Article Thumbnail

I Went Under the Knife on ‘The Swan,’ the Most Controversial Reality Show Ever

In the early 2000s, Belinda Bessant was trapped in an apartment, pressured into unnecessary surgeries and edited to look like a catty drama queen. Today, she looks back on ‘The Swan’ — an ugly stain on television history

Late one night during the summer of 2003, 28-year-old nurse Belinda Bessant was up watching The Price Is Right in her Las Vegas home when something scrolled across the bottom of her screen that would change her life forever. “I was a single mom, I was depressed and it was just one of those bad moments in life where it felt like nothing was going right,” she tells me. “So when I saw the words ‘Have you ever wanted to change your life? Go to this website!’ appear underneath Bob Barker, I didn’t hesitate to see what it was all about.” 

The ad was for a new reality TV show that the world would eventually come to know as The Swan. It would be canceled after two seasons and go down in history, per Vice, as the most “bizarre and offensive reality TV show of all time.” However, back in 2003, after Survivor‘s breakout success and with Punk’d, Temptation Island and Paradise Hotel drawing huge ratings, network execs were continually pushing the envelope to see how far they could stretch American’s newfound love of reality TV. Shows like Joe Millionaire and Average Joe were built on deception and humiliating (mostly female) contestants, while others like Are You Hot? and Extreme Makeover preyed on contestants’ desire to live up to contemporary beauty standards. 

The Swan, attempting to emulate the massive success of the aforementioned Extreme Makeover on ABC and FX’s scripted series Nip/Tuck, involved 16 women who “felt they’d tried everything and didn’t know what else to do” to better their lives, Shelia Conlin, the show’s casting director, told Vice in 2016. (The show was produced by A. Smith & Co., George Paige Associates and Galan Entertainment.) Deemed “ugly ducklings,” the women would undergo extensive plastic surgery by superstar plastic surgeons as well as regularly consult with a physical trainer, a therapist and a life coach — who just so happened to be Nely Galán, the show’s executive producer — to turn their lives around. 

Each week’s episode featured the transformation of two different women, which culminated in one being sent home and the other moving on to compete in the season finale — a beauty pageant, with the winner deemed “The Swan.” 

The critical disgust for the show was almost as high (and immediate) as the ratings. Writing for USA Today in April 2004, just before the show aired its second episode, Robert Bianco picked The Swan apart, calling it “hurtful and repellent even by reality’s constantly plummeting standards.” “[The show’s premise is to] convince these women their self-worth is wrapped up in their physical appearance, alter them to meet some unspecified standard of beauty and then tell all but one, ‘Sorry, you’re still not worthy enough,’” he lambasted. Not to mention, he added, “The women themselves seem to have no more input into their transformation than does the room being repainted on While You Were Out.” 

Bessant, of course, ended up being one of these women. This is her story… 

* * * * *

Four months after the initial casting in Las Vegas I was flown out to L.A., where I was given a whirlwind of medical and psychological tests. Two months after that, cameras showed up at my house in Vegas to film B-roll, and the next morning producers called and said, “Get ready to go — you’re leaving in two days.” 

By that point, I’d mostly gotten over the low point of six months prior when I signed up to audition. But this was back in the heyday of reality TV: Everybody dreamed of being on some type of TV show, and it became more about the excitement of “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be on TV. This is going to be so cool, I can’t wait!,” more than “I desperately need to change my life and fix myself now.” In fact, a lawyer who looked at the show’s contract tried to tell me I shouldn’t sign it, but I did anyway. The allure of being on reality TV was too exciting to turn down. 

Like I said, I had two days’ notice to leave my entire life behind for four months — my job, my kid, my house. Luckily, my boss was aware of the show and let me go. I mean, what boss lets you just take off for four months? Thankfully, too, my parents lived in Vegas so it was easy for them to watch my son. I sent them most of the $500 I was given each week for being on the show to pay my bills and to care for my son. Without that money, none of us could have afforded to take that time away from life.

