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Historical Beauty Update
aka: Historical Beauty Upgrade

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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."
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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.

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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 

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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 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 = Goodness, Adaptational Attractiveness, Hollywood Homely, and Hotter and Sexier. Beauty Inversion may be used on the actor in an attempt to avert this trope.


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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 unibrow, 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.
  • 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 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 conventionally attractive 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. Such a voice is 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 inaccurate.
    • One of the most famous examples is Richard III by William Shakespeare, where the relatively normal-looking 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 is set in a vaguely 1930s Dieselpunk setting 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.
    • Also played straight in The White Queen TV adaptation, where Richard is portrayed by Pretty Boy Aneurin Barnard, plus the character is a male example of Raven Hair, Ivory Skin. He lacks any physical deformity, and he even gets the Mr. Fanservice treatment with Male Back Nudity. This is the most attractive live-action depiction of 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.
  • The 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, and some scholars believe he may have been The Nondescript. 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 cast with this trope in mind.
    • Averted, if not inverted, by The Last Temptation of Christ, where he was played by the rather devilish-looking and frequently sinister Willem Dafoe, who plays him as a rather haggard, lean, and disheveled man, albeit as fit as you would expect a carpenter by trade to be.
  • 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 pronounced 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 for practical reasons and to show her commitment to the cause (and make it easier for men to take her seriously), which was something her trial made a big deal of. 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.
  • T. E. Lawrence gets this a lot. The historical Lawrence was very charismatic and had striking blue eyes, but was well below average height (5'5" when the average British man of his generation was 5'8 1/2"), with messy hair and a tendency to squint in photographs. He's been portrayed by such tall, conventionally handsome leading men as Peter O'Toole, Ralph Fiennes, and Robert Pattinson.
  • While the real Mata Hari was certainly attractive, she wasn't quite the sensational beauty she's frequently depicted as in certain works where she is often portrayed as more busty and curvy (the real-life Mata Hari was actually very self-conscious about her small breasts and rarely ever removed her bra). This often overlaps with Historical Badass Upgrade, making her a more competent spy than she really was.
  • The victims of Jack the Ripper tend to be portrayed as young and beautiful. In reality, all but one were in their forties when they were murdered, at least two were alcoholics, and all of them lived hard lives.
  • Alexander the Great is a downplayed example. While he was a handsome man, he was also quite short. However, he'll usually be portrayed as being of at least average height.

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    Arts 
  • 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 (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: http://www.livescience.com/7336-mummy-reveals-egyptian-queen-fat-balding-bearded.html
    • 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 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).

    Films — Animation 
  • 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.

    Films — Live-Action 

    Literature 
  • 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.

    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.
    • 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.
  • Rome: Cleopatra is portrayed as a slender pixie waif who corresponds to modern beauty standards. While Cleopatra was a legendary seductress, actual historical accounts and representations of her in art portray her as fairly ordinary in looks, with a large schnozz and a possible goiter. Her appeal was in her powerful personality.
  • 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.
  • 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:
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Theatre 

    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.
  • Assassin's Creed:
  • 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.

    Web Comics 
  • 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 

    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.

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

In-Universe examples

    Literature 
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.

    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 looks 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.
  • 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 it still keeps Franklin's 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

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