Long Live the Mademoiselle Makeover!

March 23, 2011, by Prudence Baird

She waves her ink-filled wand and…poof! From frumpy to fabulous! Marvel at Prudence’s dedication to the magic of the makeover.

Like an annoying jingle that—with the right prompt—goes viral in a neural nanosecond, there’s a bit of pop culture ephemera skulking near the surface of my gray matter, ready to be triggered any time a certain visual cue crosses my line of sight.

And what, you might ask, is that cue? I’ll give you a hint: Drab to fab.

Yes, I’m talking about the legendary “Mademoiselle Makeover,” a regular installment of the now defunct Mademoiselle magazine, that glossy monthly that competed with Glamour and Seventeen magazines for smart young ladies’ attention for 66 years before it finally folded in 2001.

Maybe you can relate if you, like me, were a devotee of the column that featured normal-looking (okay, somewhat dowdy) young women, who, with the help of the Mademoiselle fashion and beauty editors (and products from the magazine’s advertisers) morphed into beauties from their former beastly selves. This monthly step-by-step narrative implied that behind every lumpy Plain Jane lurked a paint-by-numbers Anne Hathaway-like princess yearning to emerge from her cocoon and fly off to a new-and-improved life on gossamer wings.

The message: Magic can happen; all you need is the right makeover!

I once yearned to be among the chosen—the one lucky girl a month who was singled out to be made-over for the entire world (or at least the readership of Mademoiselle) to admire. But the magazine’s New York-based editorial staff simply wasn’t looking for a ragamuffin in frayed jeans, vintage Hawaiian shirts and huarache sandals, smoking in the student parking lot of a large public high school in Pasadena, California.

But that didn’t stop me from perseverating on the makeover ideal; the concept that changed looks could change lives.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. He found that individuals who have changed human history with their achievements, enriching both themselves and mankind, have been subject to what he dubs “the 10,000 hour rule” meaning they have invested at least 10,000 hours becoming experts in whatever field of endeavor in which they’ve made history.

Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, even the Beatles, all put in their dues practicing their art, their science, their passion for the equivalent of 417 days. Nonstop.

Instead of programming computers, perfecting my performance of a musical instrument or developing the atomic bomb, I somewhat sheepishly admit that I have devoted at least 10,000 hours making over friends, relatives, classmates and the occasional complete stranger. Old yearbooks bear witness to my passion, with faces transformed with eyeliner, plunging necklines, upswept hair and lipstick, dutifully drawn in Bic pen blue.

This is a talent I cannot turn off.

Everywhere I go—and I mean everywhere— my makeover machinery grinds into gear with the sight of a woman who could use a little this and a little that.

Yesterday, for instance, at my son’s high school, I saw another mother, a 50ish woman in man-tailored pin-striped pants and high heels, long stringy hair and Sarah Palin’s old glasses. She reeled down the hall, the white buttons on her two rear pockets tracing invisible infinity symbols as her 42-inch wide hips swayed from side-to-side.

Instantly, I had her out of those pants, and into a tiered, earth-toned peasant skirt, cowboy boots and shoulder-length, blunt-cut, lightly waved hair. Squarish glasses were replaced with Annie Hall retros, a tapestry vest with brass buttons added polish to a dolman-sleeved blouse, and a warm Pashima was casually thrown over her shoulders against the 45-degree night air. Her Cruella D’Ville blood-red lipstick was switched out for a soft, pinky buff, and dangly brass earrings completed her Vermont mom ensemble; perfect for the woman with few wrinkles and a wide bottom.

Am I right or am I right?

When I studied for my master’s degree, I often sat in round-table seminars facing the other, mostly female students. While my classmates dutifully checked their Facebook accounts, pretending to attend to the lecture, I systematically—and in my mind’s eye, of course—made over each and every one of my fellow students, down to the last detail.

One day, a bushy haired woman in her mid-50s plopped down next to me and blurted out, “I wish I knew what to do with my hair.”

Kismet! I whipped out the class roster that featured horrid little black & white mug shots of each of us next to our names.

“Check this out,” I said, my pencil moving at lightning speed, taming the mass of wiry brown and grey locks into a neat bob, short in the back and with tapered long bangs that covered her crows feet. She stared at the photo as if seeing herself for the first time.

“Wow,” she marveled. “Can I take this to my salon?” she asked, laying a tentative hand on the page.

“Of course,” I chuckled indulgently. After all, with 10,000 hours under my belt, I qualify as a Mademoiselle Makeover Outlier, keeping a rich, albeit somewhat shallow, tradition alive. I can afford to be generous.

I wonder, what have you spent 10,000 hours doing?

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18 Responses to “Long Live the Mademoiselle Makeover!”

  1. Conz Says:

    Sooo funny, Pru. I’m still waiting for someone to love me enough to turn me in to “What Not to Wear”.

