The high street beauty world isn't the first industry convention where every vendor's product seems to have been built in the same factory in Chengdu. But it’s definitely one of the biggest.
Across over a hundred pitches at Islington’s Aesthetics Expo 2017 I'm marketed a vast rainbow of near-identical cream-coloured steel boxes. Every saleswoman has her pitch. The gas is better than the needles. The electricity is better than the coldness. The lasers are less invasive. Faster recovery times. Lowest levels of endotoxins. Continuous Contact Cooling™. The M22 offers Multiple Sequential Pulsing and a Homogenous Top Hat Beam Profile. The Venus Viva offers "smaller footprint per pin (150x20 Microns) creating micro-wounds for shorter downtime". There's a "Free Juvapen Refill Kit with every Juvapen purchased (£2,300)", which includes 100 custom syringes with which to squeeze botulism toxins into your client's fading faces.
Clearly, I haven’t been doing enough peering into the windows of my local high street face-sanding shop. The sheer quantity of these boxes, and the attendant unctions, financial products, surgical disposables, medical textbooks and "practice management software", shows how naive I've been.
"Aesthetics" – as it's now called – is a have-a-punt kind of industry, disposable income, with low entry costs and a strong brand-building component: exactly the sweet spot where entrepreneurs can pile up cash. And it’s taking off. Right now, we’re on the hockey-stick part of the growth curve. Driven by the increasing public acceptance of Kardashian-promoted soft treatments, the pop-in shop industry – dubbed "minimally invasive procedures" – grew by 40 percent in 2015. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons claims a grand total of 14.2 million "cosmetic minimally invasive procedures" were performed that year.
"They’re all selling the same Botox," complains a bearded 50-something in Harold Shipman specs, touting surgical supplies on the unfashionable edge of show. "It comes from one manufacturer. If you want a skin enriching cream, there’s a hundred on the market, but they’re mostly just Hyaluronic Acid – that's that thing in seaweed…"
"A lot of these are just 'me too' products," a breast implant salesman later confirms. "Someone has something, so you have to have it too. With a twist. Fillers are always popular. Lips are always popular. Anything to do with skin’s always a hot topic. Micro-needling things…"
Just as there’s nothing new in most of these procedures, there’s little new in debunking the beauty industry. This "skincare is a con" piece is one recent case, but the examples are endless, and it seems obvious that these facts, studies and general observations must be well known to most people in the hall today. Some are simply deluded. Others are deeply cynical. Logically, there can’t be a very big third category.
Still, I was ready to embrace the high street beauty revolution arrayed across these boxes. What could I get for a few hundred quid and a fairly high pain threshold? Only one way to find out.
The Ancient Greeks based their medicine on the four humours of the body: Phlegm. Blood. Yellow Bile. Black Bile.
Modern aesthetics similarly divides four ways to ask the question: "How would you like to torture your excess fat before it dies?" Because you can freeze it. Or you can heat it. You can zap it with lasers. Or, if your prefer, you can just blast it with ultrasonic waves.
This man was punting hard for the lasers. The cream-coloured box he is guarding heats human fat to the magic temperature of 42 degrees, at which point it simply melts like butter in a pan. The body does the rest of the work, mistaking it for a waste product and expelling it. Victimless crime.
It seemed freakishly easy. Indecently, like a con job. But then, the future is always unevenly distributed: unbeknownst to the general public, we’ve glided into an era where fat removal has hit its holy grail: it’s become genuinely less traumatic than exercise.
A 2017 study at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital observed a 96 percent satisfaction rate. Some guy from Shape magazine liked it. And the hard evidence is mounting: a 2012 literature review led by Dr Tarek Fakhouri of Wayne State University examined a dozen journal papers on the topic, concluding it was "a safe and efficacious procedure that may possess advantages over conventional liposuction".
My new friend took the time to denounce his competitors – the many fat-freezing boxes I’d seen so far. "It's a technology that’s been out for about ten years. The market’s flooded with Korean devices now. It pulls your fat out into a cup, and freezes the fat, then the body expels it," he said. "The thing is, it’ll sometimes look like someone’s taken a chunk out of you, because that bit will [be] removed, but all the bits around it are still there." I imagined my hips dimpled up like a golf ball. "Or your fat can react in the wrong way and actually get bigger. It can look like you’ve gotten bigger." I imagined myself a bloated Slush Puppy of poorly-frozen fat, like that bit of the freezer you never get round to mucking out.
Hmm. How much would it be to get myself a nice laser device instead?
