“I have this tire thing down here, I can actually make it talk at times.” Allyson Donovan is having a consultation with cosmetic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow. Her long acrylic nails push her stomach into a pair of distorted lips. “Help me,” it mouths.
This scene is from episode one of the first and last season of Bridalplasty. A hybrid of wedding-industrial-complex reality TV and the makeover genre, Bridalplasty first aired in 2010 in the US, before being cancelled due to poor ratings. Brides-to-be competed in challenges in the hopes of winning a $100,000 princess wedding in Fiji. Challenges including trying to distinguish between Dom Pérignon and Andre Strawberry Sparkling Wine; winners were rewarded with rhinoplasties, breast augmentations, jowl lifts, and thigh tucks. Bridalplasty’s opening credits show Dubrow hammering a silver pick into a woman’s nose cartilage, pummelling thigh fat with syringes, and forcing silicon implants into torn flesh. It’s a fitting start to one of the most brutal takes on late aughts reality TV.
Shocking as it sounds, Bridalplasty wasn’t alone. It was merely the nadir of the mid-2000s wave of cosmetic surgery makeover shows including The Swan (2002), Addicted to Beauty (2009), Extreme Makeover (2002), and I Want a Famous Face (2004). For a while, these shows achieved great ratings—at its height, 10 million people tuned into the US edition of Extreme Makeover. But after Bridalplasty’s 2011 finale attracted a meager 600,000 viewers, it was clear that the genre’s popularity had waned.
Superficially, these makeovers were presented as heartwarming: low-income women were gifted procedures previously reserved for the wealthy. In reality, these shows depicted women convinced that the path to self-actualization and happiness comes via a scalpel. And since production companies often prioritized shock value above patient care, shows tended to focus less upon improving women’s confidence and more on patching over deep-seated issues with a new set of DDs.
To understand these shows, it’s worth looking at what made them so popular. “Makeover reality television took off after 9/11,” says Patti White, a producer on Extreme Makeover. “People were trying to feel good because it was such a dark time for American culture. Extreme Makeover tapped into insecurities people had about themselves that hadn't been broadcast before. The program said, 'It’s okay to get plastic surgery. It’s okay to want to feel better about yourself.'”
Cressida J Heyes of the University of Alberta has written a number of papers on cosmetic surgery reality TV. Like White, she links the popularity of the genre to the political and economic uncertainty that prevailed following the 2008 financial crash. “There was a strong element of fantasy at work. They all talk about Cinderella—rags to riches—and Sleeping Beauty—waking up transformed—and other mythic narratives about all your problems being solved," Heyes tells me. "Ordinary folks in the US and elsewhere were under increasing financial pressure during the 00s, with real incomes declining and competition for ‘good’ jobs increasing. It is no wonder that we would want to watch women similar to us escape economic and personal stresses with a radical transformation.”
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Reality TV during this period relied heavily on shock value. I Wanna Marry Harry saw women compete for the love of a fake Prince Harry, and Space Cadets made participants believe they were orbiting the Earth in a spaceship when really they were in an earthbound studio. But the genre burned itself out under increasing pressure to deliver ever more shocking twists. “They had to get more and more shocking to keep our attention,” Heyes explains.
Under White’s tenure, Extreme Makeover spent an average $90,000 to $200,000 on each contestant's makeover. White describes her favourite contestant: 20-year-old Micha Snodderly from Knoxville, Tennessee. “When she was four, Micha fell down and smacked her jaw on the coffee table, [and] she ended up with no chin," White remembers. Snodderley's family could not afford facial reconstruction surgery and she became a recluse. After Extreme Makeover, Snodderly went to college.
But not all the makeover stories were so uplifting. At their worst, they reinforced a Caucasian ideal of beauty, erasing ethnic heritage from women's faces. “I have Native American in me, so I inherited my great grandmother's big nose and fat cheeks”, says 47-year-old Stacey Hoffman from Nebraska. Though Hoffman came to Extreme Makeover wanting a nose job, the show’s doctors suggested adding extra procedures during a consultation. "I was under the knife for nearly ten hours,” Hoffman tells me. “I don't regret any procedures, although I didn’t like that they dyed my black hair red. It made my skin look pale.”
And having a new aesthetic can make assimilating back into your former life difficult. After filming ends, participants have the same friends and live in the same small town. “A lot of people didn't accept it,” Hoffman says. “I ended up quitting my job as a nurse and moving from Wahoo to my parent’s in Lincoln, Nebraska. People in small towns don’t like change. They were standoffish with me and they had an attitude. I lost a friend of mine because she kept saying I was a 'stuck-up snot.' When I came back my boss didn’t even recognize me.”
Hoffman is not alone in her struggle to adjust after appearing on a makeover show. The shock of multiple cosmetic surgeries, twinned with the heavy exposure of filming, can be traumatic. Lorrie Arias was a Californian police department volunteer who auditioned for The Swan hoping to remove excess skin left after weight loss. In 2002, over three months of filming, the then-34-year-old had $300,000 worth of treatments including a tummy tuck, buttock lift, inner thigh lift, dual facelift, upper lip lift, upper and lower eye lift, endoscopic brow lift, rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, and breast lift. In 2014, Arias told the Huffington Post that she has regained the weight she lost, and is agoraphobic. “I’m a 300-pound mess of a person who’s afraid to go outside.”
Matt Addis, a producer on The Swan, tells me that he had concerns about the lack of support available to contestants. (Contestants were given access to therapist Lynn Ianni during filming.) “I interviewed all the contestants a few months after they had gone through their procedures," he tells me. "From my point of view, they seemed happy or even very happy with what they had gone through... In my opinion, they should have received counselling or coaching to deal with their self-perception issues. But people get plastic surgery all the time, and don’t get counselling before or after.”
Being filmed post-op was distressing for some contestants. For Bridalplasty’s second challenge, the women were asked to write vows, with the winner being the person whose vows were most similar to their fiancée’s. After promising to “screw the cap on the toothpaste,” Cheyenne Stoll, from New Jersey, won a nose job. She emerges a scene later with puffy bruised eyes, looking weak and spaced out, her voice wobbling. “Being filmed in one of your most vulnerable states wasn’t easy,” 33-year-old Stoll tells me. “Waking up from anaesthesia, laying in bed all swollen and in pain with a camera lens inches from your face made recovery less than ideal.”
By inserting dramatic reveals and cameras into the process, cosmetic surgery reality TV shows often showed scant concern for contestants’ long-term health, and they reinforced a white-centric, monolithic image of beauty where difference and personal quirks were erased until everyone looked identical.
Donovan eventually won Bridalplasty. Once a self-described beer-drinking trucker bride, in the show’s last episode Donovan gracefully walked down the aisle in layers of white taffeta. Now that she’d lost 35 pounds, her stomach didn't talk anymore.