Reality TV hits new low with parade of 'the ugly ducklings'

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The Independent US

By her own admission, Rachel L from Washington state is plain and not exactly overflowing with self-esteem. "She's a little average," says her husband Mike, less than reassuringly, "but I'm more than happy with that."

Right. Clearly he is not happy enough to have stopped Rachel signing up for US television's latest reality show, which arguably pushes the genre to a new nadir of tastelessness and ethical questionability.

On The Swan, which to be shown on Rupert Murdoch's Fox network on 17 April, women with spotty faces, buck teeth, stretch marks, double chins and flabby thighs - "ugly ducklings", in the show's parlance - undergo a rigorous process of transformation through psychotherapy, physical training and head-to-toe cosmetic surgery. "Total facial reinvention," one of the show's specialist doctors calls his particular job.

And that's not all. For three months after they go under the knife, they are not allowed to look in the mirror to see what they have become. Then, with barely a pause to take in their new selves - the so-called "reveal moment" - they are entered in a beauty contest against each other so their carefully resurrected self-esteem can be demolished in an every-girl-for-herself catfight.

This show has got even the most unshockable television critics wondering if they have now, finally, hit their limit. It is even a stretch for Fox, the network that thought up Celebrity Boxing (Tonya Harding punching it out with Paula Jones), The Chamber (humiliations falling just short of torture) and Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire? (svelte nurse from Los Angeles marries man she has only just clapped eyes on because the producers ask her to).

As Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote last week: "Whenever a reality television series is so repulsive in its premise or execution that normally wise people believe that we, as a society, have hit bottom, there's only one thing to say in response.... Wait for it. Something far worse is around the corner."

Plastic surgery is becoming a trend in reality programming. An ABC show called Extreme Makeover kicked off the fad last year. And now MTV has I Want a Famous Face, in which young people have their bodies reworked so they can look like their favourite celebrity.