Suzannah Martin’s friends will tell you that before last fall she wasn’t a total fashion disaster. “She was just a rugged Vermont girl,” says Suzi Crawford, a friend of Martin’s fiance who’s gotten to know the 36-year-old mother of two over the last three years. “She’s down-to-earth, and her style and clothes reflected that.” But to DeCarla Hilliard, the office manager at the Evanston Koenig & Strey real estate agency where Martin’s worked for three years, down-to-earth wasn’t good enough to make the leap from selling north-side condos to million-dollar North Shore homes. “It wasn’t so much that she dressed badly,” says Hilliard. “It was just that her professional look needed help.”

The producers of the TLC makeover show What Not to Wear agreed: they contacted Hilliard within hours of her initial e-mail, impressed by style gaffes like the purple feather scrunchie that Martin had borrowed from one of her young daughters and the Trader Joe’s bag she was using as a briefcase. “One night she had me looking for it–she thought someone had thrown it away in the trash,” says Hilliard. “That put her over the top.”

Martin had never heard of the show when she was ambushed by a camera crew at the Shedd Aquarium in October–the first step in the show’s patented tough-love approach to fashion therapy. A self-described thrift-store queen, she was dressed that day for hanging drywall at her Evanston home. “I was a little put out,” she says. “I didn’t know the show, and the title What Not to Wear doesn’t sound encouraging.”

Afterward, Martin said, “there were some weepy moments.” But friends familiar with the show convinced her it’d be fun–and the promise of a $5,000 shopping spree in New York made the prospect of having her wardrobe mocked on national TV a little more palatable. By the time she agreed to participate, “I knew what I was getting into.”

Last Friday friends, family, and clients gathered at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston to watch Martin’s small-screen debut, noshing on bruschetta and fried calamari and keeping an eye on the four or five young children darting around the room. Martin, a petite redhead, nursed a martini. She made sure all her guests had drinks as well: “There’s no watching this show without alcohol,” she warned.

Many of the guests had also been present at the big “reveal” at Wicker Park’s Thyme Cafe in early November, and they gossiped about the production company, which had run two and a half hours late and left Martin’s fiance, Brian Becharas, to cover the bill for snacks for 30 hungry people. Plus, Becharas added, they seemed indifferent to the realities of everyday life. “Here’s a girl with two kids, clients. They didn’t tell Suzannah about her travel plans to New York until less than 48 hours before. It was a comedy of errors when you look at how they produced it. I hope they were kind to her in the editing room!”

The show, shown on several large-screen TVs around the bar, opened with a shot of the skyline. Everyone whooped. Then the “before” section began, featuring footage secretly shot by the producers and Becharas–who pretended he’d gotten a free video camera from work. There was Martin, makeup-free, her long hair in a ponytail, wearing the oversize sweaters and clunky scuffed shoes that a friend described as “I-still-think-I’m-in-college clothes.”

Cohost Stacy London held up a stretchy top from Martin’s closet and cocked an eyebrow. “They’re forgiving,” Martin protested.

“Nobody’s going to forgive you for wearing these,” snapped London.

On-screen, Martin’s smile was tight, but in the bar she threw back her head and roared, even when the other host, Clinton Kelly, said she looked like she was “selling empty lots” instead of houses. Later, when Martin itemized the problems with a couple outfits they’d picked out, Kelly accused her of overanalyzing, at which point Megan Matthews, a college friend from the University of Chicago, started chanting: “U. of C.! U. of C.!”

The crowd had cheered when Martin told the hosts that she didn’t spend a lot on clothes, but her new look–a shorter do, understated makeup, and sleek new garments that fit–clearly impressed even the doubters. “I had anxiety that the women in her office were like, ‘You’re not one of us, you need to be suburbanized,'” admitted Matthews, Martin’s longtime thrifting partner. But, she added, “for the most part, the things she got were true to her. . . . She’s still keeping it real at the thrift store but being more selective.”

At the party Martin was bummed that a quip about a nice leather jacket being “a lot of leather for a vegetarian” didn’t make the final cut. “I think I might be a little more vocal and opinionated than some of the people they get,” she said. “I was being somewhat flexible but definitely having a mind of my own.”

In fact, Martin proudly pointed out, the sweater she was wearing was a secondhand find. Her jacket was from Ann Taylor, and her Paper Denim & Cloth jeans were from the show. “I would never spend $200 on jeans,” she said. She’s seen a difference in how people react to her at work. “I go to these broker open houses, and people come up to me to introduce themselves–they want to know who I am.”

Some habits, however, are impossible to break. “It still has to be on sale,” she said firmly. “I will not pay full price. It’s just against every molecule in my being.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.