Makeover Madness: Suddenly the Mirrors All Have Remotes

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

Your TV hates you.

It thinks that you, Mr. and Ms. Average American, are fat, are badly dressed and have lousy taste. It thinks your house is a mess. It hates your makeup, ladies, and your hair and your thighs. It thinks you need a dye job, and maybe a boob job. And the way you're raising your kids? Oh, don't even get your TV started on that.

You learn all this from a few minutes of watching "makeover" programs, currently the hottest genre of reality TV. What began, more or less, with "Trading Spaces" -- a fairly innocuous program in which neighbors redecorate each other's houses -- has metastasized into niches of sub-niches. There's the personal makeover show ("What Not to Wear," "How Do I Look?," "Fashion Police," "Ambush Makeover"); the home-improvement makeover ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Clean Sweep," "Guess Who's Coming to Decorate?," "Design Invasion"); and a hybrid of both ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy/Gal," "Style Court").

There's also the family/marriage makeover ("Wife Swap," "Trading Spouses," "Supernanny," "Nanny 911" and my favorite title, a forthcoming ABC show called "Fix My Husband"). TLC -- which used to stand for The Learning Channel but now just stands for TLC -- is almost entirely devoted to this sort of program, as is a look-alike competitor, the Style Network.

Whether hearth and home, hairdo or husband, every one of these programs starts with the same premise: You (or someone very much like you) just aren't good enough.

Thankfully, in Makeover America, the solution is always at hand. Every show comes with its own set of interchangeable young "style gurus" -- none is ever older than about 32 -- who shepherd John and Jane Q. Six-Pack toward what is referred to, vaguely, as their "potential." This usually involves a number of exhausting shopping trips and something called "microdermabrasion" treatments.

Like the molding of Marines, the makeover candidate must be broken down before he or she can be built anew. During another stock feature of Makeover TV -- the critique -- participants are subjected to all kinds of esteem-shattering commentary about their alleged flaws. Oftentimes this task is handled by the style gurus, but sometimes it comes from friends, relatives or even perfect strangers who are "only trying to help."

On Style's "Style Court," for example, participants are led into a mock courtroom and ordered by a "judge" to "defend" their appearance or some home-decorating decision. On TLC's "What Not to Wear," snarky fashionistas Stacy London and Clinton Kelly assess each makeover candidate in near-clinical detail ("You have very broad shoulders"), usually in front of a wraparound mirror. The signature visual of "What Not to Wear" is a little set piece in which London and Kelly assess a rack of the subject's clothes. When items are found wanting -- and inevitably they are -- London or Kelly drops them into a garbage can.

This is followed by a busy interim period in which the makeover candidate trolls the boutiques and primps like a crazed Beverly Hills matron. Soon she is ready for every makeover show's money shot -- the "reveal" -- in which she (and occasionally he) is paraded in front of friends and family like a dolled-up poodle. The friends typically ooh and aah and applaud in surprise and approval. Implicit in this giddy before-and-after sequence is an ugly flip side: If they love her look now, just what did they think of her before?

Most makeover candidates welcome the renovation, but occasionally there is resistance. Lauri, described as "a fashion victim" on Style's "How Do I Look?," seemed quite content with her appearance before glammy host Finola Hughes began going to work on her. After a proposed regimen of clothes shopping, hair-dyeing and cosmetics was laid out for her, Lauri dared to express a heretical thought. "Do I want to make these changes?" she asked. "Maybe I'm happy with the way I look. Maybe I don't need to change."

Hughes, almost visibly shaken by this, asked why. "I feel I do best with what I have," Lauri answered serenely. "So I don't feel a change will do me better."

This was, of course, unacceptable, and Lauri's wishes were quickly trampled. A chagrined Lauri was compelled to choose one of three "collections" proposed by her daughter, a friend and a designer. By the time of the "reveal," Lauri still had not attained the inner peace and go-get-'em attitude that Makeover TV insists will result from a new wardrobe and day-spa visit. In fact, post-makeover, Lauri looked downright miserable. When Hughes sought to brush Lauri's newly dyed bangs from her forehead ("That's a very '80s look," Hughes sniped), Lauri jerked her head away from Hughes's hand. You wanted to cheer.

ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" offers an interesting variation on Makeover TV's dominant theme. Instead of browbeating and belittling the family that participates each week, the "design team" pours on the pity for them. It's true that the featured family deserves some pity -- it's always facing some hardship, such as a sick child or an out-of-work dad -- but the pity is really just a setup for what follows.

In the course of remodeling or rebuilding the family's house, "Home Edition's" designers and builders call constant attention to their own act of charity, as if the whole exercise were really about enhancing their self-esteem. "It's been said a million times -- 'It's better to give than to receive' -- but I never thought about that more than I did this week," said hunky host Ty Pennington, introducing last Sunday's program. Amid sad piano music, another crew member adds, "They [the featured family] didn't have anyone to turn to, and that's why we're here."

Oh, thank you, kindly millionaires at ABC. Thank you.

(Personally, I'm waiting for a follow-up show; call it "Extreme Makeover: Punch List" or "Honey-Do," in which the homeowners attempt to talk a contractor into fixing all the flaws in their hastily refurbished house).

Makeover TV has proliferated for several reasons, not the least of these being the underlying economic imperative. For makeover shows are perhaps the most advertiser-friendly TV programming ever devised.

Think of it: TV commercials have always sought to induce anxiety in viewers to sell them a product (your floor doesn't shine, your deodorant may fail, etc.). With Makeover TV, viewers head into the commercials with their anxieties pre-induced. Not fit enough, eh? Well, there's always the new Jenny Craig diet! Not as fashionable as Finola or Clinton or Stacy says you should be? Well, L'Oreal and Revlon are there when you need them. Don't live in so fine a house as the one built by the "Home Edition" crew? Well, Sears or Home Depot will fix you right up. Ty Pennington, in fact, appears in Sears commercials, which effectively turns his every appearance on "Home Edition" into a Sears infomercial.

Beneath the glossy exteriors, makeover programs can't disguise their contempt for the ordinary flaws of ordinary people. Watching these programs is enough to make you hate yourself. Lord knows, your TV already feels that way about you.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company