Keeping Up Appearances
It started with a routine morning scan of East Bay newspapers — part of the standard daily work drill for Devi Lanphere, 44, CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce in east Contra Costa County. This time the piece that caught her eye might not, at first glance, have seemed work-related. It announced an extreme makeover contest.
She cut the clip, put it in her purse and carried it around for a month.
What bothered her, she would tell me later, were her teeth — “I’d had yellow teeth since I was a child” —and her weight. She’d not only gone from a size 4 when she married her second husband to a size 20, she had also been recently diagnosed with diabetes.
Then there was that haunting memory, still deeply etched five years after the fact, of her 20th high school reunion. “That will do it for you every time. It was horrific to see myself posted on the web site as the most changed person. There was the old portrait of me when I weighed 98 pounds — alongside a new one showing me at 200 pounds, with yellow teeth.”
Plus there were the ongoing disparaging comments from her two sisters, in Hawaii and San Jose. “I’m the only one who’d gained weight. My sister in San Jose had already asked if I’d be insulted if she submitted me as a candidate for a makeover. My sister in Hawaii was a harsh critic of my teeth and my weight.
“Sisters can say things other people can’t. You hear the words. I’d just say, ‘Oh, OK.’ But inside, it hurts.”
There was another ingrained memory—one directly related to her professional life and career.
“One of the jobs I had many years ago was in a fashion industry store. I was interviewing for assistant buyer and was incensed by the review. What they said was, ‘you don’t have the look we want.’
I asked them, was it about doing the job, or was it about looking a certain way? The store manager came to me and said, ‘you know what, life isn’t fair. We have incredibly talented people in our stores and this person (the assistant buyer) is going to represent the company in New York. You don’t wear makeup and you don’t have the look. You don’t have to change, it’s up to you, but if you want this, how you look is going to make a difference.’
“I cut my hair, then I went to the make-up counter and put on expensive make-up — and I got the assistant buyer job. I always remembered that.
“It may not be a fair truth, and we may want to protest it, and we may want it to be different and know it’s not right — and it’s painful — but it’s the truth. People judge you on how you look. I interviewed for probably 10 jobs before Antioch (she started February 2004) and I always wondered, ‘Did I not get hired because someone was better qualified or because they looked better and I didn’t dress as they liked?’ Unconsciously, people make presumptions.”
My first in-person meeting with Lanphere was on a Sunday, the day before her first cosmetic procedure—mole removal—at her house in downtown Antioch. Her husband, Mark, 37, was busy outside doing fall garden pruning. The couple’s two basenjis, Maximus and Nepos, leapt about like they’d been fed jumping beans.
Following our first meeting I interviewed Lanphere by phone several times—checking in, for example, before her “coming out” at a fashion show at Stone Valley Mall in mid-November 2005, which was several weeks before her liposuction (done in February of this year, to allow time for sufficient weight loss).
But first things first.
Back at our initial interview, Lanphere told me why she hesitated before sending in her application for what she called “the ugly ducking” contest. “Was it worth the risk? You keep your personal life private in this job.
“To win would mean revealing my private fears and dislikes to the world.” And what if she entered and lost? That carried its own set of fears. “Is it better to win or lose the ugly duckling contest?” she asked. “But with the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I knew I had to change my life.”
Finally, she turned to her sister in Hawaii. “I took the newspaper clip with me when I went for a visit. Toward the end of the vacation I showed it to her and shared how things she’d said had hurt me. She understood and apologized.
“I had to submit two pictures of myself and write a piece saying why I should win. We wrote the piece together. As much as I write for my job, putting the things you don’t like about yourself on paper is hard. People think that people like me are very confident. We’re just good at hiding our insecurities.”
The photos submitted showed Lanphere in her sister’s bikini showing “every bit of cellulite — and the big smile, the yellow teeth.”
Kathy Ryan, chairperson of East Bay Extreme Makeover, works for a Pleasant Hill dentist. She and her boss assembled the extreme makeover team as an alternative way of advertising, she told me last October shortly after Lanphere heard she’d won. “We’re a dental spa and were trying to come up with a creative way, beyond standard advertising, to let people know about us.”
