The Island of Dr. Ersek
Austin's media-friendly Robert Ersek is the king of pop cosmetic surgery
If there was ever a perfect man for a perfect moment in time, it is Dr. Robert Ersek. In a world obsessed with boob jobs, tummy tucks, fat sucking and the people who crave all of these things the silver-haired Austin plastic surgeon is striding toward the light, ready for his close-up. Turn on your TV and Ersek is there, poking and prodding, tucking and squishing, smiling for the cameras, eager to assure the patient that her gravity-defying rack will undoubtedly make her head cheerleader.
Last year, when he stuck a tube into his own belly to perform liposuction on himself in order, he says, to make a point about stem cell harvesting Ersek was covered by CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, three local TV stations, Paul Harvey, and Ripley's Believe It or Not! His current specialty is producing young men and women eager to look like celebrities. Imagine The Island of Dr. Moreau except instead of creepy, pygmy mutants and Marlon Brando in a muumuu, you see a grandfatherly surgeon engineering an army of Demi Moore, Jennifer Aniston, and Ricky Martin wannabes for MTV and People magazine.
The center of this international media frenzy is Personique, Ersek's clinic on the second floor of a nondescript office building on 34th Street. The lobby is packed this afternoon; in one corner three pudgy blondes in their 20s nervously titter as they eye a notebook filled with before-and-after pictures. Under the soft glow of a table lamp, framed autographed pictures of George W. Bush and Ann Richards are positioned side by side, separated by a Bible. A plasma screen displays a commercial for Personique, assuring viewers that they can find "The You ... You Seek."
Dressed in a white lab coat with a florid monogram, Ersek guides me into his office, paneled in dark wood and decorated with ornate French furniture and a large portrait of himself. Normally he can punch a button and a wood panel slides out to reveal his operating room, but today it's busted, Ersek explains.
Ersek is 66, but he looks mah-ve-lous. Personique promotional materials usually include Ersek's own before-and-after shots, which suggest he was a jowly, slightly surly-looking retiree before a brow lift, nose job, and assorted other procedures turned him into the vibrant, well-manicured man with shiny firm skin I see before me. "I really regret not doing a video of it," he says. "It just didn't occur to me at the time."
With equal levels of glee and wonderment, he clicks off the details of his latest brushes with modern media. On Friday the Discovery Health Channel was in filming a nose and chin job on a KKMJ-FM contest winner. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday he was broadcasting operations live to the United Kingdom for a show called Plastic Surgery Live. Meanwhile, all week MTV has been running his Jennifer Aniston and Ricky Martin wannabes on some sort of perpetual loop.
I feel compelled to ask if he is familiar with the term "media slut." He laughs, but he's not quite willing to accept the label. "I consider myself a congenial and friendly fellow," he says. "I like what I'm doing, and I'm glad to talk about it."
And, yes, there is something about the camera that makes him all giddy. "It's fun for me," he says. "When they interview me, I think that comes through."
By nature, some people love the spotlight. Others embrace the spotlight, caress it lovingly, and offer to have its babies. There's no doubt that Ersek loves the light and the light loves him. It's no surprise to learn that he was a singer and dancer in his college days, good enough to have his Equity card. "He's not playing to [the camera], that's the way he is," says his son-in-law Dr. Mark Salisbury, who runs the Personique office.
He's never hired a PR firm, rarely sends out a press release. At this point, the shows and magazines come to him, checking in to see if, just maybe, he has somebody who might be willing to let them videotape their fat-removal procedure. "I'd say, I'm receptive," Ersek says. He's every TV news producer's dream. His operating room uses a wide-beam color-corrected lighting system, perfect for the cameras. He's willing to schedule operations on weekends or odd hours, to accommodate TV schedules. And he keeps a running list of patients willing to appear on TV.
