The flap between Bob Dole and the NAACP had a certain conversationally exploitable value, but Cher was the hot topic this week at the water coolers and nail salons I frequent. Stumping for a new album, she had appeared on "Dateline," "Good Morning America," "Late Night With David Letterman" and the "Charlie Rose" show (in a Kool-Aid red wig). Cher hadn't been in the public eye in a while, not since her long-shelved black comedy "Faithful" surfaced briefly in theaters in April. The most common reaction to the media swath she cut: "Why does she look so strange? What went wrong?"
According to several local plastic surgeons and cosmetic dermatologists, an inventory of the procedures Cher has undergone in the name of self-improvement would include braces (in 1984), at least one nose job, a face lift, cheek implants, a possible chin implant, injections of bovine collagen to plump up facial lines, and silicon or fat injections to thicken the lips. That's the educated guess list above the collarbone. No telling what's been tucked, lifted or sucked below it.
Of course it's her face, and she can do what she wants with it. She's always been a wonderfully outrageous sartorial role model. Think you're getting a bit "mature" for the biker-chick look? Maybe not, if Cher still flaunts it. Yet the results she has achieved in defiance of Mother Nature have begun to get in the way of some excellent work. In his review of "Faithful," Newsday film critic Jack Mathews wrote: "Pardon the bluntness, but she's had so much cosmetic surgery you can't get through a single close-up without marveling at the cadaverous mask she has become."
Such comments are of interest to boomers who not so long ago were blissfully ignorant of terms like "nasal-labial creases" or "coronal incisions." As they marvel at the ever-expanding art of the possible and consider a nip here, a little chemical peel there, they observe the barren landscape of Cher's once beautifully angled face and ponder whether the choice is to surrender to the ravages of time and gravity or to look like her?
Experts say the tendency to overdo is seen in a statistically small group of cosmetic overachievers like Michael Jackson. (Question: Why is the Jackson family a little like Pinocchio? Answer: Every time they tell a lie, their noses get smaller.) Mean jokes aside, exceeding plastic surgery critical mass--by going beyond a reasonable number of procedures--can make the desired outcome difficult to control. The timing is also significant. Too much too soon may exhaust the elasticity of delicate facial skin. Waiting too long can make an extensive overhaul unavoidable.
It's easy to be judgmental about the obvious vanity of our culture's heroes and heroines, but unless an actor reaches the age and stature of Jessica Tandy, the natural aging process, including weight gain, isn't tolerated. To understand the pressures for beauty and perfection that plague entertainers, you'd almost have to walk a block in their Gucci loafers.
Beverly Hills-based Francis Palmer III, director of facial plastic surgery at the USC School of Medicine, says, "We expect actors and actresses to be larger than life, to look a certain way. In pursuit of perfection, they sometimes go over the edge. Sometimes there is a need for a compassionate surgeon who will say, 'It's time to stop.' The problem is a plastic surgery junkie, especially one with a lot of money and influence, will keep looking until she finds someone who'll do what she thinks she needs."
How ironic that one of Cher's best performances was as the mother of a facially deformed boy in "Mask." In that film she so eloquently communicated the message that true beauty lies within.
* Sense of Style is published Thursdays.