Marie Claire, May 2007
A Day in the Life of Dr Nip Tuck: Everyone who’s anyone in Beverly Hills goes to Dr Robert Rey to get work done. He’s now so famous he even has his own TV show. Sanjiv Bhattacharya spends an eye-opening day in his beautiful world.
Photographs by Naomi Harris
Also read at Marie Claire.
“Is he here yet?” An anxious TV producer checks the lobby of Stage 26, at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood. She works for The Insider, a top rated tabloid gossip show, where the presenters, the crew and the production team are all waiting to shoot a segment about Hilary Clinton – specifically, the rumour that she has had a nose job. The trouble is, the guest expert hasn’t arrived – the cosmetic surgeon, Dr Robert Rey is over an hour late. An hour. The producer checks her watch for the hundredth time, and starts to pace.
Then, suddenly, the doors swing open and in bursts a man wearing a sharp grey suit, a luminous orange shirt and a leering grin. “Hey pretty girl!” he exclaims. The doctor is in! Instantly, the room is filled with the smell of his cologne and the sound of his endless, exuberant chatter. “How did you get so sexy, so shredded, so hot?” he says to the receptionist, and promptly starts punching and kicking the air like a boy who just discovered Bruce Lee. One sidekick narrowly misses the receptionist’s face, making her jump back. The doctor laughs. “Ha ha ha! All my suits are made so I can kick!”
Dr Rey is without question the most prominent plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, if not the world. He’s not only a surgeon to the stars but a star in his own right, thanks to his show Dr 90210 which launched in 2003 and quickly became the highest rated show on the E! television network. Its success inspired a rash of reality plastic surgery shows, like Extreme Makeover and the Swan, and today, it boasts a worldwide audience of 1/3 billion viewers every night (Dr Rey’s figures).
But Dr 90210 is less about surgery as about Rey himself and his manic lifestyle. By day we see him perform boob jobs for a cavalcade of strippers, porn stars and insecure college girls. And by night, he’s doing martial arts, while his wife, Hayley, the mother of his 2 children, waits in vain for him at their palatial home in the hills. Hayley doesn’t approve of his martial arts, which he frequently jokes is something he does “to get away from the wife.” So in the last series, we saw Rey go for his Tae Kwon Do black belt, while Hayley developed an eating disorder – already a skinny girl, her weight dropped to 88lbs. This year, Rey tries to make it up to her in his own eccentric way. When Hayley leaves for a trip to Canada, he reorganizes her closet, arranging her clothes according to season and colour.
When I decided to shadow him for 24 hours, I expected an outsized personality. Just not quite this big – Rey is a one-man commotion. He is constantly late, prone to changing his mind, and he moves at a breathless pace. Just a few hours in his company is exhausting – he has the energy of a precocious child on a sugar-fix. And yet he’s 46 years old, a remarkably well preserved 46 at that – Rey has a six pack and not a line on his face. On his way to the car, after his TV spot, he tells me, “I’m pretty ripped for my age, you probably want to know what I eat, right?” OK, sure. “Right, every morning I have 10 egg whites and then a bowl of raw oatmeal with bananas and wild honey. Then I eat like 7 or 8 small meals – surgery, eat, surgery, eat, all day long. Lots of protein like chicken, turkey and fish. About 20 yoghurts a day. And half a bottle of ketchup.”
Half a bottle?
“Sure! For the lycopene. It’s important for men – prostate cancer. I’m serious.”
With that, he jumps into his gleaming black Porsche and tears off to his surgery, just around the corner from Rodeo Drive. He works in an elite medical building, crammed full of top surgeons and dermatologists – the address that everyone who’s anyone visits to “have work done”. And of all the surgeons in the building, Rey is the most famous. It’s no accident – he’s a tireless self-publicist. In his waiting room, every inch of wall space is plastered with his press clippings, whether in English, Portuguese (from his native Brazil), or Spanish (he’s a star throughout Latin America). All of them are framed.
Typically, Rey has a busy day ahead – four breast augmentations (by far his most popular procedure) – and he’s already running hours late. The patients are getting impatient. So wasting no time, he ushers us into the surgery to meet his first – Melissa, a slender 24 year old dance instructor from Orange County. “Hey pretty girl!” exclaims Rey, sweeping back the curtain. Melissa is sitting there, topless, with her boyfriend sitting by her side. “See how my girls are so pretty? In a country that is 60% overweight, all my girls look like this – how is that possible?”
