It began in April.
There had been clues, a few untimely deaths, whispers of something more malevolent. Rumors spread across the Internet, started, of course, by bloggers piecing the events together—such things were often more than coincidence, they claimed—before anyone else took it seriously.
Shakira was the first. The singer’s latest album was set to drop in a couple months, the first single a few weeks before. Based on the reception and phenomena of the Lady Gaga music videos, and now Christina Aguilera’s NSFW, Madonna-eque video, Shakira’s record producers brought in a director with a vision, something sexy yet with some sarcastic, self-aware humor. Shakira grinned at her costume in wardrobe. Her make-up was dramatic, her long hair down and tousled, and she wore a thin black mask across her eyes. The costumer handed her a black bodysuit reminiscent of a particular comic book character, and they spent the next thirty minutes pulling and stretching the fabric around her curves, each giggling at the process and the imagined product. She stood and stared at herself in the mirror as she clipped the last accessory, a black and silver belt, around her waist and let it hang off of her hips. She smiled and tossed her head back and laughed. Her laugh, however, stopped short, and Shakira fell backwards in a heap. Dead.
Unbeknownst to Shakira, the director, the producers, the costumer, and nearly everyone else in the world, the moment Shakira let the belt slide a little further down one hip than the other and planted her balled fists on each, she had completed the fantasy of some indeterminate number of men and fanboys. As the details of her death were leaked, social media and networking sites were flooded by these details being reblogged and reTweeted and linked over and over again until everyone knew that at the moment of her death, Shakira was wearing a costume this close to a certain comic book heroine’s. Celebrity Twitters posted goodbyes and we’ll miss yous, fans posted links to the “She Wolf” video, and artists drew pictures of Shakira as this heroine and posted them to blogs and the sudden rash of Shakira fan groups on Facebook.
And at least one lone blogger posted a long, sad, heartfelt goodbye, and lamented that the world, and he in particular, would never see her as this comic book heroine as he had so longed to. His blog post was titled, “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World Died Today.”
As the pop world calmed, the sports world was stunned by the loss of Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, who, after winning a particularly difficult round in the French Open, sank to her knees, cupped her face in her hands, and didn’t look up again. Shortly thereafter, Charlize Theron was found in her hotel room, dressed in Dior, as if waiting for a date or driver who never showed.
Crystal Renn. Zoe Saldana. Christina Ricci. All of natural causes. The blogosphere exploded.
There were rumors of a serial killer, a government conspiracy. Who would target famous, beautiful women? It was, of course, a blogger who found the pattern, who brought it to the authorities, who eventually issued a statement. The press conference was to be aired on every station and interrupted programming; it was broadcast over the radio and could be streamed online. This was a global phenomenon, they claimed, one that would affect every citizen of every nation.
A line of grave-faced scientists, politicians, religious leaders, armed services officials, and the one blogger lined the risers in front of the impatient press. A tall man in a slightly crumpled suit rose and went to the podium to speak. No one was sure who this man was, and later, his name would be forgotten. It seemed that the panel had chosen the least important among them to release the news; indeed, no one among them wanted to confirm such a thing.
The man touched his glasses and put his hands on the podium. “Good morning. We are here today to report the findings of this unprecedented coalition you see before you. As you all know, six celebrity women have been found dead in the past month. I can now confirm that these deaths were only a small part of a larger series of deaths that have recently occurred, and this phenomena may have begun far earlier than we have imagined.” The man smoothed his hands over the paper in front of him and looked up to the cameras and reporters, to the audience listening and not listening, to the world and to God. “The most beautiful woman in the world has died and is dying daily.”
Silence. No one quite knew what he had just said, and if they did, they didn’t know if they understood it.
The man continued. “We can confirm through careful study and research that, each day, a woman believed by someone to be the most beautiful woman in the world dies. These deaths appear to be of natural causes; however, there is a direct correlation between her death and the perception of this woman as the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Now the room erupted. Some were stunned but most were incredulous or disbelieving. Everyone seemed to be shouting. The man held up his hands in an effort to calm them. “Folks, please. Please. I know this seems unbelievable, but it is true. An undeniable pattern has emerged from these deaths. And we believe the pattern will continue.”
The panel addressed questions from the press corps one-by-one. No, no one had stepped forward to claim responsibility. No, there were no suspects. There was no motivation.
“And the women?” one reporter shouted.
A scientist shrugged. “We don’t know. We have no way of knowing who will be next. We do know that it has nothing to do with how many men think a particular woman is the most beautiful. The selection appears to be random.”
“Can you speculate who might die as a result?”
“No. No.” A small man, a philosopher, shook his head quickly and waved his arms. “We cannot predict these deaths at all. Beauty is defined differently by each of us. How do we quantify beauty? There is no worldwide standard, and though there may be a societal standard, other characteristics besides physical attributes may contribute to one’s perception of a particular woman’s beauty. And—”
“But can you protect them?”
The members of the panel looked at each other or looked down. A general leaned into his microphone. “Ma’am, we currently testing every possible method and means of protection.”
“Can you protect them?”
