This spring, Dr Christian Jessen, the presenter of Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize vs Superskinny, is back with a brand new show on Channel 4, The Ugly Face of Beauty. The four-part series takes a frank and uncompromising look at the largely unregulated world of cosmetic surgery, and the issues that can arise when the surgery goes wrong.
Here, Jessen reveals a lot more about the series, himself, and some very unusual emails he gets from fans...
Your new series is the Ugly Face of Beauty. What's it about?
It's essentially about the perils and pitfalls of cosmetic surgery. It's not anti-cosmetic surgery, but it's just trying to warn people how to do it and minimise some of the terrible things that do happen sometimes. We do that in all sorts of ways. It also looks into the laws - or rather the lack of them - around cosmetic surgery, and the lack of regulation in the industry as a whole, which is actually quite worrying.
The controls should be much tighter, shouldn't they?
They really should. At the moment, with things like Botox, anybody can do that anywhere. There needs to be a minimum standard of training to try and safeguard these things a little bit. Chiropodists and podiatrists are applying to do Botox without any knowledge of facial muscles and injection safety and all that sort of thing. It's not great.
A lot of cosmetic surgery, of course, is very well done, but a lot of it isn't. There's a huge variation in quality, isn't there?
Unfortunately, yes. With surgery, particularly cosmetic surgery, there's a huge amount of artistry required. You need a surgeon with a good eye who can judge your body size and shape, and work out the best way of giving you the best results at the end. And the other thing that we don't do very well is managing patients' expectations. Wanting to look like Pamela Anderson may be achievable for one person, and definitely not achievable for the next person. Surgeons promise the world and sometimes fail to deliver, and so patients are left disappointed. Part of the show sees us following the stories of four or five women who have had bad surgery or not got the results they wanted, or just horrendous complications for various reasons. So we look at what went wrong, and we correct those problems, and you see the surgery being done to try and correct them. And you realise what a big deal surgery is - it's not just a lunchtime stopover thing to do as a bit of fun.
The statistic in the show that astonished me was that in the last five years the number of Britons opting for cosmetic surgery is up by 300 per cent. What's behind that rise?
Well, the use of Botox has gone up 2,500 per cent, which is even more astonishing. What's behind it? Is it that we're becoming more aware of how we look? Do we judge more? Do the jobs go to the younger, more virile-looking people? Is there therefore a pressure to try and maintain that look? Who knows? Is it media, is it images in magazines, is it airbrushing? Or is it just because it's available, and we're all quite vain, and we'd all like to adjust little things about ourselves? There are 101 reasons.
You did a very interesting experiment that showed just how willing people are to sign up for cosmetic surgery without asking any questions.
Yeah, that was a great eye-opener for me. I wasn't convinced it was going to work. I thought 'No one's going to sign up for this. They're not mad.' But they did, as you can see. That was really worrying. It's all very well, surgeons getting the blame, but I think patients are equally responsible for their own safety. They need to do their homework, and they need to think about what they're signing up for. These people clearly weren't doing - the ones who signed up to our fake clinic. There needs to be an element of people helping themselves as well.
So what can people look out for if they're contemplating a procedure? What steps can they take to ensure they get the right surgeon?
Going by personal recommendations is not a bad idea. Or ask your GP - GPs will know the local surgeons and things. A lot of the local NHS surgeons will also do private work. I would always go for a surgeon that did a certain amount of NHS work as well, just because of the regulation the NHS has on its surgeons. Look at their qualifications - are they registered with BAAPS, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic surgeons, because they have their own pretty rigid criteria that you have to fulfil to be a member. And also, if possible, look into some of their handiwork. Look at jobs that they've done and see what you think of them.
You alluded to the women who take part in the programme, who have had bad surgical experiences. It's very brave of them to take part, isn't it?
Yeah, absolutely. Because first of all, you're admitting to having cosmetic surgery, which a lot of people don't admit to. In America it's more of a status symbol. In England, we prefer to hide it. And also then admitting 'Yeah, I wanted better boobs or fewer wrinkles, and look what's happened to me. It's all gone wrong, and I've got this horrendous disfiguring scarring,' or whatever. To come and show the nation that is a very brave thing, but they were truly doing this because they said 'I don't want this to happen to anybody else.'
Does the NHS often end up having to pick up the pieces after botched cosmetic surgery?
Yeah, and that's the other reason for doing the show. When things go wrong - and it's usually acutely wrong, so you've come back from your surgery holiday with no proper aftercare, and then the infection sets in or the complications set in - of course it's your local A&E department that's going to have to deal with it.
Once they'd had their procedures corrected in this series, what kind of difference did it make to the women?
Oh, massive. And I'm not exaggerating. Not just from a purely physical point of view, that we've corrected some terrible scarring or something like that, but psychologically. They just had different looks on their faces. They were happier people. It was a horrendous weight to carry around, this experience, and you can't really get beyond it if, every time you look down, there's a gaping great disfiguring scar on your stomach. So correcting it was a huge step for them in putting the whole thing behind them.
