IN reputation-protection terms, Botox has become the new cocaine in Hollywood circles -- the dirty little open secret that people will only talk of publicly in the past tense.
"I was offered Botox once," said Anne Hathaway recently, sounding like a schoolgirl handed an E down a back alley. She was 23 at the time and didn't accept the treatment, thereby retaining her high moral standing on the red carpets of the world.
It's tricky territory for famous women to occupy, certainly. Since they are damned if they do and damned if they don't, a whole lexicon of innuendo and double-speak has evolved as a way of avoiding disclosure about the anti-ageing drug. There are several lines that stars trot out when quizzed about their immobile foreheads. "Never say never", "I wouldn't judge those who do", have become oft-uttered lines designed to deflect further questioning.
Lately though, unable to deny it any longer, a whole slew of stars have sidestepped the issue by admitting they have tried it, while in the same breath claiming to have since given it up. Like politicians speaking about pot-smoking in college, they distance themselves from any risk of being fully implicated.
Nicole Kidman, in an about-face after years of denial, has 'fessed up. "I even tried Botox but I didn't like how my face looked afterwards," she told a German reporter. "Now I don't use it anymore -- and I can move my forehead again."
And while it's brave enough for any woman to own up to needing help in the first place -- especially in the face of a culture steeped in militant perfectionism -- and the premium on some magical and illusory notion of "good genes", one wonders what sort of a fool Nicole takes us for. Does she think for a second that we hadn't noticed? According to a British newspaper, one prominent plastic surgeon mentioned her at a medical conference as an example of an over-user who gave the drug a bad name.
Terri Hatcher, Kylie Minogue and Geri Halliwell are just a few of the famous women who have sidestepped the shame of turning to the needle by declaring themselves former users who either just tried it the once, or have now reformed.
Sure, it must be agony to labour under intense public scrutiny of one's appearance. I'm sure if I had to do it as part of my day job, I'd be reaching for the tranquilisers, never mind the botulism. But stars who insist on perpetuating the myth of perfection only compound the problem.
By parading around in flagrant defiance of the universal and inevitable ageing processes and refusing to own up to how they've managed it, they only heighten our interest in them -- mainly because we can see something's up.
And partly because we are sort of entertained by the audacity it takes to issue coy denials through a mouth that has lost a good proportion of its normal range of movement.
It would be senseless to disapprove of Botox without extending this to wholesale disapproval of all self-improvement processes.
Botox tends to make the user look a bit odd, sure, but that's really a taste thing. Some women would prefer to look odd than old. And if they do, they're no more deserving of opprobrium than those who get their teeth whitened, eyelashes extended, or dye their hair to cover the grey.
Fashion and media circles not only, in the main, opt for a culture of secrecy or when pushed, bold-faced denial on the Botox issue. They also actively disdain those who break ranks to speak the truth.
Take, for example, the confessions of Katie Price or Trinny Woodall on the subject. Taking the bold step admitting to being less than utterly, naturally perfect earns one an instant reputation for being gauche. Or even a little bit vulgar. Admitting to having had Botox betrays a certain vanity, sure. But having had it and then denying it betrays not just vanity but a rather laughable desire to believe one's own hype.
The cult of secrecy that surrounds these processes is much more odious than vanity. Women in their forties who sport perfectly unlined faces and speak lightly of being blessed with good genes may look young, but they do so at the expense of also looking foolish. Nobody believes them. Their faces are freeze frames of hypocrisy.
It would be much more admirable for all those who used Botox to own up to it. A culture of full disclosure around all things, from laser to lip implants, is the only sure way to silence the gossip, while neatly putting an end to those pesky magazine features where doctors are invited to make an educated guess about who has had secret work done.
People who have had botox and keep it a secret further compound the culture of shame that surrounds it.
Honesty is braver, and more beautiful.