“Plum Crazy”
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

Plum, Alleged Fashion Psychopath

Plum, Fashion Psycho

In the new episodes of How Do I Look? (which is not my favorite fashion makeover show but which I use as reality show “filler” when nothing better is on), I have noted a trend that seems to exacerbate the therapeutic thrust of reality TV noted long ago by Mimi White and others. That is to say that while makeover shows have long promised to transform the victim’s psyche, the idea has usually been that the change in wardrobe will precipitate life changes. Now however, we actually seem to be diagnosing women (they are always women) with what I can only call “fashion psychosis.” The wardrobes themselves have taken on the pathology and we can no longer distinguish between craziness inside and outside of the closet. I say “closet” quite literally because in these newer makeover shows the idea is for friends, family and show hosts to penetrate the woman’s closet which is assumed to be the site of pathology. It’s not just that she has bad taste, but rather that her bad taste is now an illness in itself (which needs to be diagnosed and cured on the show). Move over Dr. Phil because there is a new variety of TV therapist—the wardrobe psychoanalyst.

In this regard How Do I Look? seems to be on the cutting edge—not of fashion but of makeover show trendiness. Watch out What Not to Wear! While Stacy and Clinton are still coercing relatively sane women to throw out their old clothes, Finola Hughes is moving into new territory as a fashion therapist. This therapeutic thrust was predicted when the British hosts of What Not To Wear started putting women—literally- on the couch and analyzing their life problems. But then the new wardrobe would provide a magical solution to those problems. Nor is what Finola is doing the same as the kind of counseling given on shows like Extreme Makeover in which the therapy is supportive of the changes wrought by plastic surgery. I can’t claim to have watched every makeover show on TV (although I’m kind of stunned by how many I have watched), but in two recent episodes of How Do I Look?, Finola has taken on decidedly uncooperative victims whose fashion syndromes are so extreme you could look them up in the DSM under diagnoses like “jacket attachment maladjustment.”

how do i look

Finola, helping a woman pick out an outfit on How Do I Look

After I wrote the above, I looked up the show on the internet to find the episode titles I was going to write about. Now ordinarily my reality TV life is solitary. I don’t read all about it or blog or surf. I just view—and occasionally write. To my surprise, my focus episode, “How Do I Look: De-Plum Your Wardrobe”, has become a cause célèbre since it was first broadcast on June 19, 2008. Compared to another recent episode I will mention which had no comments on the blog—about a grown woman who dressed in fairy costumes—there were 173 comments on the show’s blog for the “Plum” episode. Moreover, the internet is abuzz with commentary all of which made me wonder why I was writing this column. In just a few weeks, my idea had already become passé. Posted June 29, 2008 on a Yahoo music blog, a column by Lyndsey Parker had already critiqued the program’s treatment of Plum, something virtually none of the 173 bloggers had dared to do. In fact the following (from mystyle) is typical of the blog responses:

Unfortunately, Plum is probably Axis II, meaning she has some serious mental illness. To break off a 20 year friendship because your friend confronted you on a dated look is classic Borderline Personality Disorder. She did not have the ego strength to handle criticism, even done with love. Basically, at bottom what I saw was some deep self-loathing. And okay, she didn’t like the clothes, but her comments, ‘Let’s go to the bar.’, I mean c’mon. My diagnosis: Boderline [sic] Personality Disorder with possible substance abuse or dependence.

In other words, both the show and the blog responders believed that host Finola Hughes’ intentions were totally honorable and that Plum was immature at best and psychotic at worst to have challenged the show’s premises. This was in fact made clear at the beginning of the episode where Finola appeared to deliver a disclaimer to the effect that anybody who dared to defy her positive, helping gestures was anti-social. Ms. Parker on the contrary, writing from the point of view of music subcultures, argues “HOWEVER, I do believe any goth, punk, rocker, or general misfit watching the show–that is, anyone who’s dealt with ridicule and scorn for making “weird” fashion choices–probably could relate to Plum’s struggle.”1

