Tony Youn grew up up one of two Asian-American kids in a small town. Too tall and too thin, he wore thick Coke-bottle glasses, braces, Hannibal Lecter headgear, and had a protruding jaw that one day began to grow, expanding Pinocchio-like, protruding to an unthinkable, monstrous size. After high school graduation, while other seniors partied at the shore or explored Europe, Youn lay strapped in an oral surgeon's chair as he broke his jaw, then reset it and wired it shut for six weeks. Ironically, it was this brutal makeover that led him to his life's calling — becoming a board-certified cosmetic surgeon. His new memoir "In Stitches" recounts his bumpy road to becoming a doctor. Here he writes about training with a plastic surgeon to the stars. Read the excerpt:
Beverly Hills. Movie stars, pop icons, and miles and miles of work done on boobs, eyelids, lips, noses, tummies, and butts, much of it shaped, enlarged, reduced, and reconstructed by Dr. Romeo Bouley, PSS — Plastic Surgeon to the Stars.
I ease my rented Ford Escort onto Century Boulevard outside of LAX and hit the 405 on-ramp. Forty minutes later, I coax the Escort up the Pacific Coast Highway and head to the Malibu Beach Colony. Every car I pass is a Benz, BMW, Jag, Rolls, or Bentley. Every car. And every driver shoots me a look that says this guy’s either lost or someone’s gardener.
Dr. Romeo Bouley’s* house sits along a beach as white as talcum powder, the house framed by two leaning palm trees embracing fronds like an elderly couple, darkening the front of a three-story Spanish mansion in shadow. Dr. Bouley has insisted I drive right from the airport to his house for a drink. He wants to get acquainted before we jump in first thing in the morning. I park my rented clunker in his driveway behind two Benzes and a Rolls. I walk up to his front door, pause to soak in the late-afternoon Southern California sun. Man. December, seventy degrees, and everyone owns a fifty-thousand-dollar car. I could get used to La La Land.
I step onto Dr. Bouley’s Spanish-tiled front patio, aim my finger at his doorbell, and freeze.
Whap. The front door jerks open. A large man, six-three at least, thick shoulders, trim waist, white hair sculpted into what looks like two sand dunes, an impressive sloping beak of a nose, sparkling gray eyes, glistening teeth, grips me in a handshake strong enough to bend iron. He wears dark blue scrubs with romeo bouley, md embroidered on the pocket. The first time I’ve seen designer scrubs.
“Saw you out here, wondered why you didn’t ring the bell. Tony, right?”
“Yes, Dr. Bouley—”
“Romeo. Come in, come in. Let’s get you a drink. You look thirsty.”
He slaps my back hard enough to dislodge a chicken bone. I step into his living room and stop dead in my tracks. It looks as if I’ve wandered into an antique store — Oriental rugs, ornate chests of drawers, end tables, dining room sets piled on top of each other, trumpets, tubas, clarinets, two accordions, violins, harps, and at least one lute. Most of all, scattered throughout the room on all of the furniture, on the mantelpiece, and stacked in every corner are lamps, hundreds of lamps — shaped and painted like naked women.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Like them. Like your collection.”
“I know. I must have fifteen hundred naked-women lamps. I get ’em from all over the world. Some of the boobs light up. You can read by ’em. Use ’em for a night-light. What are you drinking?”
“Water is fine.”
“No, no. I got a beauty from Sonoma breathing in the kitchen. I’m talking about a wine.” He roars. “You want to see the rest of the house?”
“Yes, sure, love to.”
I trail him through four thousand square feet, five bedrooms, six bathrooms filled with antiques and the other thousand naked-lady lamps. They’re everywhere—on the kitchen counter, on the stairs, atop the refrigerator, on the back of toilets. We circle back to the living room. Romeo pushes aside a pile of crap on a velvet love seat, sinks down, and pats the seat next to him. I crunch into a velvet whoosh.
