The Most Despicable Reality Show Ever Made: The Swan

In the archives of reality TV history, The Swan cemented itself as one of the most unethical and inhuman series. Described as taking women who were “ugly ducklings and turning them into beautiful “swans,” the series generated plenty of controversy when it aired in 2004. It’s no surprise that it ended after two seasons.

Before and after looks / A contestant before surgery / Crowning The Swan winner / The Swan Pageant
Source: FOX

Cameras rolled as doctors nipped, tucked, and sculpted women into “enhanced” versions of themselves. The Swan also had a competition element to add more stress to the situation. However, participants were left with both emotional and physical issues when it ended. See what went down behind the scenes of this awful show.

All the Contestants Were Called Ugly

Many of us have heard the tale of the ugly duckling who grows up to be a beautiful swan. While that was a cute children’s story, no one ever thought it would be used as the premise of a reality TV makeover show. The Swan, which premiered in 2004, took that idea and ran with it.

The Swan contestants pose together.
Source: FOX

Each episode started with two women who were deemed “ugly ducklings” in reference to that fairytale. The cruel introduction implied that these women were only valued for their appearance. It made average-looking women feel they needed to change everything to be considered beautiful.

Contestants Were Molded to Look the Same

Each woman who participated in The Swan was introduced to a surgeon who would give them a picture of what they could look like after all their surgeries. It seemed they only had one ideal standard of beauty because every contestant was made to look like the stereotypical “beauty queen.”

The contestants pose together at the reunion.
Source: Facebook

Each woman was transformed into a conventionally attractive “swan” with a fake smile, hair extensions, breast implants, and a smaller waist. Anything that made the women unique from each other was sliced away on the operating table because being different wasn’t considered beautiful on this series. It sent a negative message.

They Couldn’t Look in the Mirror

During their three-month stay at the house, contestants were not allowed to look in any mirrors. It was a way to preserve the surprise for the “grand reveal” of their new faces and bodies. Maybe it was also to stop them from realizing how beautiful they were without surgeries.

Beth views herself in a mirror after her transformation.
Source: FOX

This type of deprivation can be seriously harmful to a person’s mental health. Some psychologists have argued that staying away from mirrors makes people focus less on physical beauty. However, in the case of the contestants on The Swan, it added extra stress because they couldn’t see their progress.

Contestants Had Little Control

While the women were drastically changing their appearance, they actually had little control over what procedures they would have or what they wanted to look like. It was a bit off-putting for viewers because the contestants couldn’t look in the mirror or decide if they wanted to have surgery or not.

A contestant sits in a hospital room before surgery.
Source: FOX

Former contestant Lorrie Arias was horrified by her transformation and broke down when the cameras were off. She screamed at the executive producer because she had no idea what they were doing to her face. Arias said she wanted her face back. She felt like she was looking at a different person.

There Was an Element of Competition

If the concept for The Swan wasn’t questionable enough, the producers added an element of competition. Each episode put two women against each other to see who would compete in the Swan Pageant at the end of the season. It added more stress to the already stressful situation.

The Swan contestants stand on stage at The Swan Pageant
Source: FOX

To qualify as the winner of the episode, the women were graded on their work ethic and the amount of progress they made in changing themselves. It sent a message to the losing women that they weren’t beautiful enough after undergoing long and painful surgeries.

They Took Advantage of Contestants

You might be wondering why anyone would have signed up for a show like this. But those who did apply to be on The Swan had self-esteem issues, and the series harped on how “ugly” they all were. The producers took advantage of these vulnerable women.

Before and after images of a contestant on The Swan.
Source: YouTube

The producers knew that these women just wanted to be considered beautiful, so they used the contestants as props to be molded into whatever the doctors and coaches wanted. When the contestants were sent home, they were left thinking they weren’t worthy.

