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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 18:04 GMT
Plastic, but not fantastic
By Clive James

Pete Burns
Pete Burns' mouth: How new is too new?

Cosmetic surgery for the rich and famous is booming. Why do they do it, wonders Clive James, in his Point of View column.

According to all media, so it must be true, plastic surgery is a growth industry world wide. People who've had face-lifts are having their face-lifts lifted. The Taiwanese are having New Year face-lifts to bring them luck.

Often the resulting luck looks bad, but it's hard to sympathise when someone becomes a victim of failed plastic surgery that they never needed.

Usually that's a decision that we make for them: that they didn't need it. Knowing what they looked like before they did it, we decide they didn't need to do it. But they mightn't have felt like that.

Anyone who undertakes major plastic surgery really doesn't like the way they look, even if we never saw much wrong with it.

There is a person called Pete Burns who went on Channel 4's Big Brother and got famous for being a forgotten rock singer. He got additionally famous for being a forgotten rock singer who'd had something unforgettable done to his mouth.

He'd had that thing done that people who want new mouths do. They don't want new mouths in the sense of a mouth like the old mouth, only young again. They want a new mouth in the sense of a different mouth, a mouth that has been seen nowhere on earth except below sea level.

Clive James
It's easy to laugh until you see the pictures, and realise he's in real trouble, physical trouble to match the psycho-logical trouble he must have been in the first place

Apparently the idea is that the top lip should be at least as big as the bottom lip, and the result, even done in moderation, always looks as if the original mouth has been removed, inflated like a small plastic paddling pool, and put back on upside down.

Pete Burns had the advanced version. I switched Big Brother on accidentally one night and there he was, so I switched it off immediately, but not before having my retinas seared with the image of one of those car-sized fish that lurk deep below the reef, waiting to ingest the brass boot of a deep sea diver.

After leaving the show, Pete mercifully sank out of sight, but recently he got famous all over again because he wanted to sue the surgeons who hadn't, in his view, put his mouth back the way it was, although he hasn't yet made clear how long ago he means by the way it was: he might only mean the way it was last year, when it was already uncommonly large but still more or less attached to him.

Apparently it now more or less isn't. It's easy to laugh until you see the pictures, and then you realise he's in real trouble, physical trouble to match the psychological trouble he must have been in the first place.

Original 'guinea pigs'

And there's the connection between plastic surgery that doesn't serve an obvious purpose and plastic surgery that does. The second kind started at East Grinstead Hospital, where a pioneering team of surgeons developed the techniques to help make continued life possible for Battle of Britain fighter pilots whose faces had been ruined by flame.

The young men called themselves the Guinea Pig Club as a sign of the cheerfulness they needed to live with what they looked like, and it was a long time before anyone knew how to do the cosmetic surgery that went some way towards making the first necessary repairs look anything like normal.

So the guineas pigs, booked up for years of operations, had to learn to accept each other's appearance, and the people of East Grinstead, who met the boys in the street, had to learn to live with visual shock.

An awful lot gets learned in a war, and plastic surgery would certainly not have gone ahead so quickly if there hadn't been hundreds of young men who needed a new face: a real new face, meaning a face something like the old one.

After the war, the techniques of repairing damage graduated naturally to the techniques of improving looks.

Again there's a connection, and the connection first showed up most powerfully in Brazil. In 1961 a disgruntled employee expressed his dissatisfaction with the management of a circus by setting it on fire. He killed at least 323 people, many of them children, and disfigured many others.

Leslie Ash
That beautiful British television actress who wrecked her mouth: she didn't need to do that. But she thought she did
Clive James
The plastic surgeons gave a lot of faces their lives back. One of the surgeons was Ivo Pitanguiy who later taught a generation of students to do the two things that a plastic surgeon can do: correcting disfigurements in the unfortunate, and making not perhaps entirely necessary improvements to the rich.

I met him there once, and it was immediately obvious why every beautiful high society woman in Rio looked at him in worship. He'd given all of them eternal youth.

