Go ahead punk, make me over

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The Independent Online

When my buzzer goes I am afraid. I know they are coming for me.

When my buzzer goes I am afraid. I know they are coming for me. There are only so many homes in America they can target and soon they will run out. "Mr Usborne, we are from DETV and we are here to make your ugly little apartment perfectly tasteful in 15 seconds on a budget of $22. My name is Perky Delicious and this is Andy Handsome. When we are done, please gasp for the cameras."

What will I do? The people from Design Emergency TV will not take no for an answer. Pug, partner and I will be obliged to stand aside because this is not about us. It is about entertaining America.

Home make-over shows have been around for ever, but they are no longer about giving tips on plumbing the Jacuzzi or wiring the garberator without losing a hand. Today, they have been subsumed into the reality television genre. First, we will be humiliated - Aargh, the blue in the bathroom. Aargh, the green in the kitchen - and at the end we will be humiliated again, as tears of gratitude well in our eyes.

So the place could do with a few added touches. I have done what I can. The Ikea wardrobe with the mirrored doors seemed inspired until I discovered I couldn't open both at the same time without the whole thing falling on top of me. And I am responsible for the green and the blue.

But DETV is not coming. We New Yorkers know better than to swallow their turn-your-tip-into-a-palace propaganda. There is no laying a Javanese mahogany kitchen floor when most of us don't have a proper kitchen. And as for those 10 easy steps to building the perfect deck with a vista of the mountains - it would be tricky when all I have outside my third-floor window is a rusty iron fire escape.

But beyond the borders of New York City, this is what people do. When ordinary Americans are not watching programmes such as Design on a Dime or Weekend Warriors on Home and Garden Television, Changing Rooms on BBC America(I admit, DETV doesn't exist), they are scurrying around a giant Home Depot superstore somewhere or ripping the roofs off their homes to make way for helicopter landing pads.

A recent study from Harvard University tells us this is true. Last year, Americans spent an astonishing $130bn on DIY projects. This, as you probably realise, is roughly the amount George Bush has so far spent trying to re-upholster Iraq. "Home improvement," the study concludes, "has become the great national pastime." In 2003, Americans spent more dollars tinkering with their houses than they did on clothing or - more surprisingly - paying their lawyers' fees.

The home improvement bonanza is still gathering steam. And so, regrettably, are all the related television shows. TLC is embarking on a new series where an entire New York town - Jeffersonville - will be made over. If you flick on BBC America and Changing Rooms in not on, you can count yourself on a lucky streak. Tonight, says the Beeb website, "Oliver tackles a dowdy design mishap". Tomorrow, "Graham faces a floral bordered mismatch."

And there are signs that New York City's immunity to it all is eroding. After all, there are things we can do even in small spaces. And the industry has understood. And so it is that just two weeks ago, Home Depot, which until now has only existed in the form of mega "big-box'" stores in suburban strip malls, is suddenly here, smack in the heart of Manhattan. On 23rd Street, it is 10 minutes from where I live.

I have yet to visit. But the time will come when the dress mirror that I hung horizontally in the bathroom to give the illusion of space, and which swiftly thereafter went crashing to the floor, will have to be put back up. So I will go to Home Depot for the proper hook and perhaps a new hammer and full set of tools. And by the time I am finished with everything, I will not be scared of DETV any longer, because my apartment will need no making over.

Dressed or not, I shall go to the ball

Oh, the Hallowe'en dilemma! This is one night in the US when watching television of the home make-over or any kind will not do. You must either be distributing sweets to children, escorting children to collect sweets or - most terrifying of all - going to parties looking all ridiculous in some kind of witty, sexy, fancy dress.

Two years ago, I excelled myself after deciding only at the last minute to turn up at a bash in the penthouse of a new hotel on Times Square. I decided it was too late to attempt any kind of costume and went just as I was. Big mistake. "Oh," my host declared, "I see you have come as a boring, middle-aged Englishman." I had completely underestimated both the calibre of guests who were invited and the lengths they would go to disguise themselves. Among them was P. Diddy dressed as a sultan.

So have sympathy. I have foolishly accepted an invitation to attend a private Hallowe'en ball this weekend from the new owner of the Versace mansion in South Beach. The invitation is clear: "Costume Required/Clothing Optional." Pardon? Doesn't clothing optional imply that if settling on a costume defeats me I can arrive naked? I telephoned, a little nervous, to enquire and the answer was, yes, sort of. "In South Beach," the man on the line patiently explained, "some people prefer body paint."

I rather think that an extreme make-over of my body in different shades of paint would be too much of a challenge for anyone - even Oliver and Graham at the BBC.

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