Follow TV Tropes


Historical Beauty Update

Go To
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 to make Historical Domain Characters look much better in movies/comics than they actually did (or are reported to have been by the sources of their time), and/or to fit their looks to the 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.


A visual Woolseyism. A historical figure regarded as attractive by contemporaries is depicted as attractive according to modern standards, preventing his/her 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 like 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 how 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 preselect for that, rather like how Athletes are in better shape than the norm, lawyers and politicians are better at public speaking etc etc. So the group playing the part is already containing a higher portion of good looking people.

Moreover, actors take a lot better care of their appearance and have a whole staff dedicated 24/7 to making them look good and sprucing up their looks. This is far more than even the most self conscious dandy would have and certainly greater than the time and effort than what an average non-actor (which is what most of the real life individual they are portraying would be) would be able to or willing to spend.

Compare Historical Hero Upgrade, Beauty Equals Goodness, Adaptational Attractiveness, Hollywood Homely, and Hotter and Sexier.

    open/close all folders 

Examples using real people

    Media in General / Common Persons 
  • Augustus is often thought of as handsome, but was described by Suetonius as shortnote  with a hooked nose, swarthy skin,note  a uni brow, and a few rotten, crooked teeth. His statues, idealized as they are, also show that he had a pretty long neck and broad face.
  • Calamity Jane was often mistaken for a man, and not just because she often wore men's clothing. However, she's been played by Doris Day and as a Fiery Redhead in the animated series The Legend of Calamity Jane. Deadwood goes part of the way toward averting this, and even has Jane tell an anecdote about being mistaken for a man, but Robin Weigert is still far more attractive than the real thing.
  • Cleopatra VII: Cleopatra was subject to this even in her own day. The legend of her beauty comes partially from Octavian's propaganda that Marc Antony had been bewitched by her. Over the years, Cleopatra is typically portrayed as each generation's version of their ideal beauty. She's sometimes even given a Race Lift, despite the fact that she was of Macedonian descent. However, portraits of her give her a noticeably large nose; there is even an oft-repeated famous quip about what a long nose Cleo had. Plutarch describes her as not particularly attractive, but with a beautiful voice and charming personality. Cicero also downplays her appearance, though he is a biased source. If we go by her sculpture, she looked something like this. In other words, far from ugly, but definitely not the supermodel most media like to portray her as.
  • Maximilien Robespierre, though this definitely influenced by the sympathies of the artist or casting director. Portraits during his rise to power show him as quite attractive, while he gets less attractive during his downfall. When he's given the Historical Villain Upgrade, he's often shown as quite ugly. In the interest of making its point, the Sandman chapter titled "Thermidor" makes him appear decidedly overweight as well.
  • Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Unfortunately, people tend to take Saint-Just's physical appearance (long-haired, young, fairly attractive, gold hoop earrings) and extrapolate his personality off of it. This makes him him into something of a hippie. Or, of course, they might exaggerate the original and also make him a gay Communist pedophile with rage issues.
  • Jane Austen.
    • For a recent edition of one of her books, one of the very few existing pictures finally made it to its traditional place over the back cover blurb. The picture is a pencil drawing, showing her with a somewhat critical/thoughtful expression and a cap, which was usually out-of-doors daywear in her period. On the "improved" one, she's barely recognizable, has the standard perfectly smooth face and no cap.
    • In Becoming Jane, she is portrayed by, of all people, Anne Hathaway.
    • Inverted in Old Harry's Game, though this could simply be because she's in Hell.