“How do you like Beverly Hills? Kinda reminds you of Springfield, doesn’t it?” Head thrown back, another roar. A moment later, he socks back half his goblet of red wine, throws a long thick arm across the entire length of the love seat onto my shoulder. “So, what do you know about me?”
I actually do know something about Romeo Bouley, MD. I checked him out online. He carries the reputation as the go-to plastic surgeon among actresses, models, and strippers and has dated at least one A-list actress. Allegedly. He’s also loaded. Allegedly.
“Nothing, really,” I say.
“Oh yeah? You lie.”
“Well, Dr. Kanner says you’re the best.”
He shrugs, drains the rest of his wine. I’ve barely touched mine.
“Another,” he says.
“Oh, no, thank you, I’m fine.”
“I was talking to myself.” He laughs so hard the love seat shakes, then wriggles his butt, extracts himself from the divot he’s made in the cushion, and propels himself into the kitchen.
“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” he says over his shoulder.
He returns in five seconds, a meaty hand wrapped around a dusty wine bottle. “You’re a smart kid. I assume you’ve done some research. Be disappointed if you haven’t.”
He catches me in midsip. Before I can answer, he says, “I’ve done some research about you.”
“Okay, I have read a little about you.”
“Good. You’re opening up. So you know. Now, look, starting tomorrow, you’re gonna see some stuff. So let’s be straight with each other from now on, dig?”
“Yes. Sure. Dig.”
“What do you want to know?”
I reach my wineglass over to the antique map chest Romeo uses as a coffee table. I set it down. “Have you ever dated a patient?”
“Never. I do date actresses and models, but they’re never my patients. That’s rule number one. Never date a patient. Rule number two, never date a patient. Don’t go near a patient’s boobs outside the operating room. Dig?”
“Not a problem. I have a girlfriend.”
“I have a couple.” Romeo plops back down on the love seat, landing like an anchor. “You’re not in Kansas anymore, big guy. Or Grand Rapids. Or Springfield. We don’t do a lot of Farmer Fred losing his pointer in the wood chipper. We do Miss September. Miss March. The Playmate of the Year. The star of a certain sitcom. The whole cast of a daytime soap. Vegas superstars. Most of the Nudes on Ice. They’re all stunning, and most are available. We’re the rock stars of medicine, Youner. We get all the tail, all the glory, and all the money. A lot of docs hate us. I get it. They’re jealous. Most of them want to trade places with us.”
I stare at him until he blinks. “What?”
“How did you know people call me Youner?”
Romeo Bouley, MD, once again lifts himself up from the love seat.
“Told you. I did my research.”
Third elective. Day one.
I stand outside the office of Romeo Bouley, MD, in Beverly Hills. I gape at the stained-glass windows in the burnished oak doors. I rub the stained glass lightly, shake my head, and step into the waiting room— leather couches, modern art, an Oriental rug, and twenty more naked lady lamps. The receptionist, a former or potential centerfold, directs me to Romeo’s office down the hall. An Oriental runner leads me to him. On the way, I pass framed covers of magazines that have featured Romeo — People, Us Weekly, Playboy, Penthouse, and a shocker, The Saturday Evening Post. I knock at his door frame; the door is open. He beckons me in, waves me to an armchair. His office? Leather, leather, leather, naked-lady lamps.
“You meet Heather?”
“The receptionist? She’s very nice.”
“Unbelievable, right? I did them. And no, I never did her. You cannot date your staff, either. That’s another rule.”
“For me, it’s not an issue. I have a girlfriend—”
“Okay, listen. Lesson number one.” He jabs a button on his desk.
Behind me, the door whirs, rattles, and closes with a thwack. “Plastic surgery is like dating.” He pauses to let this sink in. “Patient comes in for a consultation. Your first date. You make small talk, feel each other out, see if you’re compatible. You have to look good, Youner. You look like shit, sloppy, whatever, she’s outta there. She comes in because she wants to look good. How you look matters. Dig?”
