Plastic Surgeon Harvey Austin Can Truly Say He Made His Wife, Carol, the Woman She Is Today
updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
Quick as you can say "But will my insurance cover it?" Harvey, who happens to be a plastic surgeon, had his wife on the operating table and was cutting into what he calls "the face I love." He made a little incision here. He put in a little mound of silicone there. And voilà!—cheekbones fit for a soap star.
But Carol also wanted a few other things: a smoother nose; slimmer thighs; sprightlier eyelids. Harvey denied her nothing. In fact, over the past eight years Austin, 52, has performed nearly a dozen operations on his 43-year-old wife.
And if some might regard him a male chauvinist Pygmalion, Carol and her husband—who has had a nip and a tuck himself—don't see it that way.
"I never felt my husband was attracted to me because of my face," says Carol, a perky little strawberry blond whose upturned mouth is a result of her husband's surgery. "I think he stays with me because of the essence of the person that I am, not because of the way I look."
"All I did was bring out the beautiful person who's inside Carol—the real Carol," says Harvey. "There's nothing phony about that." He gazes adoringly across the meticulously decorated living room of the couple's McLean, Va., home to the meticulously decorated face of his wife. "Sometimes when I look at her I'm moved to tears by her beauty," he says.
There were days when it was considered improper for doctors to operate on family members. But according to a recent survey conducted at the Medical College of Virginia, those days are over. That poll found that 70 percent of 1,400 cosmetic surgeons saw nothing wrong with operating on family members. Dr. Austin, who has remade parts of his mama (baggy eyelids), his dad (complete face-lift) and many friends, clearly stands with that majority. As for his relationship with his wife, Austin—whose previous 20-year marriage ended in divorce—says it is "much too strong" to be affected by plastic surgery. "It was absolute love at first sight," says the doctor of their first meeting 11 years ago at his sister's home in Attleboro, Mass. "And what I was taken with was, she wasn't a needy woman."
"I remember the moment when he walked in the door," says Carol. "It was like being hit by a board in the face."
That's probably the nice thing about dating plastic surgeons: If you are hit by a board in the face, they can fix it.
Certainly Austin could. A native of Plainfield, Mass., whose father worked as a sorter in the post office, he had established a successful practice in Pittsburgh doing reconstructive surgery on the victims of accidents and disfiguring disease. Carol, whose previous marriage had also ended in divorce, had a successful career as an interior decorator in Rhode Island.
"She didn't need me at all," the doctor recalls with a laugh. "Told me she didn't date. I didn't care. I never went for anything in my life the way I went for her." In 1979 they married and settled in Washington, D.C. But starting a new practice in a strange city was difficult. Knowing only one other doctor in town, Austin didn't get many referrals. ("One month it was so bad we had to put the rent on Mastercard," says Carol.) But his luck changed thanks to the est training, which Austin had attended in 1975. That notoriously self-improving group turned up many candidates for cosmetic surgery. And est helped Austin develop a philosophy for his new specialty: that the face is merely a "symbol" for the personality behind it, and if you can improve this symbol by making it more youthful, more conventionally attractive, well, go for it!
"I see women walk down the street with huge noses or ears that stick out, and I know their lives are a little harder," says Austin. "Why? Because they've got a symbol that doesn't represent them accurately. And if you can take away this misrepresentation, the inner beauty will come through."
Now business is booming: Austin has a home in the suburbs a few doors down from Ethel Kennedy, an income "in the middle six figures" and a practice, in partnership with another physician, that averages 15 to 20 procedures a week.
Carol is one of his most frequent patients, and both husband and wife insist it is she who wants the surgery. "I have no stand in whether she has cosmetic surgery or not," Austin says. "She has always been pretty to me. But my job as a husband is to support her in whatever she wants."
Carol, for her part, understands that the results can sometimes be less than perfect—which Austin admits they were on one procedure. "When I liposuctioned her hips, there was a little bit more rippling under the skin than I wanted, and I was concerned she might be upset," he says. "In fact, I even found myself in bed at night reaching over and saying, 'Hmmm...the ripples are still there.' It didn't bother me, but I was afraid that it might bother her. And I've just been eternally grateful that she is not one of those people who look at minutiae and go to pieces."
Cosmetic surgery, Austin explains, is aimed at overall image, not individual wrinkles, as he began to understand a few years ago on a visit home to his mother. "We were having a good time, sitting around talking," he says. "Then she got up and went to the bathroom. And when she came back, she was different—all of the joy was gone. She said when she walked into the bathroom she felt like a girl of 18. And when she looked in the mirror, this old woman looked back."
Austin's eyes fill with tears. "I died!" he says. "It was the first time in my whole life that I realized my mother had a little girl down there inside her. And she taught me something that night: There is no such thing as an old woman! We've been conned. My patients are not vain. They only want to let the little girl out!"
"If people want to criticize, that's their business," Carol says. "But why should they? All Harvey is doing is making people feel better about themselves. And believe me, I do feel better. I'm restored—like one of those beautiful old houses."
Joyce Wadler, and Tom Nugent in Virginia