'Because I'm Worth It' galvanised generation to put themselves first

'Because I'm Worth It' galvanised generation to put themselves first

The four words that fired up feminism: It was just a slogan to flog hair products. But ‘Because I’m Worth It’ galvanised a generation of women to put themselves first. Fifty years on, CLARE COLEMAN traces its roots

  • L’Oréal’s ‘Because I’m worth it’ is an iconic advertising slogan in the beauty world
  • Introduced 50 years ago and has been translated into more than 40 languages
  • Spoken by high-profile women, from Eva Longoria to Jennifer Aniston 
  • Actress and model Joanne Dusseau was the first woman to say it in a 1971 TV ad 
  • Believes concept that woman’s self worth is valuable of itself was revolutionary

Some advertising slogans become iconic — ‘Just do it’, ‘Every little helps’, ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin’. In the world of beauty, there is none more so than L’Oréal’s ‘Because I’m worth it’.

It’s a tagline that, since its inception 50 years ago, has been translated into more than 40 languages and spoken by some of the most high-profile women in the world, from Eva Longoria, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford to Helen Mirren, Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Deneuve and Andie MacDowell.

As a popular phrase, it’s also arguably done more for women than any number of feminist tracts or academic debates.

Indeed, the woman who was the first to say it in a 1971 TV ad believes the very concept — that a woman’s self worth is valuable of itself, independent of any man — was quite revolutionary at the time.

In the world of beauty, there are no slogans more iconic than L’Oréal’s ‘Because I’m worth it’, which was first used 50 years ago and has been spoken by some of the most high-profile women in the world, including Jennifer Anniston (pictured) 

‘It was totally patriarchal back then; totally sexist,’ actress and model Joanne Dusseau tells me. ‘Men would do anything to make you feel less than, and anything to get a peek [at your body].’

As the face of L’Oréal in the early 1970s, Joanne also became the poster girl for the tagline, which she uttered for the first time ever in a TV commercial. In the 30-second advert, she strides through what looks like a jungle but, she tells me, ‘was actually a plant shop near [New York department store] Bloomingdales.’

Explaining why she uses a product called Preference, ‘the most expensive hair colour in the world,’ she concludes: ‘I don’t mind spending more for L’Oréal, because I’m worth it.’

Joanne, now 79, lives on her own in a little town called Troutdale, just east of Portland, Oregon, on the west coast of America.

When I meet her over Zoom, she still looks every inch the model, despite complaining that in lockdown she’s ‘gained 10lb’ and, as a result, has just taken on a virtual personal trainer.

While there might be a few lines on her face, Joanne has the same piercing blue eyes and captivating smile — and her hair, which is about the same length as when she filmed the advert, is still the same colour, L’Oreal Paris Preference Honey Blonde.

‘Still! I did try other brands but, to tell you the truth, this one’s the best,’ she confides in in her soft, slightly southern-accented voice.

Actress and model Joanne Dusseau (pictured) was the first to say the tagline on a TV ad in 1971 and believes the very concept — that a woman’s self worth is valuable of itself, independent of any man — was quite revolutionary at the time

Now retired, after a career that has spanned acting, modelling, stockbroking and almost 20 years as a contract negotiator with the U.S. Air Force, she lives 15 minutes from her daughter, who’s a doctor, and her two grandchildren.

The world of work was far more restricted for women 50 years ago, when Joanne was single, living in New York City and making a living by modelling.

All around her, however, prejudices and stereotypes were changing. It was in 1970 that 50,000 feminists paraded down New York’s Fifth Avenue as part of the Women’s Strike for Equality March. In 1971, the first issues of Gloria Steinem’s liberal feminist magazine, Ms, hit the news stands, while in law offices in Texas the foundations were being laid for 1973’s historic Roe v Wade case that established women’s rights to abortion in the U.S.

‘It was a very revolutionary time for women,’ recalls Joanne. ‘I was an activist. People were marching about the [Vietnam] war. Women were marching for women.’

Meanwhile, in an advertising agency on New York’s Third Avenue, another woman was feeling the same beginnings of radical change. Ilon Specht was 23, and part of the creative team at the McCann-Erickson agency working on the L’Oréal account. It was her script for a campaign that would change the way beauty was sold to women — for ever.

The French brand wanted to steal a march on market-leader Clairol, which at the time dominated the world of home hair colour. The problem was, not only were women notoriously brand loyal when it came to hair colour, but L’Oréal was more expensive than the competition. In a rare interview in 1999, Ilon recalled the original idea for the campaign that had been dreamt up by the predominantly male team. ‘They wanted to do something with a woman sitting by a window, and the wind blowing through the curtains,’ she says.

Ilon Specht, who was 23 and part of the creative team working on the L’Oréal account scripted the campaign which changed the way beauty was sold to women forever (pictured: Jennifer Anniston in a 2000s L’Oréal advert)

‘The woman was a complete object. I don’t think she even spoke. They just didn’t get it.’

