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10 August 2018

Trinny and Susannah’s cruel parade What Not to Wear reveals how far makeover TV has come

In today’s world of the Fab Five group-hugging in changing rooms, we forget how it all began with “chicken wing arms”, “thunder thighs” and “tits like fried eggs”.

By Myfanwy Craigie

Every episode of What Not to Wear would begin the same way. Trinny and Susannah would appear, striking a dramatic pose at an inexplicably weird angle, and, face to camera, they would deliver a killer line.

“Just because you wear a dog collar during the day doesn’t give you the excuse to look like a dog’s dinner at night,” is how Susannah introduced one episode, in which they reformed a vicar’s wardrobe.

“Your best friends may not tell you your fashion sense ground to a halt 20 years ago,” Trinny announced at the start of another. “But as you may have guessed by now – we’re not your best friends.”

What Not to Wear was one of one of the most hilarious and offensive reality shows ever to grace our screens, which it did with Trinny and Susannah at the helm for five seasons.

Later the presenters were replaced (Lisa Butcher and Mica Paris presented series six and seven) and a spin-off show resulted (ITV hosted the far less popular Trinny & Susannah Undress for two seasons).

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But the show’s real golden age fell between 2001 and 2005 when Trinny and Susannah reigned proud over BBC One and Two.

The basic premise of the show was that Trinny and Susannah would find a woman with poor fashion sense, tell her how terrible she looked and offer her a heap of unsolicited advice – like, only wear vertical stripes and cinch your waist in with a belt – before publicly revealing her transformation.

Every episode was formulaic in the extreme.

Some poor woman – nominated by her friends or family as someone terminally unfashionable – would be secretly filmed going about her daily life. The footage would then be reviewed by Trinny and Susannah to comments such as: “That dress looks terrible on her. It is pushing her boobs down and making them look like an extra roll in her tummy.” (Trinny solemnly agreed: “Her tummy is her issue for sure.”)

Bear in mind this woman was being filmed without her knowledge and had never offered herself up to be verbally torn apart on a television show which at its peak drew in over seven million viewers.

At this point, Trinny and Susannah would ambush the unsuspecting woman usually at her place of work and reveal that they’d been secretly watching her for weeks. There would be no acknowledgement of how weird and invasive this was. The tone was more: “Ha! We caught you!”

The next stage involved shoving the contestant into the torture chamber that is a 360-degree mirror wearing her favourite outfit, so that Trinny and Susannah could explain in detail how awful she looked from the front, the back and the side.

The contestant, who at this point was a shell of the person she’d been before, would then be presented with three mannequins demonstrating how she should be dressing herself. Funnily enough it turns out this life-transforming outfit would literally always be a low cut top, a long skirt and a fitted blazer.

Our favourite evil stepsisters would then send their little experiment out to buy a whole new wardrobe, armed with £2,000 and the few remaining shreds of her self-esteem. Trinny and Susannah, watching on a monitor, would be ready to swoop into the changing room at a moment’s notice if the contestant dared to pick up any item of clothing that wasn’t a fitted V-neck jumper or a cinched shirt.

After a gruelling few days and more personal insults than you could count, the contestant would be given a jazzy new haircut (highlights and flicky layers) and a face of make-up (brown eyeshadow and shiny lipgloss). We would then watch as the new and improved woman would reveal her made-over self to the very same friends and family who had sold her out in the first place.

Perhaps the most bizarre element of the show was the way that the contestant’s loved ones were so concerned about their sister’s/mother’s/wife’s lack of style that they would nominate her to be publicly humiliated on national TV.

The woman’s family would often feature in an introductory montage, saying things like: “I never really look at her and think ‘that looks fantastic,’ and I would like to.” And: “It’s like she’s trying to fade into the landscape, I don’t like that. She should be a bit more proud of her body, a bit more glamorous.”

Ah, selfless familial love.

The programme is undoubtedly dated. It’s hard to imagine the same pitch – two posh women going around telling insecure strangers how unattractive they are – would fly in 2018. Re-watching the show today, the personal insults and body-shaming make for uncomfortable viewing, but somehow, in spite of its many, many flaws, the show retains a strange hypnotic charm. You know that you should look away but you can’t.

Admittedly, Queer Eye does have a similar premise. The difference is it doesn’t invite you to mock the contestants and the Fab Five tend to be far more gentle in the delivery of their advice. It’s almost as if they genuinely want to help improve the lives of the participants, rather than tell them they have “chicken wing arms”, “thunder thighs” and “tits like fried eggs” and a million other things that, according to Trinny and Susannah, can be wrong with a woman’s body.

In one episode where Trinny and Susannah target an Eton College dame (don’t ask me), the verbal abuse starts from the word go.

“We saw that really VILE short-sleeved jacket of yours,” Susannah told Sue, whom she’d met 30 seconds earlier. “Your dog is better dressed than you are.”

Trinny chimed in: “From the waist up you’re an old frump.”

Certainly vapid, probably immoral and just so watchable – What Not to Wear was reality TV at its most compellingly cruel. The show was pure, undiluted entertainment that treated no one kindly and taught us more about the multitude of ways we hate our bodies than what we should be wearing.

Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.

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