What do you think of when you think of plastic surgery? Fish-lipped women on the Real Housewives shows? Or maybe aging Hollywood actors who look like burn victims. Michael Jackson's disappearing nose? Or Lindsay Lohan's rubberized lips? When internet slideshows of plastic surgery fails are only a click away, it's easy to think about facelifts, eye jobs, liposuction, Botox injections, and all the rest as a mark of narcissistic people who refuse to grow old as nature intended.
But that's not the only—and certainly not the best—way to think about plastic surgery, as the new documentary, Take My Nose…Please!, which will be premiering in Los Angeles and New York City this weekend, makes abundantly clear.
Directed by the nearly 90-year-old journalism legend Joan Kron, Take My Nose…Please! follows two actresses as they contemplate getting work done. Along the way, viewers learn the history of modern plastic surgery and are exposed to a powerful argument that plastic surgery is just one more way of improving ourselves, like diet, exercise, and education.
Kron's wide-ranging, funny, and suspenseful movie drives home the libertarian point that nips and tucks are about self-actualization and self-realization, not immature fears of growing old or insatiable narcissism.
If there's one thing Joan Kron knows, it's self-reinvention. Born in 1928 and raised in New York City, Kron studied costume design at Yale's graduate school (she skipped undergrad) before getting married to a Philadelphia doctor. She joined the city's Arts Council in the 1960s and soon enough brought Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground to perform at a YWHA.
She only began her journalism career at 41, writing for Philadelphia magazine. After the collapse of her marriage, she moved to New York, where she became the Wall Street Journal's first fashion writer and wrote for New York magazine in its early years. She was in her 60s when she started writing a beauty column for Allure, a slick magazine aimed at 20-something women. And in 2000, she wrote Lift: Wanting, Fearing and Having a Facelift, an account of her own experience with plastic surgery.
Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Kron in her art-rich Upper East Side apartment, where Warhols compete with Lichtensteins for the visitor's attention. To spend time with Kron is to be granted an audience with a woman who has blazed a unique trail through the last century of American life.
Intro video produced by Todd Krainin and written by Nick Gillespie. Interview produced by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Kevin Alexander and Jim Epstein.
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: What do you hope to accomplish? Is it to make plastic surgery either more acceptable or to have a wider conversation about it?
Joan Kron: No. No. I didn't do this for a cause. I wanted to make a movie.
Gillespie: But you are-
Kron: I wanted to make a movie about something I knew about.
Gillespie: What is it about plastic surgery that people find both compelling and yet they resist it at the same time?
Kron: It's a fascinating subject because it's about science. It's about psychology. It's about horror in a way because it's the fear that a person could change their appearance. It's about deception. It was also about making yourself better looking but it's also capable of making you worse looking.
Gillespie: Why do so many people draw the line at surgery to enhance or to make yourself feel better about yourself?
Kron: they attach it to an idea that it's better to be natural. There is no such thing as natural.
Kron: If we were natural, our hair would be, our nails would never be cut and our hair would be down to the floor. And we would all be naked.
Gillespie: And change is very frightening to a lot of people. It's exciting and it's also frightening. It can be dangerous but it's not as dangerous as you think it is. Gillespie: Introduce us to the two main characters that you follow as they're thinking about having plastic surgery and other things are going on in their life. There's Emily and Jackie. Who is Emily? What does she want and why does she want it?
Kron: Emily Askin is a unknown, mostly, to most audiences. She's an up and coming improvisational comedian, which is different than a stand up comedian. She does improv. She studied at the school that Amy Poehler started, which is the Upright Citizens Brigade.
I stumbled on her when I was looking for somebody to be a star of this film. I found out that she has a beauty salon in Pittsburgh. When I told her the name of the film, Take My Nose … Please!, She said, "Oh my god. I've always wanted my nose done."
Gillespie: She has a bump in her nose.
Kron: She has a bump. Not a very serious one. Nothing that … You might not even notice it. But it bothered her. I took her to a leading, a prominent doctor in New York because I don't believe that I should be a diagnostician. She had a chance to talk to the doctor and discuss her problem or issues. Then she decided that she might want surgery.