"It's £96,000 for the unit. But with the laser you can charge £1,000 a treatment. And you need at least two treatments. The deposit is only 10 percent, so we estimate you can make it back very quickly."
No matter the device or the price, I rapidly learned, there’s always an eye-popping bit of arithmetic from the salesman involving leasing, deposits and treatment payment plans, plus a decent dollop of wishful thinking, which arrives smoothly, almost imperceptibly, at "££££".
MINDFUL FILLING SEMINAR
Ah, "Mindfulness". Is it more than just a cheap buzzword? Something tacked onto any old toss to raise its price by 25 percent, one up from "organic" in the hierarchy of utter bollocks?
Nope, according to the 4PM "Mindful Filling" seminar, where we learn that beauticians "often get very distracted" when they’re ladling PolyFilla into your saggy bits. "You know," the Mindful Filling guru intones, "we get into our routine in the salon, don’t we? You’re so concerned on catching up with the latest gossip that you’re not actually paying attention. You don’t always turn your phone off…" You doodle bloody squiggles into the dermis with your needle-pen.
Solution? "It’s important to concentrate fully on the needs of the patient." A few beauty practitioners solemnly jot this down. May I be excused, please? My mind is full.
JUVILIS TOPICAL DERMAL FILLERS
This man seemed to have an unfortunate sore on his top lip. An Irishman of standard issue charm, he was selling topical dermal fillers, and I was immediately put to wondering whether he hadn’t simply over-filled his own dermis – got greedy while working the cake stand – and now all of that sexy-making butylene glycol was overflowing through his face.
His product was, he claimed, unique. Every other filler requires injecting, while Juvilis can be squeezed on. "It transfers through the hair follicle to get into the dermis. It mixes with the sebum and the oil. One delivery system brings it down the hair follicle. The next brings it into the root." Ten days later, it’s naturally expelled. Which is obviously much healthier, for the turnover of his inventories. "We might get a mention in Hello magazine," he wittered.
In 2015, Kylie Jenner's fandom pushed American use of dermal fillers into the stratosphere: from 1.8 million procedures in 2010 to 2.6 million in 2016. And they do work – if, by "work", you mean "fill your face with stuff". Which worries some potential consumers. So to prove how much more natural Juvilis is than traditional fillers, I enclose the full ingredients list:
"You're looking at anti-wrinkles and anti dark sports," continued the salesman. "Preparing and regenerating, firming and revivifying." He rattled off these phrases with an absent quality, like he was reciting the Lord's Prayer. Which, in a way, he was.
The man on the right is a surgeon, deployed here to sell a "micro-trauma needling" technique known as the "Dermapen".
Micro-trauma needlings are huge. Mainly because, despite the crudeness of the idea, they do work. Imagine a particularly lethargic tattoo gun, or a roller with some very tiny spikes on it – there’s no more to it than that. By pricking the skin in very fine ways, they stimulate your body’s natural capacity to heal itself. But – trickery – the resulting "healing" actually improves the skin. You can easily replicate the principle at home by taping 50 needles to a squash racquet and repeatedly smashing your face with it.
"Well, we have a lot of Middle Eastern clients," the surgeon explained. "And for a lot of them, before they get married, well, because of certain traditions around female sexuality, they have to undergo an inspection. So we can work to reduce density of pigmentation on the labia, improve evenness."
At this point, I did wonder whether I was smiling politely at evil. Should sensible people just nod this one through in casual conversation? I thought I might have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches on the subject, and that’s never a good sign, is it?
But then, I’m sure this guy would argue his technology is helping them out of a desperate fix. That as long as the protocol of looking up girls' dresses and making up superstitions about what you find there persists, short-circuiting the system is a perfectly rational solution to insanity.
I preferred to imagine UNICEF pulling up in Bahrain on a mercy ship, the blue helmets marching out with a cream-coloured box, filled with life-saving marriageability. Remember – your £14 a month Direct Debit® can buy three Egyptian girls the salmon-pink vulvas they need to get hitched. Millennial-pink may be a bit more.
PROFESSOR BOB KHANNA
"Come and see Professor Bob Khanna create his signature heart-shaped lips," the brochure said. By the time I got there, a very large crowd had already gathered round the stand of unction distributor Schuco for this piece of live surgical theatre. Clearly, Bob was a star in the face world.
I’m not sure on the exact details of Bob’s lips – maybe you can judge for yourself by looking at this picture of a sad girl in droopy headgear poring over her reflection in a mirror. But I know Bob sure had a lot of pizzazz to him.
