From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In some ways, the message seemed to be: Don't hate them because they're becoming beautiful. For seven weeks, 16 women with eggshell egos had laid themselves bare on FOX's surprise hit, The Swan—allowing cameras to document the gruesome brow lifts, liposuctions, breast jobs, teeth bleaching and gum surgeries (and, yes, the "life-coaching" and therapy sessions) that would change their lives. Hirsute and despondent about her prominent nose, Cindy Ingle had confessed, "I see myself as a witch." A timid Belinda Bessant had been encouraged to pound a punching bag bearing a photo of her brutish boyfriends, and an unhappy Kristy Garza had been excoriated for cheating on her 1,200-calorie diet.

Along the way, the women faced off against one another, with only nine going on to the competition; the rest were sent home, aesthetically enhanced but without a shot at the crown. So on May 24, when the survivors were pitted against one another in a grand-finale pageant—vogueing down a runway in gowns, swimsuits and, yes, lingerie—it was clear that the road from homely to "smokin'" (in the words of host Amanda Byram) had not been easy. Sequestered in an apartment complex in Marina Del Rey, Calif., aspiring Swans hadn't seen their husbands or children for four months. Allowed just three 10-minute phone calls each week, they were encouraged to "surrender to the process," in the words of Swan winner Rachel Love-Fraser, 27.

But just what kind of process was it? Even in the envelope-pushing world of reality TV, The Swan's promise of helping plain Janes slice and dice their way to beauty set off cultural shock waves. Critics called the show "ghastly" and dubbed the contestants "Brides of Frankenstein"; feminists labeled The Swan misogynistic, and plastic surgeons worried over the image it lent their profession. Many viewers couldn't help wondering if these would-be Swans couldn't look just as good with a few trips to the gym, a makeup lesson and a nice set of highlights. "When Extreme Makeover began, there was still the sense on that show that cosmetic surgery was about the correction of radical defects—the kinds of things you got teased about as a child," says Susan Bordo, a professor of women's studies at the University of Kentucky and author of Unbearable Weight, which explores women's body-image issues. (Her area of expertise: TV makeover shows.) "Now we've moved to reasonable-looking people seeking surgery to be transformed into totally new selves. That's a whole different kettle of fish."

Swan creator and executive producer Nely Galán shrugs off the criticism. "When I see a normal pageant like Miss USA, that's demoralizing because I can never aspire to that since I wasn't born beautiful," she says. "If I see Miss USA, I'm a short girl, I don't feel happy watching that. If I watch The Swan and I'm overweight and sitting at home and feeling like the pits, I'm inspired because anybody can be a Swan."

Maybe, but many women chosen for the show did seem to be on fragile emotional ground—and some experts worry that subjecting them to a competition based on their new looks only made them more vulnerable. "It's an emotionally high-pressure situation," says Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Peter Fodor, M.D., president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. With contestants undergoing as many as 20 procedures, "and doing it on national television, and as part of a contest—that adds unnecessary emotional trauma," he says. "Aesthetic surgery by itself can be a demanding experience—you have to get used to your new appearance. [Being judged] can add up to a less than satisfactory emotional outcome."

Others are more blunt. "They're doing a television show without consideration for the human beings involved," says one TV executive at a rival network. "Look at what they do: At the end of the show, [contestants have] gotten all this surgery, but they're still not quite good enough. How can that be healthy?"

The Swan's team of surgeons, counselors, cosmetic dentists and a trainer insist they gave the women all the support they needed. "If anything, I think everybody went through it emotionally with them," says trainer Greg Comeaux. "Half the time I would go home crying for them because they're away from their families. And then I would stop because I would think, 'They're stronger than I am.' They were brave human beings."

There's no question that the contestants are thrilled with their results. "Since I came back, everything has been so much better," says Dawn Goad, 33, a homemaker. "Now I smile all the time." Even Cristina Tyree, 27, an office administrator, who announced that she thought her husband should leave her because he deserved someone more attractive, conjured up some self-esteem. "I feel really pretty. I can actually look at myself in the mirror and like what I see," she says. "And my husband is thrilled. He never made me feel ugly; I did that to myself."

