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Historical Beauty Update

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The real Queen Christina of Sweden, and Greta Garbo playing her in the 1933 film.

"And needless to say, [John Smith] was a short, portly brown-head — Not the golden-haired Adonis we see before us in the movie."

In a nutshell, this is the tendency of popular entertainment to make Historical Domain Characters look more handsome or beautiful than they actually were (or are reported to have been by the sources of their time), and/or to fit their looks to the beauty standard of the culture the work is made for.

Even when sources state that someone was attractive, this was of course according to the standards of their contemporaries. Certain characteristics, such as clear skin, shiny hair, and a certain evenness of the face are universally liked, as they show health. The assessment of all the rest (body type, skin color, facial features) though, varies with the vogue of the time and place. While some of the clothing people used to wear is seen as Gorgeous Period Dress, other fashion and hairstyle choices were also not exactly in line with current tastes. Body modification, ranging from make-up to scarification, varies wildly among cultures and their history and shows how truly polarising ideas of beauty can be.

A visual Woolseyism. A historical figure regarded as attractive by contemporaries is depicted as attractive according to modern standards, preventing their good looks from becoming Informed Attractiveness.

Medieval Morons is as unrealistic as The Beautiful Elite, but the population of former times certainly lacked the comforts of modern technology and therefore, unless stated otherwise, it is safe to assume that the "hero" of one's story carried the marks of a harsh life without proper medicine and full of dangers and hard physical labour; and no toothpaste either - though it was only the advent of (cane) sugar that really led to bad teeth en masse.note 

One would think the advent of photography might curb this practice, but in the end, we all just love looking at attractive people too much to let little things such as actual history keep us from imagining them as gorgeous. This trope is, of course, one of the oldest ones there is. When no one knows what the historical person really looked like, all bets are off.

There are several reasons for this trope. Actors and actresses are in a profession where good looks are an asset and they are selected for that, just as athletes are in better shape than the norm, lawyers and politicians are better at public speaking, etc. So the group playing the part already contains a higher portion of good-looking people.

Moreover, modern actors take much better care of their appearance than most people and have a whole staff working 24/7 to help them look good. If the historical person they're portraying lacked the time or money to do this — or had the means, but simply didn't care enough — then the actor will naturally look more healthy and/or well-groomed than the real person would have.

Compare Historical Hero Upgrade, Beauty Equals Goodness, Adaptational Attractiveness, Hollywood Homely, and Hotter and Sexier. For the inversion, see Historical Ugliness Update and Beauty Inversion.

See Historical Relationship Overhaul for other changes a Historical Domain Character may receive.

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Examples using real people

    Anime & Manga 
  • Although it should be noted that these were not intended to make them look more flattering. The author at least blames it on a lack of reference pictures most of the time.
  • Alexander Pushkin looks better in Chiho Saito's Bronze no Tenshi than he did in Real Life.
  • Bungaku Daishi or 'Male Literary Figures' is a book published with manga art profiling famous authors - Marquisde Sade, Franz Kafka, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, Junichirō Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters), Miguel de Cervantes, The Brothers Grimm, and poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire... All of them are depicted as Bishōnen.
    • In a similar vein, Atsushi Nakajima (The Moon Over the Mountain), Osamu Dazai (No Longer Human), the aforementioned Tanizaki, and many more authors are adapted into superpowered bishonen in Bungou Stray Dogs. Female authors such as Akiko Yosano (Thou Shalt Not Die) also get adapted.
  • Afterschool Charisma: A manga populated by the teenage clones of various famous people, all of whom are uniformly gorgeous. Some of them are people who were well-known for being beautiful in real life, but "gorgeous bishie teenage Freud" and "gorgeous bishie teenage Napoleon" kind of strain credulity.
    • Lampshaded in volume 3 where it is implied that the originals were not that beautiful and it was the cloning process that made them that way.
  • Similar to The Rose of Versailles, every Historical Domain Character in Red River (1995) is completely gorgeous, despite the story taking place in a time period not even in the Iron Age and having most of said characters be involved with military campaigns. Interestingly, the fact that so many people gush over how beautiful and flawless and soft Yuri's skin is (as one would expect from a teenage girl in modern times who hasn't done much hard labor) suggests that such qualities are considered rare enough that it's considered a major point of beauty for her.

