Summertime, and the living is easy: backyard barbecues, beach books, plastic surgery.
It’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. Plenty of those glowing faces returning from vacation are the result of a doctor, not a few days off. Summer, especially in an election year, is prime time for nips, tucks and other cosmetic fine tuning.
Not that anyone here admits it — in the magical world of politics, public officials and talking heads are genetically blessed with hair that never turns gray, baby-smooth foreheads and barely any wrinkles.
And by plastic surgery (or Botox, laser treatments, body sculpting, dermal fillers, pick your poison), we’re not talking about the enormous breasts and paralyzed faces of Hollywood, or the frozen, wind-tunnel look of New York socialites. D.C. is all about refined, subtle improvements: an unlined face on HD television, a healthy glow in the conference room.
It’s vanity, but a specific Washington kind of vanity. No one’s trying to look younger — for many politicians, their age is a matter of public record. Power brokers in the nation’s capital want to look like themselves, but the rested, most attractive version of themselves. The ultimate goal, as one satisfied customer says, is to look “relevant.”
“Patients come to us and say, ‘People are saying I look tired or upset, when actually I’m not feeling those emotions at all,’ ” explains plastic surgeon Ariel Rad. The problem? All those non-verbal cues that come from aging faces: drooping eyebrows that look sad, weak jaw lines, corners of the mouth that turn downward. “People want some control over it, because those cues are important in their ability to communicate.”
Rad and his wife, dermatologist Noelle Sherber, just opened a one-stop practice downtown: Sherber + Rad has a retail store with hand-picked skin care treatments in front, sleek offices with private waiting and treatment rooms in back, plus a secret entrance for patients who require absolute privacy.
The couple — he’s 42, she’s 35 — boast formidable credentials (Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins) and embrace D.C.’s minimalist aesthetic. Their business model is a layered approach. Clients can start with curated creams, then move on to Sherber’s laser work and fillers: injected Botox and other FDA-approved substances that erase fine lines, add volume and require minimal recovery time. Her husband offers plastic surgery for those looking for more permanent results, but right now Washington is crazy about fillers. “I’m eating into his market share,” Sherber says with a laugh.
Sherber and Rad don’t advertise; all their clients come to them via word of mouth. Mondays and Tuesdays are always busy with patients who need to look great on Sunday talk shows. Summers, especially the days before three-day weekends, are booked solid. And all year long, they get pulled aside at parties for curbside consultations; it’s always a little awkward, but understandable.
“It stems from the fact that people don’t want to feel they have a ‘use by’ date for their career in Washington,” says Sherber, who grew up in McLean. “People want to have long careers, vibrant careers, and this is an intersection of appearance and performance.”
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Five years ago, Washington Fine Properties real estate agent Mark McFadden was relaxing by the pool in Palm Beach, Fla., when he looked down at his body and thought, “I should have a sign: ‘A monument to deferred maintenance.’ ”
McFadden, one of the top-selling agents in the country, started dieting and exercising — and called a longtime friend, Washington dermatologist Tina Alster, a.k.a. the Queen of Laser.
“I knew Tina was the best, and I knew she was into non-invasive,” he says. At 47, he was wary of doing anything drastic and fearful of bad plastic surgery. “I’ve been to too many parties where women and men look like flying squirrels because they’ve had too much work done.”
He started with a little Botox for the lines on his forehead. Then he tried ultherapy, an ultrasound procedure that tightened his face and neck. Then Fraxel, which resurfaced the top layer of his skin. Recently he began body sculpting, which freezes and destroys fat cells. “All sorts of people say to me, ‘Mark, you look 10 years younger.’ ”
And he’s happy to tell them why — McFadden is one of those rare Washingtonians who will talk openly about the work. He moves in the rarefied social circles where plenty of clients and friends have dermatologists on speed dial, but rarely concede a thing. “They’re very quiet about it,” he says.
He estimates that he spends $5,000 to $10,000 a year, which comes out of his pocket because cosmetic work is typically not covered by medical insurance. “I think it’s worth every penny,” he says. “I’m happy to pay the price of admission for the best.” He believes it has “without question” helped him professionally: He sells multimillion-dollar properties and wants to appeal to buyers and sellers of all ages.
“I’m not running for a beauty contest,” he says, “but I want to be vibrant and relevant, not tired and forgotten.”
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When Alster fell in love with a Canadian diplomat, she changed the face of Washington.