I flew out to L.A. a second time, but this time they put up all the girls in an apartment complex. The first two weeks were a whirlwind of appointments. They filmed pretty much every second of everything we did. Some of the appointments were shown for some episodes and for others they just had the surgeons talking. We went to the weight-loss people, surgeons, dentist, LASIK appointments and the therapist all over again. They filmed us in front of a green screen in grandma panties and a cut-off tank top, and the doctors did voice-overs talking about all of our flaws and what they could do to make us better. 

Belinda (back-left corner) on set after filming the reunion episode.

It turned out that the surgeons had a big part in which girls were chosen to come on the show, based on the laundry list of possible procedures they could do to make someone look “better,” I guess. Like, “If I do this operation and this procedure, this person is going look super amazing on TV.” It wasn’t like, “If you don’t get all the surgeries we suggest, you’re SOL,” but the operations were highly pushed. Personally speaking, I had blepharoplasty. I had an operation where they take the fat out from under your cheekbones, though I don’t know what it’s called. I also had my teeth done with veneers, a breast reduction and a bunch of liposuction. All of the surgeries were within the first two weeks; my first operation was 13 hours under anesthesia, and my second was one week later. 

It was hard enough having to recover from all that, but they took great lengths to prevent us from knowing what was going on. They unplugged the cable from our TVs, we weren’t allowed to buy magazines and our once-a-week call we made to our families was kept to 10 minutes and recorded for the show. We’d sneak into each other’s rooms to hang out, but otherwise, everywhere we went we had a chaperone. Basically, we were trapped in our own world while the show aired, so we had no clue how different the final product was from the show we believed we were filming. We also had no idea how it was being received by the public.

Up until the last moment, for instance, we didn’t even know that there was a pageant. It was never pitched to us like that. We all thought we were getting an equal chance at the tools to better ourselves, and then, at the end, we’d be showing off how much we’d improved. In actuality, it was never a competition. We were all good friends and got along wonderfully, but the public would’ve never gotten that impression because the show was edited in a way that made us out to be these competitive, superficial women who were mean and catty to each other.

Belinda (back-left corner) with the other contestants before shooting the reunion episode.

Everything we did — every surgery, every therapy session, every workout — wasn’t for us, it was for ratings. Which I know now is how all reality TV shows go. On our show, though, these decisions had life-altering consequences. In some ways, I look back positively on the surgeries. I’d been thinking about having a breast reduction for a long time because I was constantly having head and neck aches — all the stuff you get with your boobs being way too big. The same can be said for the LASIK surgery. It was nice to have that done for free and not have to think about doing it myself. 

But some of the other stuff, like the eyebrow lift and the cheekbone operation, I wish I would’ve pushed back on. I wasn’t unhappy with my face structure, so I didn’t need it. I don’t even know why they suggested it, because if you look at pictures of me before — not [the show’s] “before” pictures, which were made to make us look as ugly as possible — but actual pictures of me, I had beautiful eyebrows and eyes. Today, you can see three vertical scars on my head, which are made worse by the hair loss in those areas. 

The women in their pageant gowns, Belinda is third from the left.

We were there about five weeks after the reveals were filmed, and then we filmed the finale pageant live, which aired before we left to go home. When I got home, my immediate reaction was that it was just nice to see my child again and be home. Back to my own world, my own life. 

At first, it was shocking to see how our episodes had been edited to add more controversy and make us out to be obsessed with looks and plastic surgery. That eventually turned to embarrassment after finally reading all the articles and reactions to the show and seeing how negatively the public reacted to it. Of course, because of how it was cut to make us seem like we were all about appearances and just there for the surgery, a good amount of the public’s outrage was directed at us. Why would we want so many surgeries? Why are women so obsessed with fame and beauty? 

Today, some people who were on reality TV might say, like, “Hey, I was on Survivor!” and be excited when they’re recognized in public. But I was happy when I stopped being recognized in my hometown and no one asked me about it. Because it’s looked at as such an ugly thing; it’s embarrassing, more than anything else, to tell people about being on it. 

To this day, I don’t really talk about it. Many people in my life don’t know. And the younger people I know, because of how hard the show is to find, even online, don’t have a clue that it even existed. Which is good, because I’ve moved on. I love my life and time with my son, so I don’t want any negativity from the past taking away from that.