NEW YORK — Dr. Susan Zahalsky has been waiting for this moment for a long time. She's haunted cosmetic counters, tried personal shoppers, even called modeling agencies for recommendations of good makeup artists. And still, she hasn't found a look that shows not just what's in the mirror, but what's in her heart.
"I want a look to reflect my inner self," she says.
So, here she is, at a midtown Manhattan designer showroom, being interviewed by a producer and shadowed by a camera crew from E! Entertainment Television's "Fashion Emergency," ready to have a small team of experts have a go at bringing out the real her. She doesn't even care that the process will take place before millions of viewers.
On the show, which premieres Monday, plus-size supermodel Emme and fashion pros Leon Hall and Brenda Cooper rush to the aid of fashion victims like paramedics to a 911 call, swooping down on the "patient" with a team of design, makeup and hair specialists. They hang in there until every patient is out of fashion danger.
And what was the doctor's emergency? Last summer, frustrated with the limitations of the managed-care system in this country, she took her rehabilitative medicine practice to Denmark to see how that less burdensome system works. She began studying the language and, in the process, gained a Danish boyfriend.
Now, she's been invited to a holiday dinner with her boyfriend's family, and the pretty 5-foot-3, size 10/12 brunet wants to be noticed among the tall, blond and beautiful Scandinavians. Chatty, funny and openhearted, she's already got the personality. What she needs now is the look.
As the "Fashion Emergency" camera rolls, Zahalsky, 34, describes her symptoms.
"When I shop at stores, I feel like most of the clothes are made for a taller, thinner person with no rear-end. Most of the time, I have to order things from catalogs."
Emme arrives looking chic in an ensemble of dark tones. Clothes consultant Hall is already there, as is Peter Brown, the makeup artist for the day. Emme, perhaps the most famous size 14 in America, is positive and sunny. Hall is a dapper straight shooter, a sassy, fun-ny Southerner.
"Inner beauty never got anybody a first date," Hall says. Emme makes a face and elbows him half-seriously. "Maybe a second or third," he concedes, "but not a first."
Hall, who, after tripping over "Zahalsky" a few times, renames her Dr. Zed, was responsible for choosing designer Yoehlee for this make-over.
"She understands cut and simple design," he says. "Her clothes are not hussy. Yoehlee's a purist. Her stuff is never tricked up.
"The first thing people should notice is how a woman looks in a dress, not how a dress looks on a woman. You should be the sparkle," he says.
After the cameras trail Zahalsky walking into the designer's showroom and being introduced by Emme and Hall to Yoehlee, the "fashion emergency" ducks behind a screen to try on the outfits the show hosts have chosen for her. The first is a tunic and pant set of stretch double georgette in a deep, nearly purple, navy. Yoehlee calls her approach "intimate architecture"--a phrase the hosts love.
The second outfit is a silvery gray (they call it "glacier"), frosted panne velvet dress with a matching cover-up. Next, there's a machine-washable black gabardine skirt and shirt. The skirt is knee-length, and there's satin on the shirt's collar.
"Balance and proportion make a woman look elegant," Hall says.
But they choose another gabardine skirt set with a shorter jacket for Zahalsky and top it with an overcoat of embossed wool. She looks lovely. She does a few runway turns for the camera, and that segment is done.
"It's exactly the look I wanted," Zahalsky says. "Elegant, professional and understated."
During a lunch break, Emme talks about the show's goal "to make America beautiful, one person at a time." She calls the make-overs "a vehicle to help one's body image, to give someone hope and aspirations.
"We open the door for you," Emme says, "but it's going to be up to you to pull yourself through that door and make opportunities blossom. We can't do it for you."
That's not always easy, even for people seeking make-overs.
"Their attitude is 'All right, I asked for help, but I'm not going to let the designer put me in something they think I would look good in.' So, people say, 'Oh, I never look good in that,' or 'I never look good in this.'
"It's like, listen, you're getting a chance to have a make-over. Let them just do what they feel will look good on you, then say, 'Oh, I'd like to have this adjusted,' but during the process try not to be self-defeating. Let it happen, let go and let the best in the business help you out, and then you might see yourself in a whole new way."