The way politicians ‘look’ is taken to be one of the essential aspects of the ‘mediatization’ and ‘professionalization’ of politics. Yet there is very little research about the role of image and self-presentation in political communication. This article presents the results of a study that aims to fill this gap by mapping where and how image fits within broader processes of identity and meaning construction in contemporary politics. On the basis of 51 interviews, it compares the role of personal image in the everyday political practices of both British and Italian local politicians and members of the European Parliament. The analysis develops an alternative conceptual framework to make sense of the role of image in twenty-first century politics, showing that the alleged deleterious effects of a ‘cult of appearances’ on democracy reflects more the narrowness of academic enquiry and the legacy of outdated linear models of politics-media relationships than the much more variegated and networked reality of contemporary politics.