  • When the ten-dollar bill was upgraded, Alexander Hamilton, despite already being handsome by many measures, was still given a streamlined facelift.
  • This trope is by no means new. Paintings, statues, busts, etc. of royal and rich people were known to improve a person's appearance. One instance where it was especially common was during an arranged marriage. Many times, the betrothed wouldn't see each other until the day of the wedding, especially if there was great distance between them (like the children of two different kingdoms). The only way they would know what their future spouse would look like is through paintings, and artists were known to smooth out pockmarks and add and subtract a few inches.
    • Queen Elizabeth I used this to her advantage to make people think she was young, healthy, and attractive even when she had smallpox scars, grew old, and lost her hair and wore a wig. As with many things, mocked in Blackadder:
      Baldrick: Well, my cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody, he says that he's heard that all portraits look the same these days since they are painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.
    • This trope didn't work out quite so well when Elizabeth's father Henry VIII was shopping for a fourth wife. The famous painter Holbein did a portrait of Anne, a minor Princess of Cleves, which made the most of what beauty she did possess... but as Henry discovered when they met in person, that wasn't much. Henry had his aide Cromwell beheaded for screwing the situation up so badly. They did marry, but by Anne's own account the marriage was never consummated and she eventually consented to his offer of an amicable divorce. Ironically, this was great for Anne — outside of the lack of attraction, she and Henry got along really well as friends. She was allowed to remain in England for the rest of her (long) life, was good friends with both of her former stepdaughters, and Henry treated her like a sister, giving her expensive gifts and inviting her to all the events at court. Best of all, she didn't get beheaded, which shows how well she came ahead of the other wives - she outlived them all. To come cycling back to this page's trope, in the TV series The Tudors she is played by Joss Stone.
  • The Physics building of Chalmers University of Technology (Göteborg, Sweden) is decorated with a dozen sculptures, depicting famous Swedish scientists from Celsius onward. All are shown as idealistically beautiful - except Svante Arrhenius, who was still alive when the building was erected. His statue looks like he actually looked. Reportedly, he was none too pleased with this.
  • Most Ancient Egyptian kings commissioned all their sculptures, tomb reliefs, and burial masks to depict them as youthful, attractive, and healthynote . Hatshepsut even required depictions to make her male. But thanks to mummification, forensic scientists can reconstruct what many of them actually looked like.
    • For example, Ramses II lived to be a very old man and was not in perfect health. Tutankhamun had an overbite, a slight cleft palate, and a club foot, and was probably not what we'd call handsome. Hatshepsut was, gasp!!, a woman. Don't expect contemporary artwork to depict them that way.
    • In an inversion Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father who tried unsuccessfully to replace the entire Egyptian religion with a new one always had himself and his family depicted as pot-bellied androgyns with elongated, weird-looking faces. For years, Egyptologists wondered if it was artistic convention or hereditary deformity until they identified his mummy and learned that no, he looked pretty average.
    • Also, fairly recent research and examinations have shown that Hatshepsut was probably obese and afflicted with a nasty skin condition toward the end of her reign. Link here:
    • The Nefertiti Bust was often held to be a depiction of her as stately and beautiful. A documentary showed that this was mostly due to the lighting since the bust was often illuminated for best presentation. Changing the lighting showed a bunch of wrinkles and a more aged look.
  • One reason why photography wasn't always successful in making people look more realistic is that most mainstream photography was black-and-white until the 1950s, and much of it still was until the 1980s. Black-and-white film is more light-sensitive and requires more artificial lighting in its setup, so people photographed in black-and-white are unnaturally illuminated, tend to appear "angelic", and are thus more physically attractive than they otherwise would be. (Unless, of course, the subject is shot in low-key photography, but that is usually reserved for villains, morally ambiguous characters, or people who are supposed to look unattractive to the viewer.) A second reason is that, at least in the nineteenth century, people getting photographed took the experience a lot more seriously than they do now. Photographers were all trained professionals, possessed a great deal of technical knowledge as well as artistic talent, and were thought of almost as photorealistic portrait painters than simply recorders of events. People always wore their best clothes for photos in those days. Men shaved and women put their hair up, and even the children wore suits. They certainly didn't look like that all the time.