Producers Told Doctors What to Say

Reality TV hasn’t always had the best reputation for being 100 percent authentic. So, it comes as no surprise that parts of The Swan were staged. In some episodes, plastic surgeons like Dr. Terry Dubrow were encouraged not to say certain things to the women.

Dr. Randal Haworth takes part in an interview.
Source: CBS

Dr. Randal Haworth said they weren’t allowed to express their feelings. He said he was censored in saying what he thought. Instead of expressing different opinions to the patients about the process, the producers made the surgeons repeat the same things.

The Wrong Impression About Surgery

Although he was a doctor on the show, Haworth was critical of how The Swan portrayed the surgical and recovery process. The women were only there for three months, so they had to compress the procedure and recovery process into a short time.

A plastic surgeon talks to a contestant in the hospital.
Source: YouTube

Haworth said, “It gave the impression that the procedures were done all at once or in rapid succession.” Since they only had an hour to show three months of work, it seemed like healing occurred faster than in real life. But the women needed more downtime than shown.

Therapy Ended When the Contestants Left

The Swan mainly focused on the participants’ outer beauty, but they also worked with a therapist. The producers probably only added that element to make the show look better. Unfortunately, many did not have a good experience with Dr. Lynn Ianni.

A contestant post-surgery is talking on the phone.
Source: FOX

Arias said the therapist didn’t treat her properly. The former contestant revealed, “When filming stopped, so did my meetings with the therapist. She was a working psychologist who had her own practice, so she was busy. The doctor opened up old emotional wounds and didn’t help me work through them.”

The “Swan Coach” Was Awful

Besides the plastic surgeons and therapist, the show featured “Swan Coach” Nely Galan. She also happened to be one of the executive producers of The Swan. Calling her a “coach” is a loose term because she was highly judgmental of the women.

Nely Galan visits Hollywood Today Live
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

She criticized the contestants for the food they brought and humiliated them for complaining at the gym or not wearing girdles. Galan said everything in a “helpful” tone, but her words cut deep. If anything, Galan made the participants feel worse about themselves.

Most of the Contestants Are Divorced

Whether it’s a coincidence, almost all of the contestants from The Swan are now divorced. Many of the women came into it struggling with deep-rooted insecurities, and The Swan only addressed what was on the outside instead of the underlying issues.

A Swan contestant with her husband on their wedding day.
Source: YouTube

Their self-esteem issues drove them to make drastic changes to their appearances. When you think about the intense process, their time away, and the fact that they came home looking like entirely different people, it’s no surprise that their marriages were affected.

Contestants Had Problems After the Show

If you have seen just one episode of The Swan, you could tell it was a disaster. Even after it went off the air, the effects on the contestants were long-lasting. Lorrie Arias from Season 2 has spoken up about her horrible experience on the show and how it negatively changed her life.

Lorrie Arias attends an event.
Photo by Brian Putnam/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Sadly, Arias is embarrassed to leave the house these days. She gained back all the weight she lost on The Swan and developed body dysmorphic disorder and depression. Arias also found out that she has lupus and bipolar disorder. She admitted that it didn’t fix her problems with self-esteem.

She Would Do It Again

Despite Arias’ strong feelings after the show, she admitted that she would do it again. She said, “Knowing what I know now, knowing I would gain the weight again, and knowing I wouldn’t have that other face. At least I could be a big and pretty person.”

Lorrie Arias before / Lorrie Arias after
Source: YouTube

She had the most procedures out of any contestant. Arias told the Huffington Post that she got a lot of negative reactions, and even her son wasn’t happy with the transformation. However, that wouldn’t stop her from putting herself through the grueling process again.

She Was the First Contestant

Kelly Alemi was the first contestant to walk into The Swan house on Season 1. When she left, she looked like a completely different person, and it was a shock to see herself the first time. Alemi shared they had to retake her photo because she said, “That kinda doesn’t look like me.”

Kelly Alemi before and after her makeover.
Source: YouTube

The producers told her not to react the same way the second time, so it would seem more positive. Luckily, Alemi was one of the few people who liked her look by the end of the show and thought her life was better because of the experience.

