Lipstick, Powder and Empowerment; When Reese Witherspoon Was Young, Her Grandmother Impressed upon Her the Importance of Self-Respect and Staying Strong - Valuable Lessons That Have Helped to Make Her One of Hollywood's Highest-Paid Actresses. Now, as Global Ambassador for Avon Cosmetics, She Wants to Help Other Women Harness Their Inner Strength to Escape the Trap of Domestic Violence

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Lipstick, Powder and Empowerment; When Reese Witherspoon Was Young, Her Grandmother Impressed upon Her the Importance of Self-Respect and Staying Strong - Valuable Lessons That Have Helped to Make Her One of Hollywood's Highest-Paid Actresses. Now, as Global Ambassador for Avon Cosmetics, She Wants to Help Other Women Harness Their Inner Strength to Escape the Trap of Domestic Violence


Byline: Interview CATHERINE O'BRIEN

The first time I find myself face to face with Reese Witherspoon we are at the Houses of Parliament on a sunny but crisply cold morning. Everyone is swathed in their winter wardrobes, apart from Reese, who is wearing an exquisite - but bone-chillingly sleeveless - Roland Mouret dress and traversing the flagstones of Westminster Hall in spiky Martin Margiela heels.

It's the day when the Prime Minister will later, rather embarrassingly, confuse Reese with her friend and fellow actress Renee Zellweger. But actually, when you've witnessed full-on Hollywood glamour teleported into the hub of British politics, you can understand why Gordon Brown found himself momentarily flummoxed. It's not so much that Reese and Renee are both petite and blonde and have names beginning with R; more that Reese and the PM occupy parallel universes. He's far too dour and serious to cross the threshold into her glitzy world, which begs the question, why is she, as one of the most successful Hollywood actresses of her generation, so eager to dip an immaculately pedicured toe into his?

Now 33, Reese made her name as ditzy Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but cemented her acting credentials five years ago with her Oscar-winning performance in Walk the Line. Her role as June Carter Cash, wife of the country music legend Johnny, catapulted her to the top of the Hollywood pay league, outstripping Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, and she commands a reputed $20 million ([pounds sterling]12 million) a film.

Like many Hollywood A-listers, she is keen to 'give back'. Two years ago she became global ambassador for Avon, and it is in this capacity that she is in London, to raise awareness for a new campaign the company is launching with the domestic violence charity Refuge. In a Westminster committee room, she listens transfixed as Wendy Turner Webster - the television presenter and younger sister of Anthea Turner - speaks about her violent first marriage. It's a harrowing and sadly all too familiar tale. In her early 20s, Wendy, now 42, spent five years married to a man who beat her and made her feel worthless. She found it difficult to leave him because she felt trapped. As Wendy (who today is thankfully happily remarried with two children) recalls how it felt to be stripped of dignity and confidence, the pained sympathy on Reese's face is evident.

'I had tears in my eyes,' she tells me afterwards. 'And do you know what really moved me? It was that psychological component - the way that having someone tear down your self-esteem can make you feel immobilised.'

Wendy's story, Reese says, prompted memories of a friend from her past, who had an abusive boyfriend. 'He hit her and threatened her life many times. It went on for about two years. I had no idea of what was happening between them until she confided in me. She ended up living with me for a few months - we were only about 20 at the time. She had to move and change her telephone numbers and it was hard. I remember thinking, how can this be happening to this girl who is articulate and educated? I didn't understand why she hadn't just left him sooner. And it was only hearing Wendy speaking that reminded me of that.'

We are sitting now in the more familiar surroundings, for Reese at least, of a sumptuous hotel suite. Although she is tiny - 5ft 2in tall - with delicate, doll-like features, she exudes no sense of fragility. Deft and assertive, it is hard to imagine her ever suffering the same crisis of confidence as either Wendy or her own long-ago friend. Indeed, if you examine many of the women she has portrayed - from Elle Woods, who chases her intellectual snob of a boyfriend to Harvard and discovers she has a bigger brain than he has, to the fiery but grounded June Carter Cash - you quickly identify a common strand of female empowerment. 'I don't have a set of rules about what kind of movies I make, but I am definitely drawn to women who are strong,' she says. …

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Lipstick, Powder and Empowerment; When Reese Witherspoon Was Young, Her Grandmother Impressed upon Her the Importance of Self-Respect and Staying Strong - Valuable Lessons That Have Helped to Make Her One of Hollywood's Highest-Paid Actresses. Now, as Global Ambassador for Avon Cosmetics, She Wants to Help Other Women Harness Their Inner Strength to Escape the Trap of Domestic Violence
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