|"Gals that take care of their skin look better when they get older."
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder—cliché, but true. However, what’s wrong with the eyes of today’s beholders? While some have extremely just reasons for going under, others clearly need Lasik. From nipple injections, to the removal of elbow skin, a large majority of today’s society clearly has a skewed perception of “pretty.”
In an exclusive interview, one of Orange County’s most sought after plastic surgeons discusses quirky procedures, surgery addicts, operations gone wrong, Orange County’s obsession with being beautiful, and the shocking age at which it all begins.
He’s operated on patients in Eastern Europe, Guatemala, Northern California, and everywhere in between, and he’s here to give a tell-all on his life as a plastic surgeon. From operating on underprivileged and physically deformed infants to dealing with O.C.’s youth obsessed, Dr. Bunkis shares his story.
How long have you been a plastic surgeon?
Fulltime? Since 1979
What made you want to get into the field?
It was kind of a roundabout way. First of all, I went to University of Toronto. I grew up in Canada. When I was finishing school in 1974, I decided to come to the states to do my general surgery residency, and I spent 5 years at Columbia University in New York. There I became board certified in General Surgery. While I was doing General Surgery we rotated in Orthopedics and Trauma and Plastic Surgery, Intestinal Surgery, you know, every branch you can think of, and my favorite by far was Plastic Surgery. And in a university setting, I never saw a facelift or a tummy tuck. What we did was a lot of very large head and neck cancers (like Manuel) thyroid tumors, a lot of head and neck work. We saw a lot of trauma like broken jaws, crushed hands, and that really, really appealed to me. While I was a resident at Columbia I started looking at plastic surgery residencies and the one at Harvard appealed to me the most. I was completely finished by ’81 and I went to San Francisco to teach. I was a fulltime faculty member, and again, working, in a setting where I saw a lot of head and neck deformities, cancer, trauma, and I did some hands, burns, the other parts of plastic surgery, but mainly focusing on the head and neck. A number of years after that, a very good friend of mine who was a clinical faculty member (which meant he had a private practice) unfortunately got killed in a flying accident, and I knew all his staff, his wife, well, she asked me to take over his practice and I was in a totally different career path, I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life doing academic plastic surgery, but I felt so sorry for her at the moment, that I just said ‘sure I will.’
So do you think that was kind of the deciding moment?
Yeah. And there I started doing aesthetic surgeries basically by default. I loved it, it was challenging, and the best thing was, it gave me a lot of freedom. I really love that about my job—and I credit that to my good friend, who passed away, and got me into plastic surgery. But I was in private practice and in a private practice you don’t get a chance to see very many Manuel-like cases.
You’ve mentioned Manuel a few times. Our audience knows a little bit about Manuel—the 70-year-old artist from Mexico. Briefly update us on his background, surgery, current status, and your role in the entire situation.
Sure. He’s had this problem for 27 years. It progressed and got so bad to where it was eating away his whole nose. I ended up essentially amputating his nose and about 1/3 of his check on the right side. Back in Mexico it got to the point where it was to big for some of the local doctors to take care of and he didn’t have the money to go somewhere else so he just lived with it. Deborah, from my office, walked into his art gallery one weekend, asked him about his situation, wanted to get to the bottom of it, came back and talked to me, and I helped make the arrangements for his surgery. Everyone was off the clock. It was kind of a joint effort to take care of him.
Tell us about the actual surgery.
We looked inside the nose and we saw that the tumor was growing on the septum, and basically the whole nose was eaten away. I ended up taking off the septum and using the skin from his forehead to cover up the hole.
I believe I’m correct in saying that your job is to basically make someone to look “good” or at least better than they did before. How does being surrounded by ideas, thoughts, and concepts of beauty, all day, affect you’re outside life? Meaning, if you go to a grocery store and see a woman, do you look at her and think ‘what can be done to make her better looking,’ or do you leave your work at work?