The young dermatologist was already one of the leading experts on the emerging field of laser dermatology when she met Paul Frazer and moved to the nation’s capital in 1990 from Boston.
She first treated scars and birthmarks, but quickly developed a following for removing wrinkles and other sun damage without scalpels. “Most of the people coming in to see me aren’t interested in plastic surgery,” she says. “They don’t want the cut and paste.” And they couldn’t afford to disappear for a long recovery.
Politicians, diplomats, journalists, businessmen and other VIPs (no names, of course) flocked to her K Street office. Even those resistant to the idea of cosmetic work changed their minds with the advent of high-definition television, where wrinkles once covered by makeup now jumped out on the screen. Most were women, but men now make up about 15 percent of her practice. “I have a back entrance, which has come in very handy,” she says with a smile. “The Secret Service definitely knows that back entrance.”
None of Alster’s patients is trying to look 25 or even 35. They just want to appear sharp, sophisticated, at the top of their game. “We get a lot of people who are looking over their shoulder at the next generation,” says Alster. “They do not want to be identified as being old.”
Alster’s job is to do just enough — and it’s a fine line. “With good work, you can’t tell they’ve had anything done,” she says. You think they had a relaxing vacation, or lost weight, or changed their hair. . . something is new, but you can’t put a finger on what it is. Bad work? The person looks different, and not in a good way. “If you’ve been spending the last six decades doing nothing, you can’t go from zero to a hundred overnight,” she says.
Less is more. Ideally, patients come in once or twice a year. Alster, 54, has been treating herself with a teensy bit of Botox or other FDA-approved neurotoxins for about 15 years. She just filled the lines between her eyes, and demonstrates the result: “I can still move my face,” she says, wriggling her eyebrows. “I can’t frown, but look how much I can move my brows.”
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A 50-something local news anchor was out drinking with friends when one turned to her and said, with all the earnestness of the very drunk, “Can I tell you something? From straight on, you have the most beautiful face. But from the side, you look almost deformed. You really need to do something about this.” Her friend was mortified the next day, but the inescapable truth was out there: Her chin and neck weren’t what they used to be.
Plenty of her colleagues have had work done, although none of them discuss it openly. Any television professional is acutely aware how they look on camera. Station managers are scared to death of talking about plastic surgery — probably for fear of discrimination lawsuits.
The anchor is no stranger to cosmetic tweaks: She has a regular dermatologist and has been plumping her lips for the past six years. Now she’s mulling a lift of her neck and lower face and will probably go ahead with it soon. Why? “My body has started to become alien to me,” she says. “I don’t look like me anymore.”
She knows plastic surgery is a kind of betrayal. “Our feminist sisters fought to kill the stereotypes and discrimination by insisting that we women had to be judged on our merit, not our looks or sexuality,” she says. “As the younger sister of that fierce generation can I say, ‘Wait! My looks are part of my power!’ ”
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For every person who recoils with horror at the thought of plastic surgery, there’s a new generation happily embracing anything that will help them look better longer. Americans spent $12 billion on cosmetic treatments and surgery last year — the most since the recession hit in 2008 — and billions more on skin care and anti-aging products.
“It’s no big deal,” says Alster of her younger clients. “There’s no stigma attached to this. It’s all part of grooming to them.”
Rick Raines and Carl Ray, both in their 40s and patients of Alster, have been getting Botox treatments for years. The married couple works at the exclusive George salon at the Four Seasons Hotel, and see plenty of VIPs who’ve been cosmetically tweaked. “They may say they do nothing, but. . .” says Raines. “I respect their privacy.” The two men, on the other hand, are quite open about erasing crows feet and frown lines. “I’m taking care of myself,” says Raines. “I just feel like it’s maintenance. Look good, feel good.”
Not everyone is quite so forthcoming.
“I believe in a bit of mystery,” says a network news producer in her 30s. “I want to be that beautiful woman of an indeterminate age.”
Even her husband doesn’t know that she’s been seeing Sherber for about three years. She slips in every three or four months for a light resurfacing, which leaves her flush for a few hours: “It definitely improved the texture of my skin.”
She doesn’t appear on camera, but she’s in a competitive field where she meets people every day. “In this business, you don’t get a lot of sleep,” she says. The treatments don’t get noticed by her co-workers, but they make her feel better about herself — and that makes her more confident.
“For me, it’s like coloring your hair,” she says. “And no one on the Hill has gray hair.”