The before and after photos were my idea. I insisted, in fact. They were to be my evidence in case this experiment went terribly awry. Generally I mistrust the concept of makeovers, subscribing to the firm belief that plucking out a pig’s snout hairs and exfoliating his mud-caked backside are no more effective than painting him with lipstick, an exercise in folly much discussed during the last presidential campaign. Nine times out of ten, the pig won’t be able to tell the difference, and neither will anyone else. Personally, having devoted 74 hard years to creating the before, I was reluctant to put myself in the hands of a so-called “makeup artist,” who, with a few dabs of monkey gland oil, might undo my dedicated years of debauchery in her pursuit of some unattainable after. Yet the editors of this magazine insisted. They cajoled and wheedled until I agreed to submit myself to their questionable plan: an extreme and total makeover at the hands of a Dallas stylist. As a condition of the surrender, however, I put them on notice that if the after was substantially inferior to the before, they could expect to hear from my attorney.
As I flew to Dallas on a foggy morning a week before Christmas to meet my makeoverers, I made a mental inventory of my scars and blemishes. The Frankenstein-quality scar that zigzags down the length of my breastplate, as well as the smaller, jagged scar on the inside of my left knee, commemorates an event in 1988 in which a surgeon sawed open my chest, removed a damaged heart artery, and replaced it with a vein extracted from my leg. The cell-phone-size bulge that swells above my left breast is a pacemaker-defibrillator. There are other deformities and irregularities that have become a part of my native character, including ten clawlike toenails and a 38-inch waist that testifies to too many pints of ale and plump pigeon pies. Yet what others might view as flaws I prefer to think of as badges of authenticity, memorials to the nobility of self-abuse, as it were.
The stylist met me at Love Field. She was a slender blonde with a pixie haircut. I could tell from the way she sized me up that I represented an entirely new and possibly insurmountable sort of professional challenge. “I don’t suppose you spend a lot of time in salons and spas,” she asked. I shook my head. “No, I didn’t think so.”
Our first stop was a hair salon inside the Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center, where the stylist had me scheduled for a $60 haircut. To paraphrase Mort Sahl, the idea of a $60 haircut on a 60-cent head is the perfect metaphor for a culture addled by vanity, but no matter. I had a job to do. My hairdresser was a Russian immigrant of undetermined age named Olga. Standing behind me, my head clamped between her hands like a hunk of modeling clay, Olga pulled and inspected wisps of hair as she studied the contours of my cranium in the mirror. Finally she declared in her thick Russian accent, “I’m going to make you look very dangerous.” As she snipped and shaped, Olga told me about her first husband back home and her new one in America. After about half an hour, she seemed satisfied. Again clamping my head between her hands, she nodded approval and said, “See? Dangerous.”
Inspecting my face in the mirror, I was dismayed to discover that she had coiffed my hair into a lopsided pouf that made me look alarmingly like Conan O’Brien. Dangerous? Actually, the word that sprang to mind was “deranged.” I held my tongue, however, and gave an indifferent nod. The stylist seemed pleased with the haircut, or at least relieved that I took it like a man.
From NorthPark we drove through dense fog to my next appointment, at the Osgood-O’Neil Salon on Snider Plaza, near SMU, where my eyebrows were to receive the attention of a certain Nicole. Before accepting this assignment, I had solicited a pledge from my editors that none of the day’s activities would cause me any physical pain. They had assured me that there was nothing to fear. But now I discovered that they were merely fobbing me off with half-truths. Nicole sat me in a chair and began to pluck out my eyebrows with tweezers. “Ouch!” I yelped, loud enough for the stylist to hear from across the room. “Tell my swine editors they will pay dearly for this.”
“It won’t hurt much,” she promised.
“Compared to what? Having my fingernails ripped out with pliers?” I squirmed, trying to dodge the insidious tweezers. “I’m fairly certain this is forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.”
This torture goes for $25. For an extra $10 I could have had my eyebrows tinted by a colorist. As we returned to the car, I was reminded of the remark of the man on death row: If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon forget the whole thing.
Over a disgustingly healthy lunch at a Snider Plaza deli, the stylist and I talked about how television shows like Extreme Makeover and Dr. 90210 have fostered the illusion that remolding the flesh is a duty rather than a luxury, at least among the very rich. Dr. 90210 is described as a “plastic surgery reality show.” Say that real slow and see what it does to your brain. I’d read in that morning’s New York Times a story titled “Putting Vanity on Hold.” Written by Natasha Singer, it related how the once booming microeconomy of beauty maintenance and body modification was suffering shamefully from the recession. Plastic surgeons were experiencing so many cancellations that they actually had time for golf. Back when everyone was flush and self-esteem was priceless, wrote Singer, “the body became the new attire, a mutable status symbol subject to trends in proportion, silhouette, technology and disposable income.” Now that families were having to choose