There are makeovers, and then there are makeovers. The word itself indicates a radical change in appearance. But some changes are more radical than others, or more sustainable than others, or both. In 1988, for example, media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey shocked her viewers when she lost 67 pounds (or more than 30 kilograms) and pulled a wagon of fat – representing the amount she had shed – onstage. As dramatic as it was, Winfrey’s weight loss was not sustainable – in the ensuing decades, she has made public her struggles with her fluctuating size and weight. Whatever one’s opinion of her, at least Winfrey has dared to confront the darker side of how we are pressured to conform to societal expectations about physical appearance. This has not stopped the proliferation of the makeover industry, with titles such as Extreme Makeover, Ambush Makeover, How to Look Good Naked, and What Not to Wear gracing our television screens. 

It’s easy to purse our lips in disapproval at the lengths that people will go through for that perfect personal makeover. Or to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude at botched cosmetic procedures or unconvincing hair implants. But perhaps makeovers are neither merely personal nor merely physical. For example, could radical, self-consciously adopted changes in ideological beliefs be a kind of makeover as well? The journey of Maajid Nawaz, founder of the Quilliam Foundation, comes to mind – a decision to ditch Islamist fanaticism to become a poster-boy for right-wing-lite counter-jihadists surely counts as a theological and political makeover. Or does it? 

Ultimately, a makeover is a conscious decision to transform an old self, perhaps an undesirable one, into a new self that is at peace internally and with its surroundings. And sometimes that’s legitimate and can result in a transformed, more positive state of being. But then again, individuals – or communities – that have gone through this meaningful process of change might not like the trivialising connotations of ‘makeover’. Also, who gets to evaluate or monitor the goals of the makeover? What differentiates a makeover from a conversion, or repentance, or even genuine maturity? With these questions in mind, we present, in no particular order, our list of ten mighty makeovers – the good, the bad, and the ones the jury’s still out on. 

1. Mecca

The holiest city in Islam has undergone quite the revamp in recent years. The Saudis must have been watching 1990s re-runs of home improvement shows because the new look is more 60 Minute Makeover than Grand Designs. Home to the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, this venerated city is the pinnacle towards which the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray five times a day. Described by fourteenth-century traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta as a city of elegance, pilgrims from around the world would undertake year-long epic journeys on foot to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage). The serene desert landscape is now unrecognisable, turned into an arcade of shopping plazas and hotels for those used to the finer things in life. Package-holiday tourists can sign up for a VIP Hajj/Umrah experience with all luxury trimmings, and the vulgar face of capitalism is no better symbolised than by the five-star Clock Tower Hotel that looms over the city. In the words of Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Mecca has been turned into Disneyland’.

2. Bradford Literature Festival

The grand Victorian architecture of the former mill town has stood witness to a number of seismic events over the past sixty or so years. Post-war immigration, particularly from the Mirpur region of Pakistan, has transformed the city into a thriving hub of cultural diversity. Not, however, without a few hiccups along the way. The Curry Capital of Europe, as it has been dubbed, was the scene of major low points in race relations in the UK, namely the demonstrations against author Salman Rushdie and the notorious burning of his book, The Satanic Verses. Since then, racial tensions and social problems have flared intermittently, making Bradford a bellwether for the health of the multicultural project. In recent years, the city has seemingly shrugged off its infamy thanks to a couple of inspirational local women. Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi subverted the book-burning symbolism long-associated with Bradford to found the critically-acclaimed and hugely successful Bradford Literature Festival (BLF). Now in its third year, BLF has plugged into its Yorkshire literary heritage as well as celebrating the rich art traditions of recent settled communities to show the world that this much-maligned city can set the literary world on fire, in more ways than you think.

3. Madonna

The Material Girl burst onto the pop scene in the early 1980s and has reinvented her image and sound to remain effortlessly ahead of the curve ever since. It is no coincidence that her 2004 concert tour was named the Re-Invention World Tour. Her iconic transformations have seen her ditch the frizz of her ‘Like a Virgin’ era to embrace the peroxide bob and bold red lipstick for ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and rave electronica embodied in her acclaimed 1998 album Ray of Light. Throwing shade on all who came after her (Lady Gaga you such a wannabe), the Queen of Pop has proved the omnipresent culture vulture, flirting with Hinduism, Buddhism, embracing Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism), getting us all excited by temporarily acquiring a hot Muslim boyfriend and, of course, scandalising the Roman Catholic Church. She played the quintessential English lady about town during her marriage to the English film-maker of impeccable pedigree, Guy Ritchie. And how can we forget her role as Earth Mother – adopting the obligatory African orphan-child and raising her rainbow family-nation? Bitchy sniping aside, Madge, we salute your influence as a feminist trailblazer and champion of queer communities. Oh, and we would like to see your 50-year-old self rock a leotard like she does in the video for ‘Hung Up’. Time goes by… so slowly, so slowly.

