Over a few days in July, the crew of the Fox reality show Ambush Makeover trolled San Diego's wealthy beach communities for fashion victims to titivate. The La Jolla and Del Mar shoots went fine. The Gaslamp shoot, however, was scheduled to coincide with the San Diego Comic-Con.
If there's a population at diametric odds with Ambush Makeover, it's probably rabid comic collectors and sci-fi connoisseurs. This conflict may have been a problem for an inferior makeover program, but as Ambush producer Michelle Pollino said in perfect TV-producer speak: "I love it!"
A single law governs Ambush Makeover. It's the same law that governs all TV: make it entertaining. On paper, the show's premise is to find an unsuspecting person willing to drop everything for a stylish reinvention of their personal appearance. That's still the goal for the Gaslamp shoot, but not before Pollino and host Gigi Berry (you may remember her from the Jell-O pudding pops commercials with Bill Cosby) find some costumed comic fans to ambush.
The film crew hit the street around noon in search of prey. Initially, the sidewalks were too crowded to find a target. Inappropriately pink hair was spotted across the train tracks, but couldn't be reached in time. Spider-Man in his Spidey-car couldn't be flagged down quickly enough. Eventually the crew stakes out the perfect ambush spot-the foot-traffic delta of Fifth Avenue, where the street empties into the convention center.
The cameras roll and Berry grabs hold of an armored spaceman with a backwards baseball cap and wide smile. The man's dressed as Star Wars' bounty hunter Boba Fett, but Berry doesn't know this.
"Hi," she says. "What is this costume?"
"Uh, well, I'm actually dressed up to work the Lucas Films booth at the convention," Boba politely replies.
"Mind if I try on that helmet?" Berry coyly asks, deftly addressing both Boba and the camera in the manner only TV hosts can. He hands the giant piece of metal to the petite hostess and she puts it on.
"Yeah, I took it off because it's so hot," says Boba. "I've been sweating."
Nearly losing poise, Berry yanks it off: "Thanks for telling me that before I put it on."
Producer Pollino is laughing and calling out, "I love it! I love it!"
Berry's done dozens of these tapings over the last year. She's ambushed women and men, college kids and homemakers, suits and skateboarders. She knows style and knows what looks good on people. But her frame of reference is called into question when talking with a space vigilante, so she lets him go.
Her next ambush looks like a post-apocalyptical mad scientist. Before approaching, she whispers into the camera that she's worried her next fashion victim was caught in an explosion.
"Hi, I'm...," Berry launches into her shtick, only to discover she would have had better luck with Boba. Her latest target is in a tattered T-shirt and lab coat covered with red and black paint-meant to approximate blood and burns. He's Dr. Von Richter, not a comic book character, but this man's own invention.
"What happened to you?" asks Berry.
"The monster got out of its cage, you see," mumbles the disheveled doctor. "The monster got out of his cage."
Again, Berry is out of her element and also lets this one go.
Berry believes that her show stands out from other makeover reality shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover-which both involve plastic surgery-because she doesn't use the "humiliation factor." She's just here to steer people toward their optimum look. While she certainly isn't humiliating anyone today, the ambushes on the conference-goers are only for comic effect.
From Boba Fett to the mad scientist to the four teens dressed as characters from the video game Final Fantasy IV, they are all easy fodder for amusing TV. They are not likely makeover candidates. Fox looks for a good storyline in its makeovers, not counterculture bizarreness. The network execs know their demographic, and it's not Trekkies or XBox junkies.
After an hour of ambushing, Pollino is worried that the convention folk won't ditch their $60 tickets for a makeover, so she sends an assistant producer off to find someone who will work.
Someone like Questa Giles.
Giles is moving to Atlanta tomorrow and is shopping for an outfit to wear to a goodbye dinner. She's in search of a career change and a chance to live closer to her family. This is Ambush gold. There is a backstory with a built-in objective-get Giles ready for tonight and shock her friends with a fabulous new look. Send her off into a new life, with style.
After Giles is screened by an assistant producer and Pollino calls the network honchos to get the green light, Giles is "spontaneously" ambushed over and over again to get the perfect take. After that, she's interviewed by Pollino and asked to parrot lines into the camera ("When I first saw Gigi, I was so surprised because..."). Again, there are multiple takes. Then Berry and Giles have to be filmed running around from location to location à la A Hard Day's Night (yes, there are multiple takes of the spontaneous running around). The chronology is all out of order, but it's not important-the editors will fix all that in post-production.
From here, things progress as expected. Giles gets a nice hair cut. She gets some stylish new clothes. Her friends are shocked and wowed ("She looks just like Beyoncé!"). There are tears and hugs. But after watching Berry mingle with Boba Fett and Dr. Von Richter, Giles' makeover is surprisingly real. Not the most exciting way for a reality show to end up.
It makes one wonder what would have happened if Berry and Pollino gave Boba Fett the makeover. What would happen if the intergalactic bounty hunter arrived at Jabba the Hut's lair with freshly shined armor and some cotton candy-pink moon boots?
No, that's not realistic; he's more a contender for The Swan.
The new, thrilling, quite fashionable season of Ambush Makeover kicks off on Sept. 13 on ABC.