    Comic Books 
  • Requiem Vampire Knight: While Frankenstein's author Mary Shelley was not ugly by any means, she wasn't a blue-eyed blonde, like she is depicted in the comic during a flashback. This is the most notable instance where it's played straight since this work tends to invert it with most historical figures, who are turned into demonic monsters; for example, Elizabeth I is turned into a gorgon, while Nero becomes a twisted Dr. Frank N. Furter expy.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • Pocahontas:
    • John Smith's appearance was changed to suit modern tastes, making him tall, muscular and clean-shaven, and giving him a leonine mane of blonde hair. The real John Smith had a very out-of-date beard, and who knows what he looked like beneath that thing. As a career soldier and explorer, however, he was probably quite fit, though judging by his portraits he had a more average build than his Disney counterpart.
    • Pocahontas is turned into a Native-American runway model rather than the 12-year-old she really was at the time of their meeting. When she visited England, years later, she looked like this.
    • In general the Powhatan people are shown dressing as a generic mix of indigenous cultures. In real life, they did have unique clothing, hairstyles, and body modifications... which don't make for a G-rated Disney film.
  • Moana is mostly accurate to Polynesian aesthetics. However, there is a noticeable lack of stained teeth, which were common fashion in many cultures.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • Michael Crichton's novel Timeline nicely plays with this trope in one chapter, in which the inventors of the time-traveling device present film footage of historical events, which they recorded in secret while being there. The first film shows Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in a nasal voice, which he is actually said to have had. The second film shows George Washington crossing the Delaware in the rain, sitting in a corner and wrapped in his mantle, rather than striking the painting's iconic pose.
  • In J.T. Edson's Calamity Jane novels, Calamity Jane is a stacked blonde who dresses in skintight buckskins. This is at odds with photographs of the historical Calamity Jane, who could charitably be described as plain. This trope also applies to Edson's version of the outlaw Belle Starr.
  • Played with and discussed in Animorphs "Elfangor's Secret". The kids realize that the guy they're looking for in the middle of the Battle of Agincourt is going to be the guy who looks clean and has good teeth and no sores. They also talk about it after landing on the banks of the Delaware during the Washington crossing the Delaware scene.
  • The historical novel The Sunne in Splendour, which aims to restore Richard III's reputation, is a complicated case. He's not the deformed hunchback of Shakespeare, but a handsome, Byronic Hero whose alluring eyes and dark hair contrasts with his more traditionally handsome older brothers. In real life, it seems he was considered rather unremarkable compared to his older brothers, but then again they were tall and blond, which was the fashion of the times and near-contemporary images showed him as dark haired and of average height. In the book, he has no spinal deformity, only an injury from a fall from a horse, and is very athletic.
    • Further complicating matters, once Richard's remains were found, DNA showed that he likely had blue eyes and light hair like his brothers, although geneticists were quick to point out his hair could have darkened as an adult. And Richard, despite the scoliosis which was confirmed, was known to be physically fit and it is not thought the scoliosis would have been visible through his clothes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Secret of the Three Kingdoms: Compare Liu Xie's portrait on Wikipedia note  with Ma Tian Yu as Liu Xie.
  • Moon Lovers: No portraits survive of the real Wang So and his brothers, but it's safe to assume none of them were half as good-looking as their actors here.
  • The Princess Wei Young: No portraits survive of Empress Dowager Feng or Emperor Wencheng, but it's safe to assume they looked nothing like Tiffany Tang or Luo Jin.
  • The King Loves: It's unknown what the real King Chungseon looked like, but he almost certainly wasn't as handsome as Im Si-wan.
  • Queen for Seven Days:
    • No portraits survive of Queen Dangyeong, but she probably didn't look like Park Min-young.
    • Similarly, no confirmed portraits survive of Yeonsan-gun of Joseon (this one is sometimes claimed to be a portrait of him, but is also labelled as a portrait of the much later (and much saner) King Jeongjo) but we can safely say he looked nothing like Lee Dong-gun.
    • The only remaining portraits of Lee Yeok/King Jungjong show him as an old man, but even when he was young he probably wasn't half as good-looking as Yeon Woo-jin.
  • The Longest Day in Chang'an: Portraits of the real Li Bi are scarce, but it's safe to assume he didn't look like Jackson Yee.
  • The King's Woman: It's safe to say the real Ying Zheng looked nothing like Vin Zhang.
  • Boardwalk Empire is guilty of this with a few historical gangsters (particularly the ones who are young "baby gangsters" when the series is set, in the 1920s). Arnold Rothstein now has fangirls. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano are being paired up in slash fanfictions. Never mind what kind of fans Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel are attracting.
  • In the third series of Black Adder, there's discussion about this in the episode "Duel and Duality". Baldrick suggests that he and Prince George can trade identities to avoid the The Duke of Wellington's wrath. The Prince brings up the valid point that his portrait hangs on every wall, which is where Blackadder prompts Baldrick to quote his cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody:
    Baldrick: He's heard that all portraits look the same these days, 'cos they're painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.
    Blackadder: Your cousin Bert obviously has a larger vocabulary than you do, Baldrick.
    • Of course, Prince George is arguably an example himself; in real life (and once in the show) he's described as being fat, while in Blackadder he's played by Hugh Laurie, who's anything but.
  • Queen Isabella of Spain looked extremely ordinary at best, a real far cry from Michelle Jenner in the Spanish TV series Isabel.
  • The John Adams miniseries slightly averts this trope. While many of the actors are all very good-looking by today's standards, their characters all eventually fall prey to disadvantages that many people had to deal with in the 18th century, such as lack of dental hygiene, skin care, and modern medicine.
