In May, Khloé Kardashian Instagrammed a selfie. Not exactly newsworthy given the Kardashians, but fans noticed something different about Khloé’s face, or rather the fact that everything was different. “These girls have waaayyy too much money changing their faces,” someone commented. “Who is this girl?” another asked. Insider and BET reported on Kardashian’s “new face” and compilations of Kardashian’s face over the years went viral. Kardashian replied to trending criticisms that she looked different in all her photos by referring jokingly to her “weekly face transplant.”
In 2020 plastic surgery, especially for celebrities, has never been more normalized. Apps like Facetune only exacerbate what seems like a celebrity face in flux; is that really a new nose, or is it the work of photo editing? And while the Kardashians are coy about what procedures they’ve had done, their faces have changed over the years they’ve cultivated their unavoidable celebrity, and they seem to keep changing every few months. But the shock of fans and subsequent coverage of Kardashian’s “new face” follows a long history of noticeable celebrity surgery. For as long as cosmetic surgery has existed celebrities have taken advantage, and the press has gawked at a once widely-recognized celebrity, transformed into a stranger.
In the early 20th century, minor celebrity plastic surgery wasn’t uncommon and actors and artists slowly began to normalize cosmetic surgery for a wider audience. In the 1920s silent actress Mary Pickford underwent a facelift that allegedly interfered with her ability to smile, Greg Jenner wrote in the book Dead Famous, and reports claimed that she looked “mummified.” Rudolph Valentino famously got his ears pinned back for a more flattering look. But it was Funny Girl inspiration and Jewish comedian Fanny Brice’s 1923 nose job, performed by surgeon Henry Schireson, that really made headlines. “NEW NOSE COOLED NICKY’S LOVE,” reads a 1927 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Times, which describes Brice’s filing for divorce from her husband Nicky Arnstein. “SHE WANTS HER NOSE PRETTY, BUT WHO KNOWS,” a 1923 issue of the Elmira Star-Gazette read.
Nose jobs and facelifts continued to be the norm, even if actors were coy about what work they had done. In the 1940s Dean Martin had a nose job, reportedly paid for by Lou Costello, Nick Tosches wrote in Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. There were stories that dancer Ann Miller’s nose job was so botched that makeup artists had to make her a fake nose. Early in her career Marilyn Monroe received a chin graft, John Wayne received plastic surgery to remove crow’s feet in the 1960s, and Robert Mitchum lost out on being cast in the 1980 film Atlantic City, a role eventually taken by Burt Lancaster, after he had a facelift, Lee Server wrote in his book Robert Mitchum: “Baby Don’t Care.” In 1979 People magazine ran an article about “The New Betty Ford” after she spoke publicly about having a facelift. “I was so exposed to cosmetic surgery in California that it was no novelty,” she said.
But as plastic surgery became normalized, so did emphasizing its extremes, and the ever-changing celebrity face became a tabloid fixture in the 1990s. A 1991 People cover story on smooth-skinned Cher had a surgeon attest in writing that she “has had no ribs removed and has never had cosmetic surgery on her eyelids, cheekbones, chin, abdomen, buttocks, thighs or lower legs.” Michael Jackson’s procedures, from the shrinking of his nose to the lightening of his skin, were under constant scrutiny. “The press in particular loves to pick on her, carping about her nose job,” Erik Hedegaard wrote in a 1999 profile of Tori Spelling published in US Weekly. “(OK, so she had it done—she still thinks it’s the ugliest part of her body).” “It’s like, uh...Jennifer Grey,” read the headline of a 1999 Newsweek story about the Dirty Dancing star which claimed that her plastic surgery procedures left her unrecognizable to friends. “The borscht-belt beauty who came of age in the brawny arms of Patrick Swayze in the 1987 teen smash ‘Dirty Dancing’ disappeared forever in a plastic surgeon’s office eight years ago,” the piece reads.
It’s that idea of disappearance, that a famous actor could evaporate into a cosmetic surgery that distorts the recognizable asset that defines their wealth, that fuels the new celebrity face drop news story. “All eyes are on Greta Van Susteren’s changed face as the veteran CNN legal affairs analyst settles into her new role at Fox News,” ABC News reported in 2006. “it wasn’t like an admission of a crime to me, it was like—well, here it is,” Van Susteren said openly about the work she had done. A 2007 Wall Street Journal article notes that two major casting directors passed on casting Melanie Griffith because of her changed face. “What the fuck did Rupert Everett do to his face?” IndieWire asked in 2009. In 2014 Gawker ran an alarming series of photos of Renée Zellweger where she looked completely unrecognizable. After Meg Ryan appeared at the Tony Awards in 2016, Cosmopolitan ran an article headlined “Stop Being a Dick About Meg Ryan’s Face” after fans noted she looked like she had had work done.
In the last decade, as fans and commoners spend more time consuming celebrity content through social media, the uncanny potential for the celebrity “new face” has increased as celeb bodies can be altered via Instagram filter and Facetune in ways going under the knife can’t. But the range of procedures available to women celebrities in 2020 can be traced to those that define facial feminization surgery, a gender-affirming procedure that many trans women find medically necessary. FFS can encompass chin and jaw shaving and reshaping, brow lifts, and facelifts, among others, procedures that are now becoming as routine for cis women as nose jobs have been for the last several decades. On apps like TikTok, young women regularly showcase their nose jobs, and on reality shows like Selling Sunset discussions of whose boobs are real, whose are fake, and what material they’re made out of are frequent. Plastic surgery has become increasingly subtle but also ubiquitous, no longer relegated in the public’s mind to movie stars trying to conform to a perfect ideal.
And yet the public still freaks out over a celebrity’s new face. It’s an anxious response in a new era where it’s never been easier to alter one’s appearance, on or off screen, and yet people still search out the “real” person underneath the makeup, surgery, and editing apps, as if the final product of such work isn’t reality. But a celebrity’s new face still generates alarm, because they already sit on a pedestal as the epitome of beauty. To alter it in any way suddenly seems perverse, the shock of a recognizable figure not just slightly altered but transformed into an uncanny dupe. As long as the Kardashians keep dropping new faces like new merch, there will always be a tabloid there to remind audiences just how “unrecognizable” they look.