    • Averted in the Saints Row series, as she is shown to be pretty much a dead ringer for the portraits of her, which makes her stick out like a sore thumb among the Saints.
  • Mary, Queen of Scots - at least, if her early portraits are to be believed, was quite beautiful when she first entered Scotland, but most depictions of her that are even halfway sympathetic portray her as still being pretty up until her execution, when in real life she had started to wear a wig and no doubt suffered from the lead-based makeup popular at the time.
  • Elizabeth I of England is often portrayed by beautiful actresses, though in her youth she was praised as being unconventionally beautiful.
  • Anne Boleyn also tends to get some judicious upgrading. While the famous reports of her gigantic mole and extra finger are now considered mostly disreputable, more reliable contemporary descriptions suggest that she was, at best, a mildly attractive woman with striking eyes. Her powerful personality seems to have been the real attraction. She's been portrayed by screen beauties such as Genevieve Bujold, Vanessa Redgrave, Natalie Portman and Natalie Dormer.
  • Abraham Lincoln is generally treated with a variation of this. Though it is well-known from photographs what he looked like (i.e. ugly), and he self-deprecated his own looksnote , he lived before sound recording. Because he was wise and solemn and had gravitas, he is almost always portrayed as having a deep, reassuring voice. Contemporary accounts, however, report that his voice was unusually high-pitched and sharp. His poor looks and voice are hardly ever used in media deceptions outside of the rare documentary and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
  • Typically inverted with, Richard III, who probably looked something like this, but due to revisionist, partisan historians, we typically remember him as a deformed and ugly man.
    • When Richard's remains were found and identified it was discovered that he did, in fact, have a very severe case of scoliosis and wasn't in the best of health when he was killed at the age of 32. Descriptions of him having deformities, while exaggerated, aren't entirely innacurate.
    • Inverted with Richard III by William Shakespeare where the handsome Richard was turned into a palsied, foul hunchback. But Shakespeare was writing the play for the royalty descended from those who defeated Richard. In the 1995 movie (where he's played by Ian McKellen) he also is made to look a great deal like Adolf Hitler, not surprising as the film in set in the 1930s and the House of York is shown quite consciously modeling itself on the National Front (British Nazi sympathizers in the '30s).
    • Sharon Kay Penman's revisionist novel The Sunne in Splendour takes this route straight, with a rather bishonen Richard.
  • The Shinsengumi as a whole but especially Okita Souji who tends to be depicted as extremely bishonen (so much that sometimes a female actor depicts him in live action). However contemporary accounts describe him as a tall, dark, and thin man with high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and a "flatfish" face. Most of the Shinsengumi members of whom the photos survived or existed (including Okita, but excepting Hijikata, who was a strikingly handsome man in Real Life) were of relatively ordinary appearance, but the cake probably goes to Hajime Saitou, whose two conflicting portraits showed him either plain, or downright ugly, but his real portrait shows him reasonably attractive as an old man.
  • Boudica, the British queen who rebelled against Roman rule, was noted for her imposing height and bearing, and, of course, her iconic red hair, but later depictions tend to place her very definitely in Amazonian Beauty territory. A rare exception is the eponymous 2003 British production (known as "Warrior Queen" in the United States), which starred the attractive but believable Alex Kingston.
  • Count Vronsky, the romantic hero of Anna Karenina, is depicted in the text as balding and with a mouthful of rotten teeth. Don't expect either of these characteristics to make it into any dramatization. Bad dental hygiene was commonplace in Russia (and most of Europe) at that time, so contemporary audiences would not have seen any Narm in this depiction of an accomplished seducer.
  • There was some controversy surrounding the Catholic church's decision to photoshop pictures of Saint Mary Mackillop to make her more "appealing" for merchandising reasons. She went from a "frumpy elderly nun" to a beautiful young woman with piercing dark eyes.
