The Cinderella syndrome

By Cathrin Schaer

Why makeovers are so good for you - and so bad.

Marilyn Monroe was a master of self-reinvention. Photo / AP
Marilyn Monroe was a master of self-reinvention. Photo / AP

Seriously though, isn't it always the best bit? That moment when the unfit, badly dressed, uncool candidate emerges at the end of the show. And, thanks to stylists, surgeons, self-determination and sometimes some sort of pseudo-magical intervention, that person is now toned, good-looking, beautifully dressed and one of the hippest hipsters in the hip part of town.

If you kept watching after that, then obviously the star of the show goes on to be happier, healthier, more loved and more successful - as is, in the tradition of Cinderella stories everywhere, only appropriate.

It is true that the makeover holds a special place in many of our hearts. Though "makeover" is probably not the best word for it; let's call it your average "transformative tale" instead.

And transformative tales don't just appear on our television screens during prime time. They can be read in books, seen at the movies, witnessed in magazines - anywhere, in fact, that a hopeful narrative can make an appearance. They include everything from the oft-told fairy tale of Cinderella to Olivia Newton-John's metamorphosis from nerd to hot-rod chic in Grease, to renovating your home and the fortunate change in British singer Susan Boyle's unfortunate wardrobe.

But what is the attraction? Deep down, is it that all of us secretly identify with the makeover-ees and want to be transformed too? Or could it be that it is just basic human nature to always want a change, to wish for the greener grass on the other side?

After all, makeover stories have been around almost as long as we have. While most of us know Cinderella as one of the fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, the origins of the tale can be traced back to ancient Greece circa 1BC and even ancient China, where hapless Cinders was known as Rhodopis and Ye Xian, respectively. And even though the frightening American plastic surgery makeover show, The Swan, co-opted it recently, the story of the ugly duckling that turns into a beautiful bird was first written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1843.

Historical real life transformations are also well-documented. Queen Elizabeth I cut off her hair, whitened her skin and changed from an ordinary woman into an untouchable, ruffle-clad monarch. Doomed French queen Marie Antoinette was actually "made over" by her Austrian family so that she would be more attractive to sophisticated French courtiers. Among other things, Marie Antoinette - formerly archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Hapsburg von Lothringen - had her hair styled differently and her teeth straightened. She was probably pleased about the name change too.

The makeover, as we know it this century, started in the 1920s, an adjunct of the newborn and rapidly evolving beauty industry. For the first time, advertisements for face powder and skin cream boasted that they would give lucky users "a new complexion".

In 1936, the first recorded reader makeover in publishing history appeared in Mademoiselle, a US-based magazine. A reader, a nurse called Barbara, had written in, saying that she was as "homely as a hedgehog" and wanted to make the most of herself. The magazine obliged with an article called - you guessed it - "Cinderella".

A few years later, in 1945, America television and radio channel NBC kicked off makeovers with a show called Queen for a Day. Women would tell the show's host why they would like to be queen for a day - often their stories were sad - and if they won, they would be "transformed", with the help of a regal outfit. They'd also have the wishes they'd made for, say, household equipment or special assistance for a sick child, fulfilled.

A few years later, in the early 1950s, NBC came up with another show, Glamour Girl, where, as Marsha Cassidy writes in What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s, "contestants were treated to a makeover by Mary Webb Davis, beauty consultant to the stars". Makeovers, Cassidy writes, saw the emergence of a new sort of femininity that was inextricably linked to "the opulence of 1950s' consumer products". Makeovers were also seen as a sort of redemption, she adds.

Sociologist Dr Tania Lewis, a senior research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne and author of the 2009 book, TV Transformations: Revealing the Makeover Show, says there is a strong link between the rise of the makeover "and the post-war rise of a mass consumer culture. This is when consumer culture really begins to sell consumers the idea that they can transform their lives and themselves with commodities," she explains.

Modern makeover television started properly in the mid-1990s and actually kicked off with residential overhauls, of the kind seen on British television series, Changing Places. That programme became Trading Places in the US and, before we knew it, we were being told what not to wear, getting the queer eye, pimping our rides, looking good naked and 10 years younger, taking advice from super-nannies and trying to make children eat more healthily. Oh yes, and being put off having cosmetic surgery after seeing the grossest close-ups of liposuction and dental reconstruction ever.

Even shows that are ostensibly not about transformation include unmissable makeover episodes. After all, there are not many viewers who don't enjoy seeing all those gawky teenagers in New Zealand's Next Top Model emerge from the hairdresser's, minus the gumboots and jandals. Same goes for our local pop idols. In fact, television audience research has shown that the last 15 minutes of every makeover show get the highest ratings.

