By Jill Smolowe
February 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Faced with a month off between jobs, TV newswoman Greta Van Susteren was lounging in her three-bedroom stone house in Washington, D.C. Suddenly she looked up from her Sunday paper and asked John Coale, her husband of 14 years, “Do you think I should get rid of these bags under my eyes?” Coale, an attorney, was startled. “We had never talked about it,” he says. “Greta always looks like she’s 25 to me.” Like a good lawyer, he ducked the question—and like a good husband, “he said he loves me anyway,” recalls Greta. “Right answer!”

But three days later the pair visited a D.C. surgeon to explore the ins and out of blepharoplasty, commonly known as an eye-lift. “You have to realize this was not a huge decision,” says Van Susteren, “not like choosing a law school.” Rather, with the start of her new job a month away, she decided, she says, to do something just for her: “I just did it on a whim. It’s the first time since I was 17 that I had a month off and no responsibilities.” She was also facing her 30th high school reunion in Wisconsin this summer. “I looked at myself and thought, ‘God, how did I get to be 47?'”

When her show On the Record with Greta Van Susteren kicked off on Feb. 4, just 24 days after her surgery, it was impossible to know how many viewers tuned in to listen to the brainy legal analyst and who just wanted to check out FOX News Channel’s newest face. In the days before her debut, Van Susteren’s raised eyelids raised eyebrows, thanks to a buzz-building promo in which she looked more like CNN’s Paula Zahn than her former no-frills self. Slam! Bam! Suddenly TV news was forced to talk about the industry’s worst-kept secret: Newscasters often rely on more than pancake makeup and merciful lighting to achieve their polished looks. “FOX hired a tomboy, and they got a babe,” says Michele Greppi, national editor of the weekly industry magazine Electronic Media. “It’s all everybody was talking about.”

The reason was simple: While many TV journalists are among the more than 7 million people (six women to every one man) who go under the knife in the U.S. each year, few ever fess up. “The question is who hasn’t had surgery in television,” says Dr. Pamela Lipkin, a New York City plastic surgeon who has nipped and tucked many TV clients (and, not surprisingly, won’t say whom). ABC’s Carole Simpson, 53, discussed her ’98 face-lift on Good Morning America; Barbara Walters, 70, reportedly has had some plastic surgery. But most of their colleagues are mum. “You ask the question as gently as you can and you get, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about,'” says Greppi. “When people have work done, everybody works very hard to not acknowledge it.”

Van Susteren, who so far sees only “the swelling and the black and blue,” insists she never had plans to keep her makeover secret. “Why was I doing it if it wasn’t going to be noticeable?” she asks. Many industry insiders applauded her openness. “Television is a business where looks matter. It’s silly to deny that,” says Judy Woodruff, 55, her friend and former colleague at CNN. Adds Court TV founder Steve Brill: “If people are going to do this, they shouldn’t be ashamed—especially since it’s a changed appearance and it’s hard to deny.”

The fact that cable rivals CNN and FOX News are engaged in a nasty ratings war only fueled the controversy. Some news folks speculated that Van Susteren had been pressured by her new bosses to improve her appearance, a charge she strenuously denies. Indeed, FOX News chairman Roger Ailes says he tried to talk her out of the surgery. “Right after I hired her she said she was going to have this done, and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a great idea. We’re trying to get you on the air in a month,'” says Ailes, recalling his concern about adequate healing time. “But she wasn’t concerned about it.” Says Van Susteren: “I’m an independent type. No one tells me what to do.” Other people wondered if she’d had more than her eyes done. “Nobody looks so different from eyelid surgery alone,” says Lipkin. Van Susteren attributes her changed facial contours in the early FOX promos to lingering puffiness from the eye surgery.

The attention to Van Susteren’s shiny new look owes much to her famously atypical—for television—former approach to life on-camera. In 1999 she joked to PEOPLE that her New Year’s resolution was to “learn to comb my hair before my show rather than after.” Roger Cossack, her friend and former coanchor on CNN’s Burden of Proof, fondly calls her old look “antistyle.” Another CNN host, Tucker Carlson, recalls, “She was totally low-maintenance: ‘No, don’t do my hair.’ She would just run her hands through it. She flamboyantly did not care. I was impressed.”

Still, for seven years, Van Susteren has been getting blonde highlights to hide her gray (she credits the brilliance of her blonde hair in her FOX promo to set lighting) and last spring she chopped off her long tresses in favor of a more sophisticated bob.

Her indifference to glamor was a luxury that owed much to the unusual way in which Van Susteren entered the news business. A graduate of Georgetown Law Center, she had already built a reputation in Washington as a tough litigator when she was tapped by the local CBS affiliate in 1991 to provide legal analysis of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s drug and perjury trial. She next appeared on Court TV and then CNN, where she provided commentary during William Kennedy Smith’s ’91 rape trial.

Four years after joining CNN full-time in ’91, Van Susteren shot to prominence with her analysis of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. TV critics loved her natural style. “She still seems to be an actual human being,” Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post. She coanchored Burden of Proof, then in ’01 got her own show, The Point, which soon claimed the second-highest ratings at CNN, behind Larry King Live.

As her career thrived, a busy home life kept her grounded in reality. The youngest of three children born to Wisconsin state court judge Urban Van Susteren and Margery, a homemaker, Greta brought her widowed, ailing mother to live with her in ’95. Each morning, Greta would get up early to read the newspapers to her mother, who was nearly blind, then race off to prepare for Burden, which aired at midday. Then she would return home to spend afternoons with her mother before again racing to the studio to tape The Point, which aired after dinner. “I’ve been a workaholic since I was 18,” she says.