Finola Hughes

Host Finola Hughes

Neither of these positions vis-à-vis Plum expresses the point I am wanting to make here, however. Although I agree that the makeover clothes chosen by her unbelievably suburban “accomplices” robbed her of her already well-developed style, I am not interested in Plum’s fashion sense or adolescent behavior patterns. I am interested in the way in which the show itself is attempting to define bad fashion sense as a social disorder. Now the Plum episode (view episode here) was fascinating for many other reasons not the least of which was the way it tried to regulate a reality show participant’s lack of compliance with the show’s premises. There is nothing more refreshingly subversive than reality TV gone out of control. But two other recent episodes which remained (barely) in Finola’s benign hands, raised similar issues for me. That is, what does it mean to be in fashion? Both the woman who dressed up in carefully self-wrought fairy-tale costumes and the former high school “it” girl with a totally refined aesthetic based on 80s and 90s thrift store clothing were, in a sense, more fashion-conscious than any of the “accomplices” including the professional stylists who were supposed to shop for them. Yet each was defined by the show as a “fashion psycho” and each woman had her resistance worn down so that by the end of the show, she was willing to accept Finola’s definition of her and agree that the watered-down mall-shopped versions of her look were indeed more fashionable than the original. And that her unwillingness to admit this previously had constituted a mental illness. And that the process the show put her through had cured her of said mental illness. That is my point.

Image Credits:

1. Plum, Fashion Psychopath
2. Finola helping woman pick out an outfit on How Do I Look
3. Host Finola Hughes
4. Front page Finola

Please feel free to comment.

  1. http://new.music.yahoo.com/blogs/realityrocks/89826/how-do-i-look-plum-crazy []


  • First of all, Plum did exhibit A LOT of personal style. But makeovers are tricky things. People are very harsh on themselves already (usually), and to face a posse and have them “hint” that there are deficiencies in your appearance is nothing short of mean.

    No one ASKED Plum what her goals were. No one asked her to tell them about how she wants to work with troubled youth, and how she perceives her appearance and love of the club scene might in fact be the very thing that pulls these youth in. Plum isn’t going after the easy cases. She’ll probably go after those kids who are falling off the edge and maybe they’re like her: they don’t trust everyone. But put them with someone like Plum and they might open up.

    Her friends barraged her with how THEY perceive her and how her LOOK isn’t going to get her through the interview process. I felt badly for Plum, she was in a bad place. They were picking on her looks, when in fact had they been supportive they’d of asked her to tell them about her dreams and goals.

    Truly, Plum wasn’t the problem. The issue was two “friends” giving unsolicited advice by wiping out Plums possessions, then choosing outfits without her consent. In a sense, they treated her like the “troubled youth,” mapping out a life plan for them without consulting them first.

    I think Plum can easily pick out her own clothes, and if she wants some help, I’m sure she’s smart enough to flip through mags, and go shopping herself.

  • I totally agree with you Jane. I found this article because I was also looking for some sensible approach to “How Do I Look?” Why do people like the show? It’s a disaster, it lacks spunk, energy and instead of fashion makover, it becomes a public counselling for clearly disturbed individuals. I was shocked with the audience’s passive attitude to what is happening on the show. I mean, who is Fionula Hughes to conduct some psychoanalitical voodoo pretending she knows what she is doing (and how lame and unconvincing she sounds; oh, coe on…). If indeed depressed or plagued by a mental disorders (as diagnosed by, I assume, self-proclaimed specialists in psychiatry bloggers), the participants may face terrible chalanges after the show, and it is serious; it is not a laughing matter. Hughs should focus on clothes, if anything, and she shoud stay away from peoples emotional challanges; humiliation on national TV has not helped anyone yet. Just because Hughs is a soap star of “General Hospital” does not mean she has expertise in curing people. I don’t even know since when her voice is of any relevance in the world of fashion. Worse, she is an uninspiring and dull hostess displayng embarrasing attempts at humour that leave me conused to say the least. I sure would like to hear from Plum and others about the experience because everytime I watch this particular show (unlike e.g. What Not to Wear) I feel for those people, it’s like pulling teeth.

  • Thank you Jane for seeing the bigger picture.

    I can’t begin to imagine how Plum must be feeling after being pulled backwards through a bush. The cast of How Do I Look made out like it was black and white, plain and simple that what Plum wore was crazy and wrong. What do they know? Only that what is good for them is good for the masses.

    As for the abusive bloggers who so easily and willingly hurl their best abuse at a woman they know nothing about, you all disgust me.

  • Frm Across The Globe

    I love Plum for who she is and im very interested to know how she is doing right now.

    As for Finola, i feel she should not have released the episode and let the whole world know about the disaster. That’s wrong.

    To keep it short, i’m just so unhappy with the way Finola ends the show. She thinks what she did was right but it was upright rude and i feel sorry for Plum. Anyway, Plum had wanted to back out from the show but Finola insisted she continue with the transformation,in the end….? Finola was UNSUCCESFULL! Bottom line, Finola failed.