Ryan said they chose Lanphere “because she is a professional woman, successful and intelligent. We wanted it to be a life choice. It’s not all about vanity. It’s about improving life positively. I think this will give Devi more of the appearance of a professional woman. Do you know she was recently diagnosed with diabetes?”
Ryan said her goal was lofty. “I wanted 5,000 entrants. Realistically, it will be a long time to get there!” Each applicant — she requested that I not give the number—paid $10 to enter, which went to Friends of Faith breast cancer fund.
When Lanphere got a call to tell her she was a finalist, the only people who knew she had entered were her sister, her husband and her 21-year-old son. “I was told to come in the next night for interviews with the doctors.
“During these, procedures and risks were explained. When the plastic surgeon said, ‘What don’t you like about yourself?’ I broke down. For years, people had been saying, ‘When are you due?’ Other memories flooding back. Everything got stripped away.”
The winner would be announced in Oakland. “I had to be there at 6:00 a.m. By then I’d told Karen (James Smith), my assistant, who graciously offered to get up at 4:00 a.m. and drive me. She knew I’d turn around if she didn’t.” Lanphere said she felt nervous and nauseous, and chose a table behind a pole where I could hide. “When they read my name, I couldn’t move. Karen jumped up and down so much, they thought she’d won.”
Now Lanphere had to fess up to the world. “It was very surreal, explaining to my friends, my family. My sister in Hawaii was ecstatic. My sister in San Jose was delighted. I had to tell the city council group I work with.
“It was very touching. I received kind e-mails. People said they hadn’t noticed my teeth or thought about my weight. It was really nice.
“And now that everyone was watching, I had to succeed!”
Eye of The Beholder
Lanphere had wanted her teeth done and she wanted to lose weight. “I didn’t want 20-year-old breasts, or no wrinkles—and I didn’t go into this to become a different person,” she told me that first Sunday. “I like who I am. There are just some parts of the package that need improvement and I’d like some help getting there.”
The dental work and weight-loss program came as part of a $100,000 package that included removing facial moles, an eyelift, liposuction and a tummy tuck, skin treatments, a personal trainer, a hair makeover, a new wardrobe and more. Save for using some vacation time, Lanphere fitted it all in between her routine schedule. So on one of the days I caught her, in her car driving to Oakland, she’d done a ribbon cutting, some Katrina relief work, handled a press conference, run meetings, been for a pedicure, was on her way to a facial, had on her agenda a list of things to organize for a board meeting—and, I reminded her, been interviewed by me.
Some procedures had unexpected results. For example, the facial moles. “A lot of people saw them as a blemish but for me, they were part of who I am. They were something I always had—and it was hard to let them go. It was an office procedure, more painful than I expected, but it healed really nicely. Afterwards, I felt a sense of loss. But now I have to remember that I used to have moles.”
The eyelid lift — “It was, like, OK, that will be nice. I had no idea what difference it would make to my appearance and it’s very interesting, the change is very subtle but its probably going to be ‘my surprise thing.’
“What most people are amazed at is, it’s done while you’re awake like any other outpatient surgery. They do little numbing things like they do at the dentist — and you have those mental moments like, oh my God, what’s going on? But we chatted the whole time he was doing it and it didn’t really ever hurt. It was just tender and then itched because it was healing. It took about five days before I could work and do a lot but I could always see and read. Appropriately, it was done right around Halloween …”
The diet she followed was simply one she got from Kaiser, for diabetics. “I dropped 13 pounds the first eight weeks. I was a bread lover and now I can’t eat bread. I eat less, and more veggies.
“The only person I hurt if I cheat is myself. It can be hard. It’s not much fun to put one spoon of potato on your plate and reach over the goodies for a carrot stick at Thanksgiving. But truthfully my biggest personal challenge is exercise. I never liked it. I’m working with a physical trainer who makes it fun.” She later discovered Pilates.
The liposuction — “That was uncomfortable. I spoke to a man who had it done. He said, ‘if you asked me during the first six months, I am not sure I would have said I was pleased. But a year later, I’m ecstatic.’ I’m doing OK, but it’s very major. It goes all the way under your rib cage, all the way to your hips—they lift the skin, cut through muscles and tighten everything up.