All of that activity has also been reflected in real life - the lifestyle specialist has moved from the fringes of popular culture into a starring role. And there seem to be more stylists, colour consultants, interior designers, nutritionists, life coaches, personal trainers, de-clutterers, deportment teachers, etiquette experts and other folks we can pay for Cinderella-style services, than ever before.

Plus there are innumerable numbers of magazines, supplements and books that base their content on the idea that ongoing transformation is the key to happiness.

And sociologists have something interesting to say about all of that. Those who have looked into the modern makeover believe that it's reflection of our changing communities. Lewis writes that: "Central to makeover-oriented culture ... is the idea that we as individuals can be reduced down to a mappable set of 'problems' that can be addressed ... and, in turn, can be made 'better' through the makeover process."

Lewis feels that our everyday lives have become a kind of giant self-help project with everyone continuously looking for ways to empower themselves and to live better lives.

"Our bodies - like our houses and land - have become a personal capital, to be invested in, worked and improved. It's all about managing your assets," one columnist has written.

And there are further theories as to why we all like a transformative tale. For one thing, it's about the democratisation of beauty. "The popularity of television shows like Extreme Makeover ... point to a widespread fantasy that beauty is a commodity to be acquired by the many, rather than a cosmic gift mysteriously granted to the elect," Rebecca Mead wrote in a story about cosmetic surgery published in respected American current affairs weekly The New Yorker. Basically, she writes, we've been led to believe that we can all be beautiful, if we just put in a little more effort.

It must be said, too, that this kind of self-improvement-and-empowerment fits perfectly with that lovely American fantasy: that anyone can start off with a dollar and end up president of the United States.

"The focus increasingly is on people managing their own lives - often through accessing private services - this shift has been described as the rise of the consumer-citizen," Lewis explains.

All of which better explains why we have recently seen so much making-over in current popular culture and why we like it. But that doesn't account for the history. Could it be that it's just basic human nature to enjoy these kinds of stories?

"I don't know that it's human nature," Lewis replies. "I think the idea of transformation means different things to different cultures at different times. But I do think the word 'progress' is central for Euro-American societies," she says referring to modern preoccupation with bigger and better.

But hang on, because there's a problem inherent in all that: Because in continuously deciding that we'd like to be made over, we are also deciding that there's always something wrong - even when, just maybe, there isn't.

Australian cultural studies scholar Dr Meredith Jones, the author of Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, says makeover shows are one of the things that "tell us we are always ripe for renovation, we always need to be improved".

But there has been some backlash against the makeover recently, especially when it comes to unhealthy or dramatic transformations: At a conference in Sydney recently Jones wondered whether the newest royal, Kate Middleton, would change as much as Prince William's mother, Princess Diana, had. She didn't think so. And then of course, there's Michael Jackson.

Then again, c'mon people, there's really no need to be so serious. After all makeovers are basically fairy tales for adults. You know, if you do these things to change your life, then you'll get that lover, that job, that house or that car you really, really want. These days, you get to be your own fairy godmother.

And honestly, what's wrong with a good old-fashioned fairy tale - especially one that involves hope, optimism and the promise of love and happiness?

And there's nothing wrong with getting off the couch and making some healthy choices either - or, even if you're staying on the couch, being more aware of those healthy choices.

The most important thing about transformative tales, according to Catherine Orenstein, the American author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, "is to examine the myths that drive us so that in some way we can be freed by them - or at least be free to interpret them in the ways we find most useful".

So instead, rather than wondering why you're enjoying that makeover story so much, maybe what we should be contemplating is the nature of the happy ending. Will your happy ending depend solely on what clothes you can buy or the latest skin cream? Or will it depend on something a little deeper, that is also - just maybe - a little more lasting, a little more worthwhile?

Makeovers of note

1914 Charlie Chaplin develops the persona that would make him famous.

1945 Norma Jean Baker dies her hair blond and changes her name to Marilyn Monroe.

1964 My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) gets posh.

1968 Vidal Sassoon gives Mia Farrow a short haircut.

1972 David Bowie's many ch-ch-changes, starting with Ziggy Stardust.

1986 Molly Ringwald at the end of Pretty in Pink.

1986 Michael Jackson is diagnosed with lupus. Eventually admits to having had up to 10 surgical procedures.

1990 Julia Roberts goes shopping in Pretty Woman.

Mid-1990s Princess Diana, from pudgy Sloane to style icon.

1994 The Spice Girls are the first pop idols to get a makeover.

1997 Courtney Love leaves grunge behind, wears Versace to the Oscars.

2000 Spanx underwear hits the market. Other slimming knickers make for similar transformations.

2004 Oprah, Kirstie Alley and, in 2005, Peter Jackson start losing weight.

2003 Arnold Schwarzenegger, from muscle man to Governor.

2006 Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta turns into - ta-dah! - Lady Gaga. And just keeps changing.

2011 Willie Nelson cuts his hair off.

- NZ Herald

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