“I’m doing a syringe in each one of my cheeks and another syringe in my chin,” says Marcus. “I’m thinking about doing another one on top of that, possibly on my under-eyes but I haven’t decided yet. And I’m doing Botox, of course. Can’t forget Botox.”
Marcus, 28, who has asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisal from his sponsors and business partners, is talking about his scheduled appointment at Image Center, an aesthetics med spa in Huntington Beach, California, which is set to take place on May 4th, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recently stated commitment to continuing the stay-in-place order for the state. Last month, a few days before the stay-in-place order went into effect, he also went to Los Angeles’ Koreatown to get a vampire facial, a term of art for a procedure that involves smearing your platelet-rich plasma (PRP) from your blood over your face.
To hear Marcus tell it, it’s not just vanity (or, OK, not only vanity) that has driven him to take such risks to get work done during this time. He’s a fairly prominent YouTuber — his primary channel has about 40,000 subscribers — and he feels he has a professional obligation to maintain his youthful appearance during this time. “It sounds so vain, but I’m on camera for a living when I’m doing YouTube,” he says. Perhaps more to the point, at a time when most non-essential businesses across the country are shut down, he’s had absolutely no problem finding providers willing to help him do so.
“I feel like if you called any office [in L.A. during lockdown] and was like, ‘Hey, I wanna get a syringe of filler,’ they’d be like ‘We’re closed,’” he says. “But if you’re an established patient or celebrity or influencer or actor and you have the money they’d be like, ‘OK, come on in.’”
Lip fillers and Botox fall into a class of cosmetic surgical procedures known as injectables, which have exploded in popularity in recent years thanks to the rise of Instagram Face (or simply Kylie Jenner Face), an aesthetic marked by full, cherubic cheeks and a hefty pout. Most clinics and spas have closed their doors and canceled such non-essential cosmetic procedures, particularly in cities like New York, which have served as COVID-19 hotspots. “When you’re injecting someone you’re inches away from their face. They are speaking to you. They can’t be covered in a mask when you’re injecting them,” says Dr. Michele Green, a cosmetic dermatologist on the Upper East Side, who closed her practice on March 13th. “So there really can’t be any social distancing.”
Yet even as the entire country has been under lockdown and most non-essential businesses have shuttered, causing the unemployment rate to skyrocket exponentially, spas and clinics across the country have remained open, offering cosmetic services to those with well-padded wallets or high follower counts.
Some, like Youthfill MD, a medical spa in West Hollywood, are openly and actively advertising on Facebook and Instagram, promoting such services as laser treatments, liposuction, Botox, and fillers at a discounted price. “We are open for business,” a reception at Youthfill MD, a medical spa in West Hollywood, California, chirpily said when reached for comment. “We’re not doing massage or facials but we’re still doing the medical side of things — Botox injections and whatnot.”
“Check out the quarantined lips on this babe,” reads a post from a nurse practitioner who works at a Balshi Dermatology in Del Ray Beach, Florida, underneath a photo of an attractive woman in a bikini. “Clearly not everyone has let it all go!” (Balshi Dermatology did not return requests for comment.)
Others are quietly operating under the radar, prioritizing longtime clients or VIPs even as they claim to shut their doors or only be open for emergencies (re: not Botox). “As we are social distancing and are confined to our homes and apartments for the upcoming weeks, it is an ideal time to do non-invasive procedures and recuperate at home,” another promotional email shared with Rolling Stone reads before offering 10% off of Botox and filler procedures in office.
Due to the (wholly justifiable) stigma of defying public health guidelines for non-essential reasons, many influencers like Marcus were reluctant to speak on the record about breaching quarantine to get fillers. “I don’t want people looking at it from a negative point of view since I got it done during quarantine,” said one.
Yet some influencers are even taking advantage of the private recovery time provided by lockdown by globe-hopping to get cosmetic treatments during quarantine, as seen in this video of YouTuber Ashley Yi flying to South Korea to get plastic surgery.
