Beautiful Dreamers

Beautiful Dreamers
"It still feels great to look beautiful," says Rachel (left, before, and after). "Now it's like, 'Okay, I'll throw this on, put a little makeup on, and here I go.' I don't feel people are staring at me negatively anymore."
Larsen & Talbert

05/27/2004 AT 12:00 PM EDT

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.

Beautiful Dreamers| The Swan

Among the many procedures The Swan contestants had, (from left) Marnie underwent lip injections and a chin lift, Kelly A. had LASIK eye surgery and Belinda had breast reduction.

Robert Voets / FOX

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."

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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."

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