"What happens as you age is that the dental plate and the nose inevitably slip closer together," Bob essayed with a surgeon’s matter-of-factness, as I pictured the gravitational slo-mo avalanche of meat towards bone playing out across the middle-aged skulls around me.
"So the temptation is often to over-fill," he went on brightly, needling glycerol into his model as he went.
He excused himself with equal brightness, explaining that he had to go to the South of France to look in on some patients. It felt like Bob was not merely wealthy, but in fact part of that gilded bubble that sees Monaco as its homing beacon. In contrast to many of his clients, it felt like money had actually made him happy: a McLaren in his Riviera mansion, snug against the runaround Lexus he only keeps for trips down the shops. Professor Bob Khanna's entire life revolved around making trophy wives feel slightly better about their inevitable decay, and it was beautiful. Professor Bob seemed like he’d be as good at those horse-whispering aspects of his work as anything technical. Surely that's how you get to Cannes level in the first place.
"I used to do lots of exercise," the woman selling the Studio Figura announced, proudly. "But for the past seven years, I’ve just done this." She paused for me to admire her statement, as though strapping yourself to a rotating carseat cover of big wooden beads trumps a triathlon any day.
The Studio Figura System was designed by a Russian doctor to stimulate the lymphatic system of his bedridden patients. After a while, he’d noticed one lucrative side effect: weight loss. The Figura isn’t just an entire range of positions within their patented method; it’s a whole workout system, with 20-odd postures (some very odd), where you lie or stand or sit or kneel while the machine rubs at different bits of you, like a faithful Labrador nuzzling your crotch.
When Bowie died, most assumed he’d been cremated. Certainly, that was the official version. So imagine my joy when I realised the selfless Goblin King had in fact donated his skin to aesthetic surgery, his peeled grape face balanced happily on a couple of lamp cords at the Church Pharmacy stand.
Déesse’s stand was plastered with pictures of A-listers – Kourtney Kardashian, Kate Hudson, Katy Perry, Kelly Rowland, just to go through the Ks – all invisible beneath the coloured mask, as though Alexandre Dumas was guest-editing Heat.
At first I was skeptical, but then the brochure explained that the box generated "three clinically proven wavelengths of light". Blue Light (415nm) penetrated surface tissue, Red Light (630nm), entered the soft tissue and Near Infrared (830nm) plonked itself straight into the deep tissue and got jiggy.
Blue killed bacteria on the surface. Red "stimulated production of collagen and elasticin" (good thing), while Near Infrared "speeds up the healing process".
How much would you expect to pay for such a face-shaped box of coloured lights? £200? £300? £600??
I’m sorry to tell you that it was on special offer, at £1,250 (+VAT).
By 5PM, the aesthetics fair was beginning to melt down like its audience's faces. A reception party sprung up on the fringe of nonsurgical liposuction brand 3D-lipo ("No other company invests so much in brand awareness") and I stood above it on a staircase to observe the dermises as the champagne flutes refilled.
Seldom has South Islington held such a buffet of buffed femininity. And seldom had that held all the allure of canteen ham sandwiches under a cling-wrap blanket. The 40-year-olds never seemed much less than 40, but they did have a ripe pinkish tinge to their flesh that I came to recognise, like someone had taken a low-wattage belt sander to their faces, then bicycle-pumped air into them. Which, in many ways, was exactly what had happened.
They were celebrating boom times: with all these new non-invasive treatments dipping their price point, there’s a new sweet-spot emerging that cuts out the scalpel. It’s somewhere between the high street tanning salon and the registered plastic surgeon, and crucially sits around the magical £100-a-go mark. The new 50-Quid-At-Borders-Man is a woman in her early forties who treats herself to zapping a few crow's feet every ten weeks, a torrent of often pop-in self-cares that sum to a £2 billion global industry – and one that grew by 40 percent in 2015 alone.
The fat-melters seemed genuinely novel – in the sense that the popular imagination hasn’t caught up with their new power yet. This aside, our ongoing helplessness in the face of time’s ravages was an unspoken counter-melody to almost every stand. Almost all of the snake oils on sale felt like the same sad venal rolls of the dice of ten or 20 or even 50 or maybe 4,000 years ago. I’m not saying we should mindlessly "embrace age" – if it’s kicking you hard, you’re within your rights to defend yourself. But it was the lack of any feeling for what had made their faces nice in the first place that was dispiriting. Any artist must work with the grain of the material.
Perhaps they would have been better off with The Andy Warhol principle: the shock wig was no simple affectation. Warhol believed you should dress old when you’re young so that you’ll look young when you become old.
Here? Well, it had never crossed anyone’s curiously emotionless brow.