It’s possible because Rey hand picks his “surgical candidates”. Melissa is one of 18 girls he’s chosen for this week, which is a terrific workload, but still only a fraction of the demand. “We refuse 90% of the cases that come to us,” he says. “I gotta weed out the psychos!” His grounds for refusing a patient range from the common – emotional instability or unreasonable expectations – to the odd – “I look at the handwriting on the forms,” he says. “Do the ‘y’s come up or not? If not, she’s insecure. Jimmy Carter’s ‘y’s didn’t come up. Basically, I’m a psychiatrist with a knife.”
Melissa’s ‘y’s go up. She seems sane enough – a C-cup who wants a D for no reason other than she just wants to fill out her leotard a little more, “feel more womanly”. But right now, she’s clearly nervous. She sits in silence as Rey draws thick black lines around her breasts and down to her navel, rattling through his pre-op preamble. “OK, I cannot make you perfect, only God himself can make you perfect,” he says, and looks up to the ceiling for a second. “I had my nose done, see, but still, it’s not Brad Pitt. Ha ha ha! Seriously, in 11,000 breasts I think I’ve seen 5 perfect breasts in my life. I think Madonna is one. And Princess Diana.” He reminds Melissa not to move her arms after the operation, to take her medications, go for a walk every four hours and stick to a high protein diet – “if it doesn’t walk, crawl, fly or swim, it’s no use!” – and then he’s done. It’s show time. Melissa is led to the gurney and the anaesthetics begin to drip in.
As she goes under, Rey starts doing his martial arts again. “This is a stressful job – any minute, this girl can die. You know how I maintain my composure under this avalanche of stress?” He throws a few slow punches and raises his hands in prayer. “That’s how. Martial arts keeps me calm in a chaotic world.”
It’s an extraordinary operation. He cuts a little near the belly button, to widen the hole, and then plunges a variety of metal rods under the skin up to the base of the breast, where he wrenches and pulls to clear a passage for the implant. At times, the procedure looks rough and brutal – Melissa’s body is twisted this way and that by Rey’s exertions – but in the end, she will have no scars. And there’s hardly any blood. It’s a wonder all breast augmentations aren’t performed this way.
Equally extraordinary is the way that Dr Rey happily chats away throughout the operation. At one point, with his finger jammed up her bellybutton, he explains how breast augmentation works along on the same principles as tae kwon do. “It’s all ying and yang,” he says. “Sometimes I have to be rough, sometimes I am gentle.” And he talks about God. A devout Mormon, Rey says a quick prayer with his team before every operation. The CD rack in the operating theater is full of Christian music and readings. He even listens to scriptures in his Porsche on the way to work. This week, it’s the book of Judges.
“It gets me in the right frame of mind,” he says, ramming a metal rod underneath her skin. “God created the human body, so it makes sense to listen to God before working on them, right? And this is a religion to me. It angers me when people refer to medicine as a business. Yes I get paid, because I have to feed my family – but I’m the only guy that doesn’t treat medicine as a business and I’m one of the most successful in the world. Go figure!”
It’s a surprising perspective. Certainly Rey appears to operate like a consummate businessman. It was Dr Rey who pitched the show Dr 90210 to the TV networks, not vice versa. He has an informational DVD out, entitled Rey’s Anatomy, and he recently earned $250,000 for appearing in a commercial for a major burger chain, similar to McDonalds. Promoting junk food is hardly the Lord’s work, let alone a doctor’s. But Rey shrugs it off. “That was God’s blessing, that money will put my children through college.”
Then what about all the publicity? Rey seldom turns down an interview. “That’s not to generate business, that’s because I want to go to Congress,” he says, seriously. “Name recognition is important. The more publicity I get, the more chance I have to help my Latino brothers and sisters in this country. I want to be the first Latino governor of California!”
Should he succeed, Rey’s story would be a fairytale for the ages. He started life in the slums of Sao Paolo, Brazil, living in poverty because his father was “a total asshole, a womanizer and a drunk” who never brought any money home from work. At 11, Rey was robbing shops. His bed was a broken table in the living room. Then some Mormon missionaries came by and persuaded his father to let them take his children back to America to give them a proper start in life. And so in 1974, Robert and his siblings – one brother and two sisters – arrived in Utah, where they lived first with one Mormon family then another. After high school, Robert was on his own – and he describes the path to plastic surgery as a long, gruelling road constantly struggling with poverty along the way. But he wound up at Harvard – the number plate on his Porsche reads “Harvard Alumni” – and now he’s a multi-millionaire.
