Extreme Makeover (ABC, 2002–7) was a reality TV makeover program, where subjects who considered themselves to be ugly submitted a videotape that detailed their facial and bodily flaws in hopes of being flown to Hollywood for an extensive makeover. Because Extreme Makeover capitalized on rewarding those people whose stories of suffering and hardship were the bleakest, it has often been compared to Queen for a Day, a radio and TV program that began in the 1950s and featured ordinary housewives who had experienced financial hardships telling their sad stories in exchange for gifts and prizes.
The extreme of Extreme Makeover came from the fact that both male and female subjects received upward of 10 different plastic surgery procedures (including tummy tucks, breast enhancements, chin implants, facial recontouring, rhinoplasties, brow lifts, and face lifts), cosmetic dentistry, physical training, and hair and wardrobe restyling. All of these costly interventions were given to participants for free. During the course of their extreme makeovers, subjects experienced their transformations in isolation periods of roughly six to eight weeks, each episode ending with an elaborate reveal ceremony that reunited the makeover recipient with his or her always enthusiastic family and friends. Reveal moments were often staged as red-carpet events, and subjects frequently spoke of feeling like a celebrity.
Though all participants underwent major surgical procedures, screen time devoted to healing was relatively nonexistent. As a consequence, Extreme Makeover generated considerable attention, drawing criticism for its often gratuitous depiction of plastic surgery as virtually a pain-free, cost-free, and consequence-free aesthetic choice, here represented as a necessary form of wellness surgery. Recipients, roughly 75 percent of whom were women, spoke with gratitude about their makeovers, suggesting that they were now worthy of both love and heterosexual romance in ways that their former appearance (and consequent low self-esteem) had blocked.
The show on occasion also drew praise for the manner in which it allowed subjects to proactively claim conventional articulations of beauty and thus to capitalize on the cultural currency attaching to beautiful faces and bodies. Subjects on the show very often spoke of their transformations as the best thing they had ever experienced, a dream come true, or the release of a real self. Although these experiences have clearly been edited by the show’s producers for dramatic effect, the feelings of joy and relief seemed to resonate with a wider viewing audience.
Extreme Makeover initially aired to high ratings and gave rise to two spin-off programs: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition, both on ABC. Extreme Makeover also led the crest of other reality TV plastic surgery makeover programs, including The Swan (Fox), I Want a Famous Face (MTV), Brand New You (BBC), Dr. 90210 (E!), and Miami Slice (Bravo). It continues to air in the United States on the Style Network as well as on cable outlets across the world in such countries as Australia, Spain, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Mexico, Norway, and the Philippines.