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Changing a Nation's Image

By Joseph Rosenfeld

IF YOU ever doubted the importance of image, just consider the young Chinese girl singer who stole millions of hearts during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. Or, how about the impressions made by Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain during their speeches at the National Conventions? One thing is for sure: they are all reflecting images that say something not just about themselves, but about the country and the ideals they represent.

One of my clients and I had an interesting conversation while she got her hair cut at Mitri Hair Studio. We talked about the amazing Olympic Opening Ceremonies and about a cute young Chinese girl singer, who wore a red dress with her hair in pigtails during the festivities and how a photo surfaced of another young Chinese girl with buck teeth who was not visible that night. It turns out the girl with the buck teeth was recorded singing a patriotic song, "Hymn to the Motherland," but did not appear on camera because her physical appearance did not represent an ideal image of the country, according to a member of the Chinese politburo. I expressed dismay over the decision to use one girl's flawless voice and another's flawless appearance to represent the future of a nation. My client, who is Chinese and whose parents still live in Beijing, explained that Chinese culture supports a team effort. In fact, after our talk, I came across an interview of Mr. Chen Qigang, the show's musical director. He said, "I think it is fair to both Lin Miaoke [the girl in the red dress] and Yang Peiyi [the girl who actually sang]. After all, we have a perfect voice, a perfect image and a perfect show, in our team's view, all together." My client suggested that American culture tends to favor individual accomplishments.

Educated, confident and successful without relying upon the political successes of their husbands, both Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama each paints a different tableau of herself. Ultimately, one will represent the United States in vastly different ways as First Lady. Mrs. McCain caused a brouhaha when she addressed the Republican convention last week wearing an outfit valued at more than the average price of a home in the United States. Style experts pegged the value of her attire that evening at a whopping $300,000. This amounts to only three-10ths of 1 percent of her reported net worth. McCain's metallic buttercup Oscar de la Renta shirt dress and Chanel ceramic watch conveyed a message of maverick elegance. Although she looked appropriate for the occasion in monochromatic clothing, the image she projected appeared independent from her husband's message of fighting for the average American.

Michelle Obama's wardrobe choices have been getting her a lot of positive press over the past months. The turquoise sheath with a wide V-neck she wore to address the Democrats gave her a look that was neatly tailored and sophisticated with a modern femininity. She has a very strong physical and vocal presence and the sheath gave her a look of graceful poise. Mrs. Obama shows her varied tastes by wearing prints, as she did the night her husband officially accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president, as well as while appearing on TV's The View. While I do admire her in prints, her choice defied convention for the last night of the Convention. It certainly signifies how change could come to Washington style.

The team effort image of the Chinese girls put a face to a changing China. Our politics and culture give us the freedom to appear as we are, or even to appear as who we aspire to be. Hopefully we choose to project ourselves at our best at all times and for all occasions because we never know just who is watching.

Joseph Rosenfeld is Silicon Valley's image and style go-to guy. He consults 1:1 and speaks to groups. Visit for information.

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