I almost never, never, never, never, have that happen to me. And second if a patient does come in and say ‘what can you do to make me better?’ I never answer that question—I ask ‘what bothers you?’ If it’s that she don’t have cheekbones, I’m not going to talk about her sagging neck. If someone comes in and asks for breast enlargements and has ears that stick straight out I don’t sit there and say, ‘hey do you want to get your ears done at the same time?’ It only matters what the patients is insecure about or dislikes.
So you don’t ever notice people’s physical “distinctions?”
Well I notice some things. What catches my attention is badly done plastic surgery (and I see that wherever I go) like over-pulled faces, breasts that are sticking straight out. I cant help but notice that. But if you look at a larger nose, or a neck that hangs a little bit, that’s all within the bell curve of being normal. It doesn’t catch my eye as being an abnormality.
Do believe that there is such a thing as an already beautiful man or woman? Or do you think that there is always something that can be done to make them more attractive?
My wife’s perfect!
Good answer! Have you ever denied someone plastic surgery because they were too perfect or you deemed it unnecessary?
Every single week.
Wow. Okay give us an example.
The most common examples are 3 that I can think of, well, 4 actually: young gals in their late 30’s early 40’s will notice that when they put their chin down they get a fold, and when they lift it up, it’s gone. They come in here asking me to do a facelift. Well, the answer is ‘no.’ The second example I can think of is breasts. And the other two that happen weekly are inner arms and inner thighs. Every woman has this! And you can exercise, and lift weights, and have real nice muscles, but the skin will get loser. It’s normal to have a little extra skin down there. The only case is if the person has lost a lot of weight.
What is the most common procedure requested among your clients?
Facelifts—I do facelifts everyday.
What is the strangest procedure a client has requested?
One man wanted a dimple on his chin. I’ve seen gals tell me they want the extra skin on their elbow cut out—well if you cut it out you can’t bend your arm! I had one gal ask me to inject fillers into her nipples so they would stand out more. And those are the kind of people you have to, you know, have a talk with.
When it comes to plastic surgery, how young is too young?
Well, cleft lips start at three weeks. Cleft pallets start at a month. So, for birth defects, necessary things, whenever the patient is healthy enough. For anything that can be construed as purely cosmetic, I will never do it unless the patient is old enough to want it. And the best example for that are ears. Also, 13 and 14 year-olds with large breasts—breast reductions.
Can a person be obsessed with plastic surgery? Addicted to altering their body?
Sure. Those are the ones who have been operated on 13, 14 times, and I politely escort them out of my office. The sad thing is they’ll actually find someone to take care of that nonexistent “problem.”
We’ve all seen the classic cases of celebrities whose physical appearances have been completely distorted due to bad plastic surgery. Why do you think the surgeons of Michael Jackson, Jocelyn Wildenstein (aka “Cat Lady”) and most recently, Heidi Montag, performed the kind of surgeries they did? Do you think their surgeons really think those people are the epitome of beauty, or were they simply trying to score some more money?
I find it difficult to relate to that because I don’t do that. But, yes, I would tell you it’s money, fame, whatever. I just would never do that. There are many unscrupulous doctors out there.
Looking young seems to be an obsession among women these days—especially in Orange County. What tips can you offer to women who have yet to show signs of aging and want to prevent it?
You can’t stop it or halt it, but you can look good as you get older. Exercise and protect your skin—its crucial to use sun block in California, even when you’re just walking from your car to your office, etc. Sun damage is cumulative. The gals that take care of their skin, look better when they get older, than those who didn’t.
I understand that you’ve traveled around the world to operate on underprivileged children. Tell us more about that.
I’ve gone many times down to Guatemala and I went with an organization up in San Francisco called Hospital de la Familia. We do cleft lips and palates, cataracts. We did all kinds of burns and burn deformities, because these people cook over open fires and little kids fall in. we do basically, a lot of deformities. Then we go home, the nuns take care of the patients after we leave, and then another group comes.