[HOLLYWOOD] Dr. Bruce Connell - He'll Erase Years from Your Face
- Take a Seat, and Dr. Connell Will Erase All Those Years
By Shawn Hubler, Shawn Hubler is a senior writer for West.
Years ago, on a subway in Paris, Dr. Bruce Connell conducted an
informal experiment. He discreetly examined each passenger's face,
mentally measuring from the edge of the eye to the hairline. Then he
tried guessing each person's age from that one bit of skin.
Each temple (pink or brown, taut or wrinkled, narrow ormost
tellinglybroad) was a trove of data, each centimeter a clue to the
mystery that has driven Connell for almost 50 years: What makes one
face look young and another look aged? Where, specifically, do the
years mark us?
And how much would one mansay, one curious plastic surgeonhave to
alter so that a youthful heart might acquire a countenance to match
it, or so that beauty might always greet the eye of the beholder? And
then what would it take to erase the hand of the doctor as well? In a
career spent troubling over these questions, Bruce Connell quietly
has become one of the preeminent gurus of an American obsession: the
For decades, colleagues have flocked to his sold-out seminars and
stalked him at medical conferences. Other surgeons have pestered him
to work on their own faces. Textbooks and scholarly papers have
detailed his techniques for elective surgeries in every imaginable
niche of the burgeoning market, from women whose necks sag to bald
men who want brow-lifts. His former apprentices, known as Connell
Fellows, gather regularly from around the globe as the collective
Connell Society to learn from one another and their mentor.
"I met him 30 years ago at one of those little alumni receptions,"
says Dr. P.G. Arnold, a professor and former chief of plastic and
reconstructive surgery at the Mayo Clinic, "and I knew who he was
before he walked in the door."
Critics rail at what they view as the Orange County surgeon's
outsized place in the profession even as the invitations continue to
pour in. His spring calendar has him addressing societies of plastic
surgeons in Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, New York, Idaho, Berlin
and Las Vegas. In reporting this article, I heard his peers,
otherwise serious people, babble like groupies, comparing him to
Einstein, Hawking, Balenciaga, Baryshnikov and a Swiss watchmaker,
not counting the references to assorted Renaissance masters. (A
detractor stuck with the metaphor, too, referring to Connell as "an
"What Michelangelo was to the Sistine ceiling," Dr. Richard D'Amico,
president-elect of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, says in
a typical homage, "Bruce Connell is to facial aesthetic surgery."
FOR THE RECORD:
Grooming credit: In today's West magazine, a grooming credit was
omitted for the photos accompanying a profile of Dr. Bruce Connell.
The groomer was Robin Glaser for Celestine Agency.
It's a level of reverence that would verge on eccentric (face-lifts
are up there with God and Man touching fingers?) if cosmetic surgery
weren't such a big businessif Americans hadn't spent more than $9.4
billion on it in 2005.
But stick around long enough and anything can happen, Connell jokes.
He, for example, is almost 80. Tens of thousands of years have been
removed by his hand from thousands of faces, and still there remains
this matter of time.
"You have to admit, she's a good lookin' woman."
Connell has walked into the room carrying a copy of Cosmo. It is
midweek, and thanks to a canceled European speaking engagement, the
doctor is in.
I've come to talk about aging, given Connell's expertise. Only 30 of
the more than 6,000 members of the American Society of Plastic
Surgeons are over 75 and still practicing, which means that very,
very few have been fending off sags and wrinkles for as long as he
has. I tell myself that's all there is to it: Cosmetic surgery is for
actors; the way to go is to grow old gracefully, etc., etc., but
whatever. Something in mepossibly something that's starting to sag
and wrinkleis very interested in meeting this Michelangelo of
But the Michelangelo doesn't want to talk about age. He wants to talk
"Look," he says, gesturing at the dark-haired model on the cover. She
is indeed lovely. She is also, as it turns out, unbelievably out of
"See, this side of her face is longer. It has a different contour, a
different bone structure. And if you look closely, this side of her
mouth is widerif you need a ruler I can bring you one."
He rummages around for a ruler, still talking. "And this eye is not
on the same level. And this ear is much lower than the other. Yet put
it all together, you have a beautiful woman."