4. The Muslim Institute

Readers of Critical Muslim will no doubt be aware that the esteemed quarterly is a joint project between the Muslim Institute and Hurst & Co. Those who have not read up on the Institute’s history may be oblivious to the fact that the Institute itself has undergone its fair share of reincarnations. ‘The Muslim Institute for Research and Planning’ was founded in 1974 to promote the revival of Muslim scholarship and was soon publishing ground-breaking research on science, economics and the future of Muslim civilisations. The year 1979 proved to be a watershed when the then director, Kalim Siddiqui, became enamoured with the Iranian Revolution and aligned himself closely with the Islamic Republic’s new regime. This created a split within the Institute, with many founding members resigning in protest at the path Kalim Siddiqui was pursuing. During the ensuing years he set up the Muslim Parliament and the Halal Food Authority, but these initiatives were overshadowed by his continuing ties to Iran. After his death in 1996, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, who had been involved in the Muslim Institute’s early years, became the director and severed all links with the theocratic state. In 2009, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui invited founding member of the original Institute, Ziauddin Sardar, to re-invent the organisation. At a gathering of friends and associates of the Institute at Sarum College, Salisbury, 4–6 December 2009, it was decided that the old Institute would cease to exist and a new Muslim Institute would be formed, consisting of a network and community of Fellows dedicated to pluralistic thought and critical thinking. 

5. Planes that unveil

Flying while Muslim has become one of the pitfalls of the age in which we live. But who has heard of transformative air miles? We are talking about your post-Ramadan escapees fleeing the scorch of the Gulf Arab sun to re-locate their households from Jeddah and Doha, to their vacant luxury apartments in Knightsbridge for a summer of driving supercars up and down London’s Edgware Road. The transformative phenomenon occurs at departure, when pristine ghutras and accompanying keffiyehs, black abayas and niqabs are discerningly donned. As the plane approaches the English Channel a discreet disrobing of passengers seems to occur. Blonde-highlighted tresses and Jimmy Choo footwear become the order of the day, while the immaculate thawb is removed in favour of Diesel jackets and Gucci jeans. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of cross-cultural travel.

6. Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 might have provoked horror within the country and beyond, but it was also a goldmine for political satirists. The most iconic of these has been the eerily convincing transformation of Alec Baldwin into the Orange Menace on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Debuting in October 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign debates, Baldwin’s multiple award-winning turn as the Donald was not without controversy either. Former SNL cast member Darrell Hammond – the show’s resident Trump impressionist up till then – admitted he was crushed by the decision to replace him with Baldwin. But Baldwin’s casting has been undeniably fortuitous. It’s not that he doesn’t do a fantastic job – he does. The rest of the SNL team, however, are no slouches either – think of Tina Fey’s screamingly funny impersonation of former governor of Alaska and failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, or Melissa McCarthy’s tour de force as Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer. Neither, however, have had the privilege that Baldwin has enjoyed of an ongoing Twitter feud with the subject of their portrayals. To Baldwin’s claim that parodying Trump was turning into ‘agony’, Trump tweeted: ‘Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch. Bring back Darrell Hammond, funnier and a far greater talent!’ Baldwin fired back in response: ‘Agony though it may be, I’d like to hang in there for the impeachment hearings, the resignation speech, the farewell helicopter ride to Mara-A-Lago. You know. The Good Stuff. That we’ve all been waiting for.’ As the kids would say, ‘Boom!’ 

7. Mahathir Mohamad 

 On 9 May 2018, Malaysian voters witnessed a miracle. A whopping 82 per cent of them turned up at the polls to boot out an increasingly draconian, corrupt, nationalist, and Islamist coalition government – led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – which had held the country in its grip for an uninterrupted 61 years since independence from the British. One major factor for this David-and-Goliath moment was the role played by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. 

 Mahathir has a track record of mighty makeovers. His 22-year UMNO-led administration, from 1981 to 2003, is credited with transforming Malaysia from a largely agricultural economy to an industrial and technological powerhouse. But his administration had sinister elements, too – he silenced his critics mercilessly and was embroiled in his share of financial scandals. Mahathir was, of course, also responsible for persecuting his protégé, Anwar Ibrahim, who was framed on charges of sodomy and imprisoned for several years. Mahathir and Anwar put their differences aside to join forces against the UMNO government of Nujib Razak, who used the same tactics as Mahathir to send Anwar to prison for the second time on charges of sodomy. 