  • There is an interesting variation on this trope in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The astronaut wives were generally reasonably attractive women in real life and indeed one or two of them were noted beauties in their time. However, the actresses who play them are far prettier than what the actual women were. This also holds true for the NASA and contractor staff, who were portrayed by much too good-looking actors to be believable. On the other hand, check out the crew photos of that time.
  • The Tudors is undisputed lord and master of this trope, with its parade of pouty-lipped sexpots in Gorgeous Period Dress:
    • Henry VIII didn't marry Anne Boleyn until he was nearly forty-two, but in the series, he looks like he's in his late twenties or early thirties - until he abruptly ages in the fourth season. Kate Beaton has fun with this. Of course, gaining the weight required or wearing a fat suit large enough to be even close to realistic would have been rather detrimental to Jonathan Rhys Meyers' health.
    • Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk definitely qualifies. This [1] is the portrait of the real Charles Brandon. In the series, he is played by an almost clean-shaven Henry Cavill. In fact, many of the prominent male characters qualify, including Sir Thomas More [2] (played by Jeremy Northam), Thomas Cromwell [3] (James Frain), Thomas Cranmer [4] (Hans Mathieson) and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham [5] (Steven Waddington, who actually looks quite like Henry VIII in his younger years when he was still fit and considered attractive). None of them were hideous in real life, but they were definitely not nearly as handsome as the actors playing them in the series.
    • Possible aversion with More, who kinda looks like Northam if the latter was 10 or so years older. It's also worth noting that while Henry married Anne in his early forties, their relationship began in his mid-thirties (yes, that's really how long the annulment fight took) and even then, was still considered to be more like the Henry of 1515 than the Henry of 1545. The real weight gain and bloat didn't start until around Anne's execution.
    • Anne herself is an example of this, as she is in most filmed works about her. The real Anne, while far from ugly, defied the time's standards of beauty (olive-skinned, dark-eyed, and brunette, when the ideal was blonde, fair, and blue-eyed), but here she's played by the stupendously beautiful Natalie Dormer. Notably, however, Dormer had a serious fight on her hands to play Anne as the brunette she truly was — the producers wanted her to remain blonde, but Dormer dug in her heels and won the argument. Nobody's really sorry about this trope, though, because Dormer turned in what has been near-universally hailed as one of the best portrayals of Anne ever put to the screen.
  • The Borgias: Jeremy Irons is tall and slender and with a full head of hair, where the real Rodrigo Borgia resembled a short, fat, bald bulldog of a man.
  • Even the actors aren't immune: Robin Williams himself got this treatment in Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy. In real life, Robin Williams is, shall we say, an acquired taste due to his unique appearance. However, in this Made-for-TV Movie, he's played by Chris Diamantopoulos, who makes a generically attractive Robin... and is Mr. Fanservice in Real Life.
  • Little House on the Prairie: Michael Landon, as Charles Ingalls, was a lot better-looking than the person he portrayed on TV. Ingalls had a Santa Claus beard, but Landon was clean-shaven, even when he spent days or weeks without seeing a razor.
    • In the Little House on the Prairie miniseries in 2005, Charles Ingalls was played by Cameron Bancroft, with Hollywood hair and Perma-Stubble. And Erin Cottrell played Caroline, a woman raised to believe it was immodest to wear her hair in a way that didn't cover her ears (in the books after the move to Silver Lake, Caroline Ingalls does specifically say that a lady doesn't show her ears), in sort of a case of Historical Coquettishness Upgrade. Even Jack the dog was better-looking than in the source material.
  • In Spartacus: Blood and Sand we are shown that the Third Servile War was fundamentally a conflict between The Beautiful Elite of The Roman Republic and their equally beautiful gladiators and slaves. Even historical figures whose appearances are actually known, such as Julius Caesar (who was already an attractive man in real life) get major upgrades. The handful of actual ugly characters that appear in the show are almost always minor villains that are sleazy even by the standards of evil on the show, such as pimps and pirates.
  • Hitler: The Rise of Evil:
    • Ernst Hanfstaengl is played by the much more attractive Liev Schreiber.
    • Same goes for Helene Hanfstaengl, who was plain-looking in life and nowhere near the looks of Julianne Marguiles.
    • Likewise, Jena Malone is a bit more femininely beautiful and sexually attractive than the real-life Geli Raubal.
    • Ernst Rohm is played by Peter Stormare in the movie, but in reality, he was far closer to the fat, balding background character who serves as his lieutenant-and later, Hitler's SS bodyguard-in the flick.
  • The miniseries Sons of Liberty does this to Samuel Adams, where he is played by the tall, lithe, and very handsome thirtysomething Ben Barnes. In reality, Sam Adams was a short, shabbily dressed man entering his early fifties by the time the Revolution started.
  • Band of Brothers:
    • The daughter of George Luz joked about this in an interview with the actor playing her father. "And to think that he was portrayed by such a cutie...what a little hottie." For reference, here's the real George Luz and here's Rick Gomez.
    • Played with in terms of Joe Liebgott. As he was thirty-two when the war ended, he probably wasn't the Pretty Boy Ross McCall portrayed him as at age twenty-four.
  • Reign features a tall, handsome blonde Adonis as the future King Francis II of France, when in reality he was a very short child with a marked stutter. He was also only 15 when they wed, whereas the show portrays him as being quite a bit older.
  • Used all the time in TV movies. Case in point, the 2001 Miniseries And Never Let Her Go, which was based on the book of the same title about the 1996 murder of Anne Marie Fahey, zigzags this trope. While Kathryn Morris's beauty is comparable to Fahey's, the two women look nothing alike; Fahey was 5'10" and had long, curly brown hair, and Morris is average height and had short blonde hair. On the flip side, you had Mark Harmon portray Tom Capano, her lover and murderer, and the actor was both younger and much more handsome than his real-life equivalent. Also, there's the case of his other lover, Deborah MacEntyre, who was rather plain-looking, she is played by Rachel Ward and renamed Christine Sheve.