But her beauty is
We're in one of the rooms where he consults with patients, and he
stands at a big wooden desk, a triumphant smile on his ownand now
that he mentions it, asymmetricalface. Tall, with a slight stoop to
his walk, he is wearing a white lab coat and a wide German tie he got
as a gift from an old friend. His voice is soft and Southern,
inflected with the warmth of his childhood home in Alabama.
Periodically, he tosses off a biblical reference, a habit that would
also feel out of whack had his friends not explained that, among
other hobbies, he's a student of religion. "'Study to show thyself
approved unto God, rightly dividing the word of truth,'" he recites,
twice, to punctuate stories about his distrust of conventional wisdom.
"You say what's truth? Is what you've been taught the truth? Or is
there a better way?"
Take this office. A lot of plastic surgeons go for that "Nip/Tuck,"
Beverly Hills aestheticthe receptionists with cleavage and collagen-
plumped lips, the big potted palms, the flat-screen monitors
featuring the doctor's latest appearance on "Today." Connell's suite
is almost absurdly modest, tucked into a tan stucco medical complex
in Santa Ana, kitty-corner from a hospital and next door to an
acupuncture weight-loss clinic and a dentist with a "se habla
español" sign. The waiting room is decorated with parlor furniture in
the style of, say, late 20th century Sears, Roebuck, and there are
coffee-table books on gardening, another of Connell's passions. The
women working behind his appointment desk appear unretouched and
mostly middle-aged. Most of his staff has been with Connell for
decades. ("He keeps things," says one longtime friend, a designer who
fondly observes that the doctor's décor could use an update.) When I
glance up at some missing ceiling tiles and ask why he doesn't have
more glamorous digs, Connell laughs and waves a hand as if
appearances weren't the whole point of his profession. "Because if I
did, I'd just attract patients who are only interested in
Superficially, Connell has bright blue eyes, which are at the moment
behind wire-rimmed glasses. His teeth appear to have been
straightened and whitened, and his gray hair has been colored light
brown. But he is also surprisingly frumpythe brows ever so slightly
bushy, the nose ever so slightly lumpylike Martin Landau, maybe. But
less well-preserved. But in a good way. He admits to a face-lift and
a brow-lift and, he says with a wink, "work done when I was a baby,
but I didn't have any control of that." His last procedure, he says,
was eight years ago, performed by one of his fellows.
"You can push my hair back and see the incision." He leans forward
and pulls back his hair. The forehead is ruddy, the hairline gray but
"See? Right where the hair joins the forehead, all the way across."
I can't see it, I tell him.
He chuckles delightedly.
"That's the whole point."
Connell's claim to fame isn't celebrity faces. Yes, there have been
famous patients. "I would walk into the operating room some days and
go, 'Oh God!'" remembers Dr. Francine Vagotis, a Michigan surgeon and
former fellow. "'Is that who I think it is?'"
But his is more a "plastic surgeon's plastic surgeon" sort of
stardom. A clinical professor of surgery at UC Irvine, he has
schooled scores of doctors, from international luminaries such as Dr.
Thomas Bell of Toronto to locals such as Dr. Garth Fisher of "Extreme
Makeover." And he has refined dozens of surgical procedures, finding
elegant ways to fix double chins or to ensure that a man who has a
brow-lift won't emerge with eyes that look vaguely female. Or, as in
that subway experiment, figuring out how to precisely match a target
age to the width of a temple. More than 4 centimeters between the
outside corner of the eye and the hairline, he found, makes a face
His published research is all about the difference between a face-
lift that's as fine as couture and one that's slapdash, like a cheap
sport coat. A surgeon can quickly tighten the sides of the face, for
example, with a slice along the front of the ear and into the hair, a
yank of the loose skin and stitches to give a patient a hairline that
sits back on the head like a Chinese Mandarin's. That same quickie on
a man might result in earlobes with whiskers. Some of the best-known
surgeons will neglect to preserve the look of the tragus, that little
flipper of cartilage at the front of the ear where face-lifts are
often sutured. Or they will pull the earlobes forward and down and
tack them onto the cheek"pixie ear," surgeons call it, a rush-job
staple that will be later camouflaged with long hair or those big
button earrings that adorn so many matrons.
