Plastic surgery is serious business.

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April 14 2004 5:23 PM

In the Cut

According to a new crop of shows, plastic surgery is serious business.

The Swan: Plastic surgery as business strategy?
The Swan: Plastic surgery as business strategy?

After watching I Want a Famous Face (MTV, Mondays, 10:30 p.m. ET) and The Swan (Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET), I can see why they call plastic surgery "work." Back in the quaint days of ABC's Extreme Makeover, people wanted to have plastic surgery in order to feel better about themselves. Now the participants have their freshly tucked eyes on a prize. The women on The Swan will square off, post-op, in a beauty pageant for cash and merchandise, while the stars of I Want a Famous Face all have specific career goals that are, in their minds, unattainable without first altering their bodies. In Famous Face, we meet twins who want to look like Brad Pitt (so they can become actors); a woman who wants to look like Kate Winslet (so she can model); another woman who wants to look like Pamela Anderson (so she can model nude); and a Britney Spears impersonator who wants to look more like Britney Spears (so she can be a better Britney Spears impersonator, of course).

Conventional wisdom says that popular culture corrupts one's idea of the self, and indeed, both shows prove that the beauty myth is alive and well, but you can also see the influence of business culture. Neither of these shows is The Apprentice: Plastic Surgery Edition,but both are informed by a strong undercurrent of American enterprise. In I Want a Famous Face, the subjects view the human body as an eminently modifiable product, while in The Swan the body is treated with a bottom-line mentality—no cut is too drastic if it's a business expedient.

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Another quintessentially American quality that runs though both shows is an "it's just business" pragmatism. The young people in Famous Face have all grown up with Target and Old Navy, and they know that when you can't have the real thing, a knock-off will do. "I don't look like Brad Pitt," says one of the twins, post-surgery. "But I got the Brad Pitt features I wanted, definitely." None of the aspiring stars in I Want a Famous Face expect to come out of surgery as carbon copies of their idols, but they feel that close is good enough. Plus-sized model Jennette understands that while she will never look like her idol Kate Winslet, Winslet represents a market niche she might reasonably fill.

The Swan goes beyond merely adding or altering a single feature. Each week, the show's two female participants receive a total overhaul and relaunch, complete with new brand identity. Take Kelly's makeover, which includes, among other things, an eyebrow lift; lip enhancement; liposuction on her back, thighs, ankles, and face; partial veneers on her teeth; therapy; time with a personal trainer; and a root canal. "I got to restructure my inside and transform my outside," Kelly says at the end of the premiere episode, sounding less like she's been at the plastic surgeon and more like she's been spending time with a life coach. Unfortunately for Kelly, she still loses. Rachel, a document-control manager from Sammamish, Wash., (for now) will advance to the finale's pageant. The changes she underwent were equally drastic, but according to her plastic surgeon they were also "strategic."

What is the price of all this change? For the participants in The Swan,the plastic surgery is paid for by the show's producers; the only thing you can judge is the psychic cost (which is high). The people in I Want a Famous Face, on the other hand,are footing the bill. As a result they get less work done and take an uncannily practical approach to their surgery. Sha, the 19-year-old Pamela Anderson wannabe, is frighteningly aware of the precise style of boobs Playboy is looking for. (Or at least she thinks she is. On-camera interviews with a Playboy scout suggest that the magazine now values more "natural" bodies.) The Britney impersonator is even more exacting: She brings the plastic surgeon photos of the kinds of stage costumes she hopes to fill out more robustly after her surgery. But if I were to advise contestants sinking money into their infrastructure, I would tell them that doing their teeth will give them maximum return on investment—surely The Swan'sRachel wouldn't have qualified for the pageant without that winning smile.

Yet while the participants view their bodies as businesses, the irony is they're not doing any real work, only having it done to them. Recovering from plastic surgery looks absolutely miserable, but it's more a matter of endurance than effort. Furthermore, as everybody knows, a store that has received a facelift isn't necessarily a better place to shop. The change more likely to pique a customer's interest is "under new management."

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.

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