Capt. DeLisa Stiles is crowned "The Swan" on the Fox reality series' season finale in December.

Capt. DeLisa Stiles is crowned "The Swan" on the Fox reality series' season finale in December. (FOX photo)

Capt. DeLisa Stiles is crowned "The Swan" on the Fox reality series' season finale in December.

Capt. DeLisa Stiles is crowned "The Swan" on the Fox reality series' season finale in December. (FOX photo)

Capt. DeLisa Stiles before her transformation.

Capt. DeLisa Stiles before her transformation. (Michael Yarish / FOX)

Basic training might have been tough. Deployment was no picnic. But Capt. DeLisa Stiles met her most challenging physical and emotional tests on a hit TV show on the Fox network.

Tummy-tuck, eye lift, brow lift, breast augmentation: Stiles endured those surgeries and more to become “The Swan,” and winner of the Fox makeover show of the same name.

For the first few days after the surgeries, Stiles said, with her eyes swollen to slits and much of her body quite tender, “it was intense,” she said. But the 32-year-old Army reservist and reality-show contestant gritted her soon-to-be Zoom-bleached teeth, and her military training kicked in.

“I said to myself, ‘You chose this, and you’ve just got to suck it up,’” she said in an interview recently.

Stiles, the only contestant to receive divorce papers during the show, did indeed suck it up, and went on to win the beauty pageant that is the show’s culmination, and, with it, some $300,000 in cash and (mostly) prizes and a $100,000 gig as NutriSystem diet company’s new spokeswoman. Even if she hadn’t won, she said, her willingness to open up her life and her perceived deficiencies to 8 million TV viewers would have been worthwhile.

“I think the TV show was actually helpful,” she said. “It held up a mirror to me — Is this what you really want to see?”

Sixteen women were chosen for the show and the surgeries from more than 300,000 letters sent to producers. Eight plus a “wild card” from the dismissed women competed in the pageant. Celebrity judges picked Stiles as the Swan.

A psychologist in civilian life, Stiles would have been facing a much different challenge if a medical problem hadn’t sent her back from Kuwait to Fort Riley, Kansas. Assigned to the 468th Quartermaster Battalion in Dallas, Texas, she’d been “cross-leveled” into the 1011th Quartermaster Company out of Independence, Kansas — with orders, along with 120 reservists she’d never met, to deploy to Iraq.

Stiles made it to Kuwait in 2003 before a blood clot in her arm returned her stateside. “I have such mixed feelings,” she said, about missing that tour of duty.

She was put on blood thinners in preparation to join her unit but when she was cleared to go, she was told that because the unit had less than 90 days remaining in Iraq, she wasn’t going anywhere.

She saw the first season of “The Swan” while she recuperated at Fort Riley, and decided to try to get on the show’s next season. “I mailed hideous pictures of me in my underwear, and they called me for a casting call,” she said.

It wasn’t just her looks that Stiles thought could use an upgrade. It was also the way she lived her life — apparently confident, but full of self-doubt. She thought the show’s producers and its viewers might respond to that, she said. She was right.

“The troubled marriage, the false bravado … they thought women could really relate to that,” Stiles said. “Women try to be tough and we’re filled with self-doubt and we don’t want anyone to see that.”

Born and raised in Texas, Stiles enlisted in junior ROTC when she was 17, although she didn’t come from a military family.

“I felt like it was an important way for me to serve my country,” she said. She spent five months in Saudi Arabia during the first Iraq war, her quartermaster unit about 50 miles away from any intense fighting.

After Desert Storm, Stiles went to college, joined senior ROTC, and eventually got a master’s degree in psychology and her commission. But, she told the show’s producers, she felt that being in the military had taken a toll on her femininity.

“I just felt like I had this great assertive side, and (the military) taught me to be firm,” she said. “But it didn’t teach me to be more diplomatic, and to be sort of soft and yielding.”

And while she said others viewed her as capable and even daring, she didn’t feel that way about herself. “I always chose the safe path,” she said.

In addition to the cosmetic surgery and dentistry, contestants on “The Swan” also must follow special diets, engage in rigorous workout programs and have counseling sessions with both a therapist and a “life coach,” who happens to be the Los Angeles-based show’s creator and executive producer.

They go through a four-month process of transformation during the show — without contact from their families save some brief phone calls — with their heartaches, frustrations and surgeries laid out for some 8 million viewers.

Stiles, for example, got divorce papers from her husband during the show. Although it was not unexpected — their eight-year marriage had been rocky, she said, and she’d been gone for more than a year — it was still very difficult, especially because it was so public. And yet, she said, “It was a really supportive environment. I had a team of people pulling for me.”

As the show progressed, some of the women went home, surgically enhanced but out of the Miss America-style competition for cash and prizes. Stiles was crowned “The Swan” because she was the one judged to have been most changed and improved.

The show, which is coming up on its third season, has been criticized as tasteless or offensive for encouraging women to undergo painful surgeries to conform to a beauty ideal, and then to compete to see who’s best.

But Stiles said none of the women had any regrets, as far as she knew, and neither did she. She maintains that her biggest change was emotional, in that she became comfortable taking risks. And as for her new look? “I feel like I look the way I always should have looked,” she said.

She did have concerns that some in the military might think that being on the show was inappropriate for a U.S. military officer, but so far, she said, she’s only received good reviews. One e-mail, Stiles said, read “Way to go, Ma’am. Show them we’ve got really beautiful women in the Army.”

Capt. Tyrone Hines, a fellow member of the 468th Quartermaster Battalion said that nearly everyone there had heard about Stiles’ success on the show — although he said he hadn’t watched it — and that most everyone found her quite fortunate and wished her well. Stiles’ commander could not be reached for comment.

Stiles said she doesn’t know if people in her unit will treat her differently now.

“My military record and the way I conduct myself is going to speak for itself,” she said. “I won’t be wearing false eyelashes. I won’t be so glamorous.”

Well, maybe, maybe not. Stiles has about seven years before retirement from the Reserves, and she said she’s happy as a quartermaster. “Beans and bullets: the Army can’t do without them.”

Still, what she’d really love to do is go on a USO tour, she said. Most women on USO tours, such as Ann-Margret, tend to glam it up.

Said Stiles, “I know what it’s like to be deployed, to have these outrageous hardships and just have it be your life.”

“I’d love to meet the commander in chief,” she added. “Do you think it would be inappropriate to hug the president?”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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