‘not to be just a pretty face’: meaning and early occurrences

The phrase not to be just a pretty face, and its variants, mean: to have qualities other than mere attractiveness, especially intelligence—often without the implication that the person referred to is particularly attractive.

(However, in early use, the phrase was (just) a pretty face, and specifically designated a woman who had no qualities other than attractiveness—with connotations of low intelligence, or of flightiness, or (importantly) of low social status and poverty.)

The phrase not to be just a pretty face occurs, for example, in the following from the Evening Herald (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Wednesday 8th April 2009—the phrase is humorously applied to a motorcar:


I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time.
Ever since I bumped and grinded the Audi Q5 over a sensational off-road course in Co Kildare before Christmas, I couldn’t wait to have her all to myself.
At Carlton House at its pre-Christmas launch I, or rather my co-driver, coaxed the Q5 through some of the steepest, roughest and unsure terrain I have endured.
It’s not just a pretty face.
Some high brow brands bring out SUVs which look fantastic but would find it hard to cross a field on a summer’s day.
But with the Q5 there is genuine off-road capability, as well as those sensational good looks which could very well combine to give the Audi a ‘best in its class’.

An isolated early use of the phrase more than just another pretty face occurs in the following reply to one Rose S. in Susan Chester’s Heart-to-Heart Letters, an advice column published in The Brooklyn Daily Times (Brooklyn, New York, USA) of Friday 30th January 1931:

It’s obvious you expect me to tell you that he is bothering with you because he sees some deep inner spirituality in you which he doesn’t find in others. I don’t think anything of the sort. He probably thinks you’re a pretty girl, and, being of an original turn of mind, he thinks it would be fun to carry on a bit. There’s where you can fool him. You can, if he asks you, go out with him, and make him like it, make him think of you as more than just another pretty face.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase not to be just a pretty face and variants are as follows, in chronological order—paradoxically, in most cases, the phrase was employed in a sexist manner: it often occurred in captions to photographs of attractive women, and, on two occasions, was followed by their body measurements:

1-: From In the spot this week, about the U.S. actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), published in The Kensington News and West London Times (London, England) of Friday 14th January 1955:

In 1953 she won an “Oscar” for her portrayal of Princess Anne in “Roman Holiday” and was chosen as the actress of the year. In “Sabrina Fair” she proved that she was not just a pretty face.

2-: From Hat-trick Con doesn’t relish, about the Irish footballer Cornelius Martin (1923-2013), published in the Sports Argus (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 5th February 1955—I have not been able to identify the “radio comedian” who is mentioned:

That Con Martin nose is becoming quite notorious. […]
When broken in the Cup-tie with Doncaster Rovers at Doncaster, it was for the third time. […]
A broken nose is not a laughing matter. Even so, Long Con has found it in his heart to forgive those who have “thrown bricks” about his looks in the process of recovering from these mishaps. He might say with a certain radio comedian: “I’m not just a pretty face.”

3-: From the caption to a photograph of Norma Vorster, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Friday 5th October 1956:

Beauty Queen can rock ’n’ roll ’em

Norma Vorster from Durban is the Beauty Queen of South Africa. She is to take part in the “Miss World” contest in London this week-end.
But she’s not just a pretty-face-and-figure. She’s a Judo expert too as the picture below shows.
“It gives a girl confidence” she said when she arrived in London yesterday. She also dances, skates, speaks French and German.

4-: From the caption to a photograph of Margaret Rowe, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 17th March 1958:

Margaret Rowe […], 22, is much more than just a pretty face—36-24-36-more in fact. She was Miss England, 1955.

5-: From the column Rob Spalding discusses, published in the Bucks Examiner (Chesham, Buckinghamshire, England) of Friday 28th March 1958:

IT WAS A CASE OF THE DEAF AND DUMB LEADING THE SIGHTED at Raans School on Friday. The Playgoers’ Amateur Dramatic Society’s presentation “Johnny Belinda,” the story of a deaf and dumb girl living on a sub-standard farm in the extreme north of Canada, proved one thing—that only a strong lead can really combat a poor audience.
That lead was Shirley Hance, the girl who is not just a pretty face, who played the unfortunate girl Belinda McDonald.

