Narrative Misdirection via Personal Appearance: J. K. Rowling, Mrs. N. M. Murray, and the Author’s Life as Metamorphmagus

I received a brief but pointed note yesterday from a friend in the UK, a correspondent I admire very much for his insights not only about Harry Potter and all things literary but also the postmodern world we live in. We had exchanged notes with attached pictures and links to videos previously about whether J. K. Rowling had had cosmetic surgery after her great success as author of the Hogwarts Saga. He wrote:

John — I think these two videos will persuade you.
In the first vid she has an ‘underbite’ malocclusion which gave her a slight speech impediment – she has since had her jaw made smaller, and set back.
And she has clearly had something done to enhance the cheekbones – so her face has a completely different shape now – wider cheekbones and a smaller narrower chin.
Also the skin is now shiny and smooth. The eyes look different.
In short, the modern JKR just looks like a different person – and *superficially* has not aged or has got younger over 15 years.
Myself, I prefer the 1998 JKR in every way, but especially as a person!

In our previous notes, I’d shared the famous Daily Mail take-down detailing her transformations (Rowling makes Uncle Vernon a Daily Mail reader in Goblet to make her feelings clear — if her several suits against the paper weren’t sufficient — about this newspaper). I’d included as a counter-weight, however, a link to a video of what must assume is her intentionally frumpy look in court in 2011 when she testified about the excesses of the Third Estate (picture, left) to note that she just dresses up nicely when that suits her purpose.

I responded to the Before and After videos I was sent with these three notes:

I made use of the first film to make a similar points a month or so ago in connection with The Silkworm Three quick thoughts —
(1) Your observation about her jaw is well taken. Once pointed out, it certainly is a significant difference. I wonder, though, if you want to call that cosmetic surgery necessarily? My daughter Anastasia had something similar done with her jaw, I think, during her braces work so that her teeth lined up and she could chew properly. Is orthodontic surgery necessarily cosmetic, i.e., a vanity choice?
(2) The cheekbones can be a function of eating well, which I know from my own experience and the many people my wife has cooked from near death back to good health. If one transitions from junk to real food and one has decent genes, the cheekbones become much, much more pronounced.
(3) Having said both those things, I doubt very much that Rowling’s choices were not made primarily to become a more attractive woman, even a Barbie of sorts. The woman’s childhood pictures reveal that her hair is naturally black. Even, then, when she was known by no one outside of family and her immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, she was doctoring her looks with red hair dyes to elevate her appearance/attractiveness.
There’s simply no credible reason to believe, consequently, that, when she became fabulously wealthy, she would become less inclined to doctor her looks as her means allowed. Hence the sculpted face, the blonde locks, and the multitude of looks in dress, from the near-royal formality of some interviews to the skanky cleavage of too many premieres.
I live in the state of Oklahoma and a disproportionate number of women here are blondes, shamelessly and obviously dyed by their own hand (“suicide blondes” as one wag has it). I feel compelled to make the obvious note of lament here — “Such a shame that women feel obliged to play this game!” — but, given Tina Fey’s observation about men and blondes and the late Joan Rivers’ truth-telling about the advantages of larger breasts, I suppose ambitious women or just those wanting to be taken more seriously in the public square are foolish not to re-make themselves chemically and surgically.
The fun part, though, for readers? Rowling seems to be discussing this very temptation and falling in the Cormoran Strike books, which feature more than one very attractive woman, one of whom is the detective’s all but deranged but super-model gorgeous ex. Mrs. Murray remains a wonderfully complex and reflective person, if not one that you or I will ever have tea and crumpets with.

I’d like to add in closing that the great variety of ‘Jo Rowlings’ we recognize in the press — the uncombed hair and business suit at trial, the party girl who could be Rod Stewart’s date or sister, and the Queen receiving guests at Balmoral — suggest that the changes are deliberate manipulations of the narrative view akin to the choices of voice she makes as author in her work.

Joanne Rowling Murray is nothing if not intentional in her relations with the public sphere, especially when a media filter is involved; she is simultaneously Nymphadora Tonks in the variety of appearances she is capable of putting on as disguises and masks and Hermione Granger, as seen in Phoenix‘ manipulation of Rita Skeeter and The Tattler, in consciously manipulating how she will allow her story to be told.

The temptation when a Barbie transformation and rejuvenated looks is evident in before/after comparisons is to assume that the changes spring entirely from insecurities, vanity, and a desire to stand above both the crowd of brunettes and people without perfect teeth and bite (not to say ‘the person who once was in that crowd’). I think in Rowling’s case these things are true to a degree — if she was perfectly well-adjusted, (a) she wouldn’t be the writer she is and (b) none of the hair coloring and surgeries would have been inviting to her — but, as important, she seems well aware of this and capable of telling us, in her sartorial choices and more importantly in her stories, about the front and back of fashion and beauty as the means that women have to understand and project themselves in the world.

I look forward to her further reflections on this point as we learn more about Charlotte Campbell, the neurotic beauty, and Robin Ellacott, the JKR insert in Cormoran’s world. As with all things Rowling, I expect I’ll learn something about my habit of seeing things that needs a second look, if you will.