“Yes.” I sneak a look at what I’m wearing. White shirt, cords. I shaved. Showered. Applied deodorant. Combed my hair. Slapped on cologne. I think I’m all right.
He sees me checking myself out. “You pass. Now. While she’s feeling you out on this first date, you’re feeling her out, too. Main thing we’re looking for is crazy. We want to avoid crazy. We see crazy, we run like hell. You know BDD?”
“I don’t think so.”
He whams back in his chair, links his hands behind his spectacular snowy-beach hairdo. “Body dysmorphic disorder. Affects about one percent of the population, about five percent of plastic-surgery patients. In Beverly Hills, ten percent, easy. Maybe twenty. Gum?”
He unwraps three sticks, pops them all in his mouth. He chews like a ballplayer, cheek puffed out as if working on a chaw. “This is a condition where a person looks in the mirror and sees something that doesn’t exist. Or sees a distortion of the truth. You look in a mirror, you see a tiny bump on your nose. Mosquito bite, say. A person with BDD sees that same mosquito bite, and to her, it’s the size of a big fleshy peach. I’m serious.”
He chews violently for three more seconds, tears off a page from a prescription pad, spits the wad of gum into it. “Plastic-surgery patients with BDD see themselves as ugly and deformed. Doesn’t matter how great the surgery turns out or how many times you perform a surgery to correct the first one, which they see as botched. In real life, they may look like Heather, but they look in the mirror and think they look like shit. And they blame you.”
“Crazy,” I say.
“A nightmare,” Romeo says. “You can’t always catch it, but you try. We get sued more than anyone. My lawyer loves me. Sends me on a cruise twice a year. Anyway, back to dating.”
He taps out three more sticks of gum, unwraps them, jams them into his mouth. I’ve known Romeo Bouley, MD, for under a day, but based on his naked-lady lamp collection, the fact that he lives in the middle of Antiques Roadshow, the way he compares plastic-surgery consultations to dating, and how he chews a pack of gum every five minutes,
I’m calling this guy quirky.
“So, okay, the consultation goes well, you agree to see each other again. Now we’re talking Botox, collagen, that kind of thing. First base. That goes well, you move to second base. Lipo. Then you swing for the fences.”
“Bingo. Start with a good-night kiss. Botox. Next you make out. Lipo. Then you do the deed. Boob job.” He rips off another page from the prescription pad, wads up his gum. “I feel you, kid. You got a future.”
Days two through twenty-nine.
A guy could get used to this.
Five, six, seven, a dozen gorgeous women a day. Professional women who act, pose, escort, strip, and screw for a living, all talented enough to appear on the cover of Maxim or in the pages of Playboy. The startling part is that if I’d ever met one of them in college, I’d have stammered, blanched, and launched into a monologue about my mother’s cooking.
Now, wearing a white coat in Dr. Romeo Bouley’s office — even though I always identify myself as a medical student — I’m treated like another doctor. These women share with me their fear of surgery, explain why it’s a curse having a beautiful face and gorgeous breasts, even confess their most intimate problems with husbands, boyfriends, parents. I listen sympathetically, and when they ask for my assurance — they always do — I promise I’ll be right there with them throughout their procedure. Many grip my hand with heartfelt thanks. At times I feel like Romeo Junior.
“I tell you more than I tell anyone,” a porn star, a favorite of Tim’s, coos to me as Romeo begins her post-rhinoplasty follow-up visit. She has asked him to make her look more elegant, less trashy. She hopes to transition into mainstream acting at some point, which, from what I’ve seen, would be a blow to the porn industry.
“Everything looks good,” Romeo says. “Healing nicely.”
“I have a photo shoot tomorrow. Is that okay?”
“It’s fine. You don’t have to miss work.”
“Can I hang from the ceiling by my wrists and ankles?”
“Just make sure they don’t touch your nose.”
“Can they put a cue ball in my mouth?”
I cough, mutter, “Warm in here.”
