Does life imitate art … or does art imitate life? It probably won’t surprise you to learn that that’s a question I spend many the long hour a-pondering. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a little bit of cross-pollination going on: life takes its inspiration from art, while art takes as its raw materials the vagaries of life. The problem is that nowadays there’s a third strand to our cultural DNA: Reality TV.
It’s my considered opinion that reality TV is messing up the universe. I can put it no more simply than that. Happily, Graham Norton has not yet – as far as I’m aware – been exported by Britain to the small screens of the European mainland, so if you haven’t come across him, breathe a sigh of relief and keep a weather eye out. However, if you watch German television you’ll probably by now be aware that it is possible to make a series more appalling than How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
First let me say that in my experience German people are, on the whole, solid, sensible, non-nonsense types, who’ve produced more than their share of great artists, cutting-edge design, fine wines and fast cars. I’ve sampled three of the four, so I should know. But what I just can’t figure out is this: how on earth do they explain the TV series aired during the summer: From Old to New: Brigitte Nielsen in the Celebrity Clinic? Even the Americans, who after all spawned the reality TV and talent show monster with Pop Idol, are shocked … and awed … by its awfulness.
Brigitte Nielsen – as you may or may not know – is Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone’s ex-wife. She ’s 44 years old and her greatest ambition in life is to appear naked on the cover of Playboy magazine for a second time – a full 20 years after she first graced the cover of that august organ in the Eighties, an occasion still spoken of in American literary circles. To that end, this series showed Nielsen having head-to-toe plastic surgery live on TV – watched by an estimated two million domestic German viewers, not to mention those of us who had every incision beamed into our magnificently-restored traditional Mallorcan fincas nestled above the sea in the Sóller Valley. I was about to leave for a glass of bubbly followed by a low-calorie fillet of fish at La Lubina … but I must admit I was glued to the spot. Apologies Antonio …
And so the series followed La Nielsen as she treated herself to a facelift, an eyelift, a breast life and liposuction. There were times during those weeks when I thought I might never eat again. And yet Brigitte was all excited and chipper, happy to be making a difference to the lives of women. “I know I am the first female celebrity in the world who has allowed herself to be filmed like that in an operating theatre”, she told the popular press before the anaesthetic kicked in. “I know I will be breaking a taboo. But I’m sure that it will provoke a new discussion. It is time things changed. I feel 30 and want to look that way again.”
The media loved it. “Miss Nielsen said she hopes the show will help women feel better about their bodies”, reported one newspaper, blissfully unaware of the irony. Well, I suppose maybe they’ll feel better once they’ve marked out the areas they’d like their surgeons to remove – maybe that’s what she means.
Not content with helping women to feel better about their bodies, Brigitte also believes she’s striking a blow for greater honesty in Hollywood. “The secrecy in Hollywood is annoying”, she observes. “You can see that the stars do not age naturally. It’s not right that the fans … the normal women … are lied to ….” All of which philosophizing led her to one inescapable conclusion: “I’m getting a complete renewal: facelife, eyelift, fat injections in my face, liposuction, a breast lift … and I need new teeth.”
The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s a nothing more than a vehicle to reverse the public’s total lack of interest in Brigitte or any part of her anatomy. It’s a PR stunt. And interestingly it’s not the first cosmetic surgery on television either. Last year, Irish television channel, TV3, ran a series called Inside and Out, which followed four patients having different types of cosmetic surgery – monitored by an expert panel, a psychiatrist, a personal trainer, a dietician, a haematologist and a yoga teacher.
So – donning my Lara Croft expedition gear – I went in search of the presenter of the series, Englishwoman, Halina Ashdown Sheils, who also happens to be Managing Director of Advanced Cosmetic Surgery, Ireland’s largest and longest-established cosmetic surgery provider. To my tough question about vanity, she gave this candid response … “Sometimes it is about vanity, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also about giving people a choice about how they’d like their body to be … and that’s something I understand.” It turns out she’s had a number of procedures herself, including gastric banding to lose weight. “I was always slim. But when my sister died I started comfort-eating and suddenly found myself weighing 15 stone. I couldn’t walk without getting out of breath. It was the same old story: you want to go back to your normal size, but you’ve gone too far. My daughter begged me not to do it, but I did and I’m glad. I lost four-and-a-half stone – and it changed my life.”
So there. It’s not as if the world’s gone mad. It’s just that reality TV sometimes makes us think it is. There’s life, there’s art … and there’s reality TV for those who deserve it.