There are a million ways to tell a woman that her clothes are ugly.
Most people try assiduously to avoid any of them ("Honey, does this make me look fat?" "No!") But on an average day, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly cover at least a few dozen. As the hosts of TLC's long-running makeover show, "What Not to Wear," they have good impetus for their sharp tongues: Their badly dressed subjects desperately require a dose of fashion pragmatism.
"If you ask me, 'How do I look?' I will be honest with you," explains London. "But I'm honest because I really do believe that you can always do better."
Today, it is 31-year-old social worker Raina Daily who could "do better." London and Kelly (who boast fashion pedigrees that include celebrity styling and stints at Mademoiselle magazine) are camped out in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, surveying video footage of the petite Minnesota transplant as she traipses about town in oversized sweats, overalls and Birkenstock sandals. The hosts gaze at the television screen, appalled, as the DVD plays.
"Overalls are never acceptable unless you actually own a cow," quips Kelly.
"She calls that a suit? You only refer to a matching sweatsuit as a 'suit' when you are going to play shuffleboard," sniffs London.
After half an hour, it's time to hop into vans and drive south to Compton, where they will accost their victim. Like all "What Not to Wear" subjects, Daily will be ambushed in front of friends, family and co-workers, informed that her wardrobe is ghastly and given the opportunity to be flown to New York to be on the show -- and experience yet more blunt critiques before walking away with a $5,000 wardrobe and a new look.
How hard is it to convince people to undergo this public humiliation? Of nearly 100 people ambushed, only one has turned down the offer. As one former subject, teacher Debbie Dierks of Newport Beach, puts it, "What convinced me to do it? Their smiling faces.... I couldn't say no."
"What Not to Wear" is cable's most ubiquitous makeover show, with 50 episodes a year. The show, now in its third season, enjoys ratings that surpass even the "Queer Eye" juggernaut (its average show gets 700,000 viewers, compared with "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's" 250,000).
Unlike popular network makeover shows, like "The Swan" and "Extreme Makeover," "What Not to Wear" serves up painful analysis with that loving smile; and its subjects (and viewers) seem to eat it up.
London and Kelly gleefully compare their subjects to "bobbleheads," potato farmers and lumberjacks. But subjects seem to understand that it's all said in the name of love and self-empowerment: Barbs are tempered with rueful smiles and fulsome praise.
Subjects rarely cry; when they do, it's not because of the verbal critiques from the hosts but because of the footage of themselves they are forced to watch. (The video is secretly taped weeks before an ambush.)
To "What Not to Wear's" credit, its hosts make an effort to preserve some of their victim's individual style.
"We don't want to take the Gina out of Gina," Kelly says to a 39-year-old hairdresser from New York who squeezes into cheap micro-miniskirts. "You have a great personality and a lot of style. We just want to make it a little more sophisticated."
The fishnet blouses go; she's given flaming red hair and a dose of Prada to replace the spandex and fake fur. Gina is even granted permission to buy leopard print -- as long as it's knee length.
"What Not to Wear" couldn't be more different from the networks' t most popular makeover shows, "The Swan" (Fox) and "Extreme Makeover" (ABC). On those shows, nary a critical word is muttered about, say, the subject's unruly 'fro, acne-covered skin or '80s wardrobe. Instead, the shows get straight to work eliminating flaws with a scalpel and a beauty-pageant makeover.
In the process, individuality is also eliminated: A neon-haired dreadlocked multi-pierced punk walks away -- after rhinoplasty, lip augmentation, liposuction, laser hair removal, breast implants and teeth whitening -- as a dirty-blond Katie Couric look-alike in pink chiffon. The common refrain, when the woman sees her reinvented face, is "Oh my god! Who is that?"
On "What Not to Wear," the hosts believe that underneath the hideous clothing, bad hair and blue eye shadow is a swan in the making (no scalpels required).
In the world of reality TV, a generously upbeat "What Not to Wear" may have a thin veneer of cattiness but it's still appealing to viewers, as well as most of the subjects. Including Daily, the social worker from Compton, who agrees to a makeover.
The hosts ambush her in the middle of a staff meeting. Several dozen co-workers crush into a conference room to watch London admonish Daily for her work garb -- today, it's a blue terry-cloth sweatsuit and tennis shoes: "You work in social services, not personal training," she quips.
Daily's face wobbles between elation and terror.
"I love your show," she says, her eyes filling with tears. She points at her T-shirt: "You know how you always say layers? I'm wearing layers! I do listen!"
Kelly shakes his head. "Don't worry. We're going to make you look so cute," he assures her. "You are so cute."