    • The balding, paunchy Kenneth Parnell (the kidnapper of Steven Stayner) is played by the handsome Arliss Howard in the Mini Series based on the story. He had to resort to wearing a pair of creepy glasses to convey what a sleazeball he was.
  • Attila: Like Race Lift, this is a bit contentious in regards to the main character as no reliable description of Attila's real-life appearance has survived. However, he's usually described as short and stocky, whereas Gerard Butler is tall and handsome. Whether or not this is Roman propaganda or an accurate description of what the warlord looked like is unknown.
  • Lampshaded by André Castelot in the introduction to L'Aventure de la Duchesse de Berry.
    André Castelot: Louis XVIII even used to say that nothing in her [the Duchess] was pretty, but everything was charming. Now, I need to confess something. You know that La Caméra Explore le Temps strives to be as close as possible to historical truth; well, here we took some liberties with the truth. Françoise Christophe will play the Duchess of Berry; well, everything in her is pretty, and everything in her is charming.
  • Victoria: Queen Victoria would have killed to be as lovely as Jenna Coleman.
  • Wolf Hall combines this with Adaptational Attractiveness, as the original book doesn't shy away from describing Villain Protagonist Thomas Cromwell as the fat, thuggish-looking man his portrait actually indicates, while the much smaller and more pleasant Mark Rylance plays him in the series. Henry VIII, another frequent example of this trope, counts here as well; he's broader than The Tudors portrayal, but still more in the area of Large and in Charge than full-on Adipose Rex.
  • The Vernon Johns Story: The real Vernon Johns was a slight, thin, bespectacled man. A far cry from the burly and powerful build of James Earl Jones.
  • The True Crime documentaries shown on Investigation Discovery engage in this trope quite a fair bit. For just one example, the murder victim in the Fear Thy Neighbor episode "Tunnel of Hate" is played by Canadian actress Annette Wozniak. Compare the actress to the actual murder victim.
  • The Terror goes multiple directions with this one. The aforementioned Ciarán Hinds is considerably taller and slimmer than the real Sir John Franklin, to say nothing of his full head of hair when the real Franklin went mostly bald early on, and what hair was there was frizzy and usually ungroomed even in his official portraits. On the other hand, it's more or less a matter of personal taste as to whether Tobias Menzies or the real James Fitzjames was more attractive- it comes down to whether the beholder prefers a round-faced man in his mid-thirties with curly reddish hair and possibly some light scarring on one cheek, or a man in his early forties with long wavy dark hair, a Lantern Jaw of Justice and deep laugh lines- and both had/have uneven teeth, strong noses, and hooded eyes. Francis Crozier, on the other hand, had very delicate, even features in real life, but is played by the already more rugged-looking Jared Harris having undergone a bit of Beauty Inversion to look as tired and paunchy as possible.
  • Chernobyl: The real Nikolai Tarakanov praised Ralph Ineson's portrayal of him but did note that Ineson is much better looking than he was at the time. The real Vasily Ignatenko's mother pointed out that her son had a much rounder face than Adam Nagaitis has, but it's unclear how she meant this.
  • The Great: Like most historical soap operas, The Great gives a beauty upgrade to most of its characters. The one that is most acute, however, is Emperor Peter III, played by the gorgeous Nicholas Hoult. The real Peter was described as looking like a fish and disfigured by smallpox. Catherine, on the other hand, was considered a great beauty, but she didn't much resemble Elle Fanning.
  • Amber's Story: Amber Hagerman wasn't quite as pretty and beautiful as Sophie Hough, the young child actress who portrays her.
  • The White Princess casts Jacob Collins-Levy as Henry VII, and the actor's looks actually aren't that far off, if you just look up the images on Google - the only thing he's missing are Henry's notoriously bad teeth. It's the way he's styled that makes him this trope. The costumes used on the show (which, mind you, aren't actually historically accurate) downplay his skinny figure, while his long curls and Perma-Stubble make him look more conventionally handsome than Henry. It doesn't help that Henry VII is one of the most interesting personalities of English history, while the series' Henry... Is not.
  • The White Queen: Richard III was not the monstrous hunchback of Shakespeare but he also wasn't the stunningly pretty Byronic Hero he is in the show. He was thought to be rather ordinary compared to his handsome older brothers. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville on the other hand, while probably less attractive than the 21st Century actors who play them, were both considered exceptionally good looking for their time.
  • Seasons 2 (titled "Vzlyot" or "Rise") and 3 ("Samozvantsi" or "Impostors") of Ekaterina does this to later Paul I or Russia. You see, one of the arguments historians use for Peter III's parentage of Paul is the fact that the two bear some resemblance, and were thus both pretty ugly, whereas Paul's other potential father Sergei Saltykov was famously very handsome. Even on official portraits, which are often idealized, Paul bears an eerie resemblance to Michael Sheen of all people. Now, compare this to Pavel Tabakov, who looks like a boyband member...
  • This was the Portuguese Royal Couple João VI and Carlota Joaquina. These are them in a 2002 miniseries, where João is dead-on but Carlota goes straight into this trope (an inversion to how most of her portrayals go for the plain-looking if not homely).
  • Brazilian emperor Pedro II married Teresa Cristina because of a portrait that enhanced the very plain (not to mention short, slightly overweight, and walking with a limp) Italian princess. Come a 2021 telenovela, and the Empress Consort sees quite the improvement.
  • Davy Crockett: In real life, Davy Crockett was just over six feet tall and maybe 190 pounds after a workout and a heavy meal. In the Disney episodes, he is portrayed by Fess Parker, who at 6'5" and broad-shouldered, well, let’s just say there are a lot of words one could use to describe him, but “short” and “scrawny” are not two of them.
  • House of Hancock revolves around the Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock and his daughter Gina Rinehart. The real Lang Hancock was overweight and had oily features, but is played by Sam Neill, who is in much better shape. Likewise, Gina Rinehart has a noticable sunburn and heavy scowl lines but is played by Mandy McElhinney who has more pleasantly youthful features.