Or they will make incisions along the front of the ear that stand out
like chalk lines on people with ruddy complexions. Or scalp incisions
that create telltale bald spots. Or they will lift just the delicate
top layer of skin, rather than the more resilient muscle tissue
beneath it, flattening the cheeks like a G-force simulator on a
trainee at NASA. Or they will lift both layers but carelessly
"Just make a cut in front of the ears, undermine the skin, grab the
deep sheet, pull to the ear, pull to the ear and you've got that wind
tunnel look," says Connell with annoyance. "They still do it today. I
see them today, from big centers where they have big PR."
Connell, by contrast, is famously fastidious. "He really refined the
face-lift a lot several decades ago, and brought a level of attention
to detail in aspects that had been overlooked," says Dr. Steven
Teitelbaum, a Santa Monica plastic surgeon. But, he added, Connell's
contributions "are very specialized within the profession." So
specialized, in fact, that a Connell-style face-lift can take twice
as longup to 6 1/2 hoursas the average procedure, and less-exacting
surgeons often view the longer operation as not worth the fuss.
Other critics admire his skill but say he simply points out the
obvious in his ubiquitous lectures. "Have you ever heard anybody
speak, and you're inspired, and then you walk away and it's a big
bite of cotton candy?" says one plastic surgeon. "He's like that."
When I ask Connell about his critics, his smile freezes and his eyes
look more than a little wounded. "I can only be responsible for
myself," he says.
Then, quickly, it's back to his passion.
"You see," he says, eagerly reaching over his desk to retrieve a
thick binder filled with his published research, "if you want a
person to not look like they had a face-lift, the earlobe has to come
back 15 degrees behind the long axis of the ear. . . ."
His fans say that, as arcane as his observations may seem, they have
been revolutionary within the profession.
"Basically, I had to relearn everything when I met Bruce," says Dr.
Timothy J. Marten, a San Francisco plastic surgeon who was a Connell
Fellow in 1990 and who remembers Connell's constant admonitions
against what he called "cookbook surgery."
Whereas most surgery is "like changing a carburetorimportant but not
stimulating," Marten says, performing a face-lift "is like pruning a
bonsai or growing an orchid." Connell, he explains, "used the 'good
results' shown in the textbooks I had studied from as examples of
what not to do, and he showed me how they could be done better.
"Bruce would say, 'What do you need to do to make this beautiful?
What's the underlying problem?'" And even those questions turned out
to be more art than science.
"I used to look at people and think of the things that they might
have fixed. Bruce said, 'Don't waste your time dwelling on what isn't
beautiful. The real mystery is in what is.'"
Connell says that cosmetic surgery patients don't necessarily want to
look like anyone else.
They don't want Sophia Loren's eyes or Brad Pitt's chin or some other
lovely extreme of nature. They just want a younger-and-pleasanter
version of their own face, with no sign that they resorted to surgery
to achieve it. "It's no difference if you're a child born with a
deformity, or a teenager with an ugly neck, or an ugly nose," says
Connell. "Most people just want to fit in."
Fitting in is a subject about which he knows a little something. Long
before it was commonplace, especially in Gordo, Ala., Connell grew up
poor as the only child of a divorced mother. His parents, a
schoolteacher and a baker-turned-cattle rancher, split when he was 5
during the Great Depression.
Harold Davis, the mayor of Gordo, a town of 2,000 about 15 minutes
west of Tuscaloosa, remembers Connell as an "outstanding student" and
a dutiful son: "When his mother would yell for him, she'd call, 'Koo-
koo Brucie-boy!'" Davis chuckles. "We used to be pretty hard on
Despite the community's small size (even now, locals say, its biggest
event is the local poultry plant's annual celebration of chickens),
it managed to produce some stellar students, Davis says. The street
he and Connell grew up on yielded a pharmacist (Davis), a
veterinarian, two ministers and three physicians.
Connell graduated at the top of his class and worked his way through
a year at the University of Alabama before winning a scholarship to a
pharmacy school in a smaller Birmingham college. There was a stint in
the militaryin Italy as World War II was endingthen a medical
degree from the University of Buffalo, one of only two schools that
was still accepting applications when he got out of the Army.
His plan, he explains, was to become a general surgeon, but he found
himself drawn to the challenge of maimed hands and cleft lips. After
an internship at what was then Los Angeles County General Hospital
now County-USC Medical Centerand a residency at the University of
Buffalo in general surgery, he ended up as a resident in plastic
surgery at the Mayo Clinic. When he graduated, he returned to
Southern California to start his practice, largely because, he says,
the climate reminded him of Italy.
