I think it is fair to describe the #nomakeupselfie trend on Twitter as a phenomenon without precedent in the charity world. As of Tuesday this week, Cancer Research UK said it had received a total of £8m in donations from the public. That is £6m more than it said it had received when I first reported the story for Third Sector on Friday.
It just goes to show how an organic trend is far more powerful than the most potent marketing techniques you can imagine.
Two years ago, BBC Children In Need attempted a similar idea, called Go BearFaced, posting pictures of its most famous female presenters such as Fiona Bruce and urging others to do the same in support of the annual appeal.
The BBC had not yet responded at the time of posting this but I think it is safe to assume that it failed to raise a tenth of what the latest trend has achieved and it certainly did not become lodged in the public consciousness.
So how did the latest incarnation of this idea come into being? While researching my initial news story, I came across several reports pointing to the American mystery fiction author Laura Lippman.
According to these reports, Lippman posted a picture of herself with no make-up in support of the Hollywood silver screen legend Kim Novak, who was rounded on for her physical appearance when she turned up at this year’s Oscars ceremony.
Apparently, America didn’t take kindly to the star of Vertigo having aged since her 1950s screen heyday.
Lippman then posted a picture of herself with no make-up in solidarity with Novak.
Thousands of women followed suit, in solidarity with both Lippman and Novak but then, without warning, the trend changed tack and women started posting their pictures in support of cancer charities and urging their friends to do the same.
Naturally, I wanted to ask Lippman what her motivation was for taking the first step and what she thought of what had happened since.
I’m happy to say she gave me an interview in which she told me her heart went out to Novak, who she felt was in a ‘no-win’ situation. Damned if she “freshened her looks”; damned if she didn’t.
It took just 48 hours for Lippman’s idea to move beyond her circle of friends and go viral, and she said she was stunned and gratified that it did so because it ran counter to her own cultural assumptions.
“So much of our cultural bitchiness is learned behaviour and it was great to see it can be unlearned and very quickly,” she told me.
Lippman refuses to take any credit, even indirectly, for what has happened since and the money the phenomenon has garnered for charity.
But she said she is personally gratified by what has happened and that she is a firm believer in philanthropy, imposing a 10 per cent “tithe” on her own net income which she donates to a small circle of local charities, with particular emphasis on supporting the homeless and underwriting Baltimore’s library system.
She has also been affected by cancer. Her grandmother and her sister-in-law both died of breast cancer.
Lippman said we will probably never know how her idea shifted from fighting misogyny to philanthropy.
“Who cares about credit?” she said. “A wonderful thing has happened. This is social media at its best. Whereas beating up on Kim Novak was social media at its worst. Hey, let’s give Kim Novak credit.”
Curiously, Lippman said she is not aware of similar acts of philanthropy going on in America as a result of this trend, which I find surprising given that the internet is without physical borders.
As with all Twitter trends, a backlash against no make-up selfies has already begun with some newspaper columnists questioning whether it really is that brave of women to post pictures of themselves without make-up and describing the phenomenon as largely narcissistic.
I’m not qualified to comment on that save to say that, set against fighting one of the many forms of cancer, it probably isn’t that brave but it is still laudable to jettison vanity in favour of philanthropy.
CRUK said that as a result of the additional money it received it is now able to fund ten clinical trials it did not have the money for one week ago. You could argue narcissism and vanity all day long and not make a dent in that achievement.
As for the concurrent trend of men dressing up in drag with full make-up to highlight male cancer issues, I’m in no hurry to break out the killer heels and lippie myself. I’ll just report it.