Madonna, Berry Lead the Charge of 40+ Stars

Scar-Jo? Oh, no. Tough luck, Tila Tequila. Megan Fox? Meh.

Halle Berry blew 'em all out of the water, scoring the coveted title of Esquire magazine's "Sexiest Woman Alive" in the November issue. At 42, with a baby under her belt and an Oscar on her mantel, she manages to eclipse starlets nearly half her age, and even she seems surprised.

"I've been in the business for more than 20 years, and you decide now, at this particular time, that I'm the sexiest woman alive? Come on. I mean, you couldn't go with the Bond-girl year?" she says in Esquire.

Apparently, age has given Berry the opportunity to reflect on what's really sexy. Hint: It's not made of silicone, and it can't be bought at Victoria's Secret.

"I know damned well I'm sexier now than I used to be," she says. "Let me make an argument here -- not so much for me, or even for my age being sexy but for what I've learned. I've picked up a little over the years. Sexy is not about wearing sexy clothes or shaking your booty until you damn near get hip dysplasia; it's about knowing that sexiness is a state of mind -- a comfortable state of being."

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood has long been that by 40 an actress, musician or model has reached her expiration date and can kiss her career goodbye.

But along with Berry, the original supermodels of the '80s and '90s -- Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Claudia Schiffer -- and 40-something actresses like Brooke Shields, Mary-Louise Parker and Debra Messing are challenging that notion by continuing to work on major advertising campaigns and hit television shows.

"Women in their 40s are here and they're not going anywhere," said Albert Lee, a senior editor at Us Weekly magazine. "In politics, media and fashion, everyone is finally waking up to this sleeping giant demographic. These are the women at the hub of our culture."

Among the celebrities who have joined Club 40 are Courtney Cox, Vanessa Williams, Nicole Kidman and Janet Jackson. And with some notable exceptions, a lot of these women seem to be aging gracefully, without overdoing the Botox.

Take Madonna: The reigning queen of pop music turned 50 in August, days before kicking off her Sticky & Sweet tour, which is winning rave reviews as it sweeps the country. Time hasn't toned down the Material Girl. Her show is as aerobic as it is musical -- with her rock-hard thighs, resounding voice and ability to craft hits that are as catchy today as her classics were in the '80s and '90s, she's pratically the prototype for how to get better with age.

"Women aren't as afraid to grow older," Lee said. "It's about retaining their femininity and owning it in a way that's not desperate, like, 'I'm a 42-year-old woman who wants to look like 18. I can still go get my hair blown out and buy some nice makeup and go to yoga and Pilates classes. Before it was either give up and put on some high-waisted mom jeans and drive a minivan or try to stay forever young wearing dresses with a hem too high and a bust too low and become the mom everybody whispers about. Now there's a middle path."

Lee believes women in their 40s have finally captured the imagination of advertisers and media executives, who are taking notice of this largely untapped market.

"Advertisers have excluded older women for so many years, now they are saying that was actually a dumb financial move," said Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, a media analysis, advocacy and education group based in New York. "Why don't we combine the culture's current nostalgia for anything '80s with models who still look gorgeous?"

Supermodels: Sexy at 40

The women who invented the supermodel phenomenon are back in the spotlight after leaving to have children and pursue other interests. They have eclipsed their teenage rivals to helm this season's most coveted collections. Evangelista, 43, is the face of Prada; Schiffer, 38, is fronting Chanel's main collection, and Turlington, 39, is promoting the designer's eyewear. And they are not the only ones.

Naomi Campbell, 38, who has hardly ever stopped working, will be representing Yves Saint Laurent this season. More impressive is her predecessor Christie Brinkley, who, at 51, renewed her association with Cover Girl and is currently the face for its Advanced Radiance cosmetics for older women.

"A fashion house decided to listen to the customer rather than follow the trends," said Didier Fernandez, ad agent at New York-based DNA Models, which represents Evangelista. "You don't see a 20-year-old buying a $5,000 product. That might be why Prada and Chanel decided to go for a woman instead of kids."

On the screen, some actresses in their 40s are also proving that age is just a number. Parker, 44, is in her third season of Showtime's dramedy "Weeds," in which she plays a pot-dealing suburban mom. She won a Golden Globe in 2006. Brooke Shields, 43, is returning for the second season of NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" in which she stars as a movie executive.

Messing, who recently turned 40, will return in her role as the first wife for the second season of the USA Network series "The Starter Wife." She's also part of the ensemble cast that includes Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes and Jada Pinkett Smith in "The Women" by "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English.

Lee attributes the onscreen 40-something shift to the success of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and the movie "Sex and the City." Four of the women in "Housewives" are over 40. "They are not playing the mom to the sexy kids or the over-the-hill mom," Lee said. "They are actually playing the lead characters. They showed a lot of people that women over 40 don't all have to be Florence Henderson."

However, "The Women," which was released in September, failed to deliver, grossing only $26 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

Success of 'Sex and the City'

"Sex and the City" was a turning point. "It was a moment when people woke up and said, 'Oh, women go to the movies too,'" Lee said. "All the actresses are 40 or older. For the studios to realize that women want to see an exaggerated version of their own lives is huge."

But before someone declares it the year of the older woman, Pozner cautions that the driving force behind all these shows and movies and advertisements with women in their 40s is an advertising industry that is looking to make more money by selling products.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Messing's show "The Starter Wife," which has written Ponds products into the show, Pozner said. She points to one scene that has Messing examining her wrinkles in the mirror and debates whether a Ponds wrinkle cream would actually help her.

"I caution against seeing this as more than a trend or fad," said Pozner. "We are more age and more image obsessed than ever before."

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