Elizabeth Taylor: Beautiful Mutant

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 25 2011 12:41 PM

Elizabeth Taylor: Beautiful Mutant

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The late Elizabeth Taylor waswidely known for her violet eyes so much so that she named her newest fragrance after them. I was slightly crushed,then, to discover that, by most official accounts ,Taylor's eyes were actually a deep blue that appeared purple when enhanced by lighting and makeup. (Truly violeteyes occur only in albinos .)

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While she might not have had bona fide purple eyes, asanyone who saw Elizabeth Taylor onscreen knows, they were still  arresting: large,liquid, and framed by a thick fringe of eyelashes. With respect to thoseeyelashes, Taylor apparently hit the jackpot, genetically. According tobiographer J. Randy Tarborelli, just after her birth, Taylor's parents wereushered into the doctor's office and told that their newborn daughter had a mutation :

"Well, that sounded just awful," the girl's motherlater recall[ed], "a mutation .But, when he explained that her eyes had double rows of eyelashes, I thought,well, now, that doesn't sound so terrible at all."

Double rows of eyelashes are usually the result of a mutationat FOXC2 , a gene that influences all kinds oftissue development in embryos. FOXC2 mutations are thought to be responsiblefor, among other things, lymphedema-distichiasissyndrome , a hereditary disease that can cause disorders of the lymphaticsystem in addition to double eyelashes.

The eyelash mutation isn't always as cosmetically enhancing asTaylor's turned out to be the extra eyelashes can sometimes grow inward anddamage the cornea. And it turns out that 7 percent of people withlymphedema-distichiasis syndrome also suffer from congenital heart disease.Taylor herself had a history of heart problems in 2009, Taylor underwentsurgery to repair a "leaky valve", and her death on Wednesday was attributed tocongestive heart failure.

The late actor Richard Burton, who accounted for two ofTaylor's eight marriages, was oddly dismissive of her beauty, saying that she had a double chin, an overdeveloped chest, andshort legs. But, he conceded, "she has wonderful eyes."

Special thanks to Dr.Janet Sparrow and Dr. Stephen Tsang from the Ophthalmology Department atColumbia University, and to makeup artist Elias Gutierrez.

Photograph of Elizabeth Taylor courtesy of Getty Images.

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Roxanne Palmer is a staff writer for the World Science Festival.