“The difficulty here is the means by which these women are dying.” A woman near the end of the table spoke. The sleeves of her lab coat were pushed above her elbows. “All the deaths appear to be from natural causes, and, in the majority of the cases, there was no previous indication that the woman might suffer a heart attack, etc, or that she had any reason to think her life in jeopardy because of her health. And those few that did died from entirely unrelated causes.”
The reporter stood. “But can you protect them?”
The general leaned forward as if to speak again, but the woman in the lab coat closed her eyes, and clearly, definitively, said, “No.”
Adriana Lima. Cate Blanchett. Taraji P. Henderson. Christina Aguilera. Penelope Cruz. Scarlett Johansson. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Evangeline Lily. Cote de’Pablo.Actresses and singers fell as if from a scythe through a field.
The names of the newest casualties were reported daily in the news media. Some days, the names were those that had been a part of the news media.
The plague was not discriminating. Hillary Clinton was lost in June, and some expressed surprise at her passing. Others were surprised by Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. (One college student to another, “Did these guys ever see their author-photos? I mean, Joyce Carol Oates looks more like an insect than a woman.” The passing English professor: “But her words.”) Women whose beauty had been questioned because of their weight were also taken: model Mia Tyler and singer Beth Ditto joined Crystal Renn.
Magazines ran profiles of the women who had been taken. Christopher Hitchens wrote a lament for the male situation (what, after all, would men do in a world without women who were in some way aesthetically pleasing?) in Vanity Fair, which was promptly received by outrage and a demand for retraction. Hitchens’ article implied that the women who were left alive were in some way deficient, many argued. Didn’t these women have a right to be grateful, to celebrate that they were still alive?
Still, it almost became a trend to prepare to die, to expect it. Sarah Palin issued a formal statement, calling her death “impending” and “inevitable,” and spoke of the legacy she would leave behind for the next generation of “hockey mom” politicians. Hers was a death that did not come. Kristen Stewart would live to see middle age, and Naomi Campbell would be eligible for a senior citizen discount. For a brief moment, it seemed that Ann Coulter could be counted among the victims; autopsy reports, however, determined that she could not.
“The Deaths of the Beautiful Women” continued in pitch and frenzy. After mounting pressure from his producers and the public, each night, though he despised it, Keith Olbermann named the number of “Beautiful Women Lost” instead of the number of days since “Mission Accomplished” was declared. Glenn Beck began discussing whether the woman who died on a given day could be called beautiful and tried to withhold the characteristic from some, but public outcry, backlash, and the loss of even more sponsors forced him to abandon the segment. Headlines in tabloids and certain talk shows read, “Still Alive, Ladies? What it Really Means for You and Your Man.” Jealous wives suddenly began demanding explanations from their husbands. “What does this really mean, huh? Why am I still alive?” About six months in, The Today Show and Good Morning America led with the story of one young woman who held her fiancé at gunpoint, forced him to say he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and when she was still alive when he finished his sentence, she shot him in the leg.
Another woman struggled through the backdoor with the groceries only to find her husband kneeling and nearly sobbing on the kitchen floor with a gun in his mouth. “What are you doing?” she dropped the groceries. Broken egg seeped through the paper bag and over the floor.
“I can’t do this,” he gestured with the gun. “I can’t stand knowing that one day, a woman will be dead because of me. Possibly you.” He stared at her. “But I don’t even know if it will be. I used to believe you were it—the most beautiful woman—but I don’t know anymore. I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out who I honestly fucking believe is the most beautiful woman in the world, and it’s just made me more unsure. Someday, a woman will die because of me, and I might not even know it’s my fault. I can’t live with that. If I die, than she, you, whoever, won’t.” He looked at his wife. She held out her hand, and he passed her the gun. She walked outside to the garage buried it in the folds of an unused tent.
Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire ran articles on making oneself less attractive. Covergirl and Maybelline pledged to stop producing beauty-enhancing products and instead began research on methods that would allow a woman to alter her appearance to become “ugly.” Bloggers wrote about the worldwide evolving standards of female beauty, the implications for a diminishing female population, speculated about the phenomenon’s causes or ways to keep women safe. A traditionally insensitive writer wrote a very sensitive piece about the need for men to adopt the conventional mother role and fulfill duties traditionally viewed as and completed by woman. Again, one lone blogger sent a series of questions out into cyberspace: Are we really facing the extinction on women, and by extension, humankind? One woman per day? Has anyone really done the math?
And as quickly, as strangely, as incomprehensibly as it began, it was over. Women continued to die on a daily basis, but one day, a major news network didn’t report the name of the Beautiful Woman. Instead, a young man with a boldly patterned tie and combed back hair looked up at the camera and said, “Crisis. Scientists say the night is less dark than it was 100 years ago. What this means for you and your children’s future, next.”
-This title comes from the Tweets of the iconic and (ironically) immortal Elizabeth Taylor. It did not say who it was who passed, but I'm sure they are missed.
-Jessica Fokken got her BA in English from Southwest Minnesota State University, her MFA from Iowa State University, and is currently working on her PhD at Oklahoma State University.