Gillespie: the viewer doesn't know until really until the end what happens.
Gillespie: One of the plastic surgeons who is an expert in the film talks about how different types of people are better or worse candidates for plastic surgery. People who have low self-esteem and are doing it because other people are telling them that, "You're not pretty, you're not good looking. You would look better this way," they're not good candidates for plastic surgery. Whereas, people who are kind of more inner directed seem to be. What is going on there?
Kron: Well, sometimes people focus on a small defect or what they perceive as a defect and think if they change that, it will change their life. When really, there are other things going on in their lives and making these small changes does not make them happier because that's not really the problem. And so, he describes it as body shame and body dissatisfaction of the two different. If you have body dissatisfaction, you know that it's not everything and that you could live your life and you'd be okay, but if you fix it you might be a little happier. People who have body shame believe that there's something that is there that makes them ashamed and they feel if they take that away they will feel better about themselves. But often, the problem is much deeper, psychologically. But we're making it sound very boring.
Kron: And the movie isn't boring.
Gillespie: All right.
Kron: The movie is exciting because the movie's about comedians. they have families. They have love. They have problems. They have issues. Within kind of a bigger story about their lives, we're talking about how plastic surgery impacts them.
But, comedians have, historically, been the only people who have been honest about plastic surgery among celebrities. Celebrities practice, what I call, they take the hypocritical oath. The hypocritical oath is they lie about their plastic surgery and say they've never had it. And then in private they do have it.
Gillespie: Well, you have a clip, an interesting clip from Jane Fonda finally admitting that she
Gillespie: Had had. And she, in a way to go back to the discussion of natural beauty, she always said, "No. I just worked out a lot and I just ate right." And all of that kind of stuff.
Gillespie: But she cops to. The other protagonist in the movie is Jackie, who is a comic actress, very well-known. She talks about, in her routines, about how ugly she is.
Gillespie: How she's a dog. So, tell us a little bit about her.
Kron: Well, Jackie is the only woman … I mean, I've been covering this field for 25 years. She's the only woman who I ever heard say, "I'm ugly and I know it." It's just very sad to hear a woman say that. I was drawn to Jackie because she gave an interview in the Wall Street Journal saying that she regrets not having a nose job that her mother offered when she was 16. Now, if your mother offers you a nose job when you're 16, you already know that there's something wrong with you, right? And so you have to live with this burden of knowing that somebody thinks that you really need a nose job and she's going to give it to you.
And so, Jackie, on top of having her mirror and her own feelings about herself, has in her head this mother who said, "Maybe you would like to have a nose job." Jackie is so honest about everything. She's so funny as she goes through whatever she's going through in the movie and making her own little comments and what not. And so, the movie can be seen as just a funny, hysterical take on plastic surgery and comedians because we have a lot of comedians and a lot of jokes and a lot of laughter. But there's also a lot of pain in our movie.
Gillespie: Let's talk about pain as well as happiness or triumph, there are two female comedians who are kind of the guardian angels, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers. Totie Fields was a kind of zoftig Phyllis Diller—worse than Phyllis Diller—comedian who died after a plastic surgery. Joan Rivers talked, celebrated her plastic surgery. Is that kind of the alpha and the omega of what's possible in plastic surgery?
Kron: Well, it perhaps worked out that way for my film but I'm not sure they are the alpha and the omega. A lot of people believe that Joan Rivers died of having plastic surgery, and that's not true. I like to dispel that. I mean, she had a raspy voice. I think I have a raspy voice. And she was having a procedure to see what was the matter with her esophagus in case there might have been some polyps. That's how she died. It had nothing to do with plastic surgery.
Totie Fields was turned down by many doctors because she had diabetes and she was overweight. Diabetes can be very dangerous with surgery. With great effort, she found people who would operate on her. She developed a blood clot, and she developed phlebitis, and lost a leg. She didn't die of plastic surgery.