  • Blessed Laura Vicuña used to be represented as a conventionally cute, pale-skinned and very European-looking pre-teen girl thanks to a famous portrait by an Italian painter, which was even used in her official beatification ceremony; said artist's work was based on a very unreliable and idealised description by Laura's surviving younger sister Julia (who was a little girl when Laura died), given to him decades after Laura's early death. In The '90s, one of Laura's biographies had a group photo of a group of schoolgirls that included a Laura who did NOT look like the until-then official portrait; years later, an investigation team confirmed that the real Laura was a dark-skinned pre-teenager with Native looks, instead of the white-looking little girl everyone knew.
  • Saint Maria Teresa "Marietta" Goretti was reportedly rather cute, but she was still a country girl who lived a rather hard life and more or less looked like this. A good part of the artwork featuring her tends to make her much prettier. (Fully sealed with by the very cute child actresses Ines Orsini and Martina Pinto playing her.)
  • Jesus Christ is typically portrayed according to the local cultural ideal. Western artists typically portray him as a tall, slender, regal man with high cheekbones, strong jaw, straight nose, soulful blue eyes, wavy long hair (usually auburn or reddish-brown in color) and a neatly trimmed beard. It's likely that, as a first-century Middle Eastern Jew, he would have had swarthy skin, dark hair and eyes, short curly hair and a beard, though how attractive he was is never mentioned. The Gospel of Matthew states that Roman soldiers were unable to tell Jesus apart from his disciples, and even his own disciples had difficulty recognizing him after the crucifixion, suggesting that Jesus had an unremarkable appearance. In fact, a passage in Isaiah suggests that Jesus was, in actuality, rather unattractive if anythingnote . It has also been suggested that, due to ambiguous translation, in the book of Luke it could be Jesus being described as short rather than Zacchaeus the tax collector. Idealized portrayals include:
    • Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" painting. Like all artists of his time and before, Leonardo usually painted mythical figures as what his patrons envision if for no other reason than practicality.
    • Any number of tall, blond, blue-eyed Jesuses in any number of stained glass windows in any number of churches.
    • In the film King of Kings, Jesus (as played by Jeffrey Hunter) has a full-body Perma-Shave and incredibly sleek, shiny hair.
    • The miniseries Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli has the rather nice-looking Robert Powell as Jesus. According to Powell himself, he was casted with this trope in mind.
  • Amelia Earhart's celebrity played on her good looks, which were compared favorably to the handsome Charles Lindbergh. She was also a genuine fashion icon of her day. Because of her reputation, she's always played by beautiful actresses who are far more flawless than she actually was.
  • Inverted with Louis XVI, who is often portrayed as short and squat. While he did have a prounounced belly, his actual height was 6 Feet 3 Inches (French measures) or ca. 193 cm, which was very tall for his time.
  • Very, very few accounts exist of the appearance of the 18th century British officer Robert Rogers, leader of several provincial militia and light infantry companies in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. It's still not entirely known what he looked like at all, but British press and artists romanticized him as a combination of a Native American warrior and a stoic Roman soldier. Such portrayals have been declared by historians as completely inaccurate.
  • The skilled and feared cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton. Though in reality he was known to have red hair, a relatively pale complexion, and a generally effeminate appearance and mannerisms, even by 1700s standards, portraits of him cast him as much more masculine, with black hair and more pronounced features, as well as darker skin than in reality.
  • Joan of Arc is described as having a boyish look during her military campaign and her trial and if anything, its reasonable to think she'd look very plain. Artistic depictions tend to portray her as extremely beautiful to emphasize her pious and angelic nature, giving her long feminine hair or make her a blonde or redhead.

