It's hellish hard to stop gazing at Cindy Jackson in a rudely direct manner - not just because she's a strikingly pretty woman, but because you're looking for the joins. When you're about to meet someone dubbed "Britain's most surgically altered woman", you don't expect to be impressed. You've met Joan Rivers and seen the way her eyes seem yanked up towards her temples by invisible hooks. You've encountered actresses with odd stitching marks beside their ears. You know women friends who've put three fingers of both hands on their cheeks, pushed the skin back a millimetre ("It wouldn't be a face-lift, you see - just a little tweak") and looked instantly deranged. You are not a big fan of cosmetic surgery.
Ms Jackson, though, is a special case. You peer at the woman before you in a demure black suit and stripy matelot T-shirt, you inspect her clear eyes, her generous mouth, her heart-shaped chin, and you're damned if you can find a touch of rough skin, a hint of suture. Only when she sits back and widens her eyes do you get a momentary flash of something not-quite-right about her face. It's the only relic of what she's been through. You know, because you've seen it on film, that over 17 years and 46 operations she has worked at her face and various bits of her body, altering its shape, sawing through bone, chiselling through muscle and sinew, sandblasting and dermabrading and acid-peeling the delicate surface of her being, cutting and angle-grinding and polishing it like a diamond until she could stop finding fault. But what you remember most vividly from Trading Faces: The Cindy Jackson Story is the matter-of-fact way she rationalises the unspeakable.
She's been a minor celebrity since appearing on chat shows in the early 1990s (including the younger Wogan's) and a darling of the tabloids. She even had a boob job (done live on the Ruby Wax show) paid for by the BBC. She is famous only for her quest to build the perfect face, and she should by rights be a dreamy crackpot. On the contrary. Ms Jackson is strikingly down to earth, clever, argumentative and droll. She is, though it pains me to say, a terrific advertisement for a terrible procedure.
We talk about Celebrity Big Brother and Pete Burns' lips. I say he looks like a bolted Faye Dunaway. "No," she says firmly. "He's being Cher. He looks like a bad transvestite, being Cher in a blonde wig." Mr Burns, I say, has constructed an image and chosen a face to go with it. Some commentators (in this newspaper) have asked - is this what we'll all do in the future?
"Choosing your own face? What's wrong with that?" says Cindy. "Why should we live in a face that's foisted on us from birth? We choose our clothes, our hair-colouring. Why not our face?" Because (I say) it's interfering with the person we are, the outward expression of the self. It's like choosing a new personality because you don't like the one you've got.
She laughs. "What do you think, John, therapists and psychologists are all about? What do you think self-help books are for? We're trying to improve ourselves every day. We're conditioned from the minute we're born, but you can get rid of learned behaviour. I've done it. I grew up on a farm. I'm not meant to be able to cope with the throbbing metropolis. But I changed my country of residence, I threw off my cultural influences and took on new ones."
She makes it sounds so simple, like changing a library book. When she met friends from the past, didn't they say, "Cindy, this is not you"? "I've been to class reunions. They say, 'I seen you on TV' - they're impressed with that because they're from a hick town - or 'I always knew you'd do something different'. If you ask my family what they think about what I've done, they'd say, 'That's typical of Cindy.' Because I was always a bit off the wall, a bit creative."
The family holds some clues about the motives behind her transformation. She grew up in a small farm community in Ohio. Her father was a trumpet-playing inventor from Indiana, her mother a miner's daughter from Kentucky. The young Cindy used to read her mother's Vogue and dream of a life elsewhere. When she was six, she found a Barbie doll in a toyshop; and was entranced by its lanky, plastic elegance. It was the first of many images of female perfection against which to measure herself. Having a high IQ (she's a member of Mensa) she was fast-forwarded at her high school in Freemont, but her cleverness didn't make her popular. "They thought I was autistic at first, because I daydreamed. But it was only because I was thinking about stuff while the other kids were playing." As soon as she had the money, she flew to London in 1977 with two suitcases and $600. The punk revolution was in full swing and the Ohio hayseed hurled herself into it. She back-combed her hair into a electric frizz, fronted a band called The Vibrators and sang rock 'n' roll for 10 years.
In 1988 her father died and left her $100,000. It was a watershed in her life. Her father, it seems, hadn't loved her much. He'd wanted sons, and he set Cindy and her big sister Gloria to work in barns as honorary males. "He was no New Man. He was an old redneck. He wouldn't big you up or bounce you on his knee, in case you got a swelled head." Every time Cindy looked in the mirror, she saw her father's face, the hefty chin, the bulky nose. She hated her face. She looked at her sister and her mother. "She was beautiful, my mother, gorgeous. She was always into fashion. She never went anywhere without her lipstick. My sister looked just like her..."
So she knew just what to do with the hundred grand. She itemised everything she needed to do to eradicate her father's face and to become a perfect beauty, like her Barbie doll, like the ladies on the shiny Vogue pages, a beauty to eclipse her mother and sister, and mounted a prolonged assault on her face like a manic self-harmer. Eye lifts. Nose jobs. Cheek implants. Lip enhancement. Cosmetic dentistry. Chin reduction. Jaw reshaping. Facelifts. Breast implants. She was driven. But she talks about it calmly as though she was re-tooling a faulty product in a factory.
"Ideas of male and female beauty are based on proportions of the face that were set up by Leonardo da Vinci," she says. "The early Renaissance painters knew what beauty looked like. They weren't dealing in random speculation about how far apart to put the eyes."
Cindy, I say, didn't you have an Auntie who could say: "Darling, you look fine, can't you find a nice boy who doesn't care about the size of your chin?" "Hey, find me one like that," says Cindy. "All men care about looks." It's her proud boast that she has disproved the three major caveats of cosmetic surgery: that you can't change bone structure, you can't take more than 10 years off the human face and you can't make a plain person attractive. Was it pointless to say that she was never plain in the first place? "Well nobody ever compared me to a summer's day. And when I went to the surgeons the first time, they never said, 'Hey - why tamper with perfection?'"
Oddly enough, she bridles at any suggestion that she went to all this trouble in order that somebody might pay her Shakespearean compliments. "No, it wasn't for men. It was to look better. It was to get a different life. I didn't do it for anyone except myself. I'm 50, and I've been single for a long time, so obviously it wasn't a priority."
Her slightly chilly perfection has been tousled of late, at the hands of Allen Sherwin, a British TV producer. The couple met last summer when Cindy appeared on Through The Keyhole, and they've been together since October. Mr Sherwin is fiftysomething, affable and has the air of a man who cannot quite believe his luck.
When I leave them, Cindy is being photographed. "Make sure you get my best side," she admonishes the photographer. But Cindy, I say, your face is supposed to be perfect. How can you have a bad side? "There you go," said the almost-perfect Ms Jackson, "To the untrained eye..."
Trading Faces: The Cindy Jackson Story, is on Five tomorrow at 11pmReuse content