Cutting a fine figure
Extreme Makeover: harmless fun or reality TV at its most crass?
Extreme Makeover combines a ratings grabbing blend of medical gore, voyeuristic reality TV and that mushy feelgood factor you get from watching the Wonder Years. Pitched as a show in which imaginary fantasies and lifelong dreams come true the show is a wild celebration of superficiality in its truest sense. But does it make for compulsive viewing? Sickeningly, the answer is ‘yes’.
The show’s creators claim to give participants ‘a real life fairy tale in which their wishes come true, not just by changing their looks, but their lives and destinies’. This transformation is achieved by an ‘Extreme Team’ consisting of plastic surgeons, eye surgeons and cosmetic dentists, a team of hair and makeup artists, stylists, and personal trainers. Not one mention is made of counsellors, psychiatrists, motivational therapists or career advisers: on this show, beauty is strictly skin-deep.
The show takes desperately unhappy and unattractive people and makes them ‘beautiful’. Audiences are treated to the obligatory ‘before’ shots: examples of how the participant’s life had been desperately miserable because they were mercilessly bullied for being fat, ginger, deformed, different, and… cue the tears. Then we have the ‘scenes of a surgical nature’ as fat is slurped out with liposuction tubes, faces are lifted, boobs are plumped, and noses are shaved, followed by bruising, swelling, and a date with a personal trainer. And more tears – usually from the pain. Then it’s time for hair, make-up, a new wardrobe and a (drum roll please) big début, accompanied by shrieks of surprise and huge gasps from friends and family plus a fresh deluge of waterworks. Even the camp host Sam Saboura is occasionally caught up in the crying and viewers (as cynical as we may be) will occasionally feel a lump in their throats.
In 2005 Americans spent more than $12.5 billion on cosmetic procedures, from run-of-themill breast implants and tummy-tucks to J Loinspired buttock implants and excruciatingly painful leg extensions. It’s not just women who think plastic is fantastic either. Nose jobs are popular with pre-teens and Asian children are having eyelid surgery to make their eyes look bigger and ‘more European’. Men are also undergoing a plethora of procedures from liposuction on the ‘love handles’ to hair plugs to combat the onset of balding, alongside bicep implants for those who can’t be bothered to work out in the gym. It’s really not a surprise that a show like Extreme Makeover was devised – it’s only shocking that it took producers until 2002 to start filming.
Extreme Makeover isn’t alone in the surgery stable. The Swan (currently showing on MBC4) transforms ugly American ducklings into prom queens before they compete in a pageant, while I Want A Famous Face scarily encourages celebrity-obsessed individuals to have surgery to look, dress and act like their idols. Dr 90210 (currently on E! Entertainment) and Miami Slice (yet to arrive in the UAE) show real-life surgery, while the hugely-popular Nip/Tuck (currently showing on America Plus) reveals the fiction behind the cosmetic surgery façade. Plastic surgery, it seems, continues to both fascinate and repulse viewers on a grand scale.
While encouraging viewers that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the hand of the credit card holder, Extreme Makeover sets a terrifying bad example for impressionable and insecure individuals that the answer to their problems involves lying on the operating table. Despite the varied appearance of the contestants going into the Makeover machine they all seem to come out almost identical – skinny, lipo-sucked limbs, bulging silicon breasts (for the women), a porcelain-plated smile Tom Cruise would be proud of and a mane of flowing fake hair, all wrapped up in a designer bow. Although many would consider this a vast improvement on the guinea pigs’ original looks, this Barbie-esque identikit style is hardly original.
Not only is becoming selected to be a contestant like hitting the reality TV jackpot (come on: expensive surgery, a stay in a Hollywood mansion while you recover, and a new body at the end of it, not to mention the glimmer of hope that you’ll ‘make it’ as a celebrity yourself), it is also an almost egalitarian leveller. Why should Demi Moore and Pamela Anderson get all the fun of super-expensive surgery?
Extreme Makeover’s makers are quick to tackle accusations of superficiality, with contestants in the second season including two sisters who had previously undergone 40 cleft palette operations; a victim of a shooting who was facially disfigured; a man who couldn’t have children after a vasectomy operation and a balding young woman. Other contestants in this season, showing on One TV, include a bull rider who’s had all his teeth knocked out; a goth punk rocker and an entire dishevelled family – the children will thankfully only be subjected to hair, makeup and wardrobe styling. But, with the third season of Extreme Makeover fizzling out in the States last year (and a lawsuit being filed after a suicide allegedly related to the show) despite its crowd-pleasing mix of tactics, it seems that the dramatic unveiling of row after row of plastic, primped and preened people is already showing signs of becoming passé. We hate to imagine what will take it’s place… Michelle Byrne.
Extreme Makeover, One TV, Tuesdays at 20:00.