She Got More Surgery

Season 1 runner-up, Cindy Ingle, felt amazing after her transformation. It has been close to two decades since the show, and Ingle admitted that she still feels beautiful. She has also gotten more surgery since her time on The Swan because of an accident.

Cindy Ingle after the show.
Source: FOX

Ingle was playing baseball when the ball hit her in the face. She had to have some reconstructive surgery after her injury. Ingle had eight surgeries on the show, and her kids didn’t recognize her. However, the makeover gave her the confidence boost she needed.

They Got Paid Each Week

Belinda Bessant of Season 1 shared her journey on The Swan and gave a behind-the-scenes look into what really went down. She had to take off four months from her job and stay in the housing provided by the show.

The Swan Contestants go out to dinner.
Source: Facebook

Bessant said her parents watched her son while she was away, and she helped them financially with the money from the show. The participants were paid $500 a week, so Besset sent most of it to her parents. However, the money didn’t make up for the conditions.

They Were Cut Off from the World

The contestants were all flown to LA and put in an apartment complex. The producers went to great lengths to prevent the women from knowing what was happening. They unplugged the TVs, banned them from buying magazines, and only allowed them once-a-week calls to home.

A contestant checks out her reflection.
Source: YouTube

Bessant said she was only allowed to speak to her family for ten minutes, and the conversations were recorded for the show. The women would sneak into each other’s apartments to socialize, but they had chaperones everywhere else they went.

They Didn’t Know It Was a Competition

Because the contestants were trapped in their own world while the show aired, they had no idea how different the final product was from what they thought they were filming. Until the last moment, the women didn’t even know there was a pageant at the end.

A contestant before and after the show.
Source: YouTube

The participants thought they were getting a chance to better themselves, and The Swan would show how much they improved. Behind the scenes, the women became close friends, but the show was edited to make them seem competitive, superficial, and catty.

The “Before” Pictures Were Edited

Bessant said she liked some of the surgeries she had. She thought about having a breast reduction and LASIK for a long time, and it was nice to have it done for free. However, Bessant wasn’t happy with the other surgeries that changed her face structure. She liked the way it looked before.

Before and after photos of a Swan contestant.
Source: FOX

She didn’t know why the doctors suggested an eyebrow lift and cheekbone surgery because she didn’t need it. Bessant said the “before” pictures were made to make the contestants look as ugly as possible, but she didn’t look that bad.

The Producers Wanted Her to Do More

Season 1 contestant Tawnya Cooke was the oldest contestant, and she went on the show to feel better about herself after a divorce. Cooke had a tummy tuck, liposuction, nose filling, brow lift, eyelift, and veneers. However, the producers wanted more.

Tawnya Cooke on The Swan.
Source: Myspace

Cooke revealed that the producers wanted to do many more surgeries, but she refused. She said she didn’t want to look in the mirror and “not see Tawnya.” They wanted to turn Cooke into a completely different person, but she pushed back and got her way.

She Called Everyone “Cry Babies”

While most of the contestants were edited to look mean, Season 1 winner Rachel Love was actually rude. Love, who is now divorced, heard that some of the ex-Swans were unhappy with the effects of the show, so she called them “cry babies.”

Rachel Love before and after her makeover.
Source: YouTube

Love thought the producers would have helped the women who had problems with their surgeries a little more. However, she added, “What can you expect from them? Reality shows aren’t there to guide you for the rest of your life.” Love clearly didn’t have issues with her transformation.

Nely Galan Defended the Show

As the show’s creator, Galan obviously wouldn’t admit how horrible The Swan was. She defended it by saying a nip tuck is the same as giving your car a fresh coat of paint. Galan added, “Why should women walk around, with a stomach or boobs that bother them, when it can be fixed?”

