POOR REGINA IP Lau Suk-yee. Most people have bad hair days, but it appears the beleaguered Secretary for Security is having a bad hair life. First she bristles at being labelled Broom-head in a comic book, then she gets worked up about a highly unflattering sculpture that dresses her in leopard-skin underpants and uses copper wire for her hair. Political satire or sexist vilification? Ip thinks the latter and finds it no laughing matter. For the second time this year she has publicly hit back at critics for lampooning her. 'How can I safeguard Hong Kong's security if I cannot defend my hairstyle?' she bemoaned during a Metro Finance radio programme this week. That outburst came after she penned a 1,000-word article in August for this newspaper in which she claimed women officials were subjected to 'savage sexist' attacks. In making such public responses, Ip has poured fuel on the fire she was attempting to extinguish. Everyone from political commentators, fashion gurus and image consultants have been queuing up to comment on Ip's public persona, dress sense and hairstyle. 'People have the right to expect high-ranking officials who represent Hong Kong to be presentable,' says image consultant Judy Mann, of Cheetah Management. 'Whether you like it or not, people judge you by how you look. If you give people a good impression people will listen to and respect you. I'm sure Mrs Ip is very capable and she's quite pleasant-looking. It's a pity she doesn't try to make an effort.' But Paul Chan Tai-yan, advertising agency BBDO's executive creative director, says Ip should capitalise on her distinctive look. 'It's important that they have some sort of image. A bad image is better than no image at all,' he says. 'Regina Ip is trying to portray an 'iron lady' character,' says Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, from City University's department of public and social administration. 'They make fun of her toughness, but she has been conscious to explain that she is a no-nonsense person who will preserve law and order.' Cheung says some public figures respond to criticism deliberately to create an agenda, but more naive officials tend to react when a better approach would be to ignore jibes. 'Of course, politicians are likely to be more sensitive than ordinary people. But the fact they are, doesn't mean they should be seen to be so sensitive. Sometimes silence is golden,' he says. 'If Regina Ip had kept silent then the point her critics were trying to make would not have a market. I'm sure she feels she is being done an injustice but a more seasoned leader would not respond and let society make its judgment.' It is Ip's hair that is most frequently caricatured, but the comic strip Broom-head published in July went further. Filled with sexist, vulgar language, it contained little genuine humour. But after Ip's response, the comic became a best-seller, with 39,000 copies snapped up. Publisher Pang Chi-ming justified it as a way to vent frustration at public officials who cannot be voted out of office, but he no longer wishes to comment on the issue. The 15-centimetre tall clay figure of Ip resplendent in leopard-skin underpants and copper-wire hair, by local artist Zunzi, kept up the pressure. It was among 26 of his works on display at the Pottery Workshop in Central and was sold for $7,999 - one of three bought so far (the others are sculptures of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie. A workshop spokes-man says the buyers' identities are not known). Zunzi denies targetting Ip and says he has moulded figures of other public identities. The inspiration came from the public's perception of Ip's personality, he adds. 'People always think that she's an aggressive person,' he says. 'And she's defensive. She always insists that everything she does is right. Animals like lions, leopards and tigers best represent this type of personality.' The artist doesn't think it is Ip's physical appearance that affects the way people judge her, but her conduct. On radio, Ip described herself as a 'lightning rod for controversy'. She has attracted criticism in both her high-ranking jobs as head of immigration (over such issues as the right of abode for mainland children) and later in security. Says Zunzi: 'Ip is one of the political figures that my circle of friends like to make fun of, simply because we are not satisfied with her work, such as her criticism of the Falun Gong. Making fun of her is a way for us to release our anger.' Politics aside, Ip demonstrably sees it as an attack on her appearance. Some observers believe both are game targets and the official is badly in need of a makeover. 'Hair is the most important thing for a person's image,' says Mann. 