By Anne-marie O'neill
November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

It was her dream come true, but Oprah Winfrey still couldn’t stop blubbering. Ensconced at a lavish Long Island, N.Y., mansion last July, she had been dressed up (in navy cashmere Ralph Lauren), blown out (by hairstylist Garren) and blushed (by makeup artist Pat McGrath) in preparation for her magic moment as a Vogue cover girl. “But every time she saw the [test pictures] she started crying,” recalls photographer Steven Meisel. As the daytime diva later explained, poor, overweight girls growing up in Mississippi don’t dare think about being supermodels. “It became a real fantasy for me,” Oprah told PEOPLE. “This was it!”

Never underestimate the power of a makeover. It can renew the spirit, save a career, mend the heart and—given the right setting—even reduce the most powerful woman on TV to tears. Winfrey, 44, who has made an avocation out of re-creating herself (and a not-so-healthy habit of yo-yoing on the scales), went uncoiffed and makeup-free to play an escaped slave haunted by her past in her new movie Beloved, a role for which she lost 20 lbs. last year. She piled it back on in January when she was corralled in an Amarillo, Texas, courtroom for six weeks defending a suit brought by local ranchers over statements she’d made on-air about mad cow disease. “I wanted to eat macaroni and cheese and food that comforted me,” she explains.

But as the Long Island shoot approached, it was back to broccoli, salad and mountain hikes near Telluride, Colo., where she has a home. Now, sleek once more, with a new, casually elegant look, “I’m open to the possibility of anything,” she says.

It’s a sentiment shared by Roseanne, Madonna, Courtney Love and so many other celebrity changelings that it seems as if Hollywood is in the grip of a redo revolution. Since leaving the Spice Girls back in May, Geri Halliwell, 36—formerly Ginger Spice—has abandoned hot pants and henna for a buttoned-down look that owes more to her hero Margaret Thatcher than her pop-tart pals. Ditching the “Girl Power” slogan-speak might prove a tougher task. When it comes to beauty, “the only ideal,” she told British Marie Claire magazine in August, “is what’s ideal for you.”

Or your record company. Consider the spin cycle of Courtney Love: In 1997 the grunge goddess turned Hollywood glamor girl after her acting debut in The People vs. Larry Flynt. But with the September release of her new CD, Celebrity Skin, Love, 34, has revisited her inner vamp. “She’s gone back to her own style,” says her stylist Arianne Phillips. But, Phillips concedes, “Courtney is well aware of the marketing machine.”

Translation: Sex sells. Just ask Janet Jackson, 32, who swapped tailored suits for body huggers that reveal the bounteous cleavage she calls “heaven.” “All her life it’s been about Janet being cute,” says L.A. fashion designer David Cardona, who created the racy costumes for Jackson’s current Velvet Rope tour. “Now it’s about Janet being sexy.”

“That’s what a star is,” says Hollywood manager Joan Hyler, “someone who is always re-creating themselves anew.” Which puts Madonna, 40, in the pantheon. Her latest incarnation—sort of Vishnu meets Versace—offended religious Hindus after she wore the face markings of one of their goddesses to September’s MTV Music Video Awards. But stylist Phillips says the meditating mom’s new look—which pairs genuine saris with pieces from Givenchy and Gaultier—expresses her “spirit of serenity” since giving birth to daughter Lourdes two years ago. “It’s not a calculated idea to go guru swami,” says John Kaliardos, her makeup man for the MTV show. “It’s how she feels right now.”

For other celebs, the itch to switch has coincided with major life changes. Marla Maples, 35, got clipped by New York stylist Mike Karg last May, a few weeks before a court date to contest her prenup with Donald Trump. Lisa Kudrow, 35, marked the May birth of son Julian Murray by getting “something very low-maintenance,” says Friends hairstylist Richard Marin, who cut her shoulder-length locks into a jaw-skimming bob. As for Nashville singer Pam Tillis, divorce (in May from songwriter Bob DiPiero) was the catalyst for her trip to José Eber’s Beverly Hills salon. “I thought I would faint,” says Tillis, 41, of Eber’s first snips at her foot-long hair. “I knew I couldn’t die from a haircut, but it felt like it.” Now, she says, her new hairdo “gives me confidence that I can wear more than one style.”

In fact, stars aren’t so different from the rest of us when it comes to getting a lift—or the willies—from a new look. “People can have an enormous amount of insecurity and be earning $20 million a year,” says L.A. psychologist Irene Kassorla. “Celebrity status alone does not offer self-esteem.”

Still, it can get you an appointment with a top haircutter—or, better yet, a house call. Weeks before her new talk show’s September debut, Roseanne, 45, who has already had her share of nips and tucks, summoned hairstylist Jonathan Antin to her Beverly Hills home. “Your hair is a mess!” Antin recalls declaring of her “droopy” shag. “She said, ‘Honey, you’re here for a reason.’ So I gave her a funky bed-head cut.” The result, says her former publicist Alana Rothstein, reflects “who she is. It says, ‘This is Roseanne, and she’s coming over to your house today.’ ”

Sending the right message is also paramount for stars like Courtney Thorne-Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Long hair started to stifle her,” says hairstylist Brett Freedman of Thorne-Smith, 31. “She was really conscious of looking like a bimbo.” Now, with less hair, says Freedman of the Ally McBeal costar, “she can be sexier.” As for Paltrow, 26, whose once cropped top is now shoulder-length, “change is always nice,” says haircutter John Sahag, especially for stars who mustn’t be linked with a look created for a past role.

When it comes to image, though, few face a greater challenge than First Tattler Linda Tripp, 48. Last month the Washington Post reported on her foray to the Bobbi Brown cosmetics counter at Nordstrom’s, where an assistant worked some magic with white eye shadow, clove lipstick and gloss. “[Linda] is making more of an effort,” says Philadelphia-based image consultant Marjorie Brody, “because people made fun of her.”

Paula Jones shares her pain. Ridiculed for her looks by the likes of Jay Leno after she accused the president of sexual harassment in 1994, Jones, 32, completed the makeover she began last year with a $9,000 nose job in August. “I was tired of all the caricatures of my nose,” Jones told Hello magazine. “And my family has always had a problem with double chins. So I got that done as well.” Not that the new look will keep the comics at bay. “Now,” jabbed David Letterman, Clinton “can honestly testify that he doesn’t recognize her.”

But he’s likely to recognize Monica Lewinsky, 25, whose transformation has been more subtle. Gone is the long-haired girl in the beret and cutesy clothes. With shorter hair and more businesslike suits, “she no longer looks like the girlie, flirty college student,” says image consultant Brody. “She’s looking more conservative—but people aren’t going to buy that.”

Pleasing the public was on skater Michelle Kwan’s mind too when she had her schoolgirl tresses trimmed down to a pixie cut last month. “Suddenly I’m wearing things with plunging necklines and low backs,” says Kwan, 18. Fans love it—judging by their cheers at a September meet—and so does Kwan. “It took me two years to get in that chair,” she says. “Now, I say to myself, ‘Why didn’t I do it sooner?’ ”