After I finished decrying “The Swan” premiere as a particularly disturbing blight on reality television, a funny thing happened. E-mails began dribbling in from women who read the review and, far from sharing my righteous indignation, were desperate to learn how they could become contestants.So much for persuading people to throw off their bonds of shallowness and not be slaves to our media-saturated culture’s images of beauty. Indeed, bracing for the show’s May 24 finale — when some nipped and tucked “ugly duckling” will be crowned you-know-what — prompted me to wonder if I, too, can achieve “transformation” and become a better critic and person. Who better to ask, I thought, than “Swan” creator Nely Galan, who gets billed on the program as a “life coach.” Granted, I mainly remember her as an executive whose stint at Telemundo was an exercise in futility, but we’ve already established that I have this problem with negativity. Before I took her life advice, however, I asked Galan about her life-coaching experience, as I would with any other specialist. And guess what? She doesn’t have any. Yes, she said in an interview, she’s given friends advice and been through therapy herself, but no one has ever paid her for the privilege. In other words, Galan calling herself a “life coach” would be the equivalent of some college kid buying a “sex instructor” T-shirt and then trying to pass himself off as an expert. (OK, so sue me, I was younger then.) “I don’t even know if there’s such a thing as professional life coaching,” Galan said, apparently having missed the recent Los Angeles Times article about what is clearly a rather hinky profession. In terms of qualifications, Galan’s specialty appears to involve being able to sell Fox a TV show, having done “a lot of work on myself” in fostering a positive attitude and exchanging advice with other career women. Let’s hope the guys on the show suctioning fat and remodeling noses have been held to a somewhat more rigorous standard. Nevertheless, Galan said, “I am very good at helping people find their mission in life,” which includes assisting me in deciding what to do with mine. It’s easy to laugh derisively, of course, and rest assured, I am. Yet based on my correspondence with aspiring Swans, Galan is mining fertile terrain, because there are lots of people out there who could use some life coaching, and fast. “I am a 24-year-old wife and mother of two children,” one email read. “I feel like my body has been ruined! I had my first daughter at 17. … I need a new nose, liposuction, and NEW BREASTS! Can you help me, is there any way to get on the show?” Maybe this life coaching business is tougher than I imagined, because it’s a little late to go with my first impulse — namely, advising her not to get knocked up at 16. “I am in desperate need of a serious makeover/change in my life,” pleaded another woman equally convinced that a new nose or less flab would unlock the door to happiness. Those who buy into “The Swan” mystique have also exhibited zero patience with critics. On Fox’s online forums, women become agitated when anyone dares to criticize the program for promising simple (and potentially dangerous) solutions to complex problems, reinforcing a mind-set that prompts young girls to barf up lunch or suffer from low self-esteem based solely on their appearance. “If you feel so strongly about the motives behind it, damn it! Stop watching!” wrote one. “I love the show and would also like to know where to sign up. I can tell you right now, I do not have any issues with myself. Hell, I just want a flat tummy and a sexy butt (for free!).” Galan has adopted a similar attitude toward criticism, though she agreed to an interview despite my earlier suggestion that she might become the most hated woman in reality television. Producing “The Swan,” she insists, has been “the most magical experience of my career … (and) it really doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.” In fact, she’s already looking beyond the program’s second season to a spin-off book and “Swan” competition for men, which won’t possess nearly the same appeal. For whatever reason, too many men see bloated bellies in the mirror and still think they’re staring at Russell Crowe, and many are hostile to makeover concepts. As a friend of mine observed, “It’s yet another way to prey on insecure people.” So maybe Galan isn’t UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who taught players to follow his “Pyramid of Success.” As an exec producer on a reasonably successful TV show, she’s more than willing to dispense advice toward achieving some sort of “trapezoid of transformation.” “Most people think they want something and they really want something else,” she began, summing up her life-coaching philosophy. “Once you figure out what you want, it’s easy to get it.” Hmm. Had I known this earlier in life, I might very well be playing in the NBA and sharing a beach bungalow with Halle Berry. “Who are you jealous of?” Galan continued, suggesting that the answer to that question “shows you your inadequacies.” Given my own exceptionally long list, I asked Galan whom she envies. “I’m jealous of people who create brands,” she said after a pause, eventually conceding that she “used to be jealous of Martha Stewart.” (Let’s assume that the past tense reference means she doesn’t harbor any hidden desire to go to jail.) Obviously, there’s something alluring about having a third party solve your problems, even if they live inside a household appliance that many of us spend untold hours watching. Yet such fantasies resonate most powerfully among those who are most vulnerable, and when Galan told me, “I sleep well at night,” well, the idea of fragile people viewing “The Swan” as a source of salvation is enough to keep me tossing and turning. So thanks, “coach,” you have taught me a valuable lesson: In the big game of life, it seems that anyone with enough ambition and chutzpah can claim that they’re holding a playbook.
- Triptyk Studios, New York, New York
- Petrol Advertising, Burbank, California
- Bridgewater Associates, Westport, Connecticut
- Company Confidential, Aspen, Colorado
- Save the Children, Fairfield, Connecticut