Over the Knife

updated 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Hope Donahue's suburban New Jersey household isn't among the millions that regularly watch The Swan or Extreme Makeover. Once, when she accidentally caught one of their climactic "reveal" scenes, she felt herself weakening. "I couldn't stop watching," she says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I should go and get my nose done again.'"

Donahue, 36, first had her naturally pert nose tapered in 1990—and the self-described recovering plastic-surgery addict didn't stop there. Over the next five years, she fell $20,000 into debt and sold off jewelry to plump her lips, lift her eyes, sculpt her cheekbones and inflate her breasts. In her new book, Beautiful Stranger: A Memoir of an Obsession with Perfection, Donahue recounts her attraction to the scalpel and the sometimes shady doctors who wielded it. "I always thought that after the next surgery, I'd be happy," she says. "When I got beautiful enough, I'd be happy. But there was never an enough."

Her insecurities started early. Raised in L.A. by a banker father and a school-teacher mother, Donahue was a French and English major at USC, where the sorority scene was "all about looks, popularity, who's going to be in the swimsuit calendar," she says. "That's where I first encountered women at 19 having liposuction on their thighs."

When a college boyfriend left to teach in Japan, Donahue—then a pretty and fit 22-year-old—booked a date for a nose job. Why did he go? she recalls reasoning. "Obviously I wasn't good enough." As soon as the bandages were off, "I was thinking, 'I'd like to do cheekbones and lips.'" Seven months later, she got cheek implants and a Gore-Tex insert for her upper lip. Even mishaps didn't put her off the knife. After her lip implant poked out and caused a painful, infected lump, Donahue says she found a new doctor—her third—in the classifieds of a local lifestyle magazine. "Dr. S.," as she calls him in the book, wasn't board-certified, she says. Donahue came in for just a lip repair but left with an eye lift ("I was 23!"). She says Dr. S. often touched and kissed her even as he pointed out imperfections she could fix: "He made me feel I was the most special, beautiful woman in the world."

Her parents and friends tried to dissuade her from the operations. "I felt like burning all her beauty magazines," says longtime friend Suzette Tabor. "Telling her she didn't need any more surgery was like trying to convince an anorexic to eat a cheeseburger."

At 26, Donahue underwent her sixth plastic surgery—a disastrous breast enlargement by Dr. S. On the operating table, she asked," 'What size are you going to make me?' He said, 'Big.'" She went from a 34B to a 36D. "Right away scar tissue formed around the implants. They were incredibly painful," she says. "That was the last surgery I had with him."

But Donahue's obsession with her body took her to a new dark place. Unemployed, she answered an ad for models. "It turned out to be a pornographer," says Donahue. As she posed for a bondage photographer, at last, she says, "I saw what I was doing."

She took a receptionist job, where she met her husband, Ray, 43, a film and TV producer. They wed in 1994 and a year later welcomed the first of their four children. "When you have kids," she says, "there aren't enough hours in the day to obsess about me." But recovering has also meant years of therapy. A psychiatrist diagnosed body dysmorphic disorder, in which the sufferer fixates on a real or imagined defect, and prescribed Prozac: "It helped."

Still, Donahue says she's considering a breast lift to reverse the toll of nursing and the implants, which she had removed in 1996. "It would be perfect to say, 'I'm over that.' But I'm still working on it," she says. She's also working to instill healthy self-images in her kids. "People tell my daughter, 'You're so pretty.' I try to say, 'And she's really smart!' so she doesn't feel like 'pretty' is the only thing she can get attention for."

Allison Adato. Natasha Stoynoff in Whitehouse Station, N.J.

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