Shannon Leeman has been consulting people on their choices to go under the knife for 30 years. We talked to her about everything from consulting with sex workers on vaginoplasty, to the belief that plastic surgery is “shallow.” By Chloe Sariego.
For someone who stares at fake boobs all day, Shannon Leeman is really down to earth. Tiny, beautiful and hilarious, she has the kind of personality that makes you want to tell her all your secrets—a convenient trait when you make your bread-and-butter as an independent cosmetic surgery consultant. After 30 years in the business, she’s seen some shit.
Starting in the 90’s as a researcher for Tatler’s now famous annual “Plastic Surgery Guide,” Shannon stumbled on an untapped market of information-starved elites looking to stay forever young. While much of cosmetic surgery remains a taboo (see: Kylie’s drawn out lip ordeal), the Internet makes information about what kind of procedures exist, which surgeons to see and before-and-after photos way more accessible. Shannon, however, gives her clients something that you can’t find on Google. I had the pleasure of curling up with Shannon in her beautiful apartment in London to talk all things good, bad, and ugly about the business of beauty.
Chloe: Hey Shannon! So, what exactly do you do for your clients?
Shannon: It depends on what the client wants. They’re usually coming to me for a referral to the best surgeon, but I can also organize every single part of a procedure. Sometimes people will just come in and show me their bodies to see if I think a procedure will work, and then I’ll never see them again.
Wow, so people just show you their bodies?
All the time. Straight away—I don’t have an issue with it. But that’s why I don’t do penis enhancements. When clients come to see me the consultation first happens in my home, and I don’t want to deal with that… it puts me in a sort of dangerous position.
Understandable. Can you tell me a little about how you got into consultancy? I know one of the first things you did was write a list of the best surgeons for Tattler’s Plastic Surgery Guide, right?
So, the first piece that I did for Tattler’s was a labor of love—honestly, I was winging it. I started with a handful of doctors that had amazing reputations. I contacted them and I asked them for their list of top ten surgeons, and then I contacted those surgeons and asked for their top ten, and whenever there was a crossover I interviewed them. I got to know the doctors really well. I started watching them perform surgeries and became an absolute addict for watching surgery. You start to build trust, build lists. I got to know their families, their wives, what their stories were, which was very helpful at time because you found these surgeons were going through terrible thing; doctors I knew were having breakdowns and I was very careful about referring them later.
Really, is that common?
Well, I think there is a certain ego… I have to be really careful because some of these guys are my friends. But there is certainly an ego to having someone’s life in your hands and transmitting your idea of beauty onto someone else. It’s kind of a godlike position. There’s something head-y about having that power, some people handle it well and I’ve come across some surgeons who were… less than scrupulous.
What would you say is the main priority of a consultation?
My priority is to listen to them. It might be that they’re going through a change in their lives, maybe a divorce, childbirth, change of job. Men are often here because they feel like the younger guys are barking at their heels and they need to remain competitive. It’s really about hearing what the underlying reasons are. The referral is easy, but I listen to them and figure out what kind of personality they have. I had two friends here and they both wanted breast augmentations, and I knew they wouldn’t suit the same doctor so I sent them to two different doctors. Some doctors take more time, some are flashier, and some are more easy-going. Just because you have a scalpel doesn’t make you a sculptor.
You’ve told me you’d had vaginoplasty clients. What are your experiences with that?
I’ve had quite a few sex workers come in for this. The first girl I had was a Russian girl and she came in with her “boyfriend.” I don’t know if she worked with him or what the story was, but she wanted vaginal tightening. I am aware that sex work is their profession if they tell me, but I don’t find any difference than in anyone else. They still have their hopes, dreams, and insecurities. They’re no different than a woman who’s had wear-and-tear from pushing out a few kids.
And sometimes they’re both!
Right. And I’ve had two middle-eastern clients come in for repair. There are a couple doctors who solely do this kind of work. It was a fascinating peek into these people’s lives for me—the variety of backgrounds, professions and histories. I feel such a huge honor that these people are putting their trust in me in something that is so important.
What is your relationship to plastic surgery?
I love bodies. I love bodies in all their forms. A perfect body is fascinating but it’s not as fascinating to me as an imperfect body. But that’s my aesthetic. I know there’s no such thing as perfection. I’m a little bit ambivalent about it. I’ve been around it so long, I don’t know if sometimes I feel like I’m in front of a huge smorgasbord and I’m not hungry anymore. I think it serves a purpose, but I think the world is a little bit obsessed. It’s not down to me to tell people what is right or wrong because it’s not my life, it’s their choice. I’ve got to be a little careful because I don’t want to say anything negative about what I do but…I don’t always feel positive about it. But where is the line in the sand? When people are judgmental I often look at them and think, “It’s only a matter of time before you’re calling my number.” I just don’t think we’re here to judge people, but I have mixed feelings as the mother of a daughter. That’s why I have to separate who I am from what I do.
Do you have any advice for someone thinking about cosmetic surgery?
Never scrimp. I would also never suggest someone go to a clinic. You aren’t going to a specific doctor so you never know whom you are going to see. Go to specific doctors, get referrals and see the before and after photos. Do your research and don’t go off a cut-priced eastern European clinic where you have no recourse when you come home.
What do you think people want when they come to you?
I think they come to get the best doctor they can find, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that hasn’t talked about their life, their family, their hopes and dreams. A lot of people think, “Oh plastic surgery is trivial or shallow.” It’s not. It can be a very emotional process. I bring a mirror in and we look at it together and we spend a long time just looking and talking.
Has the business of cosmetic surgery changed?
Prices have gone up, and it’s expensive to run a practice, so patients who 15 years ago would have been turned away aren’t being turned away now.
Follow Shannon at @niptucknews
Chloe Sariego is a baby writer and academic living in New York. She loves social justice, social constructivism and just being social.