My Brilliant Career


Makeover shows have spread across the airwaves like a plague, constantly mutating into ever more virulent strains. But the British series Faking It, entering its second season on BBC America, goes beyond mascara and haircuts, wallpaper and floor treatments. Instead of Queer Eye-style tips on how to rub in hair gel or “jeuje” your jacket, Faking It heads for more sticky, uncharted territory: career, craftsmanship, identity. It suggests that, given one month and the help of specialist trainers (plus a stylist and speech coach), anyone can master an entirely new occupation well enough to fool even a panel of experts. The show performs a personality transplant, too; participants learn to mimic the kind of person (upper-class, working-class, brazen, pretentious) who would do that job.

Every episode of Faking It follows the same basic formula, but that doesn’t make it any less riveting to watch people dig themselves out from their daily routines and make a mess or success of a new career. Sometimes Faking It‘s job assignments seem vaguely geared to the participant’s own skills—a housepainter morphs into a modern artist, for instance, or a fast-food vendor turns gourmet chef. Other times it’s all about clashing values, as when a vicar learns to bend the truth as a used-car salesman, or (in TLC’s Americanized version of the program) a geeky Harvard grad tests out life as a pro cheerleader. In one upcoming episode, Chris Sweeney, a red-mohawked singer with a punk band called the Dead Pets, is expected to cram a three-year course for classical orchestra conductors into one frenzied month. Not only is he unable to read a note when he arrives, but—of course—he hates classical music. “He could win or he could embarrass us all terribly,” says the panicky Richard Dickins, who has to prepare Chris for the final Faking It trial: conducting the Royal Philharmonic.

Like a lot of the show’s fakers, Chris initially expects it’ll be a cakewalk—after all, what’s so hard about waving a wand? But when he flails his arms in front of an orchestra like he’s Harry Potter and produces ear-wrenching cacophony, Chris realizes the enormity of his task. He dedicates himself to it, even as his personal life falls apart. “I’m trying so hard to better myself,” he tells the camera in a grief-stricken moment, “and every time I try, I seem to get kicked in the teeth.” You desperately want this sweet, goofy-grinned punk to succeed, just as you hope to see Jo Weatherill—a plucky female kickboxer—wreak sweet revenge on her sexist ballroom dancing teacher, Sammy. He humiliates Jo every chance he gets, relishing the chance to force this tomboy into the requisite high heels, flesh-baring gown, and fake tan. Speaking directly to the camera, Jo mutters between gritted teeth: “When the revolution comes, Sammy Stopford will be first up against the wall. Followed by the rest of the ballroom dancing world.”

To kick off its second season, BBC America is broadcasting Faking It Changed My Life, a documentary about the aftermath of the first series. Although I expected them to spout the requisite you-can-do-anything-if-you-try clichés, I was pretty astonished by how much the show altered many of the participants’ lives. During her episode, Sian Evans made self-transformation look easy. She blossomed from a mousy cellist to a sassy house music DJ after several weeks of learning to mix records, going to clubs, and spicing up her look. So much of Faking It is about class-passing, and in Sian’s case, her drama coach taught her to replace her refined accent and polite mannerisms with streetwise lingo and pushy attitude. “I started to feel a bit confused about who I was,” she admits, “which part of me was faking it and which was real.” She eventually decided that the question of real versus fake was irrelevant, and now leads a double life: symphony during the week, DJ’ing on the weekends.

While Faking It taught Sian downward mobility, it introduced housepainter Paul O’Hare to previously unimagined upscale possibilities. He’d been working to support his family since he was a teenager, and sneered at modern art as literally useless. Yet, with gentle prodding from his mentors, Paul mutates before our eyes into a trendy artist totally fluent in conceptual bullshit. “This asks questions of people,” he says solemnly of one of the works on display at his first major exhibition, a pigment-spattered piece that resembles a child’s spin-art. It’s the kind of wholesale conversion that all makeover shows dream of—and yet I felt queasy watching the new Paul, not sure whether to feel cynical or impressed by his newly flexible sense of self, the way he shrewdly exploits his own working-classness as cultural capital in the art world.

In contrast, Alex Geikie’s genteel background is a total impediment to passing in the seedy world of nightclub bouncers. From an impossibly sheltered rural background, this posh ninny arrives at his mentor’s East London housing project wearing a tweed blazer, scared witless by signs of urban deprivation like a mattress on the sidewalk. His trainers teach him how to exude menace, while a speech coach demonstrated the correct way to swear. (“The word fuck is desperately important to all Londoners,” he explains) Alex the wimp becomes Alex the Animal, and totally fools the experts. He also comes out in front of the cameras.

Alex doesn’t pursue his Faking It career as a tough guy, but he doesn’t revert to type either. The experience of forced reinvention gives him the impetus to totally change his life. He is filmed cavorting with drag queen friends in his new hometown—Sydney, Australia. It’s as though the trials of impersonating a totally new character revealed what a sham his “real self” was. “When I saw the show, I looked at myself and thought, ‘Who the hell is that?’ ” he says in the recap. Faking It ultimately suggests something both inspirational and unsettling: that we lack any essential character, our personalities and life paths merely by-products of the opportunities presented to us.

Two images of journalism are competing for the hearts and minds of the public these days. There’s the huckster, currently represented by Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, and then the martyr, embodied by Daniel Pearl and Michael Kelly. Trio’s odd documenatary Journalists: Killed in the Line of Duty seems like an exercise in damage control, an attempt to shore up the profession’s reputation by focusing on a handful of the 46 journalists who died around the world between the seemingly random period of January 2002 and April 2003—”men and women whose dedication we will not soon forget,” intones CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Narrated by familiar voices like Cronkite and Rather, Journalists: Killed offers reconstructions of familiar stories such as Pearl’s without adding much fresh news value. It comes into its own with the story of lesser-known figures such as Tim Lopes, a reporter for Brazilian TV who ventured into Rio’s most savage slums where few other reporters dared, filming child prostitution and drug lords, and getting himself killed in the process. The hour-long program suffers from a lack of focus: The profile of the late Filipino newsman Edgar Damalerio mentions a staggering statistic—that 133 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 1986, with none of the murderers jailed—yet doesn’t follow the story in any satisfying depth. Instead, it lingers over the recent demise of NBC anchor David Bloom, who died while covering the Iraq war—not from enemy fire, but from an embolism. Isn’t that the kind of journalistic fuzziness that gave reporters a bad name in the first place?