Plastic people

Mail on Sunday magazine, March 10 1989

This is the story of an American romance, of a man and a woman alone in this crazy world with only their dreams and a standard set of surgical tools to inspire them, and of how they found happiness in their own special way.

The man is Dr Harvey Austin – tall, strong, handsome with country casual clothes and brown leather braces. The woman is Carol, petite with blue eyes and a simple request – “I want to look as good as possible.”

When they first met in 1978, Harvey’s life was running down hill. He was 42, his first marriage was collapsing and he was losing interest in the smashed heads and burned faces he worked on as a plastic surgeon in Pittsburgh. Carol, eight years his junior, gave him a new start and a new lease on life in Washington DC.  Harvey, in return, gave her a happy home, a gold ring and a nose job.

Since then, they have never looked back. Harvey has moved on from Carol’s nose to a surgical mystery tour of the rest of her body, using his scalpel and his chisel, his retractors and his silicon implants to lift a lump here, bury a bulge there, to rub out wrinkles and cut out creases, making her a little more lovely as each operation goes by.

Harvey has become a renowned cosmetic surgeon; Carol is working for animal rights; they have a big and beautiful home in a posh neighbourhood just outside Washington; they have adopted two more children in addition to the five Harvey already had from his first marriage. But these are merely the superficial signs of a happy marriage. The story of their romance is really the story of Carol’s body.

That story begins in November 1980, just after their wedding. Carol, who was then 36, had been working in Harvey’s new cosmetic surgery and she was beginning to wonder if he might ever do something for her. Not that she needed it. As she says: “I have always been cute. It’s not like I was ever a real bow-wow.”

Harvey had begun to wonder the same thing – not that he was saying she needed it.  “There was just a little bulge under the lower lids that might make her look tired. That was all. And just the tip of her nose was a little wide. And just a little hump on the middle of her nose. Needed a little rasping. Maybe one or two other very small things.”

Carol thought about it. It was true, her lids were a bit puffy. “I’d had a lot of allergies. My lids didn’t look like they did in High School. I thought maybe he could do them and as long as he was there, he might as well do my nose, too.” But that was enough to start with. “It’s like if you have a new interior designer. You might let them do the drapes in the bathroom first to see what kind of job they do before you let them loose on the whole house.”

So, Carol sat down in the big leather operating chair with the reclining back. Harvey gave her a local anaesthetic to numb her face, some valium to calm her, and took a sharp scalpel and dug it into her lower eyelid immediately under the eye lashes. “I cut out a strip of loose skin. Inside, it looks a bit like a cross-section of doughnut and there is just a little bit of fat bulging through and I snipped that off.” He did the same on the other side and then moved to her nose.

“The end of your nose is like a ham sandwich – lining inside, then cartilege, then skin. A ham sandwich. I got inside and went up through the lining and scraped away this bulging cartilage. Then I went further up, to the bridge of the nose and rasped away some of the hump and then with this tiny two millimeter chisel I leaned the nose bones inwards a little.” Leaned them in? “Just a couple of little taps.” How little? “Well, this is only technical, but technically, I did break her nose.” Broke your wife’s nose? “Technically. I do wish there was another word for it.”

It was a little while before Carol could judge Harvey’s work. “My eyes were all yellow and puffy and I had a lot of swelling round my nose. I looked like an abused wife. People look at you and wonder what your husband has been doing.” But after a week or two, the swelling went down and Carol looked in the mirror and knew that Harvey was a hit. “I was thrilled. I looked prettier. It’s great to look prettier.”

For a few years, Carol was pretty enough and she was busy looking after the first child they adopted together, but in the back of her mind, there was one thing that nagged away at her. “My hips. I had hips that were three inches too wide for the rest of me. I looked like a pear. I had a great body but it had settled. Nothing to do with weight. I only weighed a hundred pounds. I looked like a small pear. I was so upset about my hips I wouldn’t even go bowling.”

Then one day Harvey came back from the office and told her about a marvellous new technique which had been developed in France which could wipe away unwanted fat. It was called “suction assisted lipectomy” or “liposuction” for short. Carol heard bells ringing. “I signed up immediately. I was the first one that Harvey did.”

And while Harvey was there, she thought she might as well have her cheeks lifted. And if she was having her cheeks lifted, she might as well have her brow lifted too, and since the allergies were still giving her trouble, she also asked him to give her a bilateral nasal turbinectomy, a sort of tunneling in her nostrils. Harvey agreed, and in May 1984, Carol was back in the reclining chair.

The liposuction went like a dream. Harvey pushed long thin metal tubes into Carol’s outer thighs and down each leg just under the skin, agitated them to loosen the fat, fitted a hose pipe from the top of the tube to the liposuction machine and pressed the button. Minutes later, Carol’s hips were history.