He'd done the same for himself, and although I found it sad how even his own face proved that you can't remove the signs of age without destroying the signs of life, I couldn't rebut his argument that if rich people were ready to go under the scalpel, they must have real griefs that they wanted to counteract.

Our difficulty is to see why such inner feelings should be catered to in the same way that we, or rather the surgeons, cater to obvious physical needs.

At the moment, in Africa, there are units of plastic surgeons financed by charity to correct childhood disfigurements, some of them so hideous they make you wonder if the man upstairs really knows what's going on down here.

Arising from malnutrition, there is a disease called Noma, and its first results are a rapid degeneration of a child's facial tissue, with results you don't want even to imagine. But plastic surgeons can repair that damage.

Bodily rejection

Always, however, some of the know-how used in such an impeccable public service is developed in the private sector. There's an interchange, and you might say that the angel of mercy is financed by human folly, and that there'd be folly anyway, because nobody really knows how to fix the mind, especially when it has the means to get its way.

Boy David
The Boy David - subject of BBC documentaries in the 80s - had Noma
That beautiful British television actress who wrecked her mouth: she didn't need to do that. But she thought she did.

That beautiful American film star who did the same: why did she, of all people, think her face was ugly? Her face was a dream, but our dream was her nightmare. So she fixed it.

And so, reluctantly, we get to Michael Jackson, whose original nose shares the condition with Pete Burns' original mouth of being rejected by the face where it grew up.

But the real pity about Michael Jackson is that the man who sings "It doesn't matter if you're black or white" obviously thinks it does matter.

While my daughters were growing up, Michael Jackson was a hero in our household, and even I tried to learn his "Billy Jean" moon-walk.

My version looked like Neil Armstrong's moon-walk, but I didn't blame Michael Jackson. But when I saw what the plastic surgeons were turning him into, then I blamed him. I thought he was undoing the work of a century of African Americans who had put their lives on the line for equality.

If he wanted to look like someone else, why didn't he want to look like Denzel Washington? I would have.

It took me a while to figure out that it was his business, not mine. We who admired him never owned him, and perhaps he had no other way of telling us except making himself impossible to love by anyone except the kind of fan who would have gone on loving him if he had turned himself into a wheelie bin.

Michael Jackson
Is Michael Jackson to blame?
He wants another identity, but so do all those rich women who try to stay young by having their faces lifted.

Even if they know when to quit, before the botox looks like latex, they must still be aware that the backs of their hands will tell the truth about that strange blankness underneath the eyes.

The falsity is blatant, yet it's often the voluntary absurdity of the most subtle people alive. So it's got nothing to do with intelligence. It goes far deeper than that. It's the soul, believing that with the right kind of intervention a face can stop time.

In Hollywood I once got invited to a lunch party of women who had been stars 50 years ago. If they'd stayed unaltered I would have recognized every one of them. But in their bid for eternal life they had become nobodies.

Yet how can you blame them? Their beauty had been their life. On that same visit to Hollywood I met a plastic surgeon who said there were no stars, even among the males, who didn't come in for a pit-stop.

That same plastic surgeon used computer modelling to show me how he could make me look like a film star if I'd let him take a bit off the end of my nose and stick it on my chin. He kept on manipulating the mouse until I looked like Steve McQueen. When I told him I wanted to be Cary Grant his face fell, but not very far.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Very interesting article but did you have to show the picture of the 'Norma' suffer. I mean you write a line:- 'with results you don't want even to imagine' Then you show the picture? So we don't have to 'imagine it' for gods sake thats seared in to my brain now. Thats really out of order without even a warning.