“You end up with a circle around your bellybutton and a big smile from hip to hip. Everything you lift, do, even how you sit is affected, and for the first couple of weeks it’s very painful. It took about six weeks to really feel I could be back at work. But now I have those ribs people work really hard for.”
Then there were the teeth. “For the first time in my life, I have a beautiful smile,” she told me after the first of two eight-hour stints in the dentist’s chair, and with temporary teeth in place. The procedure included “bringing up the gum line a bit, with laser, so you don’t see as much gum when I smile.”
The teeth, she said, had changed her attitude.
“I’m a grinny fool.
“I feel happier. I do things with a different attitude. I knew I wasn’t happy with my teeth, but I didn’t know how much so until after. I used to try and keep them covered when I spoke and I would try not to smile.”
I walked into the women’s conference at Los Medanos for our scheduled in-person “after” interview. Aware that Lanphere would look different, I was determined not to put my foot in it and not recognize her. When a glamorous redhead came right up to me and pointed me to a seat at one of the tables in the hall where the opening speaker was doing the welcome, I said, “No thanks. I won’t sit. I’m here to interview Devi Lanphere. Is she around?”
“I’m Devi,” she laughed.
And she was — the same candor, energy, self-awareness. As she said, same woman, different package. The best news? “My diabetes. I’ve lost 55 pounds (probably 5 pounds in surgery) and what I suddenly found was, I was going low a lot and having to eat something. My doctor redid my test and told me there’s a level you’re considered diabetic and a level you’re considered prediabetic and a level you’re considered healthy — and I came off the meds about a week ago. They’re going to take diabetes off my charts, so it’s like I never had diabetes. So the 55 pounds and eating healthier has totally reversed it.
“I’m still eating the diabetes way. Obviously if I went back to eating lots of breads and carbs, I would go back to (having) diabetes, so I will continue to eat as if I am diabetic. Low carb, low fat — the Kaiser diet. So, for example, you get to taste the dessert — and then you leave it. It’s a challenge.
“I go to a lot of functions where the dessert is in front of you from when the speaker starts and it stares at you for an hour, calling your name. It’s a challenge and hasn’t been easy. But I feel really, really good. I’m not wearing out as easily. I fit into clothes again. I have this cute little body and I don’t have to have loose, flowing clothes. I’m now a (size) 10 — I used to be 20 and I might go down to an 8. And I’m getting amazing compliments.”
It’s easier to look nice, Lanphere said. “When you don’t feel pretty, it’s harder to get up and make your hair nice and dress well. You stop caring about some things. You feel there’s no sense to it. As women, we focus on things that aren’t good enough and want to improve them.
“I have less stress now. If someone wants to take a photo of me, it’s a lot of fun. Before, it was like, I hope nobody sees this. Now, I smile a lot more. I’m able to handle things better. I just feel better.
“It’s really hard to describe. Before, it was as if the personality had to overcome things. I have people comment that I’m calmer and quieter in meetings than before. It’s an interesting observation. I think its part of the confidence that comes with feeling comfortable with your smile and your looks. I don’t have to be ‘as out there.’”
And the world at large reinforces all of this. “I’ve noticed the prejudices that come with being heavy. For example, I was recently in Ireland and went to the same pub I went to the two other times I was in Ireland and I was received differently as a different looking person.
“It was like, before (the changes), people didn’t notice or approach me. You’re just there. It’s the same with being served. You have to flag people down for service. Now that I have cuter hair, weigh less and this big smile, I get great service. People are attentive to me. Men talk to me all the time. In the pub I was approached and talked to by eight or nine different people, men and women.
“It’s like, we know there is this prejudice, but to have it change so quickly — it’s really apparent. I’m the same person. I just look different on the outside. It shouldn’t matter, but in reality, it does.”
So there is this same person, now packaged differently — and then there is the one person who saw the package change, but who felt, and treated her, the same throughout. Hubby, Mark.
At the start, he said the weight made no difference to him. In the end, he said the changes had simply enhancing all the things he found beautiful all along. Makes sense when Lanphere says, “Suddenly men think they can flirt with me because I weigh less. Not very appropriate, is it?”
© Wanda Hennig, 2009