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A Few Good Makeovers

By Lisa M. Puskarcik, Crimson Staff Writer

My mother and I have long been fans of the traditional TV makeover. My mom’s personal favorite was the Oprah Mother’s Day makeover extravaganza. In these episodes a harried Midwestern mother of five or six would appear on the show with spittle on her Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt and bags under her eyes the size of walnuts. Her equally prematurely aging (yet surprisingly jolly) husband usually showed up with the kids, and together they begged Oprah to give mom the Mother’s Day makeover of her dreams. The “before” photo was taken, the style crew of trained professionals appeared and fairy godmother Oprah whisked the woman away to the faraway salons of makeover land. At the end of the show the new-and-improved mom would dash onto the stage grinning from ear to ear, chic new hairdo unnaturally bouncing from side to side. The dad cried, the children cheered and Oprah gave mom a quick hug, a five-year supply of Pampers for the kids, and if her sponsors were feeling particularly generous, a brand new minivan for the ride back to suburban Wisconsin. It was any mother’s dream come true.

My favorite makeovers were a little less wholesome, usually taking place on trashier talk shows like “Ricki Lake,” “Montel Williams” or “Jerry Springer.” A popular theme of these racy episodes was the rebellious adolescent makeover, where parents would desperately beg Jerry or Montel to change their children’s look. Unlike the passive willingness of the good-natured Oprah mom to update her style, these teens usually expressed resistance by shouting numerous expletives with accompanying foul gestures to their parents, the host and the audience. After such resistance, they would reluctantly agree to be made into the son or daughter their parents really wanted, abandoning their black lipstick, chains, vinyl or belly-button ring, leopard miniskirt and sequined thong for more sensible garb. When little Susie reappeared with pearls and natural hair color her mom cried while she continued to scowl. These shows never had happy endings, as the host would always catch up to the participants a few weeks later and find that they were back to their old ways. They were at once horrible, real, entertaining and all-around terrific.

These were the kinds of old-school makeover shows my mother and I watched and grew to love. Their simplicity allowed me to ignore the greater social issues implicated in them. But with the current proliferation of makeover culture on reality television, I realize the shows we loved are a thing of the past. In their place is new programming which ranges from house makeovers on “Trading Spaces,” complete transformations on “Extreme Makeover” and everything from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Ambush Makeover” in between. Allure magazine beauty experts suspect that “LiftTime, the Plastic Surgery Channel” will not be far behind.

These new makeover shows only do two things for me: gross me out or piss me off. I am no longer rooting for the poor mother for whom Oprah’s bottle of hair dye and tube of mascara worked wonders. Instead I am given my choice of viewing the scarring, bloody details of multiple invasive and severe plastic surgeries, the life manicure of some beer-bellied bachelor who can’t leave his La-Z-Boy long enough to regularly shower (let alone exfoliate), or the hopeless couple who could not decently decorate a simple living room if their lives depended on it.

One recent episode of the reality TV series “Extreme Makeover” featured Dan, a middle-aged producer and father from Seattle. Dan wanted an extreme makeover to “improve his self-esteem and catch the eye of a co-worker he’s had a crush on.” But instead of cutting his hair and giving him a nice new suit to wear to work, Dan had the following done: jowl implants (what is a jowl?), buckle pads excision (don’t know what that is either), liposuction on the cheeks, liposuction on the chest, abdomen and hip rolls, fat injections in the face, a hair weave, Lasik eye surgery and dental work, including gum reshaping, teeth whitening and eight upper veneers (what?). Oprah would have given him a bottle of wine and a limo for a night out with his crush; this show gives him a new body.

Not all of the new makeover shows are bad, however. One new series, MTV’s “MADE,” is a diamond in the makeover rough. The show is gripping because it invokes an obscene number of high school and college stereotypes, acutely playing off of teenage insecurities—it tells its audience that any transformation can be made with MTV’s help. In its casting call, MTV asks: “Are you…The soprano in the church choir but secretly want to learn how to rock? The computer geek who wants to put down his pocket protectors and pick up a varsity jacket?” If so, MTV suggests that you are a perfect candidate for “MADE.” Recent episodes have profiled such personalities as Kristen, the prissy rich girl from the ’burbs who yearned to become a BMX rider. Hey, if MTV can’t make you into the person you want to be, who can?

Though I would love nothing more than to return to the makeover programming of the past, I know my current options are either to learn to tolerate these new shows or to boycott them completely. Perhaps casting directors will eventually make over more appealing subjects without showing the unwrapping of every bloody ace bandage. Until then, my mom and I will patiently await another Mother’s Day tugging-at-the-heartstrings Oprah special.

—Crimson Arts columnist Lisa Puskarcik can be reached at puskarc@fas.harvard.edu.

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