6-: From the review of The Chigwell Chicken, a farce broadcast on ITV (Independent Television) on Wednesday 18th June 1958—review by Harold Darton, published in The Stage (London, England) of Thursday 26th June 1958:

Vera Day has shown again that she’s not just a pretty face and a pretty figure (though she’s certainly both of those), but that she can characterise the particular type that she plays very well indeed.

7-: From the caption to a photograph of Joanna Dunham, published in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian (Halifax, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 3rd October 1958—R.A.D.A. is the abbreviation of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art:

Joanna has more than good looks

It is easy to see that Joanna Dunham has all the physical assets for a successful career on the stage. To gain further qualifications she went to R.A.D.A., completing her studies this summer. She makes her B.B.C. television debut on Sunday as the maid, Louka, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” This is the Shaw play that became a successful musical before “My Fair Lady” was thought of. The musical?—“The Chocolate Soldier.”
Joanna, by the way, can’t be just a pretty face. She gained this fairly important part as a result of a routine B.B.C. audition, the kind anyone can apply for.

8-: From the caption to a photograph of Anne Aubrey, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 8th November 1958:

Beauty goes on parade

VIVACIOUS actress Anne Aubrey is not just a pretty face (left).
She’s 36-24-36, too. And she’s got a fourth vital statistic—TALENT.

9-: From the caption to a photograph of Barbara Roscoe, published in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian (Halifax, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 20th March 1959:

Eye-catching Barbara Roscoe, a familiar TV figure, wants to prove that she is not just a pretty face. To-morrow afternoon she appears in A.B.C.’s “Hobbies Club,” showing her skill at her pet hobby, dressmaking. “Everyone thinks of me as a silly Yakity Yak girl,” says Barbara. “They all think I’m stupid—but I’ll shake them!”

10-: From the Marylebone Mercury, Middlesex Independent & West London Star (London, England) of Friday 12th June 1959:

An understanding husband and Soho beauty title

Twenty-two-year-old Yvonne Fisk is a glorious bundle of blonde hair, grey-green eyes and provocative curves.
She spends her working day modelling glamorous creations in West End fashion salons or posing patiently in front of cameras.
But as she will tell you herself: “I’m not just a pretty face—I have brains too.”
A combination of both have helped Yvonne to reach the semi-finals of the contest to find a Soho Beauty Queen.
Yvonne claims she is a home girl at heart. As she sits in her bachelor-girl flat in Finchley Road, St. John’s Wood, she dreams of an understanding husband and the patter of two sets of feet.

11-: From the caption to a photograph of Valerie Trainer, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 4th July 1959:

Beauty Queen of the Boats!

She’s blonde. She’s blue-eyed. She’s more than just a pretty face. . . . She’s Britain’s ship-shapely Beauty Queen of the Boats.

12-: From the caption to a photograph of Vilma Ann Leslie, published in the Marylebone Mercury, Middlesex Independent & West London Star (London, England) of Friday 28th August 1959:

Vilma is Show Biz pin-up

WHEN the men of show business make a girl their pin-up she must really be something. That’s what has happened to lovely actress Vilma Ann Leslie, of Loudoun Road, St. John’s Wood, who is the pin-up of the Show Biz football team. And she’s not just a pretty face. Two of her films are currently doing the rounds, she has starred in TV plays and serials and will soon be seen in another TV play, “Marriage Bureau”.

13-: From the caption to a photograph of Catherine Boyle, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Saturday 3rd October 1959—the author probably refers to Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, a guide to the British titled aristocracy:


RICHARD LORD AFTON is a producer who feels no qualms about using Debrett as a casting directory. His perusals of the blue-blood books produced Donna Caterina Irene Helen Imperiali di Francavilla.
He made her a star of his show Quite Contrary and used her English name to fit a 17-inch screen. He called her Catherine Boyle.
Whatever happened to Katie? She went into “rep.” She went into films. She would show them that she was not merely just a pretty face, but an actress.

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