Vanessa Caroline is the first person I interviewed for my project “Learn People Better.” I figured if I wanted to learn people better, I would interview someone quite different from me. The first person who came to mind was Vanessa, who I met through a mutual friend. Vanessa had worked as a receptionist at a plastic surgeon’s office located in Beverly Hills off of Rodeo Drive, and I wanted to hear more about her experience.My interview with Vanessa was not easy to transcribe. I am not talking about the tedious nature of transcribing. Well, I am and I am not. The slow process of transcribing challenges my habit of speeding up and checking out.
While I interviewed Vanessa, I heard her words but did not give her my full attention. While I transcribed the interview, I heard her every word, usually more than once.
During the interview, I could check out and not have to process what I was hearing. During the transcribing process, I had to acknowledge and confront my feelings about her personal experience.
I wanted things and still want things in that office and in our culture to be not as they are. I intentionally did not bring up my personal opinions with Vanessa. Currently, I think “Learn People Better” is not about persuading and influencing people; it’s about listening to people with a sense of openness, respect, and curiosity in an attempt to understand and maybe even connect to them.
On a bright Sunday morning at a café in Eagle Rock, Vanessa arrived wearing a baseball cap, hoodie, and leggings and I noticed she was not wearing makeup. We sat across from one another, the tape recorder between us, at a table on the outdoor patio and talked for about an hour.
ZR: When you first walked into the office, did you like the office? How was the interview?
VC: I liked it. The interview went well. I’ve always liked plastic surgeons–or so I thought until I started working for them.
ZR: You liked plastic surgeons?
VC: I liked watching them on TV, liked seeing what they could do. My friend worked for one and she said it was stressful, but I worked for lawyers and other doctors and thought, It can’t be that stressful. It’s kind of stressful.
ZR: What would you watch on TV?
VC: There was a point when there was Extreme Makeover and Dr. 90210. You know all those little shows that came on. I found it intriguing.
I mean, some of it was really superficial, but some people really needed the help. I remember there was this guy that got in this car accident. He was so gorgeous and then half his face was mutilated. A team of doctors got in and reconstructed a nose and a mouth and a chin. I thought that was cool. They were able to do so much.
ZR: Did you imagine working there would be one way, when in fact, the reality was quite different?
VC: I’ve always heard of the god complex with surgeons. Working with plastic surgeons, their job is to tell you how they can fix your face. I think that was the biggest surprise for me. I saw them do different things, but mainly it was to point out how you were imperfect and how you could become perfect.
ZR: When did you realize you didn’t like plastic surgeons anymore?
VC: They’re nasty people–I don’t want to say that about all surgeons. The ones I worked for: they were just mean. They’re mean for no reason. They’re nasty. They’re very condescending.
ZR: To who? To clients?
VC: Never to clients. Well, I don’t want to say never to clients. Ninety-eight percent not to clients. I remember a client, we scheduled her at nine o’clock. Well, our doctor always liked to triple schedule. We had three at nine, one at 9:15, one at 9:30 and he would walk in at 9:30.
He walks in and she was just livid, so he turned around, winked his eye at us, and started yelling at every single one of us with a very smug look. She walked away and he said, “Oh. That was funny.”
The other doctor would love to throw charts on the floor as he was walking by just so everyone had to get them off the floor.
ZR: What was the clientele like?
VC: They were rich housewives, really. They had too much time and too much money. When you start doing it–I mean I’ll be the first to tell you it’s addicting. It’s so addicting. You think, Oh if I add just a little more Botox my eyebrows would be so arched. They’ll never go down. It’s just cool. It sounds silly unless you’ve been in it.
ZR: Would you see the same clients repeatedly going in for different procedures?
VC: You would have the ones that would come for a rhinoplasty or a chin implant or face lift. Your regular clientele were people who wanted Botox or fillers and that’s every — they say every six to eight months — but you’re coming every three to four months.
ZR: It would seem to me that there would be a lot of fascinating or peculiar people in that environment in terms of the clientele. Was there a moment when someone was in front of you and you were interacting with them and thought, What is this? Is this really happening?
VC: We did have this one patient. The doctor had to cut her off pretty much. Even though she came in every few days begging him for cheek implants and big lips. It had gotten to the point where she couldn’t move her face. She had so much Botox.
She’d say, “Honey. Just book me for the appointment. Put me in. I’ll pay. Just get me in.” I told her, “Mrs. Jane Doe. You’re beautiful. You really don’t need anything else.”
She said, “No. Look at this. My lips look like they’re going down.” I was thinking, Your lips can’t go down if a nuclear bomb hits them. But she was warped into what she thought she needed to do.
ZR: What do you think that was about?
VC: I think it was insecurity and it could be boredom. People just go because they’re bored. I’ll never forget a group of friends came in. One of them came in for collagen because she had really, really thin lips. Then I was talking to her friend and said, “I love Botox. I always get it done.” She said, “Really? Well, I might as well get it done. I’m here.” There was no need for her to spend three hundred dollars.
