Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Me a swan? Ah, go on!

Might be a good way of getting a cheap haircut in this climate, mind you...
My article on TV makeover shows in today's Indo:


As the new series of 'How Long Will You Live?' starts tonight on RTE, Susan Daly takes a look at the amazing boom in makeover television.

Change is possible: it's the mantra of hundreds of TV shows around the globe dedicated to making over every element of a person's life. Transform your face, body, wardrobe, house, garden, car, dog -- even your children can be brought up to scratch.

There is a recognisable format to these programmes. A target is identified, a crack team of experts roll in to cajole or coerce change in some area of their less-than-perfect lives, the transformation is revealed, tears are shed and everyone goes home happy. But what happens when the cameras have stopped rolling?

Dr Mark Hamilton, presenter of RTE's How Long Will You Live?, has made return visits to participants whose health issues he tried to take in hand a year ago. The results will be shown in a revisit series which begins tonight on RTE1 at 8.30pm.

"I actually looked forward to the revisits more than the initial eight weeks we did with the patients," says Dr Hamilton.

"Not all of them are on the same scale as when we left, but the vast majority have retained something of what we tried to show them.

"When I was first in talks with the production company about doing this programme, I was clear that I didn't want it to be a quick fix for telly.

"Although you have to make things watchable, all of the suggestions we were making were tailored to each person, so that they would be sustainable."

How Long Will You Live? is a step removed from what might be regarded as the more shallow makeover shows. It addresses serious health issues, like living with coeliac disease, or trying to combat a lifetime smoking habit.

The other major lifestyle overhaul show on RTE this year, Operation Transformation, worked on a similar premise. "We were looking at the bigger picture," says Pat Henry, who was the motivational guru for the participants.

"You see other programmes going on about face lifts and body lifts, but what most people in these shows need is a mind lift. My job was to help them deal with the negativity that is being thrown at us all every day, and realise their potential."

The holistic approach to mind and body of these programmes seems tame compared to the shows playing on the digital channels every weeknight.

House and garden makeover programmes continue to be hugely popular despite the economic downturn -- fantasy and aspiration about how we would like our lives to be have a strong pull. How many of us, for example, watch Masterchef while sitting on the couch with a takeaway?

Voyeurism is a huge part of the attraction, of course. Who can resist a peek into the dark corners of someone else's failings?

Watching Trinny and Susannah ripping fashion 'crimes' out of their victims' wardrobes is the televisual equivalent of sneaking into your neighbour's house to root around in their underwear drawer.

It's safer to watch it happening second-hand, but it still feels a bit naughty -- and fun. There might even be an element of schadenfreude to the popularity of makeover shows.'

Some shows are just car-crash television: it's horrifying but you can't look away. The MTV series I Want A Famous Face followed young people as they underwent multiple cosmetic procedures designed to make them look like their favourite celebrity. The results were often freakish, and the participants disturbingly vulnerable.

MTV didn't pay for the surgeries, unlike The Swan -- formerly presented by Dubliner Amanda Byram -- or Extreme Makeover, both of which involved major surgical overhaul of their subjects.

"I think some of the shows with plastic surgery and cosmetic dental work don't change what is going on in the person's head," says Pat Henry.

"I think of the mind as a computer that needs to be reprogrammed sometimes; say, if you have a boyfriend who is constantly telling you that you're fat or ugly, just changing the exterior is not going to change how you think about yourself."

New research suggests that audiences too can be negatively affected by the more extreme of the makeover shows. A study by the University of Southern California found that they led young women to feel more insecure about their bodies.

When Australia got its own version of Extreme Makeover in 2004, the country's Society of Plastic Surgeons sounded a warning at the hike of inquiries its members would get as a result of the show.

"That's a bad thing, because it's inducing people who would not normally consider cosmetic surgery," said the society's president Alfred Lewis. He added, the programme "raised the spectre of multiple surgical procedures" and trivialised their associated risks.

Even the less invasive makeover shows can work on the insidious premise that a successful life is one accessorised by the correct soft furnishings, the most flattering haircut, the 'pimped-out' car or the most tasteful water feature.

One of the most entertaining makeovers featured on RTE's Off The Rails had journalist Nell McCafferty valiantly fighting the attempts of Caroline Morahan to brighten up her style palette of black and black.

Celebrities seem to have a high 'failure' rate in the testing aftermath of makeover shows like Celebrity Fit Club. This is partly because there are gossip mags waiting to catch and chronicle their moments of weaknesses; but also because their motivation to participate in the first place might have been for a fee or exposure purposes, rather than a desire to change.

For civilians, too, it's the will to transform that dictates if they can sustain their new makeovers into the future.

"It's often the ones who are doing it for somebody else -- their child, their partner -- who don't quite manage it," says Dr Hamilton.

Whether makeover shows have crossed the line of good taste or not, they are here to stay. They are not a new phenomenon -- over 50 years ago, housewives would tearfully compete on NBC's Queen for the Day in a bid to win life-enhancing prizes like a washing machine

"I have had several experiences where I've met a taxi driver or someone in a hotel where I'm staying who says that they say something on the show that they have tried to put into practice in their own life," says Dr Hamilton.

Pat Henry has had similar feedback from viewers. "The people on our programme were very normal and people felt they could relate to them. They thought: I could do that."

- Susan Daly

Change reaction . . . Milestones in the makeover shows


Responsible for a boom in DIY, the show was at its most entertaining when the cameras caught the look of horror on some home owners' faces as they were presented their sitting room decked out in faux fur throws and glitterballs. Possible origin of the term 'inferior designer'.


Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine were the queens of mean as they poked, prodded and bullied women -- in the guise of tough love -- into what they regarded as more shape-appropriate clothes.


Gok Wan is presented as the salvation of the style-makeover show. His aim, he says, is to improve women's body image, a goal largely reached by allowing his charges to cry profusely on his shoulder while complimenting them endlessly on their fabulous "bangers".


Nanny Jo Frost descends on chaotic families to diagnose and provide solutions to their children's out of control behaviour. Introduced the concept of the 'naughty step' to a million households -- and gently proves that in most cases, yes, we should blame the parents.


The Swan, fronted by former Irish model Amanda Byram, came first but the Extreme Makeover brand has processed hundreds of desperate participants through multiple cosmetic surgeries in a bid to let their inner beauty shine. Through, er, their outer beauty.


Five years after the first US series, the show has been franchised all over the world. Obese contestants compete to lose the highest percentage of their starting weight for huge cash prizes.

While the contestants are given exercise and nutrition programmes, there are also temptation and challenge obstacles to be overcome in every episode.

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