    Anime & Manga 

    Animated - Film 
  • Pocahontas:
    • John Smith's appearance was changed to suit modern tastes, 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.
    • 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.

    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 its 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).

    Live Action - Film 
  • Iron Jawed Angels is a pretty emotionally intense retelling of the victorious last years of the Woman's Suffrage Movement. And, of course, many of the Suffragettes were very beautiful, but they certainly weren't that smokin' hot.
  • The 2006 film Lonely Hearts was about Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez. It starred Salma Hayek and Jared Leto. Also a Race Lift, as Beck was Caucasian and Fernandez was Spanish.
  • Elizabeth's sister Mary Tudor is often subject to inversions. She was said to be fairly pretty in her youth and average as she got older but adaptations often portray her as the ugly sister since any adaptation that has the two sisters will automatically have Elizabeth as the sympathetic one. She was portrayed as fat, too, in Elizabeth, whereas (at least until the cancer bloated her) the Real Life Mary was a rail-thin waif who made even the svelte Elizabeth look plump.
  • Alexander: You don't really think the mother of Alexander the Great, Queen Olympias, really looked like Angelina Jolie, do you? In any case, historical record has her as a very pale redhead. On the other hand she was beautiful enough to inspire Philip II with a case of the hots at first sight.
  • Debbie Reynolds as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Kathy Bates in Titanic (1997) was much closer to the genuine article, but still prettied up a bit.
  • Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl, and some would also claim the title character falls prey to this. It's hard to say, though, that Barbra Streisand is significantly more or less attractive than Fanny Brice.
  • Greta Garbo playing Queen Christina of Sweden in Queen Christina. Contemporary paintings and descriptions presented the queen as fairly ugly and butch. She also had traditionally male-like mannerisms, interests and way of dressing. All this has led some historians to speculate that she may have actually been biologically intersex.
  • Red Cliff does this for several figures of the Three Kingdoms era in China. Both Takeshi Kaneshiro (Zhuge Liang) and Chang Chen (Sun Quan) have been "spokesmodels" in addition to their careers as actors. On the other hand, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) and Xiao Qiao (Lin Chiling) are remembered as being attractive.
  • Claire Danes playing autistic Temple Grandin in the film of the same name. While they don't really look like, Danes was able to imitate Grandin's voice perfectly despite getting to meet her only once.
  • Fair Game: Valerie Plame isn't a bad-looking woman by any means, but compared to Naomi Watts, well, there just is no comparison.
  • Clint Eastwood's 1920s period piece Changeling had Christine Collins, a very ordinary-looking woman, played by Angelina Jolie.
  • In the German movie Jew Suss: Rise and Fall, not really ugly actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays Joseph Goebbels, of all people! It's possibly a case of the casting subverting Beauty Equals Goodness, since the real Goebbels was not that ugly-looking, it is just that many of the photographs of him show him either frowning or with distorted features while delivering one of his hate-filled speeches. Note that the actor who played his expy Garbitsch in The Great Dictator looked quite a bit more handsome than Hynkel (Hitler) or Herring (Goering).
  • Monster Tyria Moore was overweight and rather butch in appearance, while in the film she is replaced by a much more feminine and attractive character named Selby Wall, played by Christina Ricci. The film does, however, notably avert the trope with an uglied-up Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos.
  • The Runaways. Compare this to this.
  • Has happened many times with Johnny Depp: he's played George Jung in Blow, John Dillinger in Public Enemies, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, Frederick Abberline in From Hell and Joseph D. Pistone in Donnie Brasco, all of whom were arguably somewhat less attractive than the man himself. However, he bears a reasonable actual resemblance to other people he's played, including Ed Wood, and he's also always up for making himself less attractive in roles, like when he accurately portrayed John Wilmot's horrible death from syphilis in The Libertine. He also wanted to have huge ears and a fake nose in Sleepy Hollow and a badly-reattached nose in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The studio execs said no in both cases, obviously understanding the box office power of having him be Mr. Fanservice.
  • Beyoncé plays famed icon Etta James in Cadillac Records (2008). This comparison shows that Mrs. James, while still lovely, wasn't exactly,...well, Beyoncé
  • Amazing Grace, In which we have the short-even-by-the-standards-of-the-time, very near-sighted William Wilberforce, portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd. In real life, Thomas Clarkson was, while not terrible-looking, definitely a bit overweight. The movie had Rufus Sewell in an unflattering wig.
  • From the movie Downfall: Compare the real Traudl Junge, with this one.
  • Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Here's a comparison.
  • Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
  • Colin Farrell as John Smith in The New World. At least they got his hair color right.
  • While Patton got the physical appearance of the main character down, the real General Patton had a weak, rather high-pitched voice and reportedly hated giving public speeches. Meanwhile, one of the best remembered parts of the movie is Patton's confident speech in a deep, growling voice.
