There was a time when a lot of people thought Debra Jo Fondren was the most beautiful woman in America.
Voted one of Playboy Magazine's top 20 Playmates of all time, she was famous as much for her remarkable face as her unforgettable hair.
"I was the only Playmate ever to have appeared in Cosmopolitan," remembers Fondren, now 48.
But that was 25 years ago. Now, after a 20-year career of smoking, a heavy cocaine addiction, and a two-year love affair with diet pills, Fondren is paying the price.
"I don't even recognize myself sometimes," says Fondren, who like other Playboy Playmates, once lived in the Hollywood limelight. "You look at one picture from 25 years ago and then you look at yourself in the mirror and you go, 'What a difference.'"
Lee Zimmerman, 38, was a teenager when his head was first turned by Fondren.
"It was the first Playboy I had real access to. This one was at a friend's house," remembers Zimmerman. "I think the first thing that jumped off the page was that hair. And then that perfect profile. She was perfect."
Fondren was this young man's perfect fantasy. But 11 years later, Lee, a street comedian and puppeteer, happened to audition his act for the Playboy channel. Guess who was there?
"I just said to her, 'You're Debra Jo Fondren, the former blonde with all the hair,'" says Zimmerman. "And then, you know, I annoyed her like crazy. I didn't get the gig, but I immediately launched on my new project to get this gig."
Zimmerman considers himself one of the luckiest ex-teenagers in the world. He and Fondren eventually got married, and despite a 9-year age difference, they have been together and happy since 1993.
"I think she's more attractive than a lot of women half her age," says Zimmerman.
"I don't know how I lucked out," says Fondren. "I should be looking like the wicked witch of the west, OK?"
Fondren is not exactly unattractive by any standards, except maybe her own. And she still makes her living off her looks, running her own Web site, making appearances at pin-up conventions, signing autographs and selling memorabilia.
With a legion of die-hard fans, she has plenty of reasons to seek professional help.
"I'm going to have what's called a vertical face lift," says Fondren, who says she's not trying to reclaim her youth, but her beauty. "I want to keep this classic face of mine. It's like a classic car. Every so often you have to do a little tune up here and there."
And if you're in need of a skilled mechanic for a classic car, or a classic face, you'll find no shortage of either in Beverly Hills.
Plastic surgeon Randal Haworth is in charge of what Fondren jokingly calls her "Playmate Restoration Project."
"We see people all the time from all aspects of life," says Haworth. "It's out of the closet, so to speak. People realize they can customize their look just like they customize their car."
He says he's going to rejuvenate Fondren's face and turn back the clock in a "very convincing fashion."
Before surgery, there's a final appearance for Fondren's "old" face, a slightly different style of makeup and one last photo shoot.
Eight hours later, Fondren wakes up from a dream that looks more like a nightmare.
But for her husband, she couldn't be more beautiful.
"I'm so glad you made it," says Zimmerman. "You scared the living crap out of me with this stuff. You don't need this. You know they should have done a real challenge and worked on my face."
"I'm going to be refreshed and gorgeous," says Fondren. "Piece of cake, piece of cake."
Over the next seven weeks, as the swelling goes down and the bruises fade, what's left is an old familiar friend.
"Right now ,I look in the mirror and I go, 'Ooh, God, wait a minute, I recognize that face. That face is from a long time ago,'" says Fondren.
Once again, Fondren is back to where she wants to be - turning heads.
"I think I look great," says Fondren. "Starting to feel like I have my face back where it should be. I think it looks wonderful."
But was it worth it? She says it was definitely worth it.
"It's disappointing to my fans when I work conventions and sign autographs for them to come to my table and they hope that I've been put in a time capsule," says Fondren. "In their mind, they think I should look exactly like I look in my centerfold. So now I more match that idea."
And for her favorite fan, once again, a perfect fantasy has become a perfect reality.
"Would I pose again for Playboy? Well, what do you think," asks Fondren, laughing. "Do you think they'd have me? Well, they'd be fools not to, right? In a heartbeat. Just like that."
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