Makeover is Making Waves

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Not since Botox has the world of plastic surgery been so abuzz. Each week on the ABC reality show Extreme Makeover, two people are transformed from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans via plastic surgery, cosmetic dentistry, a personal trainer and new hairstyles, makeup and clothes.

Amy Taylor, 29, after her Extreme Makeover.
The show, which airs tonight at 10 ET/PT, was a sleeper hit when it first aired in December as a special, prompting the network to order seven episodes. Last week ABC ordered 13 more, and on Tuesday, the network announced that Makeover has a Thursday night spot in its fall lineup.

Even Oprah is intrigued. The Oprah Winfrey Show today is devoted to Extreme Makeover, revisiting three makeover-ees and featuring unseen surgery footage.

The factors that pique interest include the gruesome post-op glimpses of patients in bandages to the fabulous unveilings of the new and improved chosen two.

There’s also the arguable concept of focusing a show completely on making a person better by enhancing appearance rather than the deeper issues of soul or spirit. Out with Touched by an Angel, in with Extreme Makeover. As one message posted on an AOL board about the show put it: “I want them to do a show about how to enhance people’s intelligence and creativity. That’s the STUFF that really matters.”

The hook is the Cinderella story told each week: the show sifts through applications to find people who have suffered: a woman with a split, puffy lip that had caused her years of embarrassment, a man who had so much sagging skin on his face people thought he was the grandfather, not father, of his children. They are flown to Los Angeles for six weeks, where their “extreme team” fixes them all expenses paid or services donated. Then they’re flown home, better than ever.

It’s not as sugarcoated as it sounds. Post-op surgery scenes do not make it look like fun. Tubes and bruises and blood are evident.

“I want the viewers to realize this is not some walk in the park,” says Howard Schultz, executive producer. “That would be trivializing the whole thing. That’s not the point. We need to show the pain that these people go through.”

For Amy Taylor, a 29-year-old cake decorator at Wal-Mart from Lafayette, Ind., the TV show turned her life around. “I’m so grateful. They gave me my dream.”

She went from an AA to a B cup. She had her teeth whitened and straightened. She got a nose job. “It was a totally positive experience,” says Taylor, who struggled with social anxiety because of her looks. She estimates she received about $40,000 worth of procedures. According to the show, some of the makeovers cost closer to $150,000.

Such amazing results are, of course, triggering an avalanche of make-me-over business, spurring local surgeons and dentists to set up mini-makeovers but also causing some infighting in the plastic-surgery community.

For William Dorfman, the dentist on the show, things have been “crazy.” On Monday alone, he says, he had 10 new patients lined up. Since the December special, he has had more than 2,000 calls and e-mails. “This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to dentistry,” says Dorfman, who says he received a standing ovation at a dental convention recently.

For the doctors, the attention has been a boon, but it also has raised concerns of medical professionals who see the show as an irresponsible gimmick.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, statistics released last month show nearly 6.6 million people had cosmetic plastic surgery last year, a decrease of 12% from the year before. The group says that when the economy gets bad, elective surgery tends to drop. However, Botox, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in April 2002, saw a surge; more than 1.1 million opted for it, an increase of 31% over 2001.

The show is prompting calls to surgeons. James Wells, head of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, says the group was skeptical at first. But he said this week, “I’d give it a qualified endorsement.” Some members of the group say the show is “cheesy,” he says. But he says the group’s ethical code dictates that surgeons not give away procedures in cont