    Video Games 
  • Frederic Francois Chopin in Eternal Sonata. While he may have been handsome in real life, the game designers decided to make him full-blown Bishōnen.
  • Pretty much everyone in Sengoku Basara. We seriously doubt that the real Sanada Yukimura was ever the perpetually shirtless Bishōnen that he is in the games and anime. Then again, everything else in Sengoku Basara is turned up several notches as well.
    • Liu Bei in Dynasty Warriors 6 and 7 is probably the most overt example of this trope coming into effect though, since he didn't rock the Pretty Boy look until those games.
    • Special note goes to Akechi Mitsuhide. Both Sengoku Basara and Samurai Warriors portrayed him as a Bishōnen (morality is another story), whereas... do you know one of the reasons he supposedly betrayed Oda Nobunaga? Because the latter called him "kumquat head".
  • Ikemen Sengoku, as a romance game whose premise is that you get to woo your choice of famous Japanese Sengoku-era warlords such as Nobunaga Oda or Ieyasu Tokugawa, makes sure that all of these warlords are as ridiculously attractive as possible. The game hangs a lampshade on the absurd attractiveness of its warlords from the very beginning by showing its main character reading a modern-day magazine about them that claims them to be "Japan's Hottest Warlords!"
  • Assassin's Creed:
  • The trope is in full effect in Hakuouki. Some of the real-life members of The Shinsengumi, such as Hijikata Toshizo, were plenty attractive on their own, while others, like Saito Hajime, were... not. Regardless, in the Visual Novel and the anime series adapted from it, they're all portrayed as gloriously Bishōnen.
  • The Legend of Tian-ding chronicles the escapades of the titular Just Like Robin Hood hero, loosely based on a Taiwanese revolutionary icon of the same name. The real-life Tian-ding looks like an average Joe, but in video game form Tian-ding is a handsome Long-Haired Pretty Boy with extremely well-defined features.
  • Shadow Hearts features many historical characters, few of which resemble their real-life counterparts. Most notable would have to be Mata Hari. While a famous beauty, the real-life Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was hardly the blue-eyed, blonde-haired buxom bombshell seen in the game. Instead, she was dark-haired with dark eyes, and very modest in the chest department.
  • The Civilization games do this to varying degrees depending on the specific game.