Too much money, too much time, too many stupid ideas and too many doctors who is after money!! All these people need a good portion of self-confidence. I wish they had spent all that money to feed the poor & the doctors would spent their time to help the sick people!! I do not envy and/or sympathize any of them!! RT, Vienna, Austria
Regina T., Vienna, Austria

A great column, I don't usually get into the arguements of plastic surgery but Clive James made the subject enjoyable and and interesting read into the subject. A great piece of journalism.
Nathan, Stowmarket, Suffolk

Michael Jackson, Pete Burns and Leslie Ash would all probably be very attractive people right now if they had left their faces alone. Either deep seated psychological disorders or celebrity vanity has caused them to disfigure their faces in most horrific ways.
James, Sussex, England

I think this is typical of celebrates, who cant deal with the fame and all the critics and press thast comes along with it , they all have their day but some one is always going to be younger and there is always some one better looking. They all need therapy before going under the knife unless they really need it and its affecting there mental health , then fair enough but they are suppose to be setting examples. We all have our idols that we look up to, in the next ten generations there is going to be kids having boob jobs if it keeps bein publicy cool to reconstruct your body.There should be laws its not something people should go about lightly its life threatening.
Laurin Young, Galashiels Scotland

There's something slightly ironic about someone as battered and worn as Clive James criticising people who desire to look better.
James Robson, UK

This article (especially the compassion in it), coupled with Kate Winslet's stand on self confidence versus image, gives hope that there are some still some real people out their in celebrity land
Rachel Hawkins, Reading

I feel shame to be associated with a society that puts such importance on looks. apart from the fact that most celebrities look ridiculous with huge lips, frozen foreheads (from the botox) and stick thin legs (from all the lipo) they influence how we feel we should look. Then you see a child with Noma and feel instant shame and know the daily suffering that happens in this world. how sad it is that we allow people with lips like carp to dictate our lives when there are people out there who can teach us compassion, joy and contentment.
kirsty, Fareham

Blaming one single individual in this debate is cruel, however I do think Hollywood and the celeb magazines of today are to blame. For instance look at the Fireman in America undergoing surgery to 'become' Bruce Willis in order to look the part. Magazines that highlight celebrities and their less glorifying features also add pressure to modern society. The dangers of this need to be highlighted more as ex-footballer Colin Hendry's wife was recently extermely ill with a blood infection after undergoing liposuction. As cheaper and less-reliable surgery becomes available abroad, when will people be able to stop? First your nose, then your lips then... then... After all beauty is in the eyes of the beholder!
Greig Duncan, Aberdeen, Scotland

If I had the money I would have my nose 're-modelled', because all my life it has worried me that it is too big/long. I wouldn't expect it to make life better, but it would be a relief to be without the stress.
Marlene, Pendle, UK

One can do a Cosmetic surgery for improving the physical appearance. But remember its only external and there are more important things in life like food,water and shelter!
SP, Cologne,Germany

Do you think they have any idea how ridiculous they look?!
Clare, England

Surely your comments about Michael Jackson are misplaced. His skin was not bleached because he had a problem being black, but due to a problem in his skin producing melanin - hence he gained black and white patches. The only way to cover up this is to bleach the skin to the same shade.
Chris, London, UK

Here's a challenge for Clive - tell us something we don't all know already and do it a lot more quickly.
Bill, Swindon, Wilts

This is some of the best prose I've read in a long time. It even made me feel sorry for Pete Burns, which as an ex-Big Brother contestant is quite an achievement. Well done that man.
Attila, London

I looked up "plastic" in an online dictionary and came up with, amongst others, the following definitions: "artificial or insincere; synthetic; phony; lacking in depth, individuality, or permanence; superficial, dehumanized, or mass-produced; of or pertaining to the use of credit cards" Says it all really.
, Bath

The ever comical Clive James has had myself and my colleagues in fits of laughter reading this. He's right of course in every way in my view. Leave the plastic surgery to those that really need it. Well done Clive.
Matt Sale, London

Am I the only one who thinks that there must be something wrong with a society which looks up to youth and all things youthful while not appreciating what older people can contribute?
Bella Milne, Perth

What will these self-centred people do when they really need a life saving operation and have had too many anaesthetics. They should put their money to better use by helping the unfortunate children whose faces have been ravaged by disease/Noma in the 3rd world.
Angie, Milton Keynes

The thing I don't get is this, these people who do this to themselves actually look butt ugly, who wants botox lips and a JaLo rear? Give me all natural any day.
Christopher, Newcastle