Most people who have died while they were having a plastic surgery treatment do not die of the plastic surgery operation. They die because they have an underlying medical condition and perhaps they shouldn't have been cleared for surgery. But Totie did die a year or two years after she had what she called was an eye lift and other people called a face lift. And …
Gillespie: She had a leg amputated due to the diabetic, which-
Kron: She had one leg amputated and she had a big come back. It's a terribly sad thing. She was only 48 years old. It's a cautionary tale. I wanted to show every side of plastic surgery. I didn't want to sugar coat it. This is not a movie that is for or against plastic surgery. It happens to be about plastic surgery, but it's also about human beings.
Gillespie: You stress also that most case or most of the time in plastic surgery, it's not the Michael Jackson treatment where you go from looking one way to looking radically different, or even Joan Rivers. At various points you showed different phases and faces of Joan Rivers over time. It's a pretty dramatic kind of evolution. But you yourself have … You wrote a book in 1998 called Lift: Wanting and Fearing and Having a Facelift. You've had three face lifts, Botox, relaxin, restylane, and juvederm. How did that work? Also, you're 89.
Kron: Right. Oh, yes. I forgot.
Gillespie: Yes, that's right. A first time film maker at 89. It's not dramatic, right? It's kind of making incremental improvements in your appearance, right?
Kron: Plastic surgery can be extreme or it can subtle. It's a couture operation. There's no one way that everybody comes out, even though people love to say that everybody looks alike. They don't. Everybody doesn't look alike. Usually, the goal is that you want to look just like a slightly, a more rested version of yourself. It makes you happier. It doesn't last forever. And so, yes, I did have … Actually, when I say I had three face lifts, they weren't quite the same. The second one was really a brow lift because they had by then invented a new technique for the brow that was much less invasive and I had a brow lift. While I was having a brow lift, he just kind of tightened it up a little up.
Gillespie: Did it work for you or has it worked for you?
Kron: I love it.
Gillespie: Does it make you happier? Does it make you feel better?
Kron: Yes, absolutely. When I look back at the pictures of myself, I just feel that I've been able to stay in the game longer. I'm still working. I've been working even before I made this movie, I was a journalist. I doubt that I would've been employed if I had just let my face go older and older and older.
Gillespie: Does that bother you?
Kron: Yeah, obviously I die my hair. Come on. I could be a gray-haired lady, too, but I'm not.
Gillespie: Does it bother you at all that, one of the facts that comes out in the movie is that 90 percent of plastic surgery is done for women or on women. Only 10 percent for men. Does it bother you that Charlie Rose, who I'm sure has had work or is likely to have had work, or Dan Rather, older journalists who are probably younger than you but look much older. They don't have to have plastic surgery. Is that an issue at all? Or what-
Kron: Why do you use the word have to?
Gillespie: Yeah. Prejudices, I guess.
Kron: Yeah. Right. It's got nothing to do with have to. It's a choice. It's a choice. When the science is there, why wouldn't we use it? I mean, are you still riding a horse when you could be driving a car? Basically, that's about what it's about.
Gillespie: So, what explains the gender … Or, talk a little bit about the gender issues because plastic surgery is still mostly a woman's thing.
Kron: Well, let's put it this way. In beginning of time, thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, and the reason we know about ancient Egypt is that there was something called the Smith Papyrus. It's the oldest medical document that we know about. There were probably earlier ones, but we just haven't found them. Okay. This one was found in the 19th century. In it, there's a recipe for how to make an old man into a youth. This is the first known treatment and anti-aging treatment. Who is it for? It's for men. Women did not get any of the goodies in those days. The men got the goodies. I think we're returning to that slowly. And so, yes. I think men are only 10 percent now, but it is inching up and maybe to 12 percent and they're going to be many, many more men doing this. And very soon, I probably won't be here, but you'll be here. It'll be 50-50.
Gillespie: One of the people in the movie says that, "Beauty though is the currency for women." Is that changing as well? Or is it that … And is it changing in the sense that women don't have to be as beautiful anymore? Or is it that men have to up their game? Because they're also competing now not just against other men but women, as well.
