If you lived or spent time in Germany between 2004 and 2010, as you most likely did not, you are very likely to have seen a photograph of Vanessa Hessler. If you were there for some of 2004, you could hardly have failed to miss seeing at least one, and probably several. And you could be forgiven for thinking her name was Alice, since what felt like every second advertising hoarding was adorned with her image and the name 'Alice' in a moderately trendy font in a red circle.
But her name was never Alice. She was born in 1988. Her mother was Italian, her father was American, and she lived in Rome until she was 12. Then she spent two years in Washington, D.C.. One day in 2003 she was walking down the street with her mother when someone from a modelling agency came up to her and invited her for a photo shoot. Apparently the results were satisfactory.
In 2004 the HanseNet Telekommunikation GmbH launched its Internet connection service for private customers and small businesses. HanseNet isn't a very snappy name, and the company just happened to belong to an Telecom Italia, which marketed its land-line telephony and broadband products under the brand name 'Alice.' Which is a girl's name. So what makes more sense than to have a girl market it? Hence Germany was plastered with pictures of a good-looking schoolgirl. Very good-looking, it has to be admitted. It is said that her pictures caused some car accidents by distracting drivers from the road ahead of them.
And the years went by, and she had other modelling jobs, and played a few parts in films and on television, including a goddess in the film of Asterix at the Olympics, and was still the face of Alice Internet. And she had a thing with with Mutassim Gaddafi, which seems to have been fairly serious, since it lasted four years and she got to meet some of his family.
In 2010 HanseNet and the Alice brand were sold to the Spanish company Telefónica for €900bn. As from April 2011 HanseNet was merged with Telefónica's German subsidiary, Telefónica O2 Germany into Telefónica Germany GmbH & Co. OHG. In line with these developments, Vanessa Hessler started appearing in promotional material for O2, but she was far less visible than in past years. Telefónica planned to withdraw the Alice brand from the German market and only operate under the O2 as from some time in 2012.
Vanessa Hessler need not have been overly worried by these developments. In 2005 she had said that she did not imagine working as a model beyond the age of 25. In 2011, aged 23, she appeared in one feature film and two television two-parters, including the title rôle in a television production of Cinderella set in 1950s Rome. In the normal course of things she could have expected the modelling work for O2 to dry up naturally while she continued with her acting career or moved on into whatever it was she had been intending to do before she started making reasonable money out of being more than a little decorative.
But then the Libyan revolution happened. Muamar Gaddafi, who for some years had been presented as the colourful excentric of the Arab Maghreb, was once again the bloody dictator he had been before he agreed (insincerely, as it turned out) to stop making weapons of mass destruction and stop all those annoying dark-coloured people from travelling to Europe in search of a better life. On the 20th of October, 2011 he and his son Mutassim were killed under not entirely clear circumstances, after which their bodies were exposed to public view in an inadequately cooled meat store. Soon after their death a journalist asked Vanessa Hessler a question about her relationship with Mutassim at a press conference where one of her television projects was being presented. She was visibly upset and said that her relationship with him had been very important to her. A few days later an interview with her was published in Diva e Donna in which she said a few things about her impressions of the Gaddafis she had met privately and of the Libyans she had seen in the streets: the former were quite normal, the latter did not seem particularly poor. People should not believe what they were being told about the Gaddafis, we were financing the rebels, and the rebels did not know what they were doing. She expressed sympathy for Aisha Gaddafi and her children and criticised the efforts taken to stop them leaving the country.
The reaction from Telefónica was not slow in arriving: "We are expecting a public statement from Ms Hessler today," said a spokesman for the company on Thursday 27th of October. Such a statement was not forthcoming, and the next thing to be heard from the company, on the following Monday, was that their working relationship with Ms Hessler had been terminated because she had not distanced herself from her statements about Libya, which were not consistent with the values and views of Telefónica. On the same day her agency issued a statement on her behalf saying that her previous statements had been made in a moment of shock following the loss of a dear person, that she had known Mutassim privately, and had never had anything to do with his father. She distanced herself from any kind of tyranny, violence, and oppression. Too late.
Vanessa Hessler's contract with Telefónica was due to expire in 2012. She was the face of a brand that was already destined for extinction. Telefónica is the second biggest corparation in Spain and has a well-established reputation for providing bad service and abusing its dominant position in the telecommunications market by obstructing the termination of connections and thus hindering moves to other providers. It has been fined tens of millions of Euros by Spanish courts and hundreds of millions by the European Commission for its anti-competitive behaviour. It is also a frequent visitor to Spanish labour courts in unsuccessful attempts to defend itself from charges of wrongful dismissal of its employees and other attempts to force it to apply the labour legislation currently in force in the country. When Telefónica talks about its 'values' you can be very sure that those values are pecuniary and not ethical. Loyalty is in any case very clearly not one of them.
Vanessa Hessler was paid to look pretty in front of a camera, something which she does exceptionally well. This talent has no particular correlation with the capacity to make politically nuanced statements when in a state of emotional upset (or at any other time). Obviously her statements were ill-advised, equally obviously no-one was on hand to advise her. In an ideal world pretty teenagers who had affairs with the sons of dictators would presumably take the time to study the history and politics of their lovers' countries in order to get a balanced view of the background of the person whose bed they were sharing. But in an ideal world the presentation of dictators in the media would be driven not by the demands of current political expediency but by the way they torture massacre and exploit their people, which might lead to the said pretty teenagers being a little less naïve about who they get into bed with.
The advertising campaign that made Ms Hessler's face famous in Germany was sexist and tasteless: "Alice comes quicker," for example. Or "Alice. Nothing else," on a poster where she was apparently nude. Her comments about Libya were ill-considered and insensitive. The journalist that reported them exploited her ignorance when she was in a vulnerable state. Her managers failed to manage her contacts with the media, something that is unfortunately necessary given the ridiculous amount of attention paid to the opinions of 'celebrities.' Telefónica's reaction was hypocritical and cynical. No-one comes out of the whole sorry tale smelling particularly floral. But on balance, I think I prefer naïve and ignorant loyalty to cash-driven cynicism.