  • Liam Neeson is much more handsome than the real Professor Alfred Kinsey, whom he portrayed in Kinsey. The man himself looked rather like a slightly overweight William H. Macy.
  • Schindler's List: Liam Neeson is more handsome in than the real life Oskar Schindler, who was apparently something of a Kavorka Man.
  • Ned Kelly
    • This is Australian outlaw Joe Byrne. Not a bad looking guy, actually. This is Joe Byrne as portrayed by Orlando Bloom.
    • This is what Ned Kelly looked like. This is what he looked like being played by Heath Ledger. (though Heath did get a beard later on in the film).
    • He didn't look like Mick Jagger either, not even if Jagger had a beard.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Paul Newman played Butch, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross the Kid and Etta.
  • The Baader Meinhof Complex: The real Baader and Meinhof were a bit less photogenic than the movie Baader and Meinhof.
  • The Social Network: While played straight with Mark Zuckerberg, Shawn Parker and Eduardo Saverin, who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield, respectively, it's inverted with Divya Narendra. Aside from the Race Lift, the actor who played him doesn't have anything near his chiseled features in real life.
  • Belle Starr, in real life. Belle Starr, as played by Gene Tierney.
  • Eric Bana's portrayal of Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl. Word of God justifies the portrayal as somewhat accurate, as Henry was an athletic soldier and horseman when he was younger. The better-known 300-pound crazy man was later in life, due to health issues including a jousting injury.
  • Apollo 13: Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly.
  • Compare the actual Vlad the Impaler with the movie version in Dracula Untold.
  • The Wind and the Lion: Raisuli, a Berber bandit, is played as a dashing rogue by Sean Connery. This is what the Raisuli actually looked like.
  • Calamity Jane: the famous [[frontierswoman and scout]] was played by Doris Day.
  • Glamourous Mexican diva María Félix in the 1944 movie La monja alférez (The Ensign Nun) about Catalina de Erauso.
  • The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are considerably better looking than their characters' real-life counterparts (Alan Turing and Joan Clarke, respectively). Alan Turing in particular was a bit of a slob rather than the Sharp-Dressed Man he's depicted as in the film.
  • Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the upcoming On The Basis Of Sex. Given that she is portraying Ginsberg in her youth, it may not be so far off.
  • The Bling Ring:
    • Nick Prugo described Claire Julien playing Chloe (based off Courtney Ames) as being "way hotter than [Courtney is] in real life".
    • Alexis Neiers gets played by Emma Watson, who is slightly slimmer and more conventionally pretty.
    • Katie Chang's Rebecca Lee is likewise slimmer and more made up than the real girl.
  • The 1975 Czech/Yugoslav production on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, "The Day That Shook The World", starred Christopher Plummer as the Archduke and Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan as his wife, Duchess Sophie. Bolkan is a good lookalike for the Duchess (one of the more accurate portrayals, in fact; the dark-haired Sophie has previously been portrayed by blonde actresses Luise Ullrich and Lucyna Winnicka), but Plummer is distinctly more handsome than Franz Ferdinand, with a more clipped mustache (and also lacks the characteristic "Habsburg lip"). Both Plummer and Bolkan are also thinner than the historical personages they play.
  • Ed and Lorraine Warrens are played by Hollywood beautiful people Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring films.
  • Hidden Figures:
    • Mary Jackson was pudgy and not particularly stunning when she worked at NASA. Janelle Monae is slimmer and more attractive, which is especially notable when the real pictures of Mary appear at the end.
    • John Glenn was also in his forties when he went up into space. Glen Powell was twenty-seven.
  • Young Bess:
    • Catherine Parr was average looking and said to be "past her bloom" when Henry VIII married her, since she was in her early thirties. She's played by screen beauty Deborah Kerr, who was a full six years younger than Catherine was.
    • Tom Seymour portrayed by screen charmer Stewart Granger.
  • Frida: Salma Hayek portrayed artist Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina played her husband, Diego Rivera. Somewhat subverted in that Frida Kahlo's well-known "unibrow" was part of Hayek's makeup, and Molina wore a fat suit to portray the overweight Rivera.
  • Conspiracy: Varies from character to character. Some are a pretty good fit for their real life counterpart, but for instance the dashing Colin Firth plays the ugly-looking Wilhelm Stuckart. Inverted with Gerhard Klopfer, who was perfectly ordinary looking in real life, but is played by an obese, unpleasant-looking actor.
  • The 2018 biopic Fighting With My Family, based on the Knight family of wrestlers in Norwhich:
    • Sweet Saraya is portrayed by Lena Headey who even in the make-up still looks more attractive.
    • Jack Lowden is more chiseled and Pretty Boy-esque as Zak Zodiac than the real guy is.
    • Averted with Florence Pugh as Paige. The documentary the film is based on made a point that Paige's beauty helped draw more fans, and she was signed by WWE instantly.
    • Thea Trinidad portrays a character based on AJ Lee, and is much curvier and more buxom than AJ's waifier frame.
  • In A Study in Terror, all of Jack the Ripper's victims are much younger and prettier than they were in Real Life (and they all have all their own teeth).

