- Objects of Love: I Want a Famous Face and the Illusions of Star Culture
In the spring of 2004, MTV posted a casting call on a number of websites, including plastic surgery discussion boards, asking young people who were planning to have plastic surgery in the image of a favorite celebrity to allow MTV to film their experience. This casting call culminated in the popular series I Want a Famous Face. The following was posted on the MTV website:
MTV I Want a Famous Face Looking for People to Share Their Stories
We are currently researching for the documentary series, MTV I Want a Famous Face. If you’ve already decided to have plastic surgery and are using a specific celebrity’s features as a template, are having multiple plastic surgery procedures during the summer of 2004, are between the ages of 18 and 28, and are willing to let MTV document your journey from the beginning of the process to the end, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that this is not a make-over show and MTV does not pay for your surgeries.
Also, if you’ve already had surgery and are not happy with the physical results, are not emotionally satisfied with how things turned out, or have plans to get your previous surgeries corrected—we would like to hear from you too. If you are willing to share your personal story with MTV and and will allow us to chronicle your experience, please contact us at email@example.com [End Page 33]
MTV successfully found volunteers for both categories—those with botched surgeries, as well as those in pursuit of favorite celebrity features. Significantly, unlike its network counterparts such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan, MTV simply “documented” the plastic surgery experiences but did not finance them. MTV was identifying and exploring a significant new trend in the history of celebrity identifications. The opening voiceover tells us: “Used to be people just checked out the rich and famous to see how to dress or cut their hair. But today, this infatuation with celebrity has reached a whole new level of obsession.” The relationship between star culture and cosmetic surgery has been a close one since the late nineteenth century, when actresses were already experimenting with plastic surgery to sustain their good looks.2 With the advent of screen actors whose images were circulated in movie theaters throughout the country, a fan culture emerged that included imitation of one’s favorite stars—from hairstyles and fashion to social manners. Even today, accounts of the movie stars’ exercise and diet rituals remain a staple of both women’s magazines and supermarket tabloids—despite our general awareness that those toned thighs and wrinkle-free faces are not just the result of diet and exercise, or even of genetics, for that matter.
The “outing” of the surgical secrets of the stars led first to curiosity and then, increasingly, to imitating the surgeries themselves, as plastic surgery has become both financially and ideologically available to the middle classes. Since the advent of the surgical-makeover program, where average-looking people are transformed over the course of an hour from plain to glamorous, plastic surgery in the United States has become more popular than ever. Extreme Makeover first aired in the winter of 2002, and the data provided by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reveal an astonishing increase in cosmetic procedures during that year: “From 2003–2004, there was a 44 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures. Surgical procedures increased by 17 percent, and nonsurgical procedures increased by 51 percent.”3
While plastic surgery was already on its way to going mainstream, there is no doubt that these primetime makeover programs have expedited [End Page 34] the process of normalization.4 In part, they do so by yoking plastic surgery to the discourse of self-improvement and, even more troubling, self-esteem and confidence. Plastic surgery is imported from the distant realm of the unimaginably famous or the absurdly wealthy into the kitchen, with how-to books and kindly doctors, as well as much conviction regarding the right of everyday...