Around the time of her mother’s death at 89 last June, Van Susteren began to grow disenchanted with CNN (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by AOL Time Warner). “I left because of AOL,” she says. “They fired 10 percent of the staff for the bottom line.” In December her husband sent a letter to CNN chairman Walter Isaacson (later excerpted in The New York Times) that accused the network of slighting women and minority employees. “While we have always had great respect for Greta and her opinions,” says a CNN spokeswoman, “we clearly disagree with her views on CNN’s corporate and on-air diversity.” On Dec. 31 she announced her resignation.

Bound by CNN to not begin her new FOX job—for which she will earn a reported $900,000 a year—until February, she took to lounging at home in her bathrobe. “It was fabulous,” she says. The day after she sprang the idea of cosmetic surgery on her husband, Coale, 55, called Van Susteren’s sister Lise, 50, a D.C.-area doctor, to obtain the name of a surgeon. “If I have time to think about it, I find 40 reasons not to do it—I’m a lawyer,” Van Susteren says of her impetuous decision.

The two-hour eye tuck, which on average costs $2,230 plus hospital and medication fees, is the third most common plastic surgery procedure performed in the U.S., after nose jobs and liposuction; last year the country’s 23,000 plastic surgeons performed more than 325,000 of them. Although Van Susteren felt no reservations when the doctor warned she would suffer bad swelling for three weeks, she says that when “I was told I couldn’t have coffee that morning, that was almost a deal breaker.” At the outpatient clinic she was given a painkiller, which was enough to block all memory of the operation, but no general anesthesia. Four hours after the surgery, Coale found his groggy wife in the recovery room, her eyes partly sewn shut. “There was surprisingly no pain,” says Van Susteren.

For the next three days, she stayed home and watched films—among them, ironically, the Sandra Bullock beauty pageant romp Miss Congeniality. “I like really stupid comedies,” she confesses. Then it was back to the doctor’s to have her stitches removed. “Of all this, that was the rotten part,” she says. “That actually hurt.” So did her first glimpse of her new self. “I looked like hell,” she says. Coale was a bit shaken too. “The first week there was all that swelling, so I was worried,” he says. “We both thought it would be a little thing.” Humor helped keep their spirits up, with Coale ribbing her, “What’s your name again?” and suggesting she wear a name tag. Now, though the swelling subsides day by day, Van Susteren continues to put on makeup and sunglasses before leaving the house “so I don’t look like a victim of spousal abuse.” As the puffiness goes down, she adds, her old facial lines are emerging.

Will Van Susteren’s makeover increase the pressure on TV personalities to look ever younger? Her colleagues say it’s already there. “The fact is that what you look like on television matters,” says former NBC News president Reuven Frank. Anyone who has appeared on TV—or even in a home video—can relate. “When you go on television, you come home and look at the tape and you think, ‘How did I look?’ You don’t care about what you said,” says Court TV’s Steve Brill. “That’s what television is—it’s a picture.”

Of those television newswomen who have confessed to cosmetic surgery (see sidebar), none say they were pushed by their bosses. “I really don’t know anybody who was,” says Janet Peckinpaugh, 51, the Connecticut news anchor who in 1999 won an $8.3 million lawsuit charging her Hartford station with sex and age discrimination. “The pressure comes from within you, rather than directly from a manager type.”

“The pressure is there, period,” says novelist Kelly Lange, 50, a former KNBC Los Angeles anchor. “It’s not part of the job description, but women are savvy.” Marcia Brandwynne, a former L.A. news anchor and now a station executive there, concurs: “Women who are on TV know they have to look good. It’s all about youth.”

Van Susteren may spark a new candor. NBC reporter Lisa Myers, 50, says that while she has had no cosmetic surgery, “obviously, if the way we look gets in the way of how well we communicate, then I don’t mind the suggestion that we do something about it.” Even Peckinpaugh, despite her battle against ageism, says that while she has not yet gotten any tucks, “I am not saying that next year I might not.”

But some industry experts warn that Van Susteren’s makeover could prove an unwanted distraction. “We’re going to be looking at Greta, not listening to Greta,” says Greppi. “She’s going to have to fight to get the attention off her face.” CNN anchor Woodruff counters, “It will be something people talk about for a couple of days and then it will be forgotten.” Van Susteren agrees: “It’ll blow over. Of course, every time someone does a story on plastic surgery, my name will be dragged up.” Ever unflappable, she sees an upside. “I’ve made it safe for other people to have plastic surgery. It’s no longer a bad word.”

Perhaps. But was it a good choice for Van Susteren? Reaction to her new look is mixed. “I think she looks great,” Meredith Vieira, 48, said on ABC’s The View. “I like the old Greta,” declares former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno, 46. The night of On the Record‘s live debut, new FOX colleague Geraldo Rivera, 58, reporting from Sudan, offered an on-air Billy Crystal imitation, saying, “You look mah-velous,” while guest Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State, said, “You look great, Greta.” Van Susteren herself struck a note many viewers could relate to. Referring to that upcoming reunion, she smiled wryly and said, “I’m hoping to make jealous all those guys who would not date me.”

Ever the lawyer, Van Susteren feels the jury is still out on her new look. “When the swelling is gone,” she says, “I have no idea how I’ll look.” Perhaps the only other person whose opinion really counts renders a positive verdict. “It takes 10 years off,” says husband Coale. “She looks fine to me.”

Jill Smolowe

Macon Morehouse and Colleen O’Conner in Washington, D.C., Mark Dagostino, KC Baker, Rebecca Paley, Bob Meadows and Sharon Krum in New York City, Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and Trine Tsouderos in Chicago