  • Subverted — or not, depending on your tastes — by the depiction of Sappho in Amazoness!. Ancient accounts described her as "small and dark", and the comic depicts her as very smallnote , very dark, and as a charming Butch Lesbian.


    Web Videos 
  • Parodied in the Funny or Die video The Sexy Dark Ages, which makes fun of "the genre of softcore historical drama".
    Natalie Zea: I'm just glad that Showtime has the guts to show that, y'know, just because something happened in the past doesn't mean that everybody had to have bad teeth.
    Daniel Sharman: It combines the kind of sexiness of The Tudors, and the kind of steaminess of Camelot with just a hint of the historical eroticism of Rome.
  • Also Played for Laughs in Unbiased History, where every Roman emperor that the POV is from is depicted as the Chad meme.

    Western Animation 
  • Liberty's Kids did this to, more or less, every historical figure on the show.
  • A mild example in Onyx Equinox where the characters look a bit more conforming to modern ideals of beauty while historical Mesoamericans had preferences not as liked in modern times, like molded skulls, lip and ear gaps, and stained teeth. However, most main characters are teenagers which wouldn't realistically have as many of these modifications.

In-Universe examples

    Comic Books 
  • The New Traveler's Almanac sections of the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen give an example with two contrasting accounts of a visit to Sir Lancelot's tomb a couple of centuries apart. The first one mentions a sculpture depicting Lancelot as a Barbarian Longhair, whereas Mina's journal entries from the early 20th century describe it having been rebuilt in the intervening years with a new statue showing Lancelot as the clean-cut Knight in Shining Armor modern people have come to expect.