ZR: The botox was an impulse purchase.
VC: Yeah. She was like, “Ok! Yeah! Oh my god. I’m so excited!” The doctor told me, “Good job Vanessa. Do that more often.”
You have the time and you have the money. If you’re not doing anything all day and you have a bunch of credit cards with no limit, why not? I look at it now and think there is no way in hell I’m going to spend money on Botox. I could go to the gym, I could go to the movies. But back then, I thought, Well, I could have surgery. I never thought of…anything else.
ZR: Were there any perks to working?
VC: We got Botox. (Laughs)
ZR: How long did you get Botox done?
VC: I’d gotten Botox when I was twenty-two to twenty-six.
ZR: So you’d been getting Botox before you worked with them?
VC: I worked for another doctor at twenty-two and that’s when Botox was kind of new, so he practiced on me. I thought it was the coolest thing that I couldn’t frown. I was just looking in front of the mirror, looking at how I couldn’t frown. And it was always free. The last time I did it was a year ago at a laser place.
ZR: What do you like about it?
VC: I feel I look different. (laughs) My mom says I don’t. She says, “You just look old and stern.”
ZR: Were there any other perks?
VC: I mean, the money was great. I don’t know. Just the money really. I was going to get lipo, though. I was. I was going to get lipo. And a chin implant. And probably get my cheeks removed.
ZR: You were going to get your cheeks removed?
VC: They liposuction behind your ear so it pulls everything up. And then with the chin implant, it gives you a very cheerful look. I wanted my nose done but then I got a little freaked out because, well, that’s a lot of things happening to my face. I backed out.
ZR: On all of them.
VC: On all of them.
ZR: Were you interested in getting work done—the chin implant–before you worked there?
VC: I always wanted to get my nose fixed.
ZR: What about your nose did you want fixed?
VC: It’s just funny. People are like, “Oh. You have a button nose.” And I hated it. I’m sure it’s cute. But I hated it. I’m OK with it now. But I always thought, I’m going to get my nose done. I’m going to get my nose done. I would walk around with tape on my face–as a child and in my twenties.
And then when I got there…The doctor was talking to a patient and he was telling her about fillers. I was in there with him, helping him with the chart and so forth, and he said, “Well, if you look at Vanessa, she can definitely use it around her eyes. They are very hollow.”
I was just like, My face. Is. Hollow. So afterwards, I asked him, “Can you inject me?” He said, “Yeah. I can inject you.”
ZR: Was it painful?
VC: It felt numbing. I could feel the needle going under my eyes and I gasped. I was bruised for a month. And my face is round. So I kind of need the hollowness. Without the hollow, I looked like Mrs. Potato Head. And, of course, it lasted six to eight months. He said, “I can inject more.” I said, “No no no. Its OK.”
ZR: At what point were you over working for them?
VC: I was always over it until I got a paycheck. Then, it was great! It was fantastic! I didn’t have to worry about not having money. I didn’t have to worry about, I can’t do this or I shouldn’t. I mean I shouldn’t have bought a two hundred dollar pair of jeans, but then buying a two hundred dollar pair of jeans was like me buying a cup of coffee. And we had to keep an image at all times.
ZR: What image?
VC: I was front office. If I didn’t walk in with full makeup and hair–if I did it quickly, they would call me into the office and say, “You need to come in made up.” I messed up my knee in a exercise boot camp once and I had to wear ballerina flats. They called it to my attention that I didn’t look attractive. I said, “I can’t walk in heels,” and they said, “I’m sure you can walk in little heels.”
They brought cupcakes. And you could only eat one fourth and then spit it out–
ZR: Wait. Cupcakes? Who was bringing cupcakes?
VC: The pharmaceutical representatives would come in with the newest anti-scar gel or the newest cream, blah-blah-blah. So it was Stephanie and I. Stephanie always looked to a T. And Catherine was there until Catherine got pregnant and she said, “I’m not going to do my hair and makeup,” and they moved her to the back. They said, “Oh, she’s stressed.” No. She had no makeup or shoes, so they put her in the back office.
So Stephanie and I would set up these appointments for the doctors to talk to the reps. As a thank you, they’d bring all these cupcakes, lunches, Jamba Juice. When I first started working there I was very thin. I will not be that thin again. So I’d eat a whole cupcake. They were from Sprinkles. They were huge and they were expensive. And everyone looked at me like I was the Anti-Christ.
They gasped, they would joke about it, and say, “Look. You have to realize you can’t be eating a whole cupcake.” My manager said, “Just think ‘For a moment on your lips, it means forever on your hips.’” Even when I’m skinny I have hips. So I just started to eat half. And then the anesthesiologist said, “Just eat half of the half and then spit out the rest.”
ZR: That was the best thing to do?