    Finola is also a stiff and fake in her movements as a host. A fashion host?? I feel embarrased watching her each time. I suggest she should go for some professionally training to improve herself. So what is she’s a soap star? (I didnt even know she was a soap star anyway)

  • I just watched this episode and wondered, was Plum totally blameless here? Did she ask any questions about what was going to happen? I don’t live her lifestyle but my impression is that style evolves even in the punk world.

  • Are talking about the same Plum? Would this be the Plum who admitted on her myspace page that she was doing this for the free trip and teeth bleaching?

    I do agree that Plum was undoubtably edited to make her look as unstable and emotionally unbalanced as possible, however, there are certain behaviors Plum DID engage in that are completely un-excusable that the author of this piece chooses not to reference as it would significantly weaken her argument and provide evidence that Plum behaved nastily.

    The largest of these actions was, of course, the letters she wrote to her friends. When is it ever excusable to write someone a letter disposing of a nearly 20 year relationship over something like a television show?

    The second action, almost as large, was the fact that Plum actually did sign a contract to do this show. The show has been on air for several years. Is it unreasonable to ask that participants preview the show and its intent before signing up to be on the show? The indications are that there is nothing wrong with Plum’s intellectual functioning, nor were there any comments about her inability to watch cable television or the Style network, so we may presume that she had reasonable access to the TV. The thrust of the show has not changed over several seasons. Unless Plum was far more lacking in native intelligence than we are led to believe by her appearance on the show, she should have known exactly what the logical progress of her makeover would be.

    My sympathies are with the hostess who was quite obviously forced by her producers to continue with this makeover. I have none for Plum; if she did not want her style changed, she should have simply said no.

  • “How Do I Look?” has a concept which ultimately takes reality and puts a dramatic or melodramatic spin on it. The show rarely educates the viewer on dressing particular body types and I have yet to see a show in which the professional designer chooses clothing that works for the my reading of her was that she enjoys shocking people and so her episode of the show just took that to a different level. I do not believe someone so (self) admittedly stubborn was dragged onto the show by her “friends”. I cannot believe that contestants walk onto the set without signing a contract that details the expectations on both sides. That said, I agree with the author about the ridiculousness of TV makeover shows that apparently attempt to makeover the contestants personality or psyche along with their wardrobe. Because I am a conservative dresser, I generally agree with the necessity of wearing conservative clothing in a professional setting, but despite my conservativeness, I don’t see the need to take extreme individuals and sanitize their style. I always enjoy the makeover shows where the individual comes in with a desire to learn dressing techniques that will better emphasize their positive attributes and minimize their negative attributes. The episode with Plum was a ridiculous waste of time that was unpleasant to watch and certainly did not entertain or educate. Unlike other posters I believe that all parties were responsible for the outcome on the show. Plum is a 31 year old woman and responsible for her actions – she did not behave appropriately or with justification. Her friends should have known how she would react to their criticism and not been surprised by the result of their efforts. The show should have put a stop to the ridiculousness before it lost control.

  • Plum is a 31 year old woman, not a 16 year old child.There is no “big picture” here. She simply used a television show to get white teeth and go to California (admitted on her myspace) and then once she got what she wanted she no longer wanted to continue with the show. She is selfish and wasted a lot of people’s time and money and cannot believe how people are acting like she is some victim of snobby people who want to change her. SHE chose to be on the show thinking that if she put up a fight, they would just let her go (after she got her free trip and free teeth whitening). I am glad the network made her stay. maybe next time she wants somethng, she wont use people to get it.

  • I would argue that there are lots of people who want to go on these shows, not for the chance at a makeover, but just to be on television. If you ask me, that would present some kind of desire that is related to a personality disorder you mentioned. People should be accepting of who they are, and not need full support from these tv hosts. And when they get support from family and friends AND people on TV and still have problems, then that is definitely representative of a problem, such as self-loathing and insecurity like you mentioned.

  • I just watched this episode for the first time in a Marathon Session of How Do I Look. I enjoy this form of the reality “makeover” genre and think that it works hard to give the participants the best possible chance at a successful image change – but this “Plum” chick, what a prat. Understandably the editing process condencing 7 days into 1 hour leaves alot of tape on the floor, but I think they depicted “Plum” as truthfully as 1 hour will let you – I saw nothing but a spiteful, selfish, self absorbed and spoilt grown up brat (she knew exactly how she was behaving) and if she had any real depth she would have been able to find a place of acceptance to the gift of change. The show and Finola did her justice by revealing that her inner self is just as ugly as her outer appearance. All that blahbling on about her ‘individuality’ and ‘self-expression’; all she did was show the non-personality she is. I certainly hope that this is the only 15 minutes of fame she’ll every have and has gone straight back to behind the bar where she so rightly belongs. Finola was right “All this – is very boring” and “You win some, you lose some”. Not at all juicy, just down right yuck. Silly, silly woman – a disgrace to girls and women everywhere struggling against so many obstacles to make better choices within their own lives.

