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Packaging the Stars

Like an army of fairy godmothers, Hollywood stylists swarm celebrities each Oscar season, hoping to make them shine for the red carpet.

More and more stars rely on these experts in all things superficial - hair, makeup, dresses, accessories - to give them their look.

"It seems like such a silly, petty thing," said Jeanne Yang, a stylist with the Cloutier Agency in Santa Monica. "But if you're an actress making $20 million a year, you look at it in terms of dollars and cents."

Yang said her clients, who include Angelina Jolie, Calista Flockhart, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar, must be sure they'll look good in pictures seen around the world.

"It's a business, and any other business where that much money is at stake would be sure to hire the best marketing person," said Yang. "They need to know their 'package,' so to speak, looks the best that it can."

Foolish attire could stall a star's progress faster than Joan Rivers can cackle.

Cher's now-laughable feather-and-sequin dappled costumes preceded the Oscar-winning actress' fall to late-night infomercials. In vogue once again, Cher heeded the pundits' advice last year and attended the Oscar show in a far more conservative black gown.

"Stylists are the fashion gladiators. They come to save the day," said Steven Cojocaru, People magazine's West Coast style editor.

It's a perpetual balancing act: Stylists can't let their clients seem boring, but they don't want to tempt fate with something outlandish.

"Fashion is like life or death at the Oscars," Cojocaru said.

For example, Catherine Zeta-Jones was a relative unknown before she arrived at the 1999 Academy Awards wearing a strapless, deep-red Versace gown.

"When she was in her car to the show, she was an up-and-coming actress," Cojocaru said. "The second she put her toe on the red carpet, looking so gorgeous in that beautiful dress, she became a star."

Keeping up with the trends is too much work for most working actors, said stylist Phillip Bloch, whose Oscar clients have included Sandra Bullock and Salma Hayek.

"Celebrities aren't on the cutting edge of fashion. They don't have time. That's why they have us," Bloch said.

In recent years, some designers have tried to eliminate the middleman and form relationships with celebrities independent of stylists. But many performers still prefer a personal dresser, fearing that using the same designer year after year lacks whimsy.

"Any celebrity can call Armani or Valentino, but they can't necessarily find the new talent - designers with different, breakthrough ideas," Bloch said.

In the weeks before the Oscars, most stylists choose several gowns for their clients from a variety of designers. The star often makes the final decision at the last minute.

"They always say, 'It came down to what I was feeling,'" Cojocaru said. "Which means it came down to how bloated they felt that day."

Then stylists monitor the impromptu tailoring. "You have to make sure that the actress is taped up and glued up in all the right places," Yang said. "It's no good to have them falling out of the dress."

It all comes down to how a celebrity wants to be perceived.

"Some clients I've had say, 'I hate that I'm always portrayed as a young sweet girl. Let's sex it up,'" Yang said. "They want casting directors and producers to see them in a new light."

Other times, production companies and studios try to dictate stars' looks, she said.

"What's good?" said Cojocaru. "Va-va-va-voom is good. Everybody wants to have the dress that's the shot heard around the world."