  • 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 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rome:
    • Julius Caesar was a rather striking-looking man in real life and Ciarán Hinds is a reasonably fair fit. That said, very few depictions (Rome included) give him his historically accurate thinning/receding hair in later life.
    • And then, of course, there's your friend and mine Mark Antony. He's been portrayed as everything from drop-dead gorgeous (I'm looking at you, James Purefoy) to a distinctly ugly man with... other attractions. His sculptures suggest he was something of a Hunk who would be out of league look-wise for Cleopatra, not the other way around.
  • 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. Landon 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.
  • 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:
  • 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.
    • Elsewhere averted as most of the actors were cast based on their specific resemblances to their real life counterparts.
  • 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 off of the book of the same title about the 1996 murder of Anne Marie Fahey, zig-zags this trope. While Kathryn Morris' 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, who 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.
  • 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.


    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 bishonen.
  • 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 to Eleven 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 Biseinen 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!"
  • If there is such a thing as Mythical Beauty Upgrade, it applies to MANY characters from Fate/stay night. Gilgamesh becomes a Red-eyed, blond-haired Bishōnen. Rider ie Medusa becomes a perfect embodiment of a fetish. Most changed is probably Saber King Arthur, who manages to do a Gender Flip into a beautiful girl.
    • Actually, King Arthur was Bishōnen in his original depiction, making a beautiful, tomboyish girl version of him rather accurate.
    • Additionally, Medusa was also depicted as incredibly beautiful before she became a monster, and since the visual novel also shows a shadowy image of her monster form which looks radically different from how she appears.
    • This was taken Up to Eleven into the Fate franchise's subsequent spin-offs, with the most egregious being the mobile game Fate/Grand Order, and it never looks back. Very few (if any) actually look like their Real Life counterparts.
  • A rare villainous version: in Real Life, Cesare Borgia is said to have been disfigured enough by syphilis that he wore a mask in public, but in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, he looks like this. His appearance in the game might be based on this contemporary portrait that is believed to be of Borgia.
    • Some other Assassin's Creed examples: Cesare's sister Lucrezia, who's also villainous, at least at first is also upgraded, in a way; while already considered a beautiful woman, she was thin and waifish, unlike the Buxom Is Better game model. Leonardo da Vinci is a subversion; sure, he's more attractive than the most famous portrait of him, but that's just because he's younger and he was actually known for being handsome and strong in his youth, meaning the portrayal is accurate.
  • In Age of Empires III Henry the Navigator is portrayed as a bearded blonde in shining plate, resembling a medieval knight. He was actually much more like this. Might be artistic license, as he was the head of the Order of Christ (The Portuguese Templar branch) so they might have thought he would look knightish. Most probably it was intentional as it would only take a trip to Wikipedia.
    • Henry ("Henrique" in Portuguese) the Navigator was the son of an English princess (Philippa of the House of Lancaster), and contemporary reports portrayed him as a tall, strong, blond-haired and bearded man. Under the orders of his father, King João I of Portugal, he took part of the conquest of Ceuta and fought the Moors in northern Africa, where he was knighted and made a member of the Order of Christ, a chivalry order. The portrait shown above in a link was made years after his death and it is not known if it depicts him correctly or even if it depicts him at all. So, yeah, the game Age of Empires III made no mistake.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 Original 
  • 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 parodied in The Onion article I Would Have Been Considered Very Attractive In The Middle Ages".

    Western Animation 
  • Liberty's Kids did this to, more or less, every historical figure on the show.

  • When the ten-dollar bill was upgraded, Alexander Hamilton, despite already being handsome by many measures, was still given a streamlined face lift.
  • 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. AND she didn't get beheaded! Which shows how well she came ahead of the other wives and outlived them all. And 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 (for the time) 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 bust (not that kind) of Nefertiti 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 because 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.

In-Universe examples

  • 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 Princess Kristina looks nothing like Greta Garbo. To be fair, she's only a child too.
  • 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 moustache. 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 Pharoah'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?
    • From A Song of Ice and Fire, fan-favourite Brienne of Tarth is kind of banking on this trope. Her sobriquet is "Brienne the Beauty" because, well... she quite honestly isn't, although only the really openly mean would declare her totally, eye-wateringly butt-ugly. However, if she does deeds of sufficient daring during her life to get into song and story, she has a chance of the irony being dropped long after her death. Of course, this hope is not helping her in the here-now of the series, but the thought of possibly being true helps keep her going.
      Brienne to Catelyn Stark: "Winter will never come for the likes of us. 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."

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 look anything like they'd been imagining.
  • 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.

    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.

    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