"He understands what [producers] want," Salisbury says. They call all the time. One day they're looking for "divorced mothers who want to remarry." Next time it will be "women getting tummy tucks after having a child." Sometimes he can deliver, sometimes he can't. "The TV stations are always looking for teenagers [getting cosmetic surgery]," he says. "That's always their goal."
Ersek asks almost all his potential patients if, by any chance, they would be up for having their bodies sliced and diced on national TV. About one in five are revolted; about the same number are genuinely stoked about the idea and eager to participate, Ersek says. He says he tries to avoid the ones who are simply exhibitionists or clearly unstable, looking for some sort of radical work. He wants the "middle of the curve," he says, the ones who are "comfortable being on TV."
It's not like he has to coerce anyone. "I just wanted the breast surgery," says Rachelle Stan, 21, a student at Texas State University, now known nationally as "the girl who wanted to look like Demi Moore." Stan emphasizes to me that it wasn't like she woke up every morning obsessed with looking like Demi Moore. Some people on these shows, she notes, "look like they're insane." But when she went in for a consultation, Ersek's staff noted how much she looked like Moore, and the seed of a media segment was born. Her breast job and new nose, which helped her look at least a little bit more like Demi, were featured on Access Hollywood, The View, Fox News, and In Touch magazine.
"A lot of my friends didn't think I should do it, but I'm still really glad I did," says Stan, who hopes for a career in broadcasting, perhaps even in TV news.
Making People Happy
Ersek understands that some people may consider it a tad undignified for a board certified surgeon and the former president of the Lipoplasty Society of North America to perform boob jobs on young girls on MTV. He is, after all, a supporter of the Austin Ballet and works with Austin Smiles, a group of doctors who travel to remote countries to offer plastic surgery to the poor (repairing cleft palates and the like, as opposed to vanity surgery). His wife, Gerry, is on the board of the Austin Symphony. As we talk, he quotes Dickens and more than once paraphrases George Bernard Shaw: "If you want to educate, first entertain."
Ersek's résumé includes a long list of industry honors, published papers, and impressive affiliations, which only hint at his varied career. He started as a cardiovascular surgeon but switched to cosmetic surgery during a stint in the Air Force. "I wanted to focus on reconstruction," instead of caring for patients who may never recover, he said. Although it's barely hinted at in his résumé, early in his career he was also a thriving entrepreneur and inventor, helping to launch several medical device companies.
One of his best known enterprises was Bioplasty, a pioneering breast-implant manufacturer he helped found in 1971. The Minneapolis-based company went belly-up in 1993, after thousands of lawsuits were filed against it over allegedly faulty implants. Ersek was long gone by that point, and eventually a bankruptcy court awarded royalty payments to Ersek and his partner for several of the company's key patents, including a non-silicone-based implant. Today Ersek's name appears on 23 different patents for various medical devices, and he serves as a consultant to some of the country's biggest medical device companies.
Ersek is keenly aware that not everyone in his own industry approves of his Paris Hilton-like zeal for the camera. Early in his career, reputable plastic surgeons were not even allowed to advertise, let alone perform elective surgeries for an audience. The liposuction stunt earned Ersek a reprimand from the Travis Co. Medical Society, which noted that the American Medical Association's code of ethics frowns on surgeons operating on themselves. Ersek argues that he wasn't operating on himself, only farming stem cells. "Clearly it was a stunt, but it wasn't like I was a patient," he says. (Either way, he says he won't do it again.)
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has "cautioned" viewers about shows like Extreme Makeover, which it labeled "a serious cause for concern." "Some patients on these shows have unrealistic and, frankly, unhealthy expectations about what plastic surgery can do for them," said ASPS President Rod Rohrich, MD, in a press release. But the ASPS doesn't condemn its members for participating in the shows, taking the stance that it is better to join the tide rather than fight it. If certified surgeons refused to cooperate, some doctors fear the shows would simply recruit less qualified, shady operations.