'When you look at people you look at their head. No matter what clothes you wear, if the hair is not right you spoil the whole outfit. Ms Ip has classical Chinese features and is quite good-looking. Because she has an oval-shaped face it's not difficult to choose the right hairstyle for her.' Unfortunately Ip hasn't made the right choice, says Mann. 'Aside from aesthetics, her hair looks unhealthy. It's frizzy and dry. She must do something about it. She needs treatment, it doesn't have to be fashionable, but it should be tidy-looking. It doesn't take much to make an effort. If you are a busy woman you should have a haircut which is easy to handle.' Mann, who is also a fashion designer, delivers some cruel blows to Ip's dress sense too. 'I don't particularly like the way she dresses. A more classic look would suit her better. On occasions when men have to wear a suit and tie, executive women should wear a jacket too, elegant and simple.' Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang is the ideal role model for high-profile women, according to Mann. 'She's fantastic,' says the image guru. 'She is always well-dressed, is good with colour co-ordination and her hair always looks perfect. She has a round face so it's more difficult for her [than Ip] to choose a suitable hairstyle.' Herman Law Kin-kei, artistic director of hair salon Ken Qi, suggests female executives tie their hair back. 'The first impression is very important,' he says. 'You have to look tidy. It is always better to reveal the whole face. If you have curly hair like Mrs Ip does, it is a must.' Law thinks Ip looks good with straight hair, but her present style is excessively permed. 'For people like her, they can use a creamy gel to make her hair less frizzy and tie it back loosely. It is also nice to dye the hair with some brown and red colours. A person with dark hair and strong features looks too serious.' Hairculture's artistic director Billy Choi agrees. 'Executives should keep a neat hairstyle, and tying the hair back is the easiest for curly and long hair,' he says. Ip's image is too 'outstanding', Choi comments. 'If she wants to keep her curly hair down she should go to the salon every morning for a blow and dry service. But maybe she's too busy.' Nevertheless, many trend-setters are dismayed at the ridicule of Ip, including hairdresser to the stars, Kim Robinson, creative director of Salon Esprit. 'We all have our own way of projecting ourselves,' he says. 'If she feels comfortable with the texture and volume of her hair and it makes her feel pretty then it's good. I support her 100 per cent. It's not as if she's in the fashion police.' BBDO's Chan says: 'I don't mind her hairstyle. She should keep her image, it's something different. If you have a strong image, some people won't like you but the majority will.' For the past 10 years, Ip has had her hair styled at Kao's Domina Hair Design in Ping Shek Estate, close to where she used to live on Kowloon Peak. Chinese magazine Sudden Weekly followed Ip to the salon recently and reported she spent three hours there getting a perm and pedicure. Kao's is a straightforward salon, offering a wash and dry for less than $100. A perm costs from $300 and up. It also offers a hair-design service for customers, but staff at Kao's refuse to comment on Ip's hairstyle. Ip wrote in August that Asian power women such as the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka were lambasted only for their performance, but did not suffer 'any systematic attack on their dignity on the basis of their appearance'. But in a televisual age, image is often a big issue. Satire is rife in Western democracies. In Britain, former Labour party leader Michael Foot never recovered his reputation after he turned up for a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in a tattered, old duffel coat. The woman who beat him, Conservative Margaret Thatcher, was dubbed the Iron Lady and mocked for 'handbagging' those who disagreed with her. In the United States, image consultants are must-have accessories for anyone with hankerings for power, notably former first lady Hillary Clinton, who successfully ran for the New York Senate seat. The difference in democracies is that politicians are elected by the populace. Government officials in Hong Kong have no such concerns, so it's understandable that Ip said plaintively on radio: 'You may have your opinions but you cannot interfere with me.' The Secretary for Security appears to suffer from a little insecurity, but in a society that allows freedom of expression, perhaps she should develop a thicker skin. 'She should treat it as a fun thing and not be too serious,' says Chan. 'I don't think politicians appreciate the value of advertising. It's all good publicity for her.'