The Learning Channel (TLC) comes on like a bossy best friend -- clucking over your curtains with disapproval, pointing out your flab, making you watch her birthing video. She's insufferable and doesn't understand the meaning of "too much information," but the combination of tough love and shared intimacy hooks you every time.
To fulfill the intimacy part of the equation, TLC's "Life Unscripted" programming showcases a staggering array of transformative events -- liposuction, weddings, babies, house makeovers, people makeovers. But many of these potentially sappy moments are given a campy, bitchy, drag queen-turned-fairy godmother touch. With this magic formula, TLC has softened some of the sadomasochism inherent in much of "reality" television, while leaving just enough bite. Yes, I can make you beautiful, the Rupaulian godmother might say, but only if I get to trash you first and gloat in my own fabulousness.
TLC's latest offering, What Not to Wear, has distilled this essence to its purest form, and it's delicious stuff. Upping the cruelty quotient, the show picks fashion victims who've been nominated by their friends and family for a complete style makeover. Colluding with the "loved ones," the show's producers tape the unwitting subject and later show the footage to the resident hyenas, I mean, fashion consultants Wayne Scot Lukas and Stacy London.
Like a number of TLC's hits -- including Trading Spaces -- What Not to Wear is based on a British production. The show's premiere last week featured 29-year-old personal assistant Eileen Malvesti aka "Boston's biggest frump." Malvesti is captured at her baggy worst, wearing lots of beige, vomit colors and unflattering shapes. Her family and friends are merciless, despite being none too fashionable themselves. (Sister Nora, for example, does an outstanding impersonation of a female impersonator.)
Lukas and London are even more evil. They, too, have questionable fashion judgment -- Lukas with his Michael Bolton locks and London with a collection of frilly blouses in screeching colors. Nevertheless, as the show's style mavens, they get to take everyone else apart. Lukas makes a slam-dunk series of comparisons about Malvesti: Marilyn Manson makeup, Harry Potter glasses, Martha Dumptruck pleated pants. London lets fly with an "oy vey" before deciding that innocent Malvesti has a "paper bag" fashion sense -- "shapeless, dumpy, frumpy."
But it's once Lukas and London actually come face to face with Malvesti that the show really kicks into high gear. They shove her into a specially designed 360-degree mirror chamber after she's donned one of her ugly outfits. Malvesti's suit coat is "baby-diarrhea brown," says Lukas, and made for someone "four sizes bigger, four times uglier. And maybe a man." Malvesti brought along her whole wardrobe; Lukas and London throw the entire thing in the trash.
Now that they've completely torn Malvesti down, it's time to build something new. They give her numerous fashion tips -- a cardigan to "open you up," for example. Other items, each greeted with a gratingly annoying "Hel-lo," will "bring you out, bring you up." All of this is done with noble aims -- to give Malvesti some personality in the way she dresses and to stop her from trying to hide her body with oversized clothes that only make her look bulky.
So how does Lukas and London's Eliza Doolittle hold up? Remarkably well. With the video camera the show's producers have given her, Malvesti enacts a fake Blair Witch moment, the terrified eyeball rolling in fear. Later she isn't quite so punchy. "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," she says of the process. And this is before her second day, a marathon shopping session armed with $5,000 and the consultants' admonishments. A hairstylist joins the fray, calling Malvesti's hair a "pretty bad disaster." A makeup artist is the last to pile on, describing Malvesti's makeup as "corpse-ish" and "streetwalker" -- perfect for a dead body on CSI or Law & Order, perhaps.
The end result is quite amazing: Malvesti has been transformed from a dumpy woman into a strikingly attractive one. Her hair flatters her face, her clothes show off her figure. She manages to maintain her new look, too, while adjusting it to fit her lifestyle -- a win-win situation all around. "Change your look, change your clothes, change your life," is the tagline of the show, and while that might be overselling it a bit, What Not to Wear manages to take fashion -- often condemned for promoting women's body-image problems -- and make it a tool for celebrating individual personalities and body types. Despite all the takedowns she suffers, Malvesti looks happier at show's end, sexy and proud of her figure -- a not-so-small achievement for a former frump and for a show that could have simply led to sobbing and self-hatred.
Only future episodes will tell if What Not to Wear manages to keep this entertaining harmony between constructive and catty criticism. Malvesti was a fairly pliant subject; what will happen if the next one balks like a badly dressed mule? Or if Lukas and London cross the line and make someone cry? Or if someone hates his or her makeover? While a few such dramatic episodes might be fun, most will hopefully manage to find a place between the sadistic and the sartorially sublime. As Malvesti herself said, "The world is a 360-degree mirror; the world can be a torture chamber. And you know, you might as well look your best while you're going through it."
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.