  • The Wheel of Time: Nyneve is rather taken aback upon meeting Gaidal Cain, who, unlike his reincarnation partner Birgitte, is quite a bit uglier than the legends say.
  • Soviet Sci-Fi novel Kovrigin’s chronicles ("A girl near a steep", "Девушка у обрыва") by Vadim Shefner. A man remarks how all the depictions of a famous scientist's girlfriend follow that trope (the scientist asked that his name not be honored through memorials and such, so the people resort to honoring her instead).
  • No Woman Born: While waiting for Deirdre's performance, her manager Harris and scientist Maltzer watch a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, noting that the actress playing her is far too pretty, and the garb being worn by the women onstage to be too tight for the period.
  • 1632 has someone note that Princess Kristina looks nothing like Greta Garbo. To be fair, she's only a child too. For readers who are wondering, in the Garbo movie, Kristina as a child was played by Cora Sue Collins.
  • Mortal Engines has the horribly disfigured Hester Shaw and the slightly scarred version of her in Professor Pennyroyal's book.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe:
    • In the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Lucifer Rising, a historical drama about the Ice Warrior invasion of 2090 features a "handsome young museum curator", who is presumably meant to be this guy.
    • In the New Series Adventures novel Ghosts of India, Donna asks the Doctor if Cleopatra was really the most beautiful woman in the world. He replies that she was the most beautiful woman in her bedchamber if the handmaidens had the day off.
  • Discworld
    • The counterpart of Helen of Troy appears in Eric. Eleanor of Tsort is plump, with somewhat faded good looks and the beginnings of a mustache. After all, it's been ten years since the siege started, but no one's going to write epic poetry about rescuing a woman who's fairly attractive in a good light.
    • In Pyramids, Gern the apprentice mummifier is criticised by his master Dil for making the Pharaoh's death mask too accurate. Dil and the sculptor discuss how it could be improved, and a shocked Gern asks if people won't notice.
      Dil: Gern, certainly they'll notice. But they won't say anything. They expect us to, er, improve matters.
      Sculptor: After all, you don't think they're going to step up and say "It's all wrong, he really had a face like a short-sighted chicken", do you?
      • Later on in the book, the protagonist Pteppic meets his ancestor Khuft, who founded Djeyli, and is surprised to find he looks a lot less like a Mighty Father of His People and more disreputable camel salesman. Because that's what he was.
  • In The '80s pulp series Doomsday Warrior, Rona—the hero's Action Girlfriend—is captured by 21st Century Nazis and is surprised when they start fawning over her as the reincarnation of Hitler's mistress Eva Braun. She then sees a portrait of Adolf Hitler seated with a naked Eva—portrayed as a buxom redheaded Amazonian Beauty with an uncanny resemblance to Rona—sprawled at his feet.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Discussed by Brienne of Tarth, an ugly Brawn Hilda who nonetheless is a Knight in Shining Armor at heart. She hopes that the songs will memorialize her favorably.
    Brienne: Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it's always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.
  • It's a Running Gag in The Robots of Dawn that the story of Baley's previous investigation was made into a "hyperwave drama" and shown on both Earth and all the Spacer worlds, with Baley himself played by a younger and more handsome actor, so everyone expects him too look similar. The actor who played Daneel was apparently a better match.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 8 Simple Rules features a school play based on The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne gets played by Bridget - who is a beautiful buxom blonde that looks nothing like the real girl. During rehearsals, she has a line where she says "I know I'm not very pretty" and bursts out laughing at the ridiculousness of her saying such a thing.
  • Forever Knight: justified that the vampires look good in their flashbacks, but human Nick gets into this trope before he is turned in the first episode flashback.
  • In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank tells a story of a love triangle from his past featuring people the gang has never met. In the flashback, the new people are played by attractive actors. When the gang meets them in real life, however, they turn out to be quite average. The gang walks off discussing how no one looks anything like they'd been imagining.

    Video Games 
  • Dark Souls has an odd and fairly amusing one: the description of the powerful healing item "Elizabeth's Mushroom" in the second game describes it as a creation of St. Elizabeth, known for her potent medicines. It also describes Elizabeth as a woman of sublime beauty. Elizabeth can actually be met face-to-face in the first Dark Souls game, and she is a giant talking mushroom.
  • While most Fate/Grand Order Servants are far more attractive than their real-life counterparts just because, Napoleon Bonaparte's appearance actually has an in-series explanation—rather than being the original man, he's a physical manifestation of Napoleonic propaganda, and is thus much more impressive-looking (and just more impressive in general) than the real deal ever was.
  • Bioshock Infinite has the City of Columbia, which praises George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin as prophets from God. All three are given statues showing them as highly buff, even though Franklin's still keeps his distinct second chin.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Fairly Oddparents, when Timmy wants to prove that Dale Dimm was the founder of Dimmsdale, he wishes himself back 300 years ago and meets witch hunter Alden Bitterroot. However, unlike the picture Timmy is holding that shows Alden as a handsome muscular hero, the real Alden looks and acts exactly like Mr. Crocker.
    Timmy: So much for historical accuracy.
  • On Steven Universe Steven and Connie read the account of Buddy, one of the historical founders of Beach City. As they imagine his travels, they picture him as their friend Jamie the mailman, who played Buddy in a town play. At the end of the episode, they find Buddy's actual portrait, which is much less flattering. They decide they like their version better.

Alternative Title(s): Historical Beauty Upgrade