The Oprah Winfrey Show is remembered for unforgettable moments — like that time Oprah gave everybody a car, that time Tom Cruise jumped on her cream-colored couch, and that time 20,000 of her fans and staff formed a brilliant/terrifying flash mob. Oh, and who could ever forget a single Oprah's Favorite Things episode, during which the audience would erupt in hysterics and convulse in the aisles for, like, a flower subscription service.
Those scenes were all great — iconic, even — but for me, the best moments on that show were when Oprah decided to give someone a makeover.
Before Queer Eye and its predecessor Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, The Oprah Show ruled the makeover game. These people were good. Her team was, in my belief, miracle workers with superpowers. You'd see unassuming, unshaved dudes turn into studs. You'd see women come in looking like Blossom, and leave looking like movie stars.
These are segments from the show that I don't just remember, but ones that I've come to rewatch again and again via YouTube — especially in the dark moments in our society when we feel closer to the end of the world than ever. Maybe it's that I miss having a constantly nurturing presence on daytime TV, or I get a rush seeing people undergo such an unbelievable transformation. Whatever it is, watching old Oprah Show makeovers is my therapy. It is deeply my shit.
Many of the makeovers are still astonishingly great — even today, exactly 32 years after the show's first episode. Just take a look at this one focusing on self-proclaimed "rock 'n' roll hair couple" Wendy and Tim, who both don ridiculously long, '80s metal rock hair despite it being 2002. The couple is looking for a change; Wendy wants to look like Jennifer Aniston and Tim wants to look more like Mel Gibson.
With the help of the Oprah team, the two are jettisoned into the 21st century, with Wendy coming out looking like a dead ringer for Meg Ryan...
... and Tim going from a Metallica band member to a hunky, Tom Cruise-y dad.
They both absolutely love it.
In another episode from 1999, Oprah calmly talks to a woman who hasn't cut her hair in 22 (22!) years. The woman, Susan, said she'd only cut it if she got on The Oprah Winfrey Show — and now here she is. "This is a big deal," Oprah says, as Susan looks at her misty-eyed. Clearly equal parts excited and terrified, Susan ends up getting a makeover that makes her look like Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give.
But while some of these videos are mesmerizing and a true joy, other haven't aged as well and serve as a reminder for just how far we've come in terms of how we view makeovers today. In one episode from 1993, a mother named Bernadette commissions Oprah and her team to make over her daughter, Candice. The 15-year-old wears super baggy shorts that hit below the knees, an oversized white T-shirt, a black baseball hat that reads "Las Vegas," and chunky sneakers with equally chunky socks. The mother wants to put her in something that — and I quote — "shows that she's a girl."
The transformation that Candace goes through is extreme and horrifying and, to be totally honest, sad. She walks out post-makeover with her head (which now sports a swingy bob) hung low, looking like a pirate complete with a fringe vest and the infamous puffy shirt from Seinfeld — risen from the dead and hungry for revenge. The teen appears positively miserable, and the whole thing is a cringe-fest. That same year, there's an Oprah Show makeover in which a teenage girl gets turned in by her mother for dressing "like a freak."
So what makes Jan, Susan, Wendy, and Tim's transformations different than Candace's (besides the obvious and offensive gender stereotypes of the early 90s)? The willingness of the participants. When someone wants to be made over, watching them turn into a new person is invigorating. Watching someone being forced into a makeover they didn't ask for feels dated and just wrong.
That's part of the reason shows like Queer Eye have recently succeeded because the hosts, first and foremost, consider the individual's personal style, taste, and feelings first — and then take the makeover from there. Watching these old makeovers back reminds you that beauty and style used to largely be about conforming to the norms, expectations, and trends of the time. Now, it's about celebrating what makes you unique, and thank god for that.