I feel so sorry for these people who already have beautiful faces, but aren't happy with them. I thought Leslie Ash was such a beautiful woman, even envied her looks and then she had to spoil them by having plastic surgery, why, why why!
Lucienne Vranch, Horley, Surrey, England

Having groaned all the way through the latest rehash of old favourites like Cracker and Prime Suspect, I feared Clive James was also heading for that great seconds bin in the sky after reading last week's effort - on the assumption that the only reason he was writing for the BBC was that he'd been missing us after all these years. This week's column shows that the reverse was true. How can you miss someone so much without knowing it? Who else can make you think then make you laugh in the same sentence. This even makes me want to try my hand at reading some of the more arty-farty stuff on his website.
Tony Trantrer, Germany

Holding out almost at arms length examples of others Clive may have mildly amused himself. However having spent a career discussing TV I'm less than convinced he accidently came accross Celebrity Big Brother. His sneering observations of others do not hide the less than obvious disatification with himself and while I am not qualified to suggest where his sad rambling do belong, I'm certain however it is not on BBC news website . As my Dad always says, 'they should start with their brains'. He is, of course, talking about those who opt for plastic surgery rather than those whose disfigurements require it.
Lisa Schubert, York, England

I heard the original broadcast which I enjoyed tremendously and would reccommend to all middle age men and women as well as all parents of teenagers. Clive James made a very valuable and well considered point.
stephen, Dover, Kent

It's a real treat to read a Clive James article again, how I've missed him! The above piece was typical in that it made me laugh and moved me almost to tears in just a few words. Thanks Clive.
Linda Bryce, warrington

Clive James is the genius commentator of popular culture who takes the miskey out of it but totally earns the licence to do so because he does it so intelligently and with humanity. This article says it all about plastic surgery, Pete Burns, Michael Jackson. Vive JC!!
Greg, London

Pete Burns's neck looks like orange peel or Moroccan leather. That's a sympton of a rare recessive genetic problem called Pseudoxanthoma elastica. If he does have PXE and if he has it badly and he feels a need to look smooth-skinned, I can imagine he went for plastic surgery for what you might call valid reasons - not just vanity reasons.
Stephen Nicholas, London, United Kingdom

Plastic surgery purely for cosmetic reasons should be banned, but it wont be because so many make so much money from it.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

One needs sympathy where disease and medical conditions cause distressing disfigurement. However, celebrity vanity surgery is different. Once it's initial entertainment value has subsided, celebrity vanity surgery that goes wrong is easily fixed by a fairly large brown paper bag with a few holes in. The examples you give now need TWO of these bags.
cynic, UK

How sad this piece is. To judge yourself on what you perceive others will find physically attractive, and not on the person you try to be, smacks of superficiality or an ingrained lack of self-esteem. It is not a modern phenomenon, however. Just look at how men and women have tried to improve their appearance and have adorned themselves over the ages. We may like to think we are a sophisticated bunch, but the truth is we are simple beings with simple desires.
Ben Wire, London, UK

Actors are generally insecure, oversensitive people who have certain special needs with which we 'normal' people never have to deal. It is largely the Hollywood Hype that drives actors and actresses to do these horrible things to their face and bodies. In Los Angeles if you're in the movie business you're not allowed to age. You're a 'type' and you usually have to remain that 'type.' Few Hollywood actors are permitted to change. That's why they do it. Look at Judi Dench in 'Notes On A Scandal.' She has no fear of playing a character with grey in her hair and wrinkles on her face. Most American actresses would run a mile rather than doing what Ms. Dench can do with nary a second thought.
Paul Norton, London

I think I fall between the two categories outlined here. My surgery was brought about following an illness that meant that I looked "different". Although I wasn't horribly disfigured I'd get unwelcome comments, stared at and my children had to explain why their father was odd-looking. Although I continued to go out, stand in checkout queues etc I was very self-concious. After several surgeries I am now nearing the end of the process. Luckily I didn't rely on looks for my living. Those celebrities that undergo surgery are afraid for the future - they're not just silly and vain, but also desperate. I for one feel sorry for them.
Peter Travers, UK

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