“They tell us everything,” I say to Romeo one afternoon.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “You know what they call us? Shrinks with knives.”
No doubt Romeo Bouley is quirky; he’s also a talented surgeon and a gifted teacher. He’s fast and steady with a scalpel, patient and generous with me. He allows me to suture more than anyone else has and even offers me a few incisions of my own. As I near the end of my month in Beverly Hills, Romeo invites me to return for a longer apprenticeship after I’ve established my residency. I accept his offer. I’m no longer hooked on plastic surgery. I’m obsessed. I’ve found my calling. I would love to work side by side with Romeo. Wouldn’t mind living in Southern California, either, at least for a short time.
My last day. Our last procedure. Romeo will perform breast-implant surgery on Michelle, a stripper who’s recently celebrated her fortieth birthday, a difficult birthday for many people, the end of the line for most strippers. For over twenty years, Michelle’s stunningly oversize breasts have been her signature. Now they have literally become weights, causing her severe neck and back pain and brutal headaches.
She has gone from performing at prime time in top Hollywood and Vegas clubs to stripping at noon in a dive by the airport. She wants to find a new line of work and needs her breasts reduced.
The anesthesiologist knocks Michelle out, we scrub up, gown up, prepare for surgery. Before Romeo makes his first cut, we ponder her pendulous breasts, the most imposing mountains of silicone I’ve ever seen.
“Gigantomastia,” Romeo says. “Okay, I’m going in.”
He makes a flawless incision around the areola of the right breast and starts cutting down to the implant.
“Grade-four capsular contracture,” he says as he cuts. “I’ll break down the grades for you. Grade one. Buttah. The way a breast should feel. Natural. Like you’re back in high school. Grade two. Firmer than normal. Looks fine, feels a little firm. Most people can’t tell the difference between one and two.”
He pulls back, waits, allows the bleeding to stop. “Grade three. Too firm, appears abnormal. We’re talking Nerf football. Not what you’re looking for in a breast. And then there’s this. Grade four. A bowling ball. The scar tissue is so severe it makes the breast round, hard, and cold. Here, feel.”
He puts my hand on her left breast. Massive, rock-hard, cool to the touch. Forget stripping. How did she walk with these?
“Guys like these?” I say.
“You can take your hand off now, Tony.”
I have already.
“I amuse myself,” Romeo says. He chuckles, resumes cutting into the breast, going farther toward the implant. “I’m at the capsule,” he says. “This scar tissue is thick. Knife, please.”
The surgical technician passes him a scalpel. With immaculate precision, he works through the scar tissue down to the implant. Finally, sounding like an egg cracking, the implant pops through the scar tissue. Romeo puts aside the scalpel, grabs the edge of the implant, and yanks out a slice of clear silicone shaped like a discus, high as two Big Macs. He hands the implant to the surgical tech and peers inside the open breast pocket. “She’s stacked,” he says.
“She is huge,” I say.
“No, Youner. She’s stacked. There’s another implant in there.” He grunts and pulls a second implant out of the breast pocket. “You don’t see this often. It’s extreme. Anna Nicole Smith time. Only the truly insane plastic surgeons do stack jobs.”
“You ever do one?”
“All right, now for the left side.”
After Romeo removes the stacked implants in her left breast, he focuses on the scar tissue, which has progressed to such a severe state that it has turned the inside of both breasts into a chalky, calcified mess resembling the plaster of a cast. For over an hour, Romeo chips away meticulously, removing every bit of scar tissue, piece by piece, until all that’s left of her breasts is a mass of stretched-out skin.
He then inserts temporary sizer implants that look like small inflatable balloons. On his count, we raise Michelle to a sitting position so Romeo can determine what size he should make the new implants. We lay her back down, and he begins to fill the sizer implants, inflating her breasts as if pumping up a tire.
“This looks good. Around a D cup. Two five-hundred cc implants, please.”
