A weighty debate – should critics comment on an actor’s size?

Rosie Cavaliero. Photo: ITV
Rosie Cavaliero. Photo: ITV
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Take a look at the photo above and tell me what's wrong with it. Nothing? Good, that's what I thought too.

But, according to critic Philip Hensher, Rosie Cavaliero is fat. Reviewing ITV's new drama Prey, which stars the actor and John Simm, he said he was interested that the writer had decided to make Cavlaiero's character "the fat lady detective whose investigations all keep going slightly wrong".

True, Cavaliero plays a detective. True, her investigative skills may need some work. But fat? I don't think that is what the writer specified the character should be. And, regardless of that, it's just not true and has nothing to do with her performance.

I'm not the only one who thinks so:


What Hensher might have commented on is the fact Cavaliero, in Prey, is playing against type. She often does comedy, as she told me herself this week in an interview in The Stage. Prey gives her the chance to show her other skills as an actor. But did Hensher notice? Did he heck. He only seemed to notice her physical appearance.

[pullquote]Please, Hensher and your type. don't reduce their work to an adjective about the way they look[/pullquote]

Clearly, Cavaliero isn't fat. But comments like Hensher's could easily convince her she is. Dangerously, comments like this could also force some actors, particularly young ones, who are already working in a difficult and unstable profession, to believe they need to change their appearance and conform to an image people like Hensher believe they should have.

But this isn't Hollywood, where stick thin is the norm, no doubt because of the pressures women there are under to look a certain way. This is the UK, where TV is at its best when it reflects our own lives, full of people of all shapes and sizes.

Actors, by the work they do, put themselves up for scrutiny. And by all means, when their work isn't up to standard (if they mumble, for example, which is a complaint often levelled at them) then people should be free to criticise. But please, Hensher and your type, don't reduce their work to an adjective about the way they look.

Clearly some actors make their living from their size, playing characters that are created by a writer to be on the large side. But in Cavaliero's case, I don't believe weight has anything to do with the role she is playing.

So, Hensher, I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree with the people who responded angrily to you on Twitter. They have a point. Unlike you.



  1. I am appalled that this discussion has been raised at all. It Rosie Cavaliero is a first class actor playing the role of a police officer, a working woman with a life. Why would this character need to look like a catwalk model or a Hollywood babe?

    In any case, Rosie Cavaliero is not in the least bit overweight. She is a normal woman.

  2. Men prefer women who are not artificial stick insects. When are we going to stop criticising women for being perfectly normal? Why do female detectives have to look like fashion models. We employ and pay them for their brains, not the shape of their arse.

  3. Not only is Rosie Cavaliero a brilliant actress who can turn her hand to comedy and tragedy, she is one of the nicest people in Equity. AND SHE IS NOT FAT. She runs, she is fit. She is a size 12. Philip Hensher should be ashamed of himself.

  4. The last time that I recall a critic criticized an actress’s body, the actress was John le Carre’s sister, he bankrolled her legal action and it cost the critic a great deal of money. What does this critic look like? Is he a dish? He certainly lacks talent, unlike Ms Cavaliero.

  5. I completely agree with you… Unfortunately we seem to be socialised to judge people (esp. women) on their looks – so I hope this was just a thoughtless manifestation of that on Philip Hensher’s part – and not a sign that’s he’s got a real dislike of diversity in the acting profession.

  6. I understand what you’re saying @PeterClatworthy, and don’t for a moment think you intended to contribute anything but good to the discussion. But why is it relevant that “men prefer women who are not artificial stick insects”? True or not by bringing that statement into the discussion it brings along with it an implicit assumption that women’s bodies are there to meet the preferences of men. You’re right in saying it’s irrelevant what a TV critic thinks of an actor’s weight, but it’s equally irrelevant what anyone else thinks of their weight.

  7. If this is the responce you get to an average woman it’s no wonder disabled actors, let alone backstage, fight an uphill battle to be recognised for their value and talents.

  8. Hey, I’m gay and even I’m a little bit in love with Rosie Cavaliero. It all started when she was Ange in Abigail’s Party: she is a terrific character actor on both stage and TV, and I’m delighted to see she’s now getting some serious screentime.

    I’m not, however, in love with Philip Hensher. He’s a bit fat for my tastes.

  9. I agree but don’t like to comment about actors making a living from their size..I don’t know of a si gle actor who has made the life choice to be over weight to make money. A more realisitic statement would be that some overweight people chose to be actors and try to make a living , like all from acting. Fat or thin all actors struggle with critiscism. I was recently described as ‘cuddly’ in a review, yet not one of the other cast had a descriptive word to portray their stature.

  10. Hensher might more fairly have said that the character’s inner state is suggested through 3 scenes in which she’s seen snacking on the fly, one of which – taking place at a jammed vending – is a key first encounter with the protagonist. But he dodged the job and called her fat, missing the point entirely.

  11. Of course it doesn’t matter!! That kind of journalism and criticism is what is wrong with the world.

  12. It’s a tough one. Let’s face it, TV is a visual medium and an actor or presenter’s build (along with their face, hair and voice) is one of the first things you notice about them. I’m sure at one time or another most of us will have had an uncharitable thought about someone on screen, so perhaps we’re disingenuous to pick on a critic for daring to say it in print.

    Also, are we getting a bit worked up here just because he made the remark about a woman, and because we consider the word ‘fat’ to be disparaging? I’m sure the likes of John Cleese and Peter Capaldi must have had reviews that focus on their slim build. Certainly Phil Glenister’s physique was mentioned in articles about Life on Mars. Personally I’d say it’s fine to NOTICE their build and what it might tell us about a character the person is playing – it’s NOT okay to then offer a judgement on that build.

    I was actually shocked a few weeks ago to read in a review of Line of Duty a criticism of an actor’s looks (basically it said that his face might not be great for his private life but that it was ideal for the slimy role he plays). Applying my rule of thumb above, saying his look is “ideal for the slimy role he plays” would be fair comment (hairstyle, make-up, lighting, mannerisms will all contribute to that look). But suggesting he couldn’t pull even with the lights out? Er, no.

  13. So, hypothetically speaking if an actor or actress is wearing a prosthetic or padding to make them fat or pregnant its not ok to mention this? If the fatness were artificial would that be ok?

  14. I can’t stand comments like Hensher’s. I watched Prey and and I loved it; her weight and appearance was never an issue or a way to label that character. She was great! She’s clearly not fat! It’s comments like these that make younger actors, who aren’t the stick thin type, feel inadequate and feel like they have to conform in order to perform. And thats not what acting is about. As an actor myself, this comment puts pressure on me too. I am a size 12, have a normal BMI and yet the ‘fat’ comment would still be on me. Its 2014 for goodness sake, times are changing, people like Hensher should have more sense!!

  15. Given that Mr. Hensher is more more overweight than Rosie, I’d guess that his choice of language is all about provoking higher viewing stats for his articles than his writing might otherwise warrant. If he thinks being fat is detrimental to one’s creative abilities, I guess that just confirms my theory about his motives for that unnecessary attack. Don’t project your own self-loathing onto others, Mr. Hensher.

  16. If Mr. Hemsley thinks “tackles the big issues facing the small screen” means calling a woman of normal weight “fat” then he has big issues himself and needs to get over them. An actor’s size has nothing to do with her or his acting ability; a critic’s comments should be limited to those things which are important: the script, the actor’s ability to convey character via the script, etc.

  17. Response to EMoon. I didn’t make the comment about Rosie, I was reporting what a critic said. Please read the piece carefully.

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