Carol was thrilled. “The machine just sucked it all out. I think it’s the same machine that they use for abortions. Harvey told me that and I told him not to. I don’t like the technical details. But I was so excited about it. I went down two sizes in clothes.” The cheek lifting and brow lifting were just as good.

Harvey used to make model planes when he was a boy, so he is a natural with a knife. He gently traced Carol’s hairline with his scalpel, cutting a neat line through her flesh all the way from one ear to the other, then lifted the skin from its bed and pulled it up, clipping away the excess before stitching the new, smooth, unwrinkled face back in its place. Carol was 40, but her face was only 30.

Carol and Harvey were happy. They adopted another child. Sometimes the children played at make-believe plastic surgery. Life was good. Then one night in the summer of 1985, Harvey brought his work home with him again. “He came home one night and said something about some cheekbones he had put in someone. I had always wanted higher cheekbones. You know, all the models you see have those really high cheekbones.”

So, Carol was back in the chair. This time, Harvey was burrowing up inside her mouth, cutting his way into her cheeks and sliding a stretch of silicone rubber over the top of each cheekbone. While he was about it, he finished a couple of other minor chores. “Just lifted the corners of her mouth a touch on each side where they had started to droop. Then suctioned underneath her chin a little just to take off a little of that fatty stuff. Tidied it up a little.”

That liposuction was really something. Carol couldn’t help wondering whether it might not help her inner thighs too. Her wish was Harvey’s command and in May 1986, he had the suction tubes back down her legs. He soon drained her inner thighs and went on to tidy up her inner knees a little while he was there. Carol was thrilled, so she decided to have some more.

This time, in June of this year, Harvey called in his partner, Dr George Weston, to help him liposuction a roll of 44-year-old fat out of Carol’s stomach. Harvey realised that the suction would not be enough. “She is a little past the age where you can suction and expect the skin to go tight afterwards, so she had a little tummy tuck – just took out a strip of skin. It does leave a scar but that’s below the bikini line.”

Carol is proud of Harvey’s many gifts. If she were a paying customer, she would owe him more than $20,000. “If people tell me I look young or cute, I tell them it’s no accident. When you’re young, if you look cute, it’s just luck, but when you get a bit older, you realise a lot of it is maintenance. I tell everyone. It’s good for business but also you want to share a good thing.” Harvey certainly likes to share.

Apart from Carol, he has also operated on most of his friends. “The conversation always seems to turn that way and once they find out it’s possible, they want to do it.” He has also operated on his mother – “Tidied up her upper and lower lids a little” – and his father – “He had the longest ear lobes in the world. They looked as though someone had been swinging on them so I tidied them up a little and I gave him a cheek lift and cleared up a little of that wattle under his chin.”

Harvey has also operated on everyone at work: his vice president, Margaret (upper lids, lower lids, cheek lift, chin implant), his receptionist, Kelly (chin implant), his office manager Carol (chin implant, suction on cheeks and neck, upper eyelids, correction of gummy smile), his assistant office manager, Joyce (chin implant, neck suction, upper lip contouring, cheek sculpting, nose job), his post-operative care nurse Leslie (nose job, lower eyelids, cheek lift, lip lift, upper eyelids).

He has also invited two surgeon friends to operate on his own face. One of them gave him a full face and neck lift in July 1986 and since then his partner has turned up the corners of his mouth for him. He now includes Washington’s image-conscious men as well as women among his customers. “Cosmetic surgery used to be reserved for aging actors and Polish aristocracy, but it’s amazing how popular and acceptable it has become.”

Carol says she has finished trading faces now – although she has put on an extra ten pounds around her dreaded hips again, and her face might need another lift sometime. “It depends how long I live. You have to be realistic. I’m not Linda Evans. I want to be the best Carol Austin I can be. I’m satisfied with that. I mean, it would be great to be Linda Evans, but Harvey hasn’t developed that operation yet.”


Summary of Carol Austin’s operations with technical terms and listed prices:

November 1980 – lower lids (blepharoplasty) $1,900.
– nose job  (rhinoplasty) $2,900.

May 1984 – Outer thighs liposuction (suction assisted lipectomy)$3,000
– Cheek lift (rhytidectomy) $3,600
– Brow lift (coronal lift) $1,500
– Nostril clearing (bilateral nasal turbinectomy) $1,200

June 1985 – Cheek implants (malar implants) $1,800
– Underchin liposuction $1,500
– Lifting mouth corners $500

May 1986 – Inner thighs and inner knees liposuction $1,800

June 1988 – Stomach liposuction and tuck (abdominoplasty) $3,200

Total cost: $22,900