The Illusionists: The Globalization of Beauty Ideals

Elena Rossini is an Italian filmmaker, photographer, multimedia producer and public speaker. Rossini's work focuses on issues of social justice, media representation, and the empowerment of women and girls. Her most recent film is the critically acclaimed documentary The Illusionists, about the globalization of beauty ideals, which Rossini shot in eight countries, across four continents. The film has been featured in Vogue Italy, New York Magazine, Mic, Indiewire, Fox45 and WBAL (NBC Baltimore). Rossini is also the founder and editor-in-chief of No Country for Young Women, a multimedia platform whose aim is to provide positive role models for young girls. Rossini frequently speaks at conferences around the world. She is a recent laureate of the Young Leaders Program by the Council for the United States and Italy.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Can you discuss the inspiration behind The Illusionists? How long did it take you to make?

Elena Rossini (ER): The inspiration for The Illusionists came a long time ago: in 2008 to be precise, when mass media and blogs were focused on the private lives and escapades of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. I kept thinking: who profits from these stories? The only women we hear about are young, conventionally attractive women with very similar features. There was no diversity whatsoever and all the stories seem to zero in on superficial things like beauty and consumerism (what they wore, where they went shopping). There was such a discrepancy with real life: I’m grateful to be friends with inspiring women working in many professional fields, from authors to filmmakers and scientists. So, I kept thinking: where are their stories? Why are they invisible? And the more I read about this “beauty myth” and intense scrutiny over women’s appearance, the more I started noticing that women in my life, across generations, were affected by the pressure to be beautiful and to consume. The biggest turning point was realizing that this illusion – that in order to be happy one must spend time and money to become beautiful - affects not only women, but also men and children. The film ultimately took 8 years to make, from the first spark of inspiration to its wide release. It was important to me to include perspectives from all over the world: locations include 8 countries, across 4 continents - which is one of the reasons why the film took so long to make. It’s now available to everyone for sale and rental via its official website, and not a day goes by when I don’t receive moving feedback about the film from viewers all over the world. It’s an incredible feeling.

LK: Why is this film so much more that a documentary about body image?

ER: Since day one, I’ve seen The Illusionists as an instrument for social change. Most documentaries have the shelf life of dairy products: they are released to much fanfare, generate lively discussions for a handful of weeks, and then conversations about them quiet down. The Illusionists is a wakeup call to media messages that bombard us every day and nine years from first getting the idea for the film, and 10 months after its release, I am still actively talking about these issues on social media and on film tours. When the first articles about the film were published, people compared me to Jean Kilbourne - an activist, author and filmmaker who has been raising awareness about the negative effects of advertising on people’s self-esteem for over three decades. I interviewed Jean in The Illusionists, she’s a hero of mine, and I can only hope to follow in her footsteps and create films that become key educational resources in schools all over the US and abroad. I regularly take the film on tour and speak at universities, companies and non-profits - it’s something that I want to continue doing, as the conversations that are generated are always thought-provoking and incredibly moving, motivating me to keep going. I have heard several times from viewers that The Illusionists has changed the way they see advertising - that when they see a billboard in the street, the first thing they think about is my film. I couldn’t think of a better compliment.

LK: What kind of push-back did you receive after the film released? Any feedback from marketing corps or agencies?

ER: Surprisingly, zero backlash for now. It could be because of the Streisand Effect: brands mentioned in the film may feel it’s best to be quiet about The Illusionists, in order to prevent drawing additional attention to it. I did show the film at an advertising conference and also at a big ad agency on Madison Avenue. I had never been more nervous in my life - think: actual heart palpitations - as the film takes aim at the world of marketing and it even ends on an acerbic quote that pokes fun at advertising. But the audience of advertisers took it in stride and their feedback was phenomenal. They asked me what they could do to improve their work and we ended up having a fantastic, constructive conversation about it. I would love to do more screenings of this type: I find it empowering to be in front of an audience working inside the system - because I can actually affect the way they see the world and hopefully persuade them to do things differently.

LK: Why should the consumer care about The Illusionists?

ER: Unless you live in a remote, isolated area, with no internet connection, you will be exposed to thousands of images every single day… images that for the most part show a hyper-perfected vision of life. Mass media, advertising and social media are designed in a way that makes comparison in between viewers and media unavoidable. Comparing yourself to an actress, a model, or a friend who has retouched her own picture on social media can trigger feelings of anxiety and insecurity. People should care about The Illusionists because the film is a powerful instrument of media literacy, teaching people the what, how, why, where of media manipulation. Teenagers, young adults, parents, grandparents - anyone can take something away from it. When I did a screening at Goucher College a couple of years ago, the organizers created a custom T-shirt for the event with the words: “Empowered Consumer – THE ILLUSIONISTS” - I loved that.

LK: The film's success has been extraordinary. How has its success helped highlight the body image illusion?

ER: Thank you for saying that! Indeed, I was blown away when, on launch day, The Illusionists was purchased or rented by people in over 20 countries around the world, across North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. It’s humbling to know that a film made with such little means and a tiny crew has managed to touch people in faraway places. Its success is still modest and I wish more and more people could watch it. The last chapter of The Illusionists is titled “Agents of change” and whenever I do a Q&A after a screening, I like to say to the audience that they are now my agents of change: if they enjoyed film they could help spread the word and initiate conversations about body image and media messages with people in their lives. I notice this happening, with people sharing posts on social media or blogs about their impressions of the film and how it has helped them. It’s amazing and I wish it to continue for a long time.

LK: What's next for the film, and where can viewers watch it?

ER: People can buy or rent The Illusionists on its official website – there’s even an option to send the film as a gift to friends and family, by entering their email address at checkout. For schools and non-profits, the educational version of The Illusionists is available through my distributor Media Education Foundation. On the film’s website, people can even book special events, inviting me to speak or Skyping me in for a Q&A

I’m currently writing the sequel of The Illusionists – I’m calling it Illusionists Too – which will focus on the influence of social media on self-esteem and self-image. It’s the number one topic that has come up in discussions after screenings of The Illusionists and I can’t wait to dive into it.

Follow The Illusionists on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Visit Elena on her home page at

Watch the first four minutes of The Illusionists below.

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