If you ask most people in Miami Beach what the biggest industry is after real estate, a lot of savvy residents would say cosmetic surgery.
Just sit outside a Lincoln Road café or sip a latte in one of South Beach’s Starbucks and you’ll likely see the evidence of the local plastic-surgery explosion-bee-stung puffed lips, stone-like Botoxed faces, bullet-shaped silicone breasts for girls, and meat-slab pet implants for guys. Don’t even bother counting the face-lifts, eye and nose jobs and hair transplants. The fillers used annually in Miami Beach-from fat injections to synthetic products such as Restylane and Radiance-could pack a small landfill in many states.
Now, making sense of our American mania with looking younger and enhancing our figures and features is New York Times columnist Alex Kuczynski in her scintillating new book, Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery (Doubleday). Kuczynski provides an almost documentary-like narrative- part expose and part autobiography. The striking 5’11″, 38-year-old writer has extensively interviewed patients and doctors as well as talked to many of the industry’s top executives. The result is a thoroughly engaging tome ranging from her own “maintenance” cosmetic procedures (Botox, eye surgery, lip plumping) to riveting information about the real stories behind every surgery, including breast augmentation, gastric bypass, liposuction and face-lifts.
Some of her discoveries are startling, such as African “surgery safaris” where rejuvenated patients get face-lifts and then pose with wild animals. Or podiatrists whose “foot face-lifts” let women fit into their $800 Jimmy Choos. Labiaplasties – formerly the domain of sex workers and exotic dancers – restore a youthful, almost virginal quality to a woman’s private parts. There is the growth of “knife coaches,” self- styled experts who take information accessible to anyone from women’s magazines and over the Internet and then recycle it into $300 hourly consultations. And Kuczynski tells us of a New York City surgeon who performed a cosmetic procedure on an ex-Navy SEAL to make it appear that he had a bullet wound in his chest so he could impress friends when they went to the beach.
“I found out that there isn’t really much some doctors won’t do,” Kuczynski told us in a recent broad ranging interview. “Just about nothing surprises me anymore.”
She covered the beauty and style industry for The New York Times for several years before coming up with the idea for her book. Kuczynski had written a front-page story about how the FDA was about to approve Botox. She received more than 400 letters, half expressing outrage that people thought they could reverse aging, half eagerly asking, “Where can I get it?”
“That was the embryo of this book,” she tells us. “I was sitting in the lunchroom of the Times, and I remember the moment distinctly. I said to a colleague, ‘Someone ought to write a book about how everyone is obsessed with Botox. Botox junkies.’ And he said, ‘Botox nation.’ I said, ‘No, not another “nation” book [like Prozac Nation], but it should be about the entire cosmetics and youth industry.’”
You might not think that, based on her background, she would be the person to pen the authoritative book about the beauty industry. Kuczynski’s Oxford and Princeton-educated father was the prime minister of Peru until last July. Her mother was a key figure in the Voice of America and sponsored a Carnegie Endowment. Her patrician family sent Kuczynski to a Virginia boarding school before she attended Barnard, the prestigious New York women’s liberal- arts college. When she married her husband, a private investor 21 years her senior, former New York Mayor David Dinkins officiated at the couple’s apartment.
From an early age, she was torn between a career in journalism or acting. She did brief stints at The New Yorker and The New York Observer before landing a job at the Times in 1998.
“By then,” she retounts.”1 told myself, You’re cute, but not cute enough to act. So in my writing job, I manage to include both of those fields. It is great as a journalist to be a good actress. I have a very personal style of journalism, and it is theatrical at times.”
As for her observations about the beauty industry and the differing standards set by women, she tells us, “So many styles are right, depending on the city in which you live.” In Los Angeles, she writes, her 143 pounds would mean that “I am fat, repulsive and cannot find a pair of blue jeans to fit me in any of the tony boutiques. If I stop in at Fred Segal, the chic celebrity haunt in West Hollywood, I’m ushered politely away from the Hudson ‘supermodel’ blue jeans toward the sweat pants and dresses made in stretchy fabrics….” In New York, Kuczynski says she is considered only “a touch on the pudgy side but acceptable,” whereas in Wisconsin, people think she is on “some kind of sicko starvation diet.
In New York,” she adds, “the style du jour is sticks with heads. In L.A. it’s sticks with heads and boobs.” But Miami is different, she admits. “Isn’t Miami more of a celebration of a woman’s body?” asks Trisha.
“Yes,” says Alex. “Miami reflects a lot of the Caribbean and Latin cultures, and that influence has spilled over to the Caucasian culture, as well. You are allowed to look a lot more bodacious in Miami. You can have more curves, be a bit heavier if you can carry it with confidence.”
