It's What's on the Outside That Counts | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

It's What's on the Outside That Counts 

Trying not to throw up at the Chicago Esteem Makeover. Plus: backstage with (but mostly without) Velvet Revolver.

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So you think there's a good person inside of you just dying to come out, but your ugly facade won't let it? If you're smart you might see a shrink about that. But thanks in part to shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan--the most evil TV show the scientists at Fox have ever concocted--you're probably just as likely to call a plastic surgeon.

Contestants on The Swan, after erasing all traces of their unwanted selves and emerging as Frankenstein Barbies, with new boobs, tummies, teeth, eyes, noses, thighs, cheeks, chins, and hair, are eased back into society by being immediately judged on how well they've transformed. The winner on each episode later gets to be judged further in a beauty pageant at the end of the season.

This summer the Sun-Times ran an ad looking for people who wanted a free Swan-style overhaul by the Chicago Esteem Makeover Team, a group of plastic surgeons, nutrition and fitness experts, dentists, and ophthalmologists, plus a hairstylist and a wardrobe person, looking to localize a little of that good PR. "This is not another reality television show!" the Web site insists. "This is real life!" So is this, from a selection of factoids on the site: "Since 1997, there has been a 293% increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures performed."

Out of the 100 or so applicants who were called in for a meet-and-greet, the team picked two winners, DeAnna Lee and Josh Romph. "The team was most interested in finding one man and woman who really deserved the makeover," publicist Alisa Bey e-mailed me, "someone who had done so much for others that they had forgotten to take care of themselves (like DeAnna) or someone (like Josh) who struggled since childhood with low self-esteem and overwhelming feelings of sadness/depression due to the way he looked."

Lee, a 41-year-old African-American woman, described herself in a letter to the team as the mother of three sons, one of whom was recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She wrote that she was sexually abused as a child, experiences bouts of depression, had lost a child to SIDS, and had tried dieting to shed her extra 60 pounds with little success.

"I'm a very giving person, thoughtful, honest, always there for others," she pleaded. "This makeover would be a once in a lifetime chance for me. I would consider it a huge blessing from GOD."

Romph's letter was similarly heartbreaking. At age 24, he wrote, he weighed 275 "on a good day." Kids picked on him for being fat, comparing him to the "ugly retarded man" from The Goonies. "Without a lot of money, I'm stuck with what I look like," he wrote. "I want to be the cute, fit and funny guy that I know I can be."

On November 15, Chicago Esteem Makeover threw a coming-out party for Lee and Romph at Galleria Marchetti in River West. Family members and friends of the team, well-coiffed and dressed in business casual, snacked on delicate pizzas, bruschetta, and meaty little hors d'oeuvres under a giant white tent.

I recognized salespeople from Jolie Joli, a six-year-old boutique that moved from Southport to Damen a year ago--I occasionally shop there but won't admit it to my friends because they'd make fun of me for spending so much money on clothes. I asked to sit with them and they kindly made room. Gina Kulbieda, the owner, was the makeover team's wardrobe lady; she donated a couple versatile outfits to Lee and Romph and imparted some knowledge about how to pick out clothes for their body types.

I couldn't hide my disgust. "I guess if I were ugly," I told Kulbieda, "I'd do anything to make it better. But seriously, why would you want to be a part of something like this?" She immediately put me in my place. "I don't think these people are ugly," she said. "They just want a change." Then she told me she joined the team because Dr. Rodger Wade Pielet, one of the plastic surgeons, was a friend. "It was fun to bring them out of their shells," she said, adding that she thinks it's great "when someone's willing to get creative with their dress--especially if they never had the means before."

Each esteem team member gave a little speech about his or her business and what it did for two souls in need. When Pielet and the other surgeon, Michael Epstein, came out, the DJ played a snippet of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves, and a few big-breasted, big-lipped, taut-faced women rose to their feet as the crowd whooped. The doctors presented a slide show of what they'd done to Lee and Romph, complete with gory before and gorgeous after photos.

Lee, they explained, got a new nose plus face and brow lifts. They showed a photo of her floppy breasts and her belly, which as a result of a previous surgery looked a little like another, bigger pair of boobs. They talked about reducing and lifting her breasts and the liposuction they did in multiple areas. Romph got pretty much the same treatment--including breast reduction--and the doctors marveled at how they'd been able to remove the bump on his schnoz without having to make an incision inside. When they explained how they'd set his ears back "because they leaned a little too far forward," I was able to keep my pizza down by taking big gulps of wine.

Then it was time to unveil the beautiful new members of our fucked-up superficial society. The DJ cued Olivia Newton-John's "Magic," and Lee and Romph walked out together. Everyone stood up and pushed forward, craning to see.

Lee came out with big perky breasts, a giant smile, and beautiful skin; a gorgeous gold silk skirt showed off her trimmer waistline, and she was wearing a Marc Jacobs ivory cashmere cardigan I'd had my eye on. Both her nose and her lips looked smaller, and her hair had been straightened, smoothed, and blown out--to give her a more "marketable" look, said hairstylist Andreas Zafiriadis.

Romph, dressed in a striped shirt and trousers, was slimmer and his Ted Kaczynski beard was gone. Beaming, he thanked the team members personally and profusely. Several audience members clasped their hands to their hearts, their eyes welling up with tears. "Now let's go have dessert!" said Romph.

Though conceptually wretched, the one thing The Swan has in its favor is the employ of therapists and life coaches. The Chicago Esteem Makeover Team had neither. You've got to wonder how long a new body can trick the same old brain.

"Say herpes!" said Slash, posing backstage at the Allstate Arena with seven tittering women. The flash went off, and another round of giggles erupted.

One of my housemates is a wardrobe lady for Velvet Revolver, and somehow she managed not only to get 20 of her friends into last Sunday's show for free but also to set up a private party room for us backstage. A dozen of us met up at my house for a few shots of Jack Daniel's, then drove to the show together in a van, blasting Contraband to psych ourselves up.

After we picked up our VIP passes a security guard whisked us to our room: an expansive cream-painted plot with a couple plastic-covered banquet tables and overstuffed leather couches, illuminated by an overabundance of fluorescent light. No booze, no band.

After about ten minutes of making awkward conversation, trying not to seem like ingrates, five of us accompanied my housemate onto the crew bus. We poured some vodka and whiskey into plastic cups, took a bottle of cranberry juice and some cans of Coke, and squirreled away a few Coors Lights in our purses, then headed inside to ration out the loot.

A few minutes later my housemate took a slightly larger gaggle of girlfriends down into her workroom, where we geeked out over a pile of T-shirts the band might possibly wear someday and a giant black wardrobe case that still bore, in faint white lettering, the name JOHN OATES. "Hang on," my housemate said, and returned with Slash's famous top hat with the miniature concha belt trim. We took turns vamping in it.

Meanwhile, our friends upstairs in the party room had shut off the lights and built a fort out of the furniture, propping up one table on a shorter one to make a ramp and using it as a beer luge, pouring some Coors down the nasty plastic tablecloth for someone to suck up at the end.

Then Slash walked into the wardrobe room, and we all immediately lost any composure we might've had left. In truth, I could give a shit about Velvet Revolver, but at 12 I was such a Guns N' Roses fan I named the family dog Axl. There's something about being in the presence of a famous person from your preteen years that makes you regress to that point in your life. We laughed at every single word the man said--even though, this being 21st-century Slash, all we talked about was the weather.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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