When reached for comment, Yi said she flew to Seoul from Los Angeles on February 25th and arrived the following day, on a week when COVID-19 infections were surging in South Korea. “I decided to go because I actually read up on the virus and where it was [in South Korea] during the time I needed to go. I also don’t watch the news because I don’t like their fear tactics,” she said.
“I anticipated going on the Revolve Cruise in Miami right when I got back, Coachella, EDC, and work…so I really couldn’t push my surgery to another time,” she added. “I could have, but I waited 15 years for it so I didn’t.”
Dermatologists say they’ve had many well-heeled clients hoping to avoid the unwashed masses make sky-high offers to dermatologists to pay house calls. “I had a patient call to see if she could arrange to have a driver pick her up in the Hamptons and drive her to my upstate New York home to treat her here,” says Dr. Macrene Alexiades, who has a dermatology and laser surgery practice on New York City’s Upper East Side. “She wanted to get Botox, fillers, and wanted to know if it was possible to bring a laser. I had one celebrity offer to fly me on a private jet with all of my devices.” While she declined the offers and is not practicing currently, she says she “would not be surprised” if some of her colleagues were doing at-home visits during lockdown to perform cosmetic procedures.
Those who can’t afford such high-end procedures are opting for riskier methods. On Instagram, some spas are selling syringes filled with dermal fillers for a few hundred dollars. One post from a Canadian spa offers “free delivery or curbside pickup” for syringes filled with Botox and Juvederm. Legally, manufacturers are only supposed to sell to certified medical suppliers, but there is a thriving market of counterfeit DIY injectables on social media. (Both are also easy to find on Amazon and Alibaba, despite both platforms having anti-counterfeit policies.)
Needless to say, the practice comes with plenty of risks. “With fillers you have to worry if it’s tainted, if it’s not medical-grade, if it’s not hyaluronic acid,” says Alexiades. “The method of injection is also fraught with risk. If you inject into a blood vessel you can cause a stroke, blindness, or ulceration or scarring. You really cant inject yourself. It has to be someone who’s extremely trained in filler and injection.”
Some content creators have promoted the DIY route during lockdown. Jennifer Joyce, 48, a salon owner and YouTuber in Southern California, posted a video of herself using the Hyaluron Pen, an instrument previously used as an injection tool for diabetics that is now being marketed as a “needle-free” alternative to lip injections. While popular on Instagram, the pen was the subject of an advisory from the Canadian Department of Public Health late last year, which announced that “needle-free dermal filler devices used for cosmetic skin treatments are not authorized in Canada and may pose health risks.”
Joyce says that in the past month of lockdown, she has seen more posts in private Facebook groups of people asking questions about DIY procedures. “I’m seeing a lot of people post, ‘Come out of quarantine, look 10 years younger’ on Instagram,” she says. When asked about the ethics of promoting such tactics on her platform, Joyce, who gets a 10% commission off of affiliate sales and free product from a South Korean company, responded defensively. “Everyone is an adult and they need to make their own decisions,” she says, noting she includes disclaimers on her videos. “I’m very clear about the risks, the serious consequences…but the thing is if someone is searching for it they’re gonna find it no matter what.”
For those who lack access to a personal aesthetician, want to practice social distancing, and are wary of risky at-home treatments, they have few options other than to wait until spas and clinics open their doors again back in their areas. Indeed, many filler devotees are eagerly awaiting this day, posting memes on Instagram comparing themselves to Sharpeis while in lockdown Botox-free.
But even as many actors and influencers in lockdown have taken to social media to post photos of themselves looking virtually untouched (even Kylie Jenner, the poster girl for Instagram Face, looks decidedly Instagram Face-free), some are starting to feel the pressure of life without needles. “I’m just having that anxiety of I need to get botox for my jaw or my face. Depending on how long lockdown lasts, I’m almost willing to watch a video and see how [DIY-ers] do it,” says Marcus. “If quarantine lasted a lot longer then I might, but I’m not that desperate yet.”
Thurs., April 23, 2020, 2:07 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from Ashley Yi.