It's a Double-Edged Scalpel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She's confessed, but America is busily assessing her guilt. "The jury is out," Greta Van Susteren observed in her usual wry manner. The former CNN anchor wasn't talking about a trial or even her new show, "On the Record," which premiered on Fox News Channel on Monday. She was referring to her plastic surgery, which was making headlines even before her first new broadcast.

The blond 47-year-old looks less wrinkled and, to use that popular euphemism, "fresher."

"I'm afraid that when the swelling goes down, people will say something about me spending money and not getting a result," Van Susteren said in an interview Wednesday about the eye job she had on Jan. 11. The bags below her eyes, even the forehead lines and the scruffy eyebrows that had given her face character were erased by either the cosmetic surgeon's scalpel or clever makeup.

What is perhaps most shocking about Van Susteren's eye tuck is not how it made her look, but how it immediately made her a pioneer, even though she's far from the first celebrity to admit, willingly or not, to cosmetic surgery. Actress Pamela Anderson Lee was cheered for discussing why she had her breast implants removed nearly three years ago, while Linda Tripp and Paula Jones became as talked about for their plastic surgery transformations as for their part in the Clinton scandals. With each admission or revelation, vanity--not candor--becomes the center of discussion.

As a network news anchor who admitted to surgery, Van Susteren broke a code of not-so-secret secrecy among her colleagues and illuminated society's conflicted feelings about our emphasis on appearance, the nature of news and women's place in it. Evidently, as a journalist she is supposed to be immune to vanity--and to the effects of aging. She's been surprised by the reactions, some of which seem more fitting for a criminal.

"The strangest question was, am I worried about affecting my credibility?" she said. "The doctor didn't remove my education and experience. The second thing is, how come when I'm open and honest, there is a question about my credibility? But if I keep it quiet, hide and lie, my credibility is supposed to be better?"

She has found it odd that her new look has caused observers to conclude that she had Botox injections (she says she hasn't), changed her hair, her brows and even the kinds of clothes she wears. For the record, she says her haircut, highlights and suit aren't new. Though Van Susteren says the media have treated her decision kindly, she's now earned a new identity.

"I'm the poster child," she said. "Any time there is an article on plastic surgery, my name will appear. Having plastic surgery is not shoplifting. People have treated it like, 'Oh, my God! She got plastic surgery!' But I say, if people don't notice it, you are wasting your money."

Cosmetic surgery may, indeed, obliterate wrinkles and bags, but the result almost always creates an odd juxtaposition of 25-year-old parts peering out from a frozen expression on a decades-older body. Even as surgeons are better able to cover their tracks with less invasive techniques, the increased awareness of cosmetic surgery has made it easier to spot. We don't buy the old white lies and excuses for swelling, bruises and, weeks later, a strangely different countenance.

So perhaps Van Susteren was forced to show her hand--or rather, the handiwork of her doctor. The anchor looks startlingly different than she did at her previous job at CNN, partly because her face is still quite swollen. Since her surgery has "become the public spectacle," she has mostly given up trying to mitigate the swelling.

She denies that having, or admitting to, the surgery was a publicity ploy. "I'm not that clever," she said. And while it's tempting to paint the anchor as another aging woman desperate to stay competitive in the ageist and sexist world of TV news, Van Susteren insists she had the surgery on a whim while waiting to start her new show.

"It's not this thing that I sat around debating," she said. "Had CNN or Fox told me to do it, I would never have done it." She added that her decision didn't derive from insecurity. "At 47, I've been happily married for 15 years. I intend to spend the rest of my life with my husband. I have another career I can fall back on," said the former defense attorney, who earned credibility as an analyst during the O.J. Simpson trial. "And I'm not out looking for men."

Though Van Susteren may have been free of the typical pressures to have surgery, some observers said her actions add to the incentive for other women.

"It's a bad indicator," said Dana Adams, a former network correspondent who coached other newscasters through her Adams Broadcast Consulting business. "I think it's kind of sad that women continue to have to prostitute ourselves and share our innermost secrets." Cosmetic surgery has become a fact of life in television news. "You not only have to get it," Adams said, "you have to admit it. As we age, women become hags and men become seasoned."

Whether it is done for good reasons or bad, plastic surgery plays into the entertainment values and emphasis on looks that have infiltrated the most strict and serious levels of TV journalism, said former network reporter Cynthia Kennard, who is now an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

"It's all blurred now," Kennard said. "It's so difficult to teach in an environment like that. Here you are in a classroom, and you try to talk to students about ethics and standards and covering your community, your police department and your legislature, and instead, the nation is talking about Greta Van Susteren's eye job. And she's talking about it, too."

In the new era of high-definition TV that shows all, surgery may become more commonplace. And now that the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve Botox for cosmetic uses, more frozen faces may appear on TV as traditional cosmetics fail to rise to the challenge.

(Botox is a toxin that, when injected into the skin, temporarily paralyzes some facial muscles, thus reducing the appearance of wrinkles.)

"The medium of television doesn't hide anything," said Jeff Wald, news director at KTLA and a former consultant to newscasters. "If the lighting isn't right or someone had a bad day, you can put on as much makeup as you want, but the camera sees that stuff.

"Now with all the new digital equipment out there, you see everything."

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