VC: Yeah. He said, “You can still taste it and if you take one real bite, it’s not as bad.” I was like, That’s insane. I was in the kitchen one day and took a bite and spit it out. I thought, Oh my god. I just spit out my food. If I did spit it out, when everyone was sitting there, no one would look up. They would be more disturbed if I ate the whole thing instead of spit it out.
ZR: I feel like if I were working there it would alter my perception of my body.
VC: It does.
ZR: Can you talk a little bit about that?
VC: You start doubting yourself. You no longer feel comfortable in your own skin. It’s a slow process. When you start buying clothing, you think, Would I look OK if I went into the office? You think, I’m not skinny enough. Or I should have that chin implant. You start looking at everyone else, especially out on the Westside because everyone does have something done–a nose job, whatever it is, something’s always done. Everyone there says, “Oh I can fix your face,” or, “Your nose is a little wide and we can bring it down.” You’re sitting there and you’re thinking, You just dissected my whole face.
ZR: Did you start to look at people’s faces differently?
VC: Yes. There was this one time when I was with my ex-boyfriend and I said, “Oh my god. That girl is so pretty,” and he said, “She looks like a bad Barbie doll.” But I said, “She’s so pretty. Her nose is so tiny and her lips are so big and her eyes are huge.” He’s looking at me and he said, “It looks like bad artwork.” I thought everyone should have a tiny little nose and big pouty lips. It just becomes normal.
ZR: Can you describe what a perfect face looks like.
VC: A perfect face would be a very chiseled jaw line. The chin is just going to be small. It’s not going to be pointy, it’s not going to be big. Cheek bones that are just to die for. By the way, cheek bone implants never look the same as real cheekbones.
You always want to have your eyes pulled back just a little bit. If you can, with the Botox, you pull the forehead up and back–depending on your age. If you’re older, you might want to have a facelift but if you’re younger, you just Botox. That’s so the eyes kind of pop out but not too much.
You always want to make sure the bridge of your nose is straight. Just think of Barbie, really. Everyone wants to have these beautiful lips. But not just big, round lips. You want to have a heart figure. And white teeth.
If you look at women on the Westside they all have the same — even with different surgeons — everyone looks like the same. Because that’s what it is: being beautiful.
ZR: Why do you think so many people buy into this perception of beauty?
VC: It’s easier to go under the knife than accept who you are. Then you have someone to blame if it doesn’t work out. Everyone likes to be original and be their own person–their own beautiful–but all you need is a chip of insecurity for it to kind of crack all the way down. You can go to the gym, but it’s not going to make your nose any thinner.
ZR: You talked about the Westside in LA. Why do you think that it’s so prevalent there?
VC: You have money out there. Surgeons want money and people want to be beautiful. And they have money. I think it kind of goes hand in hand.
ZR: How and when did you stop working there?
VC: December 2008. The economy hit pretty bad. We went from being crazy busy, booking six months in advance to booking two to three days in advance. They told me to just come in half days, three days a week. I went from making a lot of money to nothing. It was ridiculous. I needed a real job. We parted ways.
I started working for a chiropractor beginning in January. I walked in wearing a pencil skirt and four-inch heels and he looked at me and said, “Um. You can wear jeans.”
I think the biggest shock was that I got there and we had a breakfast burrito. I was just looking at him. He asked, “Do you not eat breakfast burritos?” I laughed. I kind of told him, “We weren’t allowed to eat this.” He looked at me. “What do you mean ‘allowed’? Like religious?” “Oh no, my work.” He said, “You mean, you’d have to pay extra?” I said, “No, we couldn’t because then we’d get fat.”
He just looked at me like–I don’t know what. He probably was like, Why did I hire a nutcase? (laughs) He said if I ever spit my food out, he’d be so mad at me. He said, “If you feel sick and you need to go to the restroom, you do that. But don’t spit good food out.”
ZR: How long do you think it took you to get that kind of thinking out of your system? I mean, the way you thought about food and your body and beauty?
VC: It’s still in me. Just a little bit. It’s kind of like anything in life. You pick up things. It just depends if you’re going to let it control you or if you’re going to learn from it. As I got older, not being in that setting, I think, “Oh wait. That doesn’t really make sense.” I hung out with all my friends who lived out there and now my friends are a different set of friends. And we can eat.
ZR: How is it still in you?
VC: Well, I’ll look at my face and think, I should’ve gotten a chin implant. Just little things like that. Or I catch myself looking at someone and thinking, Wow. They could definitely use a rhinoplasty. Then I think, Oh. That was an asshole thing to say. (laughs) I don’t mean to think it.
Zoe Ruiz is a writer and yoga instructor who lives in Los Angeles. She studied creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Fine Print, and part of her street literature project is housed in the Special Collections Department at Occidental Library. Currently she’s working on her interview project “Learn People Better” and curates Readings, a reading series.