career in film. She’s been successful for over two decades, working with A-listers like Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Bradley Cooper, Catherine Zeta-Jones, George Clooney, and Russell Crowe. She’s won three Golden Globes and managed to stay on top despite the fact that Hollywood looks at aging actresses as kindling to keep the young warm. What would you want to know? There’s certainly no shortage of material.
Gleiberman, though, repeatedly downplays her accomplishments, portraying her as an ordinary girl who stumbled onto her fame (or as he puts it, “had been plucked from semi-obscurity by the movie gods”). Because she’s a beautiful woman who, alas, doesn’t look like Christy Turlington, she’s treated as an anomaly and an aberration—but most of all, a cautionary tale.
“Zellweger, as much or more than any star of her era, has been a poster girl for the notion that each and every one of us is beautiful in just the way God made us,” he writes.
A similar thing happened to Margot Robbie when she was interviewed by Rich Cohen in an interview for Vanity Fair. Robbie, a tremendous talent, has become one of the most sought-after actresses in the business after her breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” She’s starred in seven movies in the last two years, nearing Jessica Chastain-levels of ubiquity, and will be one of a handful of women to topline her own superhero film when the planned spinoff to “Suicide Squad,” in which she plays Harley Quinn, hits theaters.
But of course, Cohen is much more interested in the 25-year-old’s eyes (described as “painfully blue”) than he is her career. “She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance,” he writes. “She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.”
Cohen doesn’t get around to calling Robbie “ambitious” (while comparing her to a Martian) until 14 sentences in, after he’s already spent 185 words committing a random act of rhetoric foreplay.
The profile is reminiscent of a scene from “Galaxy Quest,” in which Sigourney Weaver’s character, Gwen DeMarco, complains about the kinds of questions she gets asked in interviews. Gwen claims that a recent profile of her in TV Guide amounted to “six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit.” She said, “No one even bothered to ask me what I do on the show.” (This actually happened to Jeri Ryan, who played a borg on “Star Trek: Voyager.”)
As Emma Gray pointed out in the Huffington Post, such treatment of famous women is so common it could be a meme generator—from pop singer Sky Ferreira being reduced to her “sex appeal” in L.A. Weekly (it’s even in the headline!) to a description in Esquire of Megan Fox as “a screensaver on a teenage boy’s laptop, a middle-aged lawyer’s shower fantasy.” These are beautiful women, sure, but they are lots of things, masses of cells and contradictions who are more than digital avatars. But rarely are they allowed to be three-dimensional and real.
What does it take for women to be seen as professionals and industry leaders, rather than objects for male consumption? Sia did so by taking her body of out the public conversation, even though what she looks like isn’t technically a mystery. (A simple Google search will unveil the woman behind the curtain.) But by making that secondary, Ms. Furler has forced the public to do something we so rarely do when it comes to women’s artistry—focus on the music itself.
“I was at Target the other day buying a hose and nobody recognized me and my song was on the radio,” Furler told Chris Connelly of “Nightline” back in 2014. “And I thought, ‘Okay, this experiment is working.’”
If only every famous woman had the luxury to disappear behind their work.