“I’m the most successful loser you’re ever going to meet,” he says. “God gave me no talent – all I have is steady hands. People learn twice as fast as me – it took me 10 years to get my black belt, most people get it in 5 years. But I have fire in my belly. The fire that comes from humiliation. I used to walk past the rich houses in Sao Paulo and I knew that somewhere inside there must be happiness.”
He yanks the instruments out from under Melissa’s skin and starts sowing her up. It’s over. Suddenly Melissa’s body starts to shudder and shake – it’s a creepy thing to see. “Don’t worry,” smiles Rey, “that’s just the medication.” And he’s off to eat a can of tuna – drowned in ketchup.
That night, Rey works till 8pm and squeezes in some martial arts before he gets home. He takes five different martial arts classes a week, so he’s seldom home in time for dinner with his kids, five year old Sydney, and 2 year old Robbie. And come Saturday morning, he’s up at 7am again for more martial arts – first a form of Brazilian ju jitsu, then Tae Kwon Do. Afterwards, he’s all pumped up. Standing outside the class, he excitedly re-enacts the time he took a guy out in New Orleans who pinched his wife’s behind. And another time when a man who started panicking on a plane and pushing the stewardess to the side.
“That was it for me,” says Rey. “When I see a woman in trouble… So I put this guy in a neck hold till he passed out.” He grabs me around the neck and squeezes. “You see? Pretty neat, huh?”
Was he a big guy?
“He was like Reagan, you know.”
What, he was in his 70s?
“Ha ha ha! You’re funny. OK, we gotta go home. I’m not a hero at home, trust me. My wife is going to give me hell!”
As we drive to his mansion in the hills, Rey’s mood visibly drops. His house is huge – 9000 square feet over four storeys. He bought it off Raquel Welch a year ago. But it feels cold and empty – there’s precious little furniture and nothing on the walls, save a few paintings and a photo of a Mormon temple. The only room that looks finished is his private dojo – “I come here to get away from my wife,” he says, for I think the fifth time. And the only room that feels inhabited is the children’s play room where Sydney, his five year old daughter, is fighting with his 2 year old boy, Robbie, over the toys. Their shrieking echoes through the house. It doesn’t help when Rey sits down to try and play with them. Hayley, his wife – skinny, blonde, big boobs (thanks to her husband) – tries in vain to restore order.
“This house is too big for us,” says Rey, showing me around. “You know I’ve stepped on my fourth floor twice? I made the poor person’s mistake. I bought the big house, the German cars, everything. I don’t know why – maybe it’s because I’ve got an inferiority complex… That must be it.” It’s as though being with his family, a cloud of regret has come over him. The excitable boyish enthusiasm we saw at martial arts has given way to a more pensive, rueful side. He describes his kids as “neglected – they don’t even know me.” He talks about getting “an A for my career and a C- for being a father. It says in the scriptures, there is no success that makes up for a failure at home. “
He shakes his head. “My mortgage is $27,000 a month. Think about that. I have dreams at night of a big monster chasing me. That’s why I work so hard. The wind blows hardest when you’re at the top of the mountain. Everyone wants to knock you off. I even got death threats – I’m serious. When I did a breast augmentation for a rapper’s wife, I got a letter from some crazy guy saying he was going to throw acid on my face and burn my office down. That’s why I’ve got security cameras all over this place.” He points them out – cigar-shaped cameras dotted around the outside walls of his house.
It’s time for us to leave. They’re taking the children to a birthday party – a Beverly Hills society event hosted by the daughter of the president of CBS. Heidi Klum’s children and Larry King’s children will be there, among others – all classmates at Beverly Hills Presbyterian. As we say goodbye at the door, he seems pained to show me that despite his showy wealth and naked ambition, he’s still a good guy.
“Look around in Beverly Hills, see if you can find anyone smiling,” he says. “These people aren’t happy. I’m more unhappy today than ever, even when I lived in the ghettos in Brazil. One day, I promise you, I’m going to go back to Brazil, and run a charitable mission.”
Then just as we say goodbye, he asks, “just one thing – can you mention my DVD?”