  • I also just saw the episode for the first time. I think this article was very selective in its synopsis of the show’s events. As others have mentioned, “Plum” did not arrive to the doorstep of “How Do I Look?” a complete innocent forced into this situation. I have been on reality TV shows, and believe me- you have to go through a LOT of tedious stuff before you even start filming; stuff like reading the contract, which you are ordered to do before you sign it and agree to be on the show. The show’s lawyers go through the contract with you page by page to make sure you understand it and what is expected of you if you sign it. You are informed of these expectations several times to make sure you understand them so that you are not blindly signing the contract. The producers do not let you continue until you have demonstrated that you WANT to be there and that you UNDERSTAND what will happen, for this very reason. Most of the first day of any show is spent doing this for several hours. There’s no way she wasn’t expecting exactly what occurred. I have no sympathy for this moron who defines herself by a style indistinguishable from other members of her subculture. She doesn’t realize just how much of a conformist she actually is while insisting that she stands out. She stands out perhaps as a cautionary tale, but not as an autonomous, non-comformist individual, for she seems more slavishly devoted to what people think of her than the supposed vapid society she thinks is trying to squeeze her into a box. She squeezed herself in there and is kicking and screaming at those who want to pull her out. Any adult who behaves in that childish, ungrateful manner is deserving of all the negativity that comes her way because she willingly invited it in to roost when she treated her friend of 20 years, and the show, like garbage. She’s going nowhere until she gets her act together- 31 is too old to act this way.

    What this author also fails to mention is that If “Plum” had been allowed to leave after reassuring the producers that she wanted to do this, of which there can be no doubt, she would have screwed over not just Finola Hughes. She would have also screwed over the cameramen, the light and sound techs, make-up artists, hair-stylists, grips, editors, the director, her friends who put their lives on hold for her. This was an episode of a TV show that was about her, so it’s somewhat churlish to think that you could occupy that many people’s time and then just call it quits once they’ve all started working and promised their time to this job for her. Many of those people could have taken other gigs and would have gone home without pay for the days they would have worked, and had already sacrificed to be there, if she had been allowed to call the whole thing off after it had begun.

    Finally, anyone who claims that the gist of these makeover shows have no useful application in people’s lives are either willfully blind or just plain stupid. Really, clothing isn’t a tool of personal expression that speaks something about the person wearing it? Then why not show up to interviews, and parties, and holidays, dressed in a formless muslin sack? Oh, that’s right, people do actually care. Everyone cares enough about clothes to watch for all sorts of specific details that align with a particular taste or goal, and that behavior doesn’t spring from thin air. The argument of those who say there does not exist a series of reasoning or behavioral patterns at work when choosing how to adorn yourself for the outside world, and that those who do are just full of hot air, is really airheaded in and of itself. There is a TON of anthropological/social research to back up what some of these shows have to say. If these fashion therapists had no point, then no one would ever have a hard time picking out clothes- everyone would just put on what fits and call it a day. Everyone dresses the way they do for a reason, in the same manner that we behave in other ways for particular reasons. Pretending otherwise is a poor way to begin an analysis of these types of shows.

  • I watched the show just yesterday but sadly i missed the ending. I just want to say Haven’t fashion shows learnt by now u cannot change Goth, Rock or punk chicks.
    Can anyone please comment here what happened at the reveal and all that. Thank you =)

  • it was just on in Australia OMG i would have done what she did.. i agree she could have done with a bit of a spruce up (cant we all) but the approach was so offensive towards her. Her so called friends were bitches.. particularly the one in the middle who thought she was fabulously in style..The clothes those 3 picked were nothing short of hideous. & she knew it & because she did not play along they were at her treating her like a hideous outcast. She painfully tried to tell them that she is happier now in her own style than in a more mainstream look & no-one cared. PLUM you have my 100% respect.. people saying you acted mentally unstable how would you (no doubt mainstream people) go at being forced into wearing goth punk clothes & being told everything about your style was off.. GLAD THE SHOW HAS A NEW HOST WHO AT LEAST HAS A GENUINE COMPASSION.. & if it’s true Plum went for the trip & white teeth GO HER.. I love a person that stands for something that they believe in .. even when everyone else is telling them different. I wish i could find a link to the show online.

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