Kuczynski believes that cosmetic surgery is about instilling confidence. “You can always tell a sexy woman by her level of confidence,” she says. “If you need breast implants to feel that way, so be it. If you need a big butt, that’s all right. I remember that the ugliest girl in college had all the guys because she had an almost psychotic self-confidence. She was beautiful because she couldn’t care less what others thought of her. If people understood that concept, the cosmetic industry wouldn’t even exist.”
Although the standards of beauty have changed over the centuries, today it seems to be driven by a quest for youth. “We place a premium on what is rare,” says Kuczynski, “and in our aging baby-boomer population, that is youth. To look young is to say, I have a power over my physical presentation and over my poorer neighbor who can’t afford to go to the dermatologist every month. It creates the feeling that you are immortal. It is why we value it so much.
Hollywood, and then the pornography industry, she says, “made it easier for the rest of us to first look like stars and now like porn stars.” Without doubt, the now prevalent South Beach look of giant breast implants sported on a very slim frame, with enormous lips dominating the face, is more reminiscent of an X- rated film star than a traditional celluloid auteur.
“We live in the age of the image,” says Kuczynski. “You can share your photos over the Internet with millions of people. Images are so much more a part of our everyday lives than they were 25 years ago.”
Kuczynski recently had a conversation with her 23-year-old stepdaughter, who wanted to get Botox. “She is perfection itself,” she recounts to us. “But if she really scrunched up her face, you could see a tiny line or two. People start so young now; it creates a self feeding frenzy for keeping young.” Kuczynski counts herself among the first generation of Botox users, “those of us who have debilitated our muscles for so long, we don’t have any frowns on our foreheads despite all the stress of the world.”
Injecting Botox or using other fillers, or even lasers to smooth the skin and plump up collagen, is an ever increasing percentage of all cosmetic procedures. “And part of the reason for their great popularity,” Kuczynski tells us, “is that it avoids the cutting involved in traditional plastic surgery. That phrase, ‘going under the knife,’ is anathema to many people. It has its own aura. Surgery is frightening. People think they are going to die under anesthesia.”
Many Hollywood stars who insist they do not believe in cosmetic surgery and swear they would never do it themselves are actually, says Kuczynski, talking only about procedures that involve cutting. As for everything short of actual surgery-from Botox to fillers to lasers-”people think of those as simple and widespread as taking vitamins,” she says.
Kuczynski names names in Beauty Junkies. An aide to ex-Presidential candidate John Kerry tells her “in a confidential conversation” that Kerry had tried Botox. Hollywood directors Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann complain that actors no longer show emotion. Many stars over the age of 35, writes Kuczynski, have lost “the ability to look angry.” Desperate Housewives actress Marcia Cross has a “forehead and cheeks as smooth and inanimate as a kabuki mask. Her face does not move.” When someone overuses Botox, they often rely on the small muscles on the sides of the nose, scrunchy lines that resemble those of a bunny. “I’m not saying,” writes Kuczynski, “that Sarah Jessica Parker in the final few seasons of Sex and the City had overdone Botox, but she sure does have some bunny-like lines.” And if Botox is prevalent, some cosmetic procedures-like tooth whitening-are almost considered necessities. New York celebrity dentist Larry Rosenthal has done everyone from author Tama Janowitz, Bruce Springsteen and Tommy Hilfiger to Bridget Hall, Natasha Richardson and even corporate titans Sumner Redstone and Harvey Weinstein. Beauty is obviously a serious and expensive business in Hollywood, so much so that when singer Lionel Richie’s 37-yearold wife, Diana, filed for divorce in 2004, on her list of financial demands was $20,000 a year for plastic surgery.
There are, of course, extremes in the beauty industry. Manhattan socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein has undergone millions of dollars worth of plastic surgery to turn her face into that of a cartoonish cat. Conversely, feminist philosopher Kathryn Pauly Morgan is so opposed to cosmetic enhancements that she proposes instead a Ms. Ugly pageant, in which contestants bleach their hair white, apply wrinkle-inducing creams and have their breasts surgically pulled down instead of lifted.
“I am right in the middle,” says Kuczynski. “I am a feminist, but I am also a creature of my times. In addition to serious philosophy and politics, I can also work on my concepts of beauty and youth. You can do that and still not be challenged when it comes to having a much more serious life.”
How well has Alex managed to balance the pursuit of her career and her interest in cosmetic beauty? As a celebrated New York Times columnist, she has clearly mastered the-first-And- as for the second, “I never got carded at 18 or 21,” she tells us, “but at 36 I finally did. I loved it!”
In mid November, Kuczynski will be at the Miami Book Fair International promoting Beauty Junkies. It will give all Miami beauty junkies the chance to stop by and judge for themselves.