When magician Dean Turner asked his assistant to start publicizing their act several months ago, he thought she would send ads to newspapers and magazines near their Columbia home. But Marthe Wright had other ideas.
Wright, who also dates Turner, had long grown weary of seeing him wear raggedy jeans, scruffy T-shirts and cowboy boots almost everywhere he went. So she wrote to E! Entertainment's weekday show "Fashion Emergency," saying they resembled "circus people" sometimes and pleading with producers to work some magic on the couple and give them a makeover.
"I always wanted a makeover," said Wright, 41, who also teaches ballet to children. "I always wanted to see what they would do to me. I figured, 'Why not write to the show?' They're always asking people to write in."
To their surprise, a "Fashion Emergency" producer called within weeks to discuss coming out to Maryland to tape an episode. And Monday at 7 p.m., audiences nationwide will get to watch Turner and Wright go from everyday Columbia residents to a chic, refined and Donna Karan-clad magic act.
"I used to have a very traditional, magician's-tuxedo look," said Turner, 43, who goes by the stage name "Turner, Dean of Magic" and said he became excited about getting a makeover after his initial shock at Wright's publicity stunt. "I never had clothes with names on them. Now I have a Donna Karan tux!"
Wright, a dark-haired woman with delicate features and the petite, graceful build of a longtime ballerina, said she first thought about trying to get on "Fashion Emergency" because she, Turner and her 11-year-old son, Max, watch it almost every day.
The couple had been working together on their magic act almost since their first meeting four years ago at Hecht's department store, where Wright, who sold men's fragrances, convinced Turner to buy a $71 set of Polo cologne. ("I thought he was cute, and he thought I could fit in a box," she said, laughing.) A week later, she began helping him during performances at company picnics, birthday parties and Baltimore-area malls, where Turner usually wears a $100 used tuxedo and Wright dons a black and red pants and blouse combination.
Wright and Turner thought a makeover would be a good way to not only get Turner to dump his ratty jeans and cowboy boots but also jazz up their magic act.
"We wanted something a little more sophisticated," said Turner, who describes himself as a guy who's "short, fat and balding."
Chris May, producer of "Fashion Emergency," said he gets about 1,000 cards, letters and tapes a week and almost 500 emails a day from people trying to get on his show. "Fashion Emergency" is a half-hour show that has been on for three years and is hosted by plus-size model Emme.
But Wright's February letter stood out because of the couple's profession. May said he gets many letters from single mothers or stay-at-home moms who are too busy to reinvent themselves, but he had never done a show with magicians. Brenda Cooper, the style guru on "Fashion Emergency," said she loved the couple's enthusiasm - especially Turner's.
"Men usually aren't that overtly enthusiastic, but Dean was such a huge fan of the show he was totally receptive," Cooper said.
Cooper and May flew out to Columbia with a camera crew in April, where they spent two long days taping Wright and Turner. First, they took a trip to Hyatt & Co., an upscale men's store at the Mall in Columbia, where Turner shed his jeans and pink shirt for a $45 black silk T-shirt, $65 striking silver and black patterned vest, and a $595 DKNY black suit with a long jacket.
"I call it a Mississippi gambling jacket," Cooper said. "He has an off-beat personality and I wanted to reflect that in his style."
For Wright, Cooper chose an elegant, $100 long black strapless dress and a chunky black necklace from Georgiou.
"With Marthe, we had to think form and function at the same time because she had to be folded up in a box and not get her dress caught," Cooper said. "I wanted to take away that provincial look and give them a look that they can take anywhere, to New York or L.A. and fit in. Sometimes people that live somewhere between the major cities have a look that reflects the suburbs."
They wrapped up taping at the mall at 9:30 p.m. and began at about 10 a.m. the next day at Mason & Friends salon in Columbia. Turner and Wright got manicures, pedicures, massages and facials before finally getting a cut.
Cooper told Wright that whatever most men do to hide balding usually accentuates it, so she had his head shaved and his beard reshaped into a goatee. As for Wright, who had kept her hair long for years, stylists recommended a shorter cut to bring out her pretty features.
The couple said they loved almost everything about their makeover - although Turner said he would never have his eyebrows waxed again. Both said they have tried to keep up the changes that stylists suggested. Sitting on his couch last week, Turner wore black pants and his sharp silver and black vest and said he liked having a goatee instead of a full beard so much he's kept it, and he added that he's never going to grow his hair back out again.
"It's like Michael Jackson putting on that one glove," he said.
"It's a signature look," Wright added.
As for Wright, in the months since the taping, she's been inspired by her experience on the show to cut her bobbed hair even shorter. Wearing black pants held up with a silver, disco-style belt, a black blouse and a red cardigan, she looked every bit the person who's undergone a makeover.
"This has especially helped us find our personal style," she said.
But more important, Turner and Wright are glad that they got to meet Cooper and live in a fantasy world for a day.
"Brenda was like, 'Try this, try that,' and I'm looking at the price tag and it's a $700 suit," Turner said almost wistfully. "I've never had a $700 suit!"
"And," Wright said with a big smile, "we never had to hang anything back up."