It’s no secret in Washington that many politicians look a bit more “refreshed” (the latest buzzword for plastic surgery) these days. But of course no one wants to talk about it. One of the most visible members of Congress—the glamorous grandma—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is turning 69 today, yet everybody is still whispering about her dewy eyes and seamless features.
“If some politician had a bad job and suddenly looks better, I’m probably the guy who did it,” says Dr. Unger. Joe Biden? “You’ll have to ask Mr. Biden,” he responds crisply.
In the gossipy world of political plastics, there’s Joe Biden’s hair and smooth cheeks, Hillary’s firm jawline, and Arnold’s granite-like brow—all subject to “refreshed” speculation. No pol wants an “Oh, my God, do I look like that?” moment, especially not in the glare of high-def TV, never mind the onslaught of new, young administration types. Bob and Elizabeth Dole had major lifts several years ago—he began sprucing up when he made those Viagra ads. (The president and Michelle are too young to go under the knife, but that didn’t stop several leading surgeons from telling me they’d love to pin back his ears!)
When I called to discuss all of this with a number of top doctors, I got the same reaction as when I did a story for the New York Times magazine on psychiatry in Washington in the ’80s. The scalpel was taboo. It remains deep in the closet. And while all were willing to talk about various procedures, they stressed confidentiality and froze when asked to name names or go on the record. What to make of Nancy’s look? Classic anonymous response: “She’s so cosmetically surgeon-ed, I wish she didn’t look so good. It would be more natural,” sniffs one well-known D.C. practitioner.
But D.C. cosmetic surgeon Barry J. Cohen ventured where no other M.D. would: “I would guess she had a neck lift some time ago, although is certainly ready for another,” he wrote to me by email. “It would appear that she had the fat removed from around her eyes, but has a substantial amount of excess skin on the lower lids. She has not a line on her forehead, likely indicating a date with a vial of Botox, yet has remaining lines at her crow's feet (it wore off or was untreated). Her nasolabial folds could benefit from a filler, to soften her creases, and she would likely benefit from a peel or laser abrasion…She has her share of lines and wrinkles. Likely from all the time spent at high altitudes in her (our) private jet.”
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No fan of her politics, either, he concluded: “This plastic surgeon hopes she will be given lots of free time to pursue these procedures, after the next midterm elections :-)”
One reason politicians are so much quieter about their work than the Hollywood set is that nobody wants to be considered vain or frivolous, especially during a period of angst. And all are fearful of ridicule or, worse, antagonizing voters back home. “Politicians are very secretive about their procedures,” says Washington’s Dr. Ronald Perlman, who has pictures on his wall of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Rosalynn Carter, and Donald Trump—although he vehemently denies ever working on any of them. “They know they need to keep up, and people remember how they look, not what they say.”
Eyelid lifts, which brighten the face and require little downtime, are his most popular surgeries. Dr. Perlman, like many other anti-aging practitioners, accommodates patients by working before- and after-hours, weekends, holidays, and during recesses and vacation breaks. Some clear their offices when security necessitates. For high-profile figures seeking total confidentiality, almost all will make house calls to remove sutures or check a lift.
A number of congresswomen and men surreptitiously opt for what dermatologist Dr. Tina West calls “a facelift in a syringe,” a lunchtime office procedure involving a variety of fillers to provide soft contours and plump up sagging, hollow cheeks. “Fillers are the key to looking younger,” she observes.
They’re ideal for politicians because they are low maintenance, can be done without a trace, and eliminate any bruising or recuperation time involved in drastic surgery. Quick-fix fillers like Restylane, Juvéderm, and Botox have also gone mainstream. “I’ll bet they have Botox parties on the floor of the US Senate in the evenings,” says Dr. Cohen. Mini facelifts or incremental tucks are also in vogue because they are relatively unnoticeable if done on a consistent basis over the years.
Which brings me back to Nancy. According to Michael Olding, chairman of plastic surgery at George Washington University Hospital, the old-fashioned Barbie doll look is long gone—less is more is the newest motto. “Looking pulled like a hood ornament is no longer acceptable. What everyone wants is a natural, more alert look,” he says. “When someone has a face that does not move correctly, especially on TV, they have a serious problem.”
When I asked if he was referring to Nancy Pelosi, he went quiet. Dr. Cohen was more frank—he says she is “victim of West Coast surgery.” (Interestingly, a number of doctors pointed out a marked difference in procedures performed in the West—meaning Beverly Hills, where everyone wants a flashy tight look, à la Joan Rivers—to those in the Northeast, where a less attention-grabbing face is de rigueur.)
Another faux pas: over-the-top Clorox gleaming grins. “Teeth should be subtle, not Hollywood bright,” says dentist Eugene Giannini, who specializes in helping VIPs with veneers, crowns, and ceramics. Too bad for Lou Dobbs.
Politicians often travel to New York to fix botched jobs. Dr. Walter Unger has repaired more horrific hair transplants than he can remember. “I get a lot of botched jobs from Washington,” he says. “The old technique was not user-friendly, and for people in the public eye who do not want to stand out, walking around looking like a Chia pet is a real dilemma. If some politician had a bad job and suddenly looks better, I’m probably the guy who did it.” Joe Biden? “You’ll have to ask Mr. Biden,” he responds crisply. His clientele also includes female politicians and senators’ wives.
Dr. Sherill Aston’s office is another New York sanctuary. Aston, best known for his facial rejuvenation of Democratic high-flier Pamela Harriman, allows his patients to enter through the back door and register under an assumed name. After the surgery—swathed in scarves and accompanied by a private nurse—they repair to the Affinia Gardens hotel across the street to recover in luxurious anonymity. Scheduling is key. Dr. Cap Lesesne, a self-styled “bipartisan plastic surgeon,” has politicians winging in and out of his New York office every few months to gradually upgrade their appearance—preventing any sudden transformation, along with myriad unwanted questions.
Indeed, in the ongoing quest to fool Mother Nature, Dr. Unger advises politicians not to wait until the last moment or, as he puts it, until they are “desperate to undergo any kind of cosmetic procedure.”
“You’ll look a lot better and avoid suspicion if you do it before you absolutely have to,” he adds. “Unfortunately, not all of them are smart enough to do that.” Nancy Pelosi seemingly was. She caught on a while ago. Happy Birthday, Madam Speaker. Many more.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.