Must be seen: Viewers are mad about makeovers

Donna's adult daughters loved their 47-year-old mom, but they were embarrassed to be seen with her. She dressed in what she called "vintage Marshall's" and they called just plain tacky: a Halloween sweater vest with pumpkins on a picket fence, a too-short bolero jacket, a 1980s silk blouse inherited from her own mother.

No more. Her daughters enlisted The Learning Channel's makeover show, "What Not to Wear," to give their mother a more sophisticated look. Two stylists, a Manhattan shopping trip, a star hairdresser, and a top makeup artist later, Donna was glowing with pleasure. "I feel special," she said, blinking back tears.

From faces to family rooms, TV viewers are mad about makeovers. TLC's room-makeover show "Trading Spaces" is consistently among the week's top cable shows, with 2.5 to 6 million viewers on Saturday nights and reruns every afternoon. NBC has launched a Saturday morning "Trading Spaces" for kids, and TLC just added a family version to its lineup.

Flip channels at any time of the day or night, and you'll probably find an aesthetic expert redesigning someone or something: a house facade and front yard on Home & Garden Television's "Curb Appeal," a teen's room on MTV's "Crib Crashers," a couple's hair and clothing on TLC's "A Makeover Story."

Stylists on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" recently gave Coretta Scott King a new look, demonstrating that even an icon needs an occasional update and the professional help to achieve it.

Bravo just debuted the frankly-titled "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," in which five gay style experts give personal and room makeovers to heterosexual schlubs all to help the straight guys impress the ladies.

Forget the self-made man or woman. Today's fantasy is not just a new-and-improved life but the entourage of experts to make it happen. In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes and have the red-carpet stylists to make us shine.

"It's exciting to have important people do stuff for you," said a nurse from rural Arkansas on ABC's "Extreme Makeover." Her transformation included not only Lasik and cosmetic surgery, but shopping for a wedding gown with help from a fashion editor.

Predictably, the critics have roared their disapproval. "The decorating these shows espouse is ghastly, an apoplexy of unsuitable handicrafts run riot,'" sniffed William Norwich, entertaining editor of The New York Times Magazine. When "Extreme Makeover" first aired, Times critic Caryn James called it "mutilation as entertainment."

Critics see in these shows what they see in all questions of style: pathetic jockeying for status. As they turn up their (untouched) noses, they are jockeying back. "Trading Spaces," to a snooty urbanite like Washington Post wag Hank Steuver, "is about human insecurity."

The critics are missing the point about the shows and about style itself. Status is a side issue. Makeovers are about aesthetic pleasure and the thrill of having skilled experts help you achieve it.

The shows are subversive. They challenge two different orthodoxies: the Puritan conviction that appearance is nothing but a vain, shallow concern, and the design-elite belief that good taste is an absolute, which the participants will never have.

By contrast, makeover shows take a common-sense approach to style. Appearance matters, they say, even though appearance isn't the most important thing in life. We want our exteriors to reflect who we are. This means that good people deserve a chance to look good and to enjoy nice things.

In effect, these are TV's kinder, gentler reality shows. While prime-time reality programs like "Survivor," "Fear Factor," or "American Idol" put unusual people in strange situations, makeover shows celebrate the ordinary. On these shows, average folks see people who look and live like they do. The participants have the undramatic jobs and live in the mass-produced suburban houses you never see on network TV.

Makeover shows treat their protagonists not as freaks or losers but as admirable people who deserve more beauty in their lives. Recent subject have been a great boss who dresses like a slob, a recent widow who neglected her looks while caring for her disabled husband, a woman who volunteers for every good cause and never buys new clothes, and, of course, countless devoted spouses and parents.

On TLC's "While You Were Out," family members surprise a homeowner with a redecorated room or redesigned backyard. When the host asks why they wanted to give the person that makeover, the response is always that the recipient is a wonderful person. A husband says his wife is a devoted mother who spends all day taking care of the kids, so he wants her to have an oasis of her own. A daughter says her mother is always doing nice things for other people, so she wants to give her a special treat. A wife says her husband is always surprising her with loving gestures, so she wants to do something great for him.

In other words, a makeover is a reward for virtue. People who love you want you to have an aesthetically happy life. Makeover shows affirm the desire for pleasure and self-improvement without turning appearance into a new form of tyranny. They acknowledge that making people and places look good is a skill that can be learned.

Even "What Not to Wear" ultimately has a can-do, self-affirming message. With the right clothes, haircut, and makeup, it suggests, anyone can look gorgeous. The stylists temper their snarkiest comments with praise for the subject's personal qualities and natural beauty. "It's about having a foundation in who you are and being pretty at your size and believing that you're great," says one.

The shows do thrive on tension but the tension arises not from any sense of personal failure, but from the conflict between self-expression and aesthetic expertise.

Every episode of "What Not to Wear" features at least one act of aesthetic rebellion an assertion of personal identity against the stylists' good taste.

"My God, this is gorgeous," declares Donna, picking up a white cardigan decorated with Christmas trees. "This is me. It screams me. They threw my ice-skating sweater in the garbage, but this sweater screams 'Ho, ho, ho.' It's Christmas. It's me. And," she adds defiantly, "it's going in my suitcase.'"

In an infamous "Trading Spaces" episode, an artsy-craftsy couple had great fun decorating a country-style den for their friends, only to return home to a chocolate-brown, sleekly contemporary living room. Their beloved brick fireplace had been covered with a white wood facade. The new room was beautiful, and completely inappropriate. The woman ran off camera, sobbing inconsolably.

"It's just not us," said her husband.

Makeover shows remind viewers that "I like that" is inevitably intertwined with "I'm like that." It's OK to care about our looks, because they're part of who we are.

Virginia Postrel is an economics columnist for The New York Times. Her book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, will be published by HarperCollins.