Can Plastic Surgery Be Performance Art?
Alexis Stone explains why she got thousands of dollars of plastic surgery—and then revealed she had faked it.
Alexis Stone in one of her masks.
“I don’t want to look the way I look today. I don’t connect with what I see. I never have. So I’m changing it all.” The date was August 1, 2018 when Elliot Joseph Rentz posted a video on his YouTube page making this shocking announcement. “I’ve been called crazy. I’ve been called botched. I’ve been called an addict. I’ve been called ugly. I’m told every single day that I’ve ruined my face,” stated Rentz, who is known publicly as his drag persona Alexis Stone, in a direct-to-camera video diary. The he said he would be spending every last penny he earned on plastic surgery procedures: “You name it, I’m having it done,” he explained, saying.
“Consultation done! Time for the surgery!” Stone posted on Instagram on October 17, 2018 to his nearly 750,000 followers. Someone acting as Stone posted from his account later that day: “Hello everyone! Alexis’s surgery went smoothly and on schedule! He is now recovering from the comfort of his hospital bed,” read the caption of h a picture of her immediately post-surgery in a hospital bed.
Only there was never any hospital—that was Stone’s living room. And the surgeries? Never happened. It was all a lie. Brilliant performance art or something more sinister? You decide.
On November 9, 2018 in a video titled “The Reveal” (which has racked up over 450,000 views as of this publication), Stone introduced his new face, which included fat grafts to his nose, forehead, and chin, as well as chin and cheek implants and an eye lift. “This had nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with sanity,” Rentz ended the video, quoting Pete Burns, an artist themselves known for extreme surgeries.
The comments were scathing. “Who let’s a 24 year old [who is] mentally ill 4 months into recovery from addiction do this to themselves without making them take certain mental health precautions, I just can’t help but feel this doctor was so unethical for this,” wrote one commenter, whose words earned thousands of likes. “No hate but you kinda look scary ,” read one of the nicer comments.
A December 14, 2018 Instagram video suggested Rentz was “struggling with the negativity.” On December 28, 2018, he posted an Instagram picture featuring a collage of negative comments.And on New Year’s Day, it was revealed in a YouTube documentary that the entire journey had been performance art or, as Rentz describes, a social experiment. In the 35-minute documentary short, he chronicles his journey, which begins with consultations with Academy Award-winning makeup artist David Martí. Rentz travelled to Barcelona to meet Marti and have a life cast of his face rendered. They even went as far as to develop a stunt mask, a more easily removable version, that Rentz could wear in public.
Throughout the video, Rentz details his sobriety, announcing that he is thirteen days sober at the start of the process, as well as his struggles with depression. “I do not have the best reputation when it comes to my drag,” Rentz shares, adding that he has also been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (more commonly known as Borderline personality disorder). “I’m really just trying to find who Elliot is again,” he says, which has been particularly hard following a break-up with his then-boyfriend.
But minutes later, that vulnerability has vanished: we see the real Rentz reacting to the online video “reveal,” where he calls the response “perfect,” noting that it’s all playing out how he envisioned it. And that’s where the video ends.
Catching up with Rentz less than 24 hours after the “big reveal” is a bit dizzying. For one, he’s still in it, experiencing the aftershock of thousands of reactions and comments being hurled his way. He also seems, at times, unsure about his role in it all as both the puppet and puppeteer. “I don’t know whether it’s inspiring or a big waste of five months, but I had to do it,” Rentz says, referencing Mrs. Doubtfire (a man in a dress) and Jocelyn Wildenstein (a cisgender woman and tabloid fixture of the 1990s) as inspiration. “I wanted to have the last laugh.” But is that laugh worth the barrage of screams of hate? And if yes, at what cost?
“I had to focus on the negativity,” he says, “because that was the overall message for it.” And yet he admits that the degree of negativity caught him off guard. “I didn’t expect people to be messaging me, my mum, my friends, telling me I should kill myself, that I’m the reason my boyfriend killed himself. And that was real. The face wasn’t real but these were real comments and messages from real people. And it took a little bit of silicone, a little bit of storytelling, to highlight the negative part of the internet.”
“I don’t know whether it’s inspiring or a big waste of five months, but I had to do it.”
But the negativity of the internet is surely no shock in 2019. Platforms like Twitter have been accused of being designed to encourage negativity. “It feels like there’s no escape,” the Atlantic wrote about the unique cruelty displayed on Instagram. “It seems disingenuous for him to knowingly produce this storm of hatred about extreme beauty/’botched’ face work, and then act sanctimonious about how cruel people were to him from the safe position of his conventional cis white male beauty,” said Imp Queen, a popular transgender drag queen known for her extreme makeup, when asked for her thoughts.
And then there’s the mental health component. “The way my brain is wired, I don’t have the best set-up to have the platform that I do,” Rentz admits, saying that it only takes one negative comment for him to “go off.” But there’s an argument about the sanctimonious nature of calling out such negativity from the position of being a wealthy cisgender white male, something he acknowledges if not grapples with.
“This wasn’t me making a mockery of extreme surgery,” Rentz says, adding that it’s “ironic that this is the most beautiful I’ve ever felt. I really only did this for my sanity’s sake. It just so happened to be perceived as a social experiment.” He continued: “I remember I spoke to Jocelyn [Wildenstein] and she said, ‘You’ve got to ask yourself: do you want to pay homage to these people and be able to take it off in the end or do you want to become one of those people?’ and I was getting very lost in trying to make that decision.”
Asked what he did it all for, he says simply “the power of makeup,” likening it to the way a movie can transport us into a fantasy world where we can forget our real life dramas. But one has to ask: who got sucked into Alexis Stone’s fantasy? The audience, or the man behind the persona? Was it a brilliant piece of performance art, a meditation on the cruelty of the internet and the tireless pursuit toward beauty? Or was it a psychotic plea for attention ricocheting through the void of social media? “Whether people say it’s genius or whether I’m insane... I had to do the project. I had to do it. For my sanity.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.