‘The Swan’ Reality Series Was More Like a Horror Movie
The aughts had its share of reality shows, ranging from bizarre (Kid Nation) to majorly successful (American Idol) to even cruel (Fear Factor). But one reality TV show emerging in the middle of the decade combined all three of the aforementioned qualities to be perhaps the strangest, cruelest, yet oddly successful reality show of the decade: The Swan. The Swan promised to be a show unlike any other, and it makes good on that promise. It ran for two seasons on FOX from April 7 to December 20, 2004. Its premise was to take women who are “ugly ducklings,” sequester them for three months, all the while performing multiple plastic surgeries on them, subjecting them to a demanding exercise routine, and having them attend therapy sessions. It was a rating success, with an average of 9.1 million viewers.
‘The Swan’ Probably Should Have Never Hatched
If that doesn’t sound strange enough, just wait. Not only are they isolated from their friends and family for three months, allowing for only brief phone calls each week, but they also aren’t allowed to see themselves during the three-month period, which means they aren’t allowed to see the changes happening to them. All the mirrors they came in contact with were covered. At the end of the three months, their final transformation is revealed to them while the team responsible for their new appearance is with them. And after all of that, the two contestants (there were two makeovers per episode) had to “compete” against each other to see who would move on to The Swan Pageant. On the basis of how well they handled the recovery from the multiple operations to their dedication to diet and exercise during the three months and to how receptive they were to the therapy they received, one was deemed worthy to continue onto the pageant while the other was eliminated. At the pageant, nine “swans” competed for the crown as they were required to strut the stage in lingerie and swimwear.
Needless to say, the show was controversial even during its era. The backlash was immediate. USA TODAY said of the show, “Hurtful and repellent even by reality’s constantly plummeting standards, The Swan is proof that the genre’s hucksters have no built-in boundaries. They will plumb ever lower depths until the market, or the courts, stops them.”
There’s so much to dissect with The Swan. It was harsh in that after women had extensive plastic surgery done on them in such a short amount of time, they were then expected to keep up with demanding exercise routines that would keep them in the gym for two hours a day six days a week. If they were unable to keep up with the exercise, Nely Galán, the show’s creator, executive producer, and “life coach,” would berate them. She criticized one contestant for ordering cream cheese during her time on the show, telling her that she’d be a tub if she were to continue eating a tub of cream cheese.
What Is Said In Therapy Stays Between the Patient and Their Therapist…and a Country
The therapy segments have been one of the most criticized aspects of The Swan. Therapist, Lynn Ianni, would speak to each contestant, asking them probing questions and having them divulge personal trauma on national television. All the contestants brought some form of trauma with them to the show. One was the victim of a house fire that left her with visible scars, there was a widow reeling from losing her husband, and another was served divorce papers during her participation on the show. One of the cornerstones of therapy is that it allows privacy for someone to share with their clinician, knowing that what they tell their therapist will be held in confidentiality. But televised therapy removes that barrier and makes vulnerable people even more vulnerable by exposing their trauma to the world for entertainment value. While the entire show was an emotional ride for contestants, the therapy sessions were perhaps the most concerning part of a concerning show in that women had to speak about their pain on television. If the contestants were more withholding during their sessions, they would often be criticized for it later. Some of the contestants didn’t proceed to The Swan Pageant because they wouldn’t be as open during their therapy sessions. Another contestant didn’t make it to the pageant because she wasn’t able to recover from a lifetime of pain in the three-month period.
This is one of the most ridiculous aspects of the show in that people were expected to make strides in their wellbeing when in actuality that process can take years, and certainly shouldn’t be expected to be completed within a matter of a few months. The adage, “There’s no such thing as a free meal,” feels painfully accurate in the case of The Swan in that while they didn’t have to pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery they receive, they did have to reveal their deepest hurts on national television for the sake of entertaining strangers.
