Rise of the Fembots

What do Shawn Southwick, Heidi Montag, and Kate Hudson have in common? They’re fembots—walking, talking Barbie dolls that are dominating tabloid headlines this spring. Rebecca Dana on the newest category of celebrity.

AP & Getty Images

Someone once asked Larry King if he was at all anxious about marrying Shawn Southwick, a woman 26 years his junior. “If she dies, she dies,” the CNN host, now 76, replied.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Celebrity Fembots

What that Reaganesque rejoinder misses, besides humor, is something about his seventh wife that’s plainly obvious to the rest of us. Southwick, 50, looks as if she were sculpted by the best artisans in Hollywood, from the finest synthetic materials available. She will, like her husband, probably never die.

That’s because she’s a Fembot, a species of walking, talking Barbie dolls, concentrated mainly in Los Angeles and New York, that appears increasingly likely to take over the world. They are everywhere this spring: on the cover of Us Weekly, photographed by Mark Seliger in the pages of Vanity Fair, giving afternoon press conferences about their forthcoming lawsuits, plastic surgery dates, and feature films.

Behold the rise of the bionic woman! Part human, part machine, she is at once sexy and scary, delicate and indestructible. Can she shoot bullets out of that heaving bosom? Best not to find out. (Who can really say for sure whether this didn’t play some part in the abrupt reversal of the King divorce plans revealed last week?)

If the right parts of your body are puffy enough, and the bones of your face unnaturally prominent, then you can probably get an agent or a manager these days

Here is Heidi Montag-Pratt, in her teeny-weeny bikini, posing half-nude next to every single swimming pool between Nevada and the Pacific, ever since her gag-inducing 10-in-one-day full-body reconstruction this winter. Here is new mother Kendra Wilkinson discussing her plans to follow in Montag’s footsteps and get a whole new body before she turns 30. Here are Tiger Woods’ frighteningly lifelike blowup-doll mistresses. Here are Eliot Spitzer’s.

And now even famously flat-chested Kate Hudson, the ultimate hippie chick, has reportedly gone out and gotten herself a boob job. One modestly enhanced bust—or is it just a push-up bra?—does not a Fembot make, but it’s a slippery slope. These days, Hudson looks just about the same age as her mother, Goldie Hawn.

As long as there has been plastic surgery, there have been surgically enhanced women (or women who, with or without surgery, look awfully well “done”) bobbing up and down the corridors of power on the East and West Coasts. What distinguishes this cultural moment is that “Fembot” is starting to become a category of celebrity, like “socialite” did back in Paris Hilton’s day. If the right parts of your body are puffy enough, and the bones of your face unnaturally prominent, you can probably get an agent or a manager these days—or at least a high-paid waitressing gig in Vegas and the chance to sleep with, and later sue, a real celebrity.

The Fembots of yesteryear, like Jocelyn Wildenstein and Amanda Lepore, were generally treated as oddities. Too-dramatic procedures once sent mainstream celebrities, like Meg Ryan and Tara Reid, underground until the collagen settled or a liposuction scar could be smoothed over. Everyone but the most unself-conscious denied, denied, denied.

But sometime between The Swan and The Hills, things changed. In part, books and media appearances by outspoken surgery-acolytes like Joan Rivers helped destigmatize the procedures, paving the way for the radical makeovers we see more and more of today. In part, reality television and the Internet fundamentally changed our ideas about privacy and shame—and in the case of Montag and some of the most extreme examples, just flat-out demolished both.

The Fembots of today are increasingly bold about the work they’re getting done and the work they’re hoping to get as a result. After filming a cameo for an upcoming Adam Sandler movie, Montag revealed that she’s in the process of writing a screenplay for a female action flick, in which she’d also star. A virtually unrecognizable Yoanna House, winner of the second cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has been party-hopping lately, reintroducing herself to the world via CW and Oxygen network red carpets. Real Housewives of New York’s Kelly Bensimon went the Ashley Dupre route this summer and stripped down for Playboy. Christina Aguilera is going full-Fembot for the cover of her new album Bionic, out June 8.

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Modern-day Fembots aren’t just debatably pretty faces. They’re also lawyered up. Last week, Montag announced she is suing Hills creator Adam DiVello, without whose intervention she would probably still be an anonymous aspiring fashion designer in Los Angeles. She alleges unwanted touching. And then, of course, there is Gloria Allred’s entire legal practice. In the last year alone, Allred has become the first name in pre-emptive Fembot litigation. Southwick will likely employ celebrity divorce attorney Robert Kaufman, if she goes ahead with the divorce.

What happens going forward is in the hands of the entertainment industry—and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. There are bright spots for the unenhanced. According to one industry survey, surgeons performed 17 percent fewer cosmetic procedures in 2009 than in 2008, although the trend shows signs of reversing, as the economy improves, in 2010. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 director Rob Marshall reportedly has banned women with breast implants from appearing in the film.

But if today’s Fembots are as tough as they seem, they won’t be put off by a little sagging, economic or otherwise. Plus, anyone shut out of Marshall’s film should have no trouble landing a role in Montag’s.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.