  1. This is an important business, insofar as JKR is an important writer – which I believe she is, or rather was – since I regard Harry Potter as all-round the best fiction I am aware of for several decades.

    So, the context for discussing the significance of JKRs radical makeover is that of other important writers. The equivalent might be CS Lewis having a hair transplant and sporting a leather jacket; or, if that is too far-fetched, Terry Pratchett being photographed in Speedos and baby-oiled to show off his new body-builder’s (steroid-pumped) physique…

    (I apologise for that mental image!)

    Is it different for women writers? I don’t see why. I shall refrain from making comparisons with Jane Austen’s self-effacement and modesty – but there are plenty of recent top-notch women fantasy and SciFi writers who would make a reasonable match – and I don’t think any of them have made quite such a public spectacle of themselves, or flaunted themselves quite as blatantly as JKR.

  2. John Granger says

    The Tina Fey comment ‘On Blondes’ from Bossypants can be found here:

    For Joan Rivers on the value of cosmetic procedures, see the late comedienne’s ‘Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery.’

  3. I would like to add a second vote to the fact that while some of the rest of it is inarguably cosmetic, the jaw/tooth thing is not. It is however, something that she probably would not have been able to afford prior to the success of Harry Potter. (I’m assuming based on what little I know of the UK system that it would only pay for the most necessary of dental work? If I’m wrong and my comments betray my American bias, I apologize.) There is a lot of dental work that gets mistaken for being cosmetic that actually is completely not – it just is optional in the sense that you don’t get it done until you are in a place in your life where you can afford it! Because you can put off a lot of dental work longer than other things, but eventually it probably was going to be causing her problems… (And even if not, honestly fixing teeth to me has always seemed like the most reasonable of cosmetic “work” – if it’s what you want and you can afford it? Go for it. I have a tooth that has moved since my braces came off years ago that drives me up the wall some days by how weird it feels – if I had the money to spend on Invisalign to realign it? I’d totally do it to stop it bothering me – so I can’t blame celebrities for the same thing!)

  4. waynestauffer says

    i think i’m missing something…are we simply pointing out yet another instance of hypocrisy in a celebrity? nothing really new there. she claims to want the attention for her intellect, yet she also works for the hot model looks. i don’t understand why those have to be mutually exclusive. how does her different look change the quality of her writing?

  5. John Granger says

    On the witting nature of Mrs Murray’s hypocrisy here, I note this comment she made about her personal heroine Jessica Mittford’ “contradictions” years ago:

    She was riddled with contradictions, as she knew herself; the least ‘politically correct’ Communist imaginable, she was once reprimanded by the party for advertising a fundraiser by promising ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ on the promotional poster, which was felt to show a questionable stance on ‘The Woman Question’. Frequently reproved for levity at Communist Party meetings, she unashamedly enjoyed her forays into a more moneyed world (‘lapping up the luxury’ at Kay Graham’s, and of course staying at the incomparably beautiful Chatsworth).

    Despite her loathing of housework and indifference to dirt and clutter, there are nevertheless glimpses of Lady Redesdale’s daughter (‘paper napkins, which I did think squalid’.) To a Communist who had written her a fan letter, she replied: ‘I try … to write things that I hope will be useful in the [Communist] struggle – eg the prison book … I realise that often I get absolutely besotted by trivial subjects which haven’t got much to do with the class struggle, but I fear that is a fault of character.’

    If the Presence is another bundle of contradictions, as you put it both insistent that she be admired for her intelligence but yielding to every tool that will make her more physically attractive, well, she seems to find that kind of thing understandable, even admirable as long as one is aware of it. Consciousness trumps hypocrisy.

    About this hypocrisy and the quality of her writing (a suggestion that this post is not much more than speculative gossip?), please re-read the piece! My conclusion is that this is of interest because feminine beauty, fashion, and the interplay of appearance, a woman’s self understanding and that of those around her is becoming a significant sub-theme of the Cormoran Strike novels. Ms Rowling’s choices and experiences on this subject are as relevant in the discussion of those ideas, consequently, as is her testimony before the Levesden Inquiry about the wire-tapping element and anti-Fleet Street sub texts in her detective works.

  6. waynestauffer says

    i do not at all mean to imply that this post in engaging in speculative gossip. poor choice of phrasing on my part to give that impression. my apologies.
    just wanted to comment that ms. rowling is not the first, and will not be the last, celebrity to “want her cake and eat it too” while having double standards for the tastes of others and herself. this was evident back in, i believe, goblet of fire, when hermione (whose parents were dentists) was hexed by draco and grew long front teeth (they were already somewhat prominent). when madam pomfrey gave her the potion to shorten the teeth, hermione let it work just a bit longer so as to reduce the length to shorter than they were naturally, pre-hex. our intellectual, logical female lead (and thinly disguised authorial presence) succumbed to a bit of cosmetic dental effect for vanity’s sake. i guess i do not have a problem with a girl wanting it all. ( i should probably stop digging myself deeper into the hole now…)

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