Why these female Apprentice finalists give me nothing to cheer about | Lara Whyte

Both Luisa Zissman and Leah Totton's ideas for profit, like their grooming regimes, are profoundly dispiriting

A woman will be crowned winner of The Apprentice on Wednesday as Lord Sugar, for the third time in the history of the show, will choose between two female candidates.

Last week, Claude Littner and the gang narrowed the finalists down on the basis of their business plans. Leah Totton, a 24-year-old doctor, and Luisa Zissman, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, presented the most viable and potentially lucrative options. Each of the candidates have presented ideas that could make Lord Sugar a fortune, tapping into a particularly vital and seemingly flourishing sector of the economy: items that make women look or feel better.

Self-described "Business Barbie" Luisa Zissman already runs two successful baking businesses. A blizzard of visual sexual signifiers – fake nails, big hair, Dita Von Teese figure balanced on impossibly high stilts – and her "Jessica Rabbit sex appeal" (again, self-proclaimed) belies a wily business brain.

Baking companies have been one of the few success stories of the recession, with high street retailers reporting a boom in sales of baking products. Across the UK, female bakers and cupcake makers (without the perilously high heels in the vast majority of cases) are forging successful businesses catering to this growing demand. As being a foodie has become a socially acceptable form of classism, baking too has become sexy.

There are several debunked studies on the lipstick effect of recession consumer habits, but one thing women continue to spend their hard-earned, unequal pay on is cosmetic procedures. Despite the long wage freeze, the number of people having cosmetic surgery continues to increase, and according to the NHS 90% of procedures carried out are being performed on women.

Leah Totton, who likes to "disarm with charm" and describes herself as merely "quite glamorous", plans to open a string of mobile beauty clinics offering Botox and other non-surgical treatments. She impressed all four of Lord Sugar's advisers, which is no mean feat, but a quick glance over the obtainable figures of this woefully under-regulated industry would put a mildly surprised smile on the face of many an entrepreneur. Her profit numbers sounded good to all, though I was shocked at the brutality of the wage plans for her (most-likely female) cleaner and receptionist, at £8K and £16K respectively.

When challenged on plans to make money out of "girls not feeling good about themselves" by one of Sugar's advisers, Totton responded with characteristic coolness: she was not obsessed by her image, but as a 24-year-old woman, of course she cared about her looks. And so she should; study after study links attractiveness to success and growing up in our hyper-visual culture where women in the public eye become largely invisible once they pass a certain age, her concern could be described as prudent.

What Zissman and Totton shared with many of this year's female candidates, is, as the Daily Mail put it, the ability to put their womanly charms to their advantage safe in the knowledge they will be judged on TV by their beauty, as well as their business acumen. The frequent self-referencing of their looks – Totton citing her voluptuous hair in her business plan, Zissman saying people see her as a bimbo – is simply another way of promoting their capability, as they see the two as innately linked. As we are all trained, from an early age, to do.

However their ideas for profit, like the intensity of their grooming regimes, are profoundly dispiriting. They suggest that what women are spending their money on are props to make them seem less threatening, more pleasant and more attractive. Both are products of our current cultural moment, as we collectively salivate on the ideal of the Mad Men housewife, with its attractive evocations of easier times and simpler (less equal) roles. There are many things we can learn from that era, but gender politics is not among them.

Zissman and Totton have demonstrated an astute ability to hone in on growing markets. My problem is the fact that both of these markets are driven by female consumers and give a depressing picture of what women want. Both of the products show an anxiety as to where we are and ultimately reveal that the glass ceiling Luisa and Leah are rightly so determined to shatter, is held up by the same old politics of patriarchy.


Lara Whyte

The GuardianTramp

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