  2. sylvia shap Says:

    Loved that,Prudence! I’ve been doing my own version of makeovers for years having spent at least 100,000 hours
    painting portraits,so I really got a kick out of hearing about some of yours. I still have to wrestle with myself to keep from speaking up to someone I happen to be standing next to at street corners while waiting to cross if they “need help”!

  3. rosemary Says:

    Wow. You really kept your mouth shut around me. Was it that bad? I guess I am one giant “Glamour Don’t.” I haven’t been to the hairdresser in weeks and the gray hair line is like a neon sign on my head, I’m wearing an old Lake Quinault t-shirt ten sizes too big and really old leggings from Sears. What do you say to that?

  4. Maria Says:

    Oh, this is soooo true…when I commuted to downtown LA, I used to makeover the people on the bus (talk about a Frumpy-fest!). I was my own version of the Fashion Police!

    I still find myself thinking, “Fashion DO” or “Fashion DON’T” as I go throughout my day. My teenage daughters have taught me the art of Creeper Pictures…so now, I can capture (mostly) the “Fashion DON’T” people and share them.

    Oooh, should we start another magazine?

  5. tim Says:

    you really don’t want to know what your male readers have been doing in private and imagining in public for ten thousand hours. trust me, dear.

  6. Carine Says:

    I don’t know how many times I have thought, “She doesn’t know how to dress for her body type.” Because I’m thin, people often tell me I should wear more body-moulding dresses and pants. They just don’t know that the reason I prefer loose-fitting clothes is because I know how to dress for my body! I haven’t spent 10,000 hours thinking about how I would make women over but I have spent at least 10,000 hours thinking about how great it would be if I wrote a NY Times bestseller! Does that mean I am an expert and should hang my shingle doling out advice to unpublished authors?

  7. dearpru Says:

    Hahaha! Funny friends! Rosemary, how could you think I’d make you over? You’re purrfect!

    Maria, I totally believe you–as you are the one who turned me on to that great “people at Walmart” website. Gawd. I still think of that one in the leopard leotard.

    Carine, yes, by all means, hang out a shingle. As discussed, if Christine Northrup can sell “expert” advice on how wise menopause is, as a four- or five-times published author, you are certainly qualified to offer novice writers advice!

  8. dearpru Says:

    Tim, darling, yes, please, keep your X-rated thoughts to yourself! And I so appreciate you allowing me to make over your wardrobe! Remember all those red and black fake Izod shirts you brought to our marriage? Even our gardener wouldn’t wear them!

  9. mellimel Says:

    I’ve often longed for the Oprah makeover. Not for the clothes but for the hair and makeup. I do better with the clothes.
    But Pru, the peasant skirt? No I don’t think you are right about that. I think the only place a peasant skirt should be seen and worn by anyone is on a tropical beach. Just not feeling that. Peasant layers, = frump to me unless you are barefoot on a beach somewhere.

  10. Cathy Says:

    Makeovers have always been popular. Probably since Cleopatra lined her eyes with kohl women have been using the “tools” we have to transform our outer being. With the ongoing popularity of makeover shows — from What Not to Wear to home makeovers to bad girls in charm school and even The Swan (remember that plastic surgery reality show!?) — people hold hope for transformation and reinvention, and when it’s as easy as buying some new clothes or a new lipstick, well, bing bang boom! it’s magic! Pru, the talent you “can’t turn off” may seem shallow, but no no no, you are offering hope to the hopeless. Thank you for the reminder, that some things are actually controllable and that a smile from the outside in can be a ticket to positive change.

  11. Tom Says:

    This is great Pru!
    Tim – Maybe that was a 100,000 hour task. But somewhere along the line we also put in 10,000 hours of just being good company and by surprise find ourselves presentable in polite company.

  12. dearpru Says:

    I cannot believe I have to defend the 3-tiered peasant skirt. Listen, ladies! If you have a big butt, everyone knows it anyway. Putting on a 3-layer cake is merely a celebration of a well-known, very perceivable fact.

    One of my biggest Glamour Don’ts is big ladies who wear black slacks and tunic tops. Exactly WHO is being fooled by that so-called slimming get-up? Fatsos in all-black are merely negative space made even more negative with lint.

    When Robin Williams (fireplug that he is) comes out on stage in his long black coat over his black pants and black t-shirt, my first thought is, “I guess we know who’s been over-eating!”

  13. tim Says:

    they weren’t fake. the izod shirts. had the little monkey on ‘em and everything.

  14. dearpru Says:

    Umm, Tim. The real Izods had crocodiles or alligators, not monkeys.

  15. tim Says:


  16. breon Says:

    Prudence, you are wonderful. I’d let you make me over any day. Except that I don’t have the energy for anything new. While you are making people over in your head, I am writing people’s stories in my head, only I’m just narrating them really–I never get around to writing them. You and Tim together make me laugh–and your writing is full of wit and insight.

  17. Cathy Says:

    The peasant skirt is making a big comeback this summer. I’m just sayin’…

  18. dearpru Says:

    Vis-a-vis Cathy’s comment: Told ya! And Breon, making you over? What me, mess with perfection?!

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