Ersek says he follows industry guidelines, which aim to prevent elective surgery from coming across like a cheap gimmick. It is still invasive surgery, and patients must be qualified, beyond a willingness to go on TV, according to the ASPS. When plastic surgery is offered as a prize by radio stations sometimes promoted with a catchy slogan like "A New Rear for the New Year" or "Breast Summer Ever" Ersek always maintains the right to refuse the winner, he says. And the patient always has the right to request a different doctor.
But sometimes Ersek seems to be stretching the boundaries. Just a few days ago the ASPS ethics committee reprimanded him for the televised operation on the KKMJ-FM contest winner, who appeared to receive the operation for free, a definite industry no-no. "I've never done any surgery for free," Ersek says. But he does throw in a few perks for patients willing to sign a release. The KKMJ listener, who agreed to have her face lift, brow lift, eye lift, chin implant, and nose job surgery broadcast by the Discovery Health Channel, got "a race car's worth of stuff for a bicycle price," Ersek says.
Ersek says there are lines he won't cross, even for a sure-thing media play. One guy wanted ears like Mr. Spock, but Ersek says he refused to do it. He remains wary of patients with clearly unreasonable expectations. "There are certain people who will do anything for fame," he says. He also deplores the "tastelessness" of showing the "blood and guts" on TV. "Personally I would do it a little more dignified," he says, "but I don't control that."
If Ersek is a media slut, he's an unrepentant one. He speaks passionately about the ability of a televised tummy tuck or brow lift to transform people. Although some parents, psychologists, and self-esteem experts may disagree, all the media attention on plastic surgery can be a good thing, he says. "I think it will affect people in a positive way." Many people, he says, "live lives of quiet desperation, worrying about something small or trivial a bump on the nose or a receding chin." Watching a TV program and seeing other people dealing with a similar problem "may at least encourage them to go in and talk about it." By broadcasting procedures on TV, the idea that plastic surgery is "safe and simple is engrained indelibly in your mind," Ersek says. "I don't want to trivialize it, but at the same time cosmetic surgery is not like doing gall bladder surgery. We're making people happy."
Everybody Is a Star
If nothing else, Ersek has clearly tapped into television's new obsession with the gory mechanics of cosmetic surgery, perhaps best represented by the Fox cable show Nip/Tuck, which gleefully revels in the industry's image of beauty-lust and kinky sex.
Nothing about Ersek says kinky sex, but he understands the media's obsession with cosmetic surgery. He got his first taste of the media Kool-Aid in 1984, when he started performing liposuction, a novel and fairly exotic procedure at the time. When a local TV station called about it, he answered. The segment aired on Thanksgiving. "I couldn't forget it," Ersek says. The phone started ringing and ringing, and it never stopped." Next time, he called the TV stations.
In the mid-Nineties, Ersek was one of the first plastic surgeons to go online, and he credits the Web site with much of his early media attention. He displayed before-and-after pictures if nothing else, a signal to reporters and producers that he was able to get his clients to sign releases. He locked into the current mania in 2002, when 31-year-old Trevor Mills walked into his office, held up a picture of Keanu Reeves, and said, "I want to look like that." A slew of celebrity look-a-likes followed, including a John Travolta and a Drew Barrymore, who were featured in magazines and TV shows around the world. "As much advertising that I've done, it's never had the impact of that kind of stuff," Ersek says.
While we talk, he's constantly pulled out for consultations, although he leaves the distinct impression he'd much rather stay and chat with me. He directs an assistant to bring me a Personique tote bag stuffed with books Ersek has written for patients on plastic surgery procedures. "Do you have a coffee cup?" he asks, offering up a Personique mug.
I ask if he has a media Holy Grail, a personal Everest to climb. Maybe a tummy tuck for Oprah? Or a live nose job for the real Jennifer Aniston?
"What's left?" he says with a laugh. "Frankly, I'm astounded at how much media I've gotten." Soon, he knows, the phone will probably stop ringing so much. "I can't expect to keep up the pace," he says, almost wistfully, "although I'd be happy to."