By now, plastic surgerya field that Americans had generally viewed
as fascinating but vaguely immoralhad begun to gain respectability.
The work of military specialists on the disfigured casualties of
plane crashes and bombings during World War II had received
enthusiastic coverage from wartime reporters. Postwar audiences had
jammed the theaters to see the 1947 movie "Dark Passage," in which
Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict who snares Lauren Bacall and
a new face. Japanese burn victims were brought to the U.S. for
reconstructive surgery after Hiroshima.
The war's end had flooded the market with plastic surgeons, but their
skills and credentials were better than surgeons before them, and so
was their timing. Peacetime and social progress had created a
generation of Americans who, for the first time in the nation's
history, were facing middle age with both the health and the wealth
to enjoy it.
It was the beginning of what would be a decades-long rise in the
acceptability of surgery as a means to that suddenly all-American
mantra: self-improvement. And with the baby boom and youth at the
cultural forefront, it would now include something as previously
questionable as an operation to shave a few years off your face.
But in Connell's early career, elective cosmetic surgery was the
least of his practice. Because he had chosen the wide-open market of
Orange County rather than Los Angeles ("the smog was so bad in L.A.
even then that it made me cry"), Connell says he was, for many years,
one of only two plastic surgeons for miles in any direction.
"Most all the general surgeons sent their parotid [salivary gland]
tumors to me, and most all the dermatologists sent me their skin
cancers," he remembers. There were the emergency calls from all over
the county: "The freeways were not so good, and on Friday and
Saturday nights the Marines and the sailors would cross the midline
and have everything smashed in."
Then there were, and still are, the special cases. Marten says that
one of the most inspiring moments in his career occurred when a young
Latina housekeeper and her child wandered into Connell's office; the
little girl had a cleft lip and the mother had seen the sign
advertising plastic surgery.
When Connell found out, the doctor, who had a year-long waiting list
and a waiting room full of patients, came out to the apprehensive
duo. Connell greeted them warmly in Spanish, Marten says, and invited
them into his office to schedule the procedure. Then he repaired the
child's face for free a few days later. When the uninsured mother
asked about cost, Marten says, Connell told her that a "special
insurance fund" would cover the operation. Of course, Marten
notes, "there was no such thing."
For many years, Connell recalls, his waiting lists were as eclectic
as they were lengthy: "One day for children, one day for tumors, one
day for others, one day for elective surgery."
But as the county grew, he gradually ceded what he viewed as "the
easier things" to younger surgeons, focusing instead on "perhaps the
most challenging work, utilizing all your surgical knowledge,
anatomical knowledge, color matching, balance and proportion."
In other words, the aging and imperfect face.
Here is what happens:
Years pass. New cells are slower to replace old ones. Collagen and
elastin break down. Lines that once came and went like a smileat the
mouth, at the browlinger. The fat in the cheeks disappears. The jaw
softens. The lips thin. The neck goes. The forehead falls.
Half a century as an expert on what age does to faces has left
Connell with one inviolable rule: Never take a patient who can't take
a joke. "If they can't smile at all during an hour interview," he
says, "or if they look completely annoyed with life and themselves, I
don't think they can handle recovering from the surgical procedure."
Not to mention their reaction should anything go wrong.
Connell says he had his first facial surgery in his mid-50s. "I
looked tired. Pull of the frontal muscles. Came with time. Did not
represent the inner feeling. I see lots of patients that way. This
pulls" He points toward the space between his brows, at the vertical
lines plastic surgeons call "the elevens." "They look angry. It just
comes with some peoplethe face begins to look like a basenji dog's."
Five or six years later, he says, he had a second procedure. "I
looked too much like a hound dog. Sagging of the deep tissues and the
It wasn't for romancethough he never married and has no children, he
has been in a relationship for decades. Nor was it concern about
losing clients; when he's not lecturing or away from California, he
still does two or three surgeries a week without the benefit of
advertising, publicists or a website.
Rather, he says, it was a matter of pride, and not just
professionally: "I felt in good faith I should have something done as
an expression of confidence in what can be done," he says. "But I
still would have felt like looking my best."
Still, I ask, what about expressing confidence in the attractiveness
of experience and wisdom? And isn't it a little deceiving to greet
the world with a face that's underage?
