When YouTube star Cassidy Valentine had her lips done in the hopes of looking a little more like Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima, she ended up with an enormous mouth that looked like it was made out of plastic. But that turned out to be the least of her troubles, since – unknown to her at this point – the woman administering her filler was an incompetent beautician, known industry-wide for botching hundreds of faces.
"As the hours went by, I noticed my lips were getting bigger and bigger and bigger," the vlogger recalls. "I had a massive panic attack in ASDA and said to my mum: 'I think my lip is dying.' I thought I was overreacting because it was going blue, but little did I know, it actually was dying."
When presented with a photo of Cassidy's puffy pout, the beautician said the swelling was "normal", and advised her to take some antihistamines in case of an allergic reaction. Luckily, Cassidy's anxiety drove her to get a second opinion from The Consultant Clinic, which rushed her in for treatment the next day.
A doctor explained that filler had been injected into an artery, blocking blood flow, and her lip was hours away from turning black and literally falling off her face. She could have also lost her vision, since filler injected into an artery can travel to the corner of the eye, and into the retina, causing instantaneous and irreparable blindness.
"I was an absolute state mentally," says Cassidy of her ordeal in April. "Although in some ways I’m grateful it happened to me, because I’m in a position where I can warn people about this. This has happened to so many people, and they haven’t got the platform to speak out about it."
The rise of lip fillers going wrong has reached such an apex – complaints about unregistered non-cosmetic practitioners in the UK tripled in the space of a couple of years, to nearly 1,000 in 2018 alone, the majority of them about dermal filler – that the government has been forced to launch a campaign warning the public about the dangers of surgical and non-surgical treatments, but most importantly dermal fillers, which are horrifyingly unregulated.
You don’t need to be a trained medical professional to plunge a syringe full of filler into someone’s face. You just have to be able to order kits from a website like Fillerworld.co.uk, where you can take your pick of 467 different types of filler, starting at just £21 for 1ml (to put that into perspective, 1ml of filler from a Harley Street doctor costs around £300 to £500). You’re then free to inject that filler into the face of whomever you please, with zero training (watch a YouTube video if you want – or just wing it, no one is checking) and it’s all completely legal.
Save Face, a national register of Accredited healthcare professionals, which received 616 complaints about botched filler from 2017 to 2018 (72 percent of those were in lips), see this happen daily. "We had a guy who was working out of his garden shed,” explains director and co-founder Ashton Collins. "He was an air steward and told one of his patients: 'I just do this a couple of days a week to top up my earnings. It’s not hard – I watched a couple of videos, and nothing can go wrong.' We had a good few people coming to us about him."
When things do inevitably go wrong, these rogue traders have no idea how to fix the problem, since the extent of their medical training is whatever they can remember from GCSE Biology. But they also exhibit zero duty of care, or even a conscience about the physical and mental suffering they’ve inflicted, often turning on their victim. "They block the patient on social media and sometimes they’ll threaten them with violence," says Ashton. “That, or they close their page down and pop up somewhere else.”
It’s for this reason that the NHS is having to fix these fuck-ups. Exact figures are hard to come by, since the NHS has no reporting code for cosmetic procedures, but a health trust in Manchester did record data on Botox procedures going wrong. "It was a couple of hundred-thousand pounds they’d spent giving corrective treatment,” explains Ashton, "so if you extrapolate that across the UK and incorporate the other vast amount of treatments available, that gives you an understanding of the severity of the problem."
It’s big money – cash the government hopes to save by stopping these botched procedures from happening in the first place. They aim to do this by telling people not to use unqualified beauticians, or self-inject filler at home. While it sounds like positive since action is being taken, the government are completely putting the onus on the public, as opposed to passing a law to stop these cowboy filler merchants from operating.
"Unfortunately the government have said they’ve got no appetite [to put a law in place]," says Ashton, "and as much as I disagree, you can kind of see why, because there are thousands of these people… they’ve often got no fixed address, so how on earth would you go about prosecuting them when you don’t know who they are? So the onus is on the public."
Meanwhile, Antonia Mariconda – founder of public awareness campaign, Safety In Beauty – believes those in power don’t want to shut down the fraudulent filler industry because it’d leave them out of pocket. "The government earns lots of taxes from all the income generated from the industry," she explains. "Therefore, cutting out non-medical professionals from administering treatments would mean a cut in income for the Inland Revenue."
"However," she adds, "this income is also weighed down by the fact these cosmetic complications are costing our NHS a lot to fix, so at the end of the day, no one is really a winner here. What is it going to take to implement law? A tragic death? At what price do we really get the government to sit up and listen, or are they too busy cashing in on the multi-billion-pound industry to really give the subject of public safety any real respect?"
We won’t know what to expect from this campaign until it launches in mid-May (the Department of Health declined to give me more details when I called), nor will we know the government’s stance on shops like Superdrug, which now offers nurse-led filler procedures in-store, trivialising it as something you can get while picking up your suntan lotion. But Antonia predicts it’ll be unimpressive: "Let’s not expect a huge, slick multi-million-pound campaign of TV, print and radio adverts. Expect to see some guidelines published, or some sort of press release – that will be about it."
There’s the question, too, of: will it even work? The answer is: probably not. It’s unfair to expect young, impressionable women to not buy into what these snake oil salesmen are selling, e.g. "Kylie Jenner" packages, which promise to have you walking out of the salon (or shed) looking like a Kardashian. It’s easy to get lured in by Photoshopped before and images, phoney celebrity endorsements and super-cheap prices, especially when you have low self-esteem and can barely afford parking on Harley Street, let alone a doctor.
Cassidy – who, at 22, is part of the demographic who'll be targeted by the government’