Back then, even adverts that ostensibly sold products to women did so by playing on their appeal to men, and the voiceover was invariably a male voice because that was more authoritative.

Joanne remembers this genre of advertising all too well. As a model at the time, she was cast in a wide range of campaigns for everything from beauty products to cigarettes. ‘Beauty commercials were all about men saying “Look at her hair”. Men were doing the dialogue; women were just posing. It was really neanderthal.’

But what was happening on screen was only a reflection of what was going on in the real world. Joanne says: ‘I was brought up in a generation where you were used to being put down, you know — you were used to being denigrated. It was your life and you had to learn how to work with that.’

She recalls one audition where she walked in to find the casting director with his trousers down.

‘I said to him: “What are you doing? What in the world? Who do you think I am? Why would you do this?” and he immediately zipped up.’

But when she called her agent to complain — ‘I said to her “My God, how bad is it going to get?”’ — she was told to ignore it and carry on. ‘“Just dance, Joanne, just dance with it”, and that was the answer to it.’

It was against this backdrop of misogyny that Ilon Specht wrote her script.

This year, L’Oréal are ‘celebrating 50 years of women’s worth’ since they first used the tagline, in a new advert with The Saturdays star and mother-of-three Rochelle Humes 

‘I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing,’ Ilon told The New Yorker magazine. ‘I just thought, “F**k you.” I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.’

The words struck a chord with Joanne when she auditioned.

‘I remember reading it and thinking “This is fantastic. This is a total winner.” But I also knew I was up against like 3,000 other women for the role.

‘When I got the job, that was really a coup. For the first time, I was speaking about my feelings, as a woman, in an advert, and that was brand new.’

It’s no exaggeration to say that this was a role that changed her life. Talking about it now, even 50 years on, she becomes quite emotional. ‘When I did that first shoot, I walked out of there …’ she pauses, and tears fill her eyes. ‘I’m going to cry. Because I walked out of there and I thought, “This is great. I feel great. I feel different.” You know, after saying “I’m worth it” so many times, it changed me. It became my life.’

And in more ways than one. At the time, Joanne was the only model signed to L’Oréal. The actress Meredith Baxter Birney took over from her in 1977, and after that a host of famous names uttered that immortal line. But for five years — during which time she shot 23 TV adverts and a host of magazine campaigns — it was Joanne’s, and Joanne’s alone.

After Joanne, actress Meredith Baxter Birney took over in 1977 and following her was a long line of famous names, including Dame Helen Mirren (pictured) who featured in an advert for the Elvive purple shampoo in the 2010s 

‘Five years. Five years of saying that line!’ Naturally, she was often recognised in the street. ‘Sometimes they’d repeat the line back to me, and sometimes they’d just say “I know who you are, you do the L’Oréal commercials!” but it was always positive.’

By the time she shot her last ever L’Oréal ad, Joanne had met the father of her daughter and was heavily pregnant.

‘I think I was nine months pregnant on the L’Oréal set. They got so nervous that they sent me home because it looked like any minute I was going to pop!’

After having her daughter, Joanne turned her back on the world of acting and modelling. ‘I went to law school and business school, I became a stockbroker and a financial planner. I got a job with the Air Force.

‘And the reason I could do that is that I had so much confidence. Nothing knocked me off balance. I was just self-confident from saying that phrase a million times,’ she tells me. ‘Seriously. You could use, “I’m worth it” as a mantra in psychology. Say it enough and you’re going to be able to stand up to anything.’

Ilon refused to write an advert which was ‘about looking good for men’, so she refuted misogyny and angrily wrote her script, still being able to recite it years later due to her anger (pictured: Jane Fonda in a 2010s L’Oréal advert) 

It’s a message that she also passed on to the next generation, after separating from her partner.

‘That’s what I gave to my daughter. I said “You can do it” — and she did. She’s a doctor!’

Joanne admits to being in awe of the strides that women are taking today. ‘Oh my goodness, the Me Too movement? Women have gotten so bold. Bolder than I could ever be. I salute this generation of women. And things have changed.

‘But you need to keep going. There’s a lot more to do. You know so much has changed, but we’re not there yet. It’s still evolving.’

It seems incredible that a tagline in a beauty ad could have quite so much power. This, after all, was a catchphrase primarily designed to make women open their purses.

It seems incredible that a tagline in a beauty ad could have quite so much power. This, after all, was a catchphrase primarily designed to make women open their purses (pictured: Andie MacDowell in a 1990s advert)

Yet when you look at the timing and context of that first advert — and at just how widely disseminated these campaigns have subsequently become — you can see that, as an idea, it will have touched far more women than anything ever written by feminist luminaries such as Germaine Greer or Erica Jong.

‘Because I’m worth it’ seeped into popular culture and changed the way that women thought about themselves.

‘I really think it’s helped,’ says Joanne. ‘Women can stand on their own, and say what they want to say, and feel how they want to feel, and be who they want to be.

‘It’s part of the reason that I feel that it’s perfectly OK for me to live on my own, and be who I am. Because I’m worth it.’

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