Connell bursts out laughing.
"It's kind of deceiving to wear a brassiere too!"
Then he makes me turn off my tape recorder. I brace myself for a
lecture about ageism or maybe my own increasingly basenji-like
Instead, Connell tells me a joke about three young women who answer a
help-wanted ad for a secretary. The first is a former A student. The
second types a thousand words a minute. The third is a whiz at
handling people. Who gets hired?
Connell hoots: "The one with the big ts!"
I suppose I should have known better than to sling conventional
wisdom about aging at a man who has spent the last 50 years as a
professional subverter of time. Certainly I was warned.
"We don't get old. We get old-ER," says Dr. Max A. Schneider, an
Orange County physician who is one of Connell's best friends. "We
don't talk about it." Schneider notes that, like Tony Bennett, Sumner
Redstone and other octogenarians, he, too, is still working. And he's
about to turn 85.
Ron Silverman, a 71-year-old Honolulu real estate broker who has
known Connell for decades, tells me that Connell was ruthless three
years ago when Silverman casually asked him for advice on his neck,
which was "hanging lower and lower, kinda like Ronald Reagan's was
there at the end."
Silverman ended up paying "around $20,000," he says, for face, neck
and brow work so good that Connell still uses his before-and-after
shots in some of his lectures, but not before an exceptionally blunt
assessment. "He said, 'Your face is a mess,'" Silverman recalls. "I
gotta confess, it bothered me for a few days."
Finally, if a little impatiently, Connell addresses his own age
"If I didn't enjoy the work, I'd slow down. But I enjoy it and the
results are still holding up." He had a knee replacement not long
ago, he says, and has been testing his mental acuity with an advanced
class in German literature. (He's fluent in four languages.)
"Everything seems to be going well," he says. "And my hands have
always been steady. Except when I play the piano."
He laughs and holds out his hands, which are clean, tanned, only a
little age-spotted and, as advertised, not shaking.
"I've been fortunate and blessed as a surgeon. I consider it a gift
nothing to get puffed up about." Then he gives a merry glance and
goes biblical on me.
"For how dyeth the rich man? How dyeth the wise man? Ashes to ashes.
Dust to dust."
Years ago, Connell says, he was asked what he would do if he knew he
"I said I would plant a tree."
We are driving down Pacific Coast Highway from Connell's oceanfront
house in Laguna Beach to another of his properties, a ramshackle
rancher where he keeps his garden.
Connell's Fellows have regaled me with stories about himhow he once
tried to drag a bunch of uptight doctors out to a Mexican cockfight,
how he once absentmindedly showed up at a big medical gala with a
sock stuffed into his handkerchief pocket, how he once struck up a
conversation at a Venice cafe and wound up dressed as Henry VIII at a
Carnival masquerade ball.
But their greatest amazement is reserved for his quirky orchard, a
backyard acre and a half filled with trees on which he apparently has
"This is for you. It's a Fuyu persimmon," he says, snipping a piece
of bright fruit from a thicket of low branches. "This is a Satsuma.
It has no seeds. Every week it stays on the tree, it gets sweeter."
He snips again.
The place is a junglebougainvillea, blood oranges, tangerines,
strawberry guavas. A rooster crows. Chickens race. Some, Connell
says, are exotic hens that lay green pastel eggs.
There's a yellow peach tree on which one set of limbs bears fruit in
the spring and another set bears in the summer, and a citrus tree
whose assorted branches hold tangelos and two kinds of oranges.
He shows me where he has grafted them, a skill he taught himself 15
years ago while recuperating from a skiing accident. Time has
diminished the scars to little more than bumps on the branches, all
but erasing the hand of the doctor. The work is as invisible as it is
"Physical appearance isn't the most important thing," he muses in the
car later. "I think it's the attitude."
On one side, the blue Pacific rolls off to the horizon. On the other,
green hills bask in the sunshine. He nods toward the passing scenery,
reveling in the shades and textures of the foliage
"Eucalyptus, Ficus benjamina, queen palm," he calls out. "Cup of
Gold, bougainvillea, sunflowers, anise. . . . " I've driven this
stretch of road a thousand times and never noticed.
What makes one face look young and another look aged? Where,
specifically, do the years mark us?
"Look!" he cries in delight. "A loquat in bloom."