You were in theatre for a lot of the procedures during the series. Do you ever get squeamish about that sort of thing?
Not any more. I've seen so much. I still find it fascinating, but I don't recoil in horror any more. The only things I find a bit brutal are facial procedures, where you're sort of peeling off face and exposing skull and chipping bone and then putting the face back. That is quite shocking, watching someone going through that.
Would you ever consider having cosmetic surgery yourself?
Yes, I would. I don't want to give the impression that this show is anti-cosmetic surgery. It's not at all. Just do it safely. So if I got really dissatisfied with something about me, and I really thought that correcting it was going to make a big difference, and I wasn't just going to find something else a week later that I wasn't happy with, then absolutely, yeah, why not?
When did you first decide you wanted to become a doctor?
Honestly? I didn't. I actually wanted to be a director, of theatre or film, and opera as well - I studied classical music. But because I was academic and good at sciences, at my school it was encouraged that if you could do that sort of thing and pass exams, then you ought to go on and make something of it. So it was suggested I might like medicine. And I did. I have absolutely no regrets at all, I enjoyed it, and I love it now. But it's lovely having the TV stuff now, which is a slight step towards that old desire to direct and be involved in the arts. Now I'm getting the best of both worlds.
You were very affected by spending some time in Africa, weren't you?
Yeah, it made a big difference to my life, really. It grounded me and opened my eyes to the world a little bit more. I'd had a fairly sheltered life - I'm an only child, privately educated - so you come out somewhat naïve. So being thrust into Africa, and dealing with what you find there - particularly the medical things - was tough. It was really tough. But I wouldn't not have done it.
Do you ever get frustrated, dealing with people who have had cosmetic surgery, or are starving themselves or over-eating, when you think back to what you saw in Africa?
Oh yes. The hardest thing wasn't going to Africa and adjusting to life there. The hardest thing was coming back here afterwards and adjusting to life back here. The little things we get irritated about, a train being two minutes late or something, is just so irrelevant when you meet a woman who's lost her six kids to malaria. So yes, I do get frustrated sometimes. People do fight for survival there, and they have to fight for their families, and we hold up our hands and expect other people to pick up the pieces when things go wrong. That applies to our health, too. We crash on through life doing things we know aren't good for us - eating too much, smoking, drinking - and then suddenly when we end up with some disease because of it, we're all shocked and upset. That sounds so uncaring, and I don't want to come across that way, but it is frustrating, because the knowledge is out there. We know a lot about how to safeguard our health, but people just don't follow the advice.
You still work as a GP part-time. You don't need to any more. Why do you still do it?
Because I love it. I really enjoy the patient contact. I do sexual health and HIV as well as being as GP. I just love it. It's the subject I studied, it's what I trained in, it's what I do best. I like the patient contact. I don't think I can be a viable TV doctor or media medic without actually seeing patients. You need to stay up-to-date and stay in practice. I never want to give that up.
Do you get recognised a lot, and does it ever interfere with your work as a doctor?
I do get recognised quite a lot now, because the shows have been so popular. Embarrassing Bodies is such a cult show now. I have a rather odd face that seems to be very recognisable - even behind baseball caps, and sunglasses don't work very well. But it's great. I mean, it has its ups and downs. You get asked a lot of medical stuff. So you're in a bar with friends, and someone comes up and keeps asking you medical questions, and honestly, I don't want to talk about medicine 24 hours a day. It's nice to switch off and forget about it. But I've had such nice responses from people. Who wouldn't like that?
I read that you get quite a lot of saucy emails. Is that true?
I do. From women of a certain age. They like to send me photos of their bits and say 'Nothing embarrassing about these, is there, doctor?'
You've talked about the popularity of Embarrassing Bodies. Why do people appear on the programme with their bits out in front of millions, when they can't bring themselves to visit their GP?
I always ask them that, and a lot of them are put forward by friends and family, who are really worried and want to help them, so encourage them to do it. Secondly, we've been on telly for quite a while now, people have seen the show, they know how it works, they feel they know us - it's that power of telly that makes people think you're their best friend because you're in their living room for an hour every week. So I think people have a confidence - they probably know us better than they know their GPs. So there's a sort of familiarity there. And there's also a very altruistic sense of 'I've suffered away with this for ten years, it's ridiculous, I know there's other people out there, I'm going to help them. I'm going to bite the bullet, get this sorted, and help other people do that too.'
What do you like best about what you do?
I like people contact, I think. That's why I like doctoring and doing my clinic. I love the talking to people. What have they been up to, what are their worries, can you help them out? And on the TV side, I love going and doing all the little stunts and scenes that we do in the shows, or going off and chatting to schools or groups of people about sexual health. It's fascinating, and it's a lovely opportunity to have, to be able to have a voice in that way. That's what I enjoy.
By Benjie Goodhart