The OR nurse opens two new breast implants and hands them to Romeo. He inserts one into each breast cavity. These implants will never fill out Michelle’s breast in the same way as the stacked two-baggers, which is, of course, the point. Instead they settle into the bottom of each breast socket.
“Rock in a sock,” Romeo says. “That’s seriously what we call it. And now for the breast lift.”
He begins suturing the nipples onto their new, higher location. He cuts off the excess breast skin and stitches the incisions back together, working with the concentration of a jeweler. The process takes over ninety minutes. At last he takes one step back. Before us lies Michelle and her new breasts, smaller, youthful, beautiful. Together, Romeo and I apply gauze dressings.
“Oh, crap,” Romeo says.
“Her nipples.” He retreats another step. “Crap. Look. They’re turning purple.”
A moment ago her nipples were full and pink. They have darkened to the color of an eggplant. Romeo speaks faster than I have ever heard him. “Sometimes when you perform a breast lift on a woman with implants, the blood supply to the nipples becomes altered. Needle.”
A small needle appears in a flash. He stabs the areola lightly, repeatedly.
Dark red blood oozes out.
“Her nipples are congested. Let’s get some of these stitches out. We’re looking for the nipples to turn pink.”
We remove a few of the sutures that hold the nipples in place.
“Well, Anthony, we got a situation. Purple means there’s blood flowing into the nipple but not going out. The blood is pooling up in there.”
“Sorry, this means—?”
“Worst case? Her nipples will turn black and fall off. Instead of a nipple, she’ll have a gaping hole.”
“Crap,” I say.
“Yep. Really bad.”
“What do we do?”
I laugh. I can’t help it. You have to love how Romeo keeps it loose even during a crisis.
“I’m serious,” he says.
“Be fancy. Call it leech therapy. I’ve done it several times. We bring her to the hospital and attach a bunch of the bloodsuckers right there.”
He points to each of Michelle’s nipples. “They suck the old blood out. In a few days, her body will create new blood vessels that will take over for the leeches. Hopefully.” He turns to the OR nurse. “You know the drill. Call an ambulance.”
“Wow,” I say. “Leeches.”
“New technology, my butt. We’re going medieval.”
. . . .
Romeo escorts Michelle to the hospital. I stay behind. I say goodbye to Heather and the rest of the staff, then I run an errand on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. By the time I head back toward Beverly Hills, the sun’s starting to set. I drive into the hills, find a spot to park on Mulholland Drive, and watch the lights of the San Fernando Valley flicker on. It looks as if I’m peering down at a second night sky. At around seven, I head to the hospital to check on Michelle.
As I exit the elevator, I hear a scream. A woman stands in the middle of the hallway and points at the floor. She shrieks again and backs up slowly. I jog toward her and see a bloody trail coming out of Michelle’s room. At the end of the trail sits a huge, bloated leech.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Leech therapy.”
The woman stares at me, horrified, her hands over her mouth.
I push open Michelle’s door and find her lying in bed, sound asleep, the rest of the leeches locked up in a jar somewhere.
Movie stars. Pop icons.
In the parking lot, still in his scrubs, Romeo leans against my rented Ford Escort. “I couldn’t let you go without saying goodbye.”
“I was going to find you, too. Thank you for everything.”
“You got to see pretty much my whole bag of tricks. And I’m serious. Come back.”
“I’d like that. Hey, I have something for you.” I pop open the back of the Escort, reach in, and hand him a gift-wrapped box. “A little token of my thanks.”
“Get outta town. What did you do?”
Like a kid at Christmas, he rips off the wrapping paper and flings off the cover of the box. He stares inside. His eyes begin to water. He shakes his head and pulls out my present.
A lamp shaped like a naked woman.
He bites his lip. “She’s beautiful.”
“The nipples flash the SOS distress signal.”
He throws his arms around me, locks me in a bear hug. “You feel me.”
“I feel you,” I say, crushed in his embrace.
* Name has been changed.
From “In Stitches: A Memoir” by Dr. Tony Youn. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.