Nely Galan visits Hollywood Today Live.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Galan wanted to extend the concept of the show and create a similar reality competition for men. It seems she wanted to form a TV empire. However, The Swan received a lot of negative backlash, so Galan’s plans never took off.

The Goal Was to Impress the Judges

Whether they knew it or not, the end goal of the show was to impress the judges and win the grand prize of a modeling contract. The first season’s judges included Susie Castillo (Miss USA 2003), Valerie Trott (a model manager), and Judith Regan (a publisher of self-help books).

Two contestants from The Swan stand together.
Source: YouTube

The other two judges were Tara Kraft (beauty director of Star magazine) and Mike Ruiz (a fashion photographer). The pageant consisted of four categories: evening gown, swimsuit, Q&A, and lingerie. They didn’t win much, considering everything the women went through.

One Contestant Dropped Out

There were many rules for the contestants because they weren’t allowed to know what was going on outside the show or see their evolving selves. Season 1 contestant Tanya Slovich was so concerned with how she might look that she snuck in a mirror.

A contestant checks out her face.
Source: YouTube

Slovich was supposed to go to the pageant but dropped out after being caught with the mirror. She apparently chose to leave even though she was more likely disqualified for breaking the rules. Slovich just wanted to know what the doctors did to her face.

The Season 2 Winner Got Less

Although the show received terrible ratings, The Swan returned for a second season. However, unlike Season 1, the winner of Season 2 was only awarded a contract as a spokesperson and premiums from corporate sponsors. But there was a catch.

Before and after photos of the Swan winner.
Source: FOX

It was never revealed what the winner would be a spokesperson for, so it’s possible DeLisa Styles never got the prize she earned. While some may say the women all got hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free plastic surgery, it wasn’t always for the best.

Her Husband’s Words Got Twisted

When each contestant was introduced, some of their family members were asked to say a few words about them. Rachel Love’s husband was shown saying, “She’s a little average. But when she’s happy, she’s a very beautiful person.” However, that’s not what he really said.

Rachel Love-Frazer of
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Rebecca Hertz, The Swan’s writer, revealed that in a pre-interview, she led Love’s husband to say his wife looked average, but he thought she was beautiful. The producers cut the clip to make it seem like he was horrible. He was furious with the show, and the two later divorced.

She Wanted to Win Her Husband Back

Beth Lay of Season 1 was just 25 years old when she was on The Swan. She saw plastic surgery as a last-ditch effort to win back her cheating husband. Lay hadn’t divorced him yet because she was afraid no one would ever love her again.

Beth Lay of
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Unfortunately, even after all her surgeries, Lay ended up divorcing her husband. When she got to see herself for the first time, Lay fell to her knees. It might have been in horror or happiness, but she looked nothing like the person who entered the competition.

She Ended Up on Dr. Phil

Season 2 winner DeLisa Styles felt that The Swan was her first “real success in life.” After the show, she liked what she saw in the mirror, but her friends noticed a bigger change. People noticed that Styles struggled to find confidence from within.

DeLisa Styles cries when she sees her new face.
Source: YouTube

Styles ended up on Dr. Phil because her friends were concerned. She felt like she cheated the system after earning so many other things in her life, like her degree and army rank. Styles told Dr. Phil that this transformation was handed to her, making her question her self-worth.

There Was Going to Be a Spin-Off

Considering how bad The Swan was and how many people called it the worst reality show ever, it was shocking to hear that there would be a spin-off. The Surjury was supposed to premiere in 2020, with the same premise as The Swan.

A Contestant is crowned winner of The Swan.
Source: YouTube

However, the twist in the new show was that the contestants would pitch their stories to a group of strangers and ask for plastic surgery. Then the jury would decide who would get their wish granted to have surgery. The network defended it because the contestants wanted to look different.

While the women weren’t always happy with their surgery outcomes, they were all fighting for a chance to be crowned as The Swan. However, winning the title is nothing like being a real beauty queen. The ladies of Miss America can attest that there’s more to it than crowns and sashes.