‘The Swan’ Wasn’t One of a Kind
But The Swan wasn’t standalone in its time. Extreme Makeover, airing on ABC from 2002 to 2007 for four seasons, also had a similar premise to The Swan’s. However, there were notable differences. On Extreme Makeover the contestants were men and women, and they were able to give more directions as to what they would like changed about their appearance. On The Swan, a team consisting of a plastic surgeon(s), cosmetic dentist, personal trainer, therapist, and Nely Galàn would make the decisions as to what physical transformation the contestants would undergo. Extreme Makeover would allow its participants to see themselves during the process, unlike The Swan. There also weren’t the exploitative therapy sessions present in Extreme Makeover. Although the contestants on Extreme Makeover each had a story that made them easy to sympathize with, they, fortunately, weren’t required to reveal their deepest hurts to their personhood for the sake of viewer engagement. Their grand reveals were held in front of their loved ones, not the team responsible for their new looks. Also, Extreme Makeover didn’t have a pageant that contestants would compete in, so there’s that.
This isn’t to say that Extreme Makeover wasn’t also controversial. It received many of the criticisms that The Swan had, but since it didn’t have some of the harsher elements that were present in The Swan, it’s often spared the same level of condemnation. Perhaps the most lasting thing about Extreme Makeover is its spinoff, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has had a far larger footprint on television.
In the aughts, plastic surgery was changing in cultural reception. Nip/Tuck, which first aired in 2003 for six seasons till 2010, was yet another show centered around plastic surgery. The show focused on two Miami-based plastic surgeons as they encountered a slew of interesting situations through their practice. The show inspired the creation of Dr. 90210, which centered on plastic surgery in the wealthy suburbs of Beverly Hills. As evidenced by the shows of that era, plastic surgery was becoming more accepted.
A Plastic Surgeon Reacts
Plastic surgeon and YouTube personality, Dr. Anthony Youn, expressed concerns about The Swan when he viewed it for his channel. Upon his review, he was concerned that a contestant was receiving plastic surgery when she was clearly grieving the loss of her husband in her intro package. He stated that grief isn’t a great time to go under the knife. Dr. Youn also expressed concern with how many operations the contestant was receiving in such a short amount of time as it could be dangerous. He felt the show manipulated contestants and that the people brought on to the show had profound psychological issues that required longer than the three months they were on The Swan to work through. He also felt the show didn’t view contestants holistically but instead as the sum of multiple operations.
Somehow ‘The Swan’ Wasn’t the Meanest Show of the Decade
Many understandably crown The Swan as the worst reality show of the decade. But there’s still one that might be even crueler. Are You Hot? ran for one short season on ABC. In it, a celebrity panel of judges would evaluate contestants solely on their appearance. It was as harsh as it sounds. The first round would require a contestant to stand on stage in front of the judges and an audience while the judges chose “hot” or “not.” If there were deemed “hot,” they’d continue on to the next round while the “not”s were eliminated. In the second round, contestants had to stand before the judges in swimwear while the judges picked apart what they did and didn’t like about a contestant’s appearance. Judge Lorenzo Lamas once used a laser pointer on a contestant’s leg to point out that her legs had too much of a gap for his liking. The show would eventually narrow down to who it believed was the hottest man and woman in the country. Are You Hot? Was unapologetically mean. Unlike The Swan, there was no contrived contempt to somehow convey that the show was helping people.
Plastic Surgery Is Complicated
Plastic surgery has a complicated place in society. Some people feel that having plastic surgery has affected their lives for the better, while others have regretted the decision to change their features. It’s complicated and personal. Season 2 contestant of The Swan, Lorrie Arias felt her participation on the show led to her subsequent depression and body dysmorphia. But others have said that they are grateful for having been on The Swan. Season 1 contestant Cindy Ingle felt that her being on the show has led to positive changes in her life and doesn’t feel it harmed her in any way. Rachel Love, who won the first season, also feels that her participation in the show had a positive impact on her.
Someone deciding to change their appearance is a deeply personal choice. And like many things in life, it’s nuanced and lives in the gray, outside the black and white we like to funnel many issues into. But someone’s decision and journey to change their appearance should solely be done for themselves, not for ratings and especially not a crown.