The turning point might have come during a ‘public’ forum – which Mahathir was not invited to – discussing whether he was too old to return as leader. In the middle of a presentation that asserted he was senile, the former premier turned up unannounced, sat in the front row, and tweeted a picture of himself with the caption: ‘I’m here guys. Say it to my face.’ Several jaws dropped – some in horror, most in admiration. 

A few weeks afterwards, a shell-shocked Najib had to announce his resignation. Shortly afterwards, as leader of the incoming governing coalition, literally called the Alliance of Hope, the 93-year-old Mahathir was sworn in as the country’s new (old) premier. Or should that be old (new) premier? Either way, he says he’s a good guy now and has promised to clean everything up. But can a leopard change its spots? We shall see. 

8. Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex

An impassioned sermon, tinged with liberation theology, delivered by the first African-American bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US. A soulful rendition of the classic, ‘Stand by Me’, by an all-black gospel choir. Prayers of intercession by the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who looked like she could have stepped out of the film Black Panther (yes, we have black people in Britain, too, and some of them are Anglican priests). A stirring cello solo by the 19-year-old prodigy Sheku Kanneh-Mason. A star-studded audience that included Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, and Idris Elba. When biracial Meghan Markle met ginger Prince Harry, did she foresee that she would be responsible for this ‘rousing celebration of blackness’ (in the words of Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch) at Windsor Castle, one of the bastions of the British monarchy? But not everyone has been that impressed by the unprecedented diversity on display at the latest royal wedding. As much as she had a bit of ‘Meghan Sparkle Mania’ herself, the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah was doubtful that Princess Meghan would be able to continue being as outspoken about racial or other forms of justice after marriage. And one royal wedding cannot centuries of imperial racism undo. What tangible benefit, for example, could Harry and Meghan’s nuptials possibly have for the many Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent who have had to suffer the indignity and anguish of the Conservative government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy? Only time will tell if Markle’s makeover – from mixed heritage American actress to Duchess of Sussex – has truly inspired the makeover of the monarchy. 

9. Yusuf Islam / Cat Sevens

 You can be forgiven for thinking that the great makeover for the British singer-songwriter Cat Stevens was his conversion to Islam in 1977. And what a metamorphosis it was, too – Stevens was barely thirty, a hitmaker, and a heart throb who decided to ditch his musical career and stardom completely in compliance with his new-found faith. His was a particularly austere and severe interpretation of Islam – in 1989, he courted controversy for seemingly supporting the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 seemed to provoke another, subtler phase of soul-searching. In 2006, he returned to music, recording his first all-new pop album since 1978, An Other Cup, complete with musical instruments (which he had earlier considered haram, or forbidden). And this was not a one-off – he started touring again, now simply as  Yusuf. His journey this time around is less dramatic but no less remarkable. His 2017 album, The Laughing Apple, is credited to ‘Cat Stevens/Yusuf’ and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album.  Yusuf’s second makeover is not without its difficulties, though. As he puts it, ‘Criticisms came from some small sections of the Muslim Community who quite incredibly assumed that because I was making music I had left Islam – God forbid!’ Perhaps Yusuf’s return to music is not so much a second makeover as a harmonising of his seemingly conflicting but deeply held identities as a Muslim and as a musician. In his own words, ‘I once went through a stage where I turned my back on everything that I’d done before, but of course that was a radical and overzealous reaction to the spiritual happiness that I’d felt in Islam. 

10. Children of bus drivers

What do Sajid Javid (Britain’s first home secretary to come from a Muslim background), Sadiq Khan (London’s first Muslim mayor), and Sayeeda Warsi (the first Muslim to sit in the British cabinet) have in common? Besides their first names all starting with ‘S’, that is? They’re all children of bus drivers, of course! Specifically, they’re children of post-war Pakistani immigrants who came to Britain in the 1960s in pursuit of a better life. Who says there is no social mobility in Britain? And political differences aside, there’s a bit of a children-of-bus-drivers bonding thing going on between the three. When Labour’s Khan won the London mayoral election in 2016, Javid, from the Conservatives, was quick to tweet his good wishes, saying, ‘From one son of a Pakistani bus driver to another, congratulations.’ Javid’s message was retweeted by Warsi, also a Tory, who added, ‘From this daughter of a Pakistani bus driver to a son of a Pakistani bus driver, congratulations.’ Observing this burst of cross-party, intra-class and intra-cultural mirth on Twitter, the Conservative activist Tim Montgomerie quipped, ‘Bus drivers are clearly the new Etonians.’ If only. 

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