Author Charla Muller: Finding your way to ‘Pretty’

If you don’t recognize the name Charla Muller right off, you’ll surely recognize the title of her last book: “365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy.”

You remember, right? She’s the working mother of two, right here in Charlotte, who decided for her husband Brad’s 40th birthday to give him the gift of sexual intimacy for a solid year.

That she did. And both found that the, uh, daily practice, shall we say, formed a closer emotional as well as physical bond.

Muller’s new book, “Pretty Takes Practice: A Southern Woman’s Search for the Real Meaning of Beauty,” out this week from Berkley Books ($16 paper), grew out of the first. Maybe not in exactly the way you’d expect.

Muller is a gifted writer with a keen sense of humor and excellent timing, and she keeps the new book clipping along with appropriate doses of self-deprecation, common sense and sound insight.

Here’s how the book originated.

When Muller was interviewed in 2009 about “365” on “Oprah” – yes, “Oprah” – she caught a larger-than-life view of herself on high definition TV. She compares that view to “watching your own car accident. It’s simply something you shouldn’t witness.”

On that giant screen behind Oprah’s head, she writes, “I looked like a giant, bloated mess.”

Muller says she was 60 pounds overweight and had chosen to wear a 5-year-old black knit sweater she’d bought at a discount store.

“Denial is built into my DNA,” she writes. “I get it from my father’s side.”

Muller describes Charlotte as a town “ruining the curve on pretty.” Even though, until “Oprah,” she says she’d been content to look “fairly decent” only about every third day.

So I have to ask: Why does it matter so much how we look?

Because, Muller points out again and again: First impressions count.

“Like it or not,” she writes, “how I looked determined my credibility to the viewing and reading audience. It determined my likability and, ultimately, my salability.”

And later: “First impressions count because they are a powerful, one-of-a-kind opportunity to serve up your best self.”

OK. I’m convinced.

“Seeing yourself for the first time not as you think others see you but as they actually do see you, forced me, at the age of forty-three, to grow up,” she writes.

After the inevitable tears, she says she bucked up and joined a weight-loss program, started eating better and exercising and gradually shed pounds. A new hairstyle, a wardrobe upgrade and a rediscovery of “some of the beauty basics that I had either forgotten or repressed.”

Many of those basics her mother, Charlene Price, had touted for years. (She dedicates the book to her mother.) Basics such as finding a good alterations person, a good hair stylist and buying bathing suits online.

“Because mothers know,” Muller writes, “and while they might not offer up their wide-open opinion every time the opportunity presents itself, they don’t lie.”

“My mother has been a real champ about the book,” Muller says by email. “She continues to give great advice not just to me, but also to my daughter.”

The threads that bind mothers, daughters, granddaughters fascinate Muller.

“I grew up with a mother who I thought was beautiful,” she writes me, “and as an adult I can see that my interpretation of her ‘pretty’ was more than just her fabulously coordinated outfit.”

Which makes Muller wonder: How will her daughter, Georgia, remember her?

“She starts high school this month, and I’m especially intrigued by the messages and advice I’m sending her way (both intentional and not) about the role and priority that appearance can, should or does play in living a well-rounded and lovely life,” Muller says.

Muller makes it clear that this book is not “a how-to guide on how to achieve pretty.”

Her own story, she says, is “messy, misguided and, at times, tragically comic.” She offers instead reflections.

And, at book’s end, Muller does mete out a bit of advice.

“I would encourage you to embark on your own pretty journey,” she writes. “Determine what’s important in your personal pursuit and then get down to the hard work of practicing it and living it and owning it. It will be hard and messy and really ugly. And totally worth it.”