Kron: It's very hard to be the pundit on this. That's not my specialty. But it's very hard to be a woman and not notice who gets to have the starring role in every movie. It's very popular for people to say, "Well, look at Helen Mirren." But there's only one Helen Mirren. There are dozens of starlets who are Emma Stones and who are getting all the good roles. You can't help but notice that the prettier girls seem to get the ring in the merry-go-round.
Gillespie: Right. Well, you are … Let's talk a little bit about your career because in a, I think it was an interview with AARP magazine that it's good to be an icon or you should create yourself as an icon. You're an icon of journalism. You're 89. Over the course of your journalism career, what are the big lessons that you would give to today's media? Because print is dying, print is being reborn, broadcast came to television-
Kron: Why would I give a message to anybody?
Gillespie: I said a lesson, not a message.
Kron: Oh, okay.
Gillespie: But what are the lessons that you've learned-
Kron: The lessons.
Gillespie: That you think that people might benefit from knowing?
Kron: Everything is transferrable. Everything that you do can be … You have to … I once got a free subscription to a magazine that was put out by Harvard about, I think, the Harvard business school. There was a very interesting article. It said, "If you're working for somebody and they need something, you have to fulfill the needs of the people you work for or you're not going to keep your job for long." And so, when I was at Allure and I saw the tide was turning and that we started an internet blog, I started writing immediately for that. I loved writing for it because it's so immediate. I mean, you write it today and it's up tomorrow. And if you're writing for a magazine, you write today and it's up two months from now. That was always … I'm sure you understand that. That there's such a long wait and things can happen to your story and can get old. It's like milk. It can start turning sour.
Kron: I loved writing for our internet. I found that I did better work on it. I thought I did some better work. That was because fewer editors were putting their fingerprints on my work.
Gillespie: I don't know if I have a lesson for other people's lives. It's just that, what would I do if I … I mean, I just happen to be alive. I'm not in charge of that. There's a lot of longevity in my family. What would I do if I didn't work? I would go shopping. Well, I need money to go shopping. So I work. Then I can make a little money and then I can go shopping.
Gillespie: Do you have … And Take My Nose … Please! is now currently doing the festival circuit. Where is the best place or how can people follow or get information about where it might be appearing next?
Kron: Well, we're about to … We have been besieged by distributors, that's the people who are going to help us get the film out there on the airwaves or in the ether or whatever it's called, on video on demand or-
Gillespie: Right. Netflix or Hulu or whatever.
Kron: All these new platforms that I don't even know how to describe. But they're generally seen on a screen.
Kron: Right? Whether it's your computer or your television set. You will be able to see it soon. We are going to be in two theaters for one week each in New York and LA because you have to do that if you're entering the academy awards, and we are entering the academy awards. We've won two awards with the film. Don't laugh.
Gillespie: I'm not laughing.
Kron: Don't laugh. I saw that smile on your face.
Gillespie: Now I'm inspired by ambition.
Kron: Well, I'm going for the stars. That's it.
Kron: I don't have much longer-
Kron: And I'm going, this is my last shot.
Gillespie: Well, is-
Kron: But I am working on my next movie.
Gillespie: Yeah. Well, this is, I think it's Jackie in the movie says, because she talks about she wants a nose job but she also thinks about a chin job. Is the sequel, "Take My Chin … Please!" or what is your next project then?
Kron: Oh, you're giving that way. Don't give that way.
Gillespie: No, no. I didn't. But what is your next project?
Kron: I'm not going to tell you.
Gillespie: Okay. All right.
Kron: My next project is about something very important in the plastic surgery, cosmetic surgery world that I know a lot about but I don't think a lot of other people know a lot about. I think a lot of people will be interested in it. We're going to do it in a very unusual way. I'm making plans.
Gillespie: All right. Well, we'll leave it there then. We have been talking to Joan Kron. She's the producer and director of the fascinating documentary, "Take My Nose … Please!" Joan, thanks so much for talking to us.
Kron: Thank you.