The women say the much criticized pageant actually boosted their confidence: "When I went out there in my bikini, this was a way for me to say, 'Hey, if I can get in front of all of you in a little itsy-bitsy bikini, I can do anything,' " says top Swan Rachel Love-Fraser (see box). "It was a lot of fun."

Still, some observers say that because contestants were under extreme stress, their high may not last. Just what was it like behind the scenes? Although voice-overs emphasized that contestants received extensive "life coaching" (from producer Galán) and counseling sessions from Lynn Ianni, Ianni didn't begin working with the women until after their major procedures were completed. Many of the women admit the isolation left them anxious and in tears. "There were little blowups," concedes Kristy Garza, 22, a homemaker. "Everyone was emotional and missing their families and going through this huge experience. There were moments of not wanting to be on the stupid TV show anymore." "Yeah, it was tough, but it's also hard being on Survivor" Galán responds. "That's too bad! On our show, you don't walk away with nothing, you walk away with $250,000 worth of services from day one. And that's the price you pay."

The show also sometimes glossed over the seriousness of the surgeries. Although they appeared to be done in one day, in actuality, facial and body surgeries were performed in separate sessions about three weeks apart. "If a patient had major face work and major body work, we split them into two stages," says Dr. Terry J. Dub row, who, with Dr. Randal Haworth, was on The Swan's cosmetic-surgery dream team. "We are board certified plastic surgeons. We're not going to do something stupid, particularly when it's on national television, you know what I mean? Safety was absolutely a No. 1 factor."

Nor, they say, did they foist any unwanted surgeries on their patients. "One of the criticisms that was levied against the show, too, was that we would just do these surgeries with these patients not comprehending what they were getting into," says Haworth. "In fact, most of the patients came in knowing that they had a certain physical complaint such as their nose. Then afterward, they would say, 'Well, Doc, what else would you do to make me look better?' So then I would look at them, analyze them and offer them a game plan."

Still, colleagues in the medical profession say the Swan's surgeons may have been all too ready to put contestants under the knife; they also wonder why 13 of the contestants needed breast enhancements and 16 got brow lifts—a procedure not usually done on younger patients. ("They had brow droop," retorts Haworth.) "Too many procedures are being done at once," says Dr. Ronald Moy, president of the American Society of Dermatological Surgeons. "As a dermatological surgeon, I'm on the less invasive side. These shows create the perception that a patient's appearance can be changed radically without risk. Risk in surgery goes up with multiple procedures and time under general anesthesia."

Or as model (and plastic surgery veteran) Janice Dickinson puts it: "Get a grip. The idea of the extreme makeover is disturbing." Dickinson, 49, who recently underwent a face-lift with Beverly Hills surgeon Dr. Frank H. Ryan, shudders: "People can die from these total makeovers. It's not something you should take lightly."

For her part, makeup artist Bobbi Brown believes that, in many cases, a swipe of blush and a flick of mascara could have done almost as much for the contestants. "This show is sending such a bad message to women—that something is wrong with what they look like and they need to go under the knife," she says. "Hey, if you don't like your body, what's wrong with exercising and eating right? If I could have gotten my hands on any of the girls, I would have said, 'Give me 12 weeks—let's go exercise, change your diet, do beautiful makeup and work on your self-esteem.' "

Until if s that simple, however, women who want to see more immediate results can look forward to The Swan 2. The series has been picked up for another season, and "there may be surprises coming soon," promises Galán. (Hint: Very average Joes are in luck.)

In the meantime, she says, her wedge of Swans is flying high: "I talk to them every week," she says. "The husbands are treating them like gold! Kelly Becker got engaged! And a lot of guys are pursuing them, so that's really fun."

Happily ever after? Stay tuned.

  • Contributors:
  • Carrie Bell,
  • Lauren Comander,
  • Alison Gee,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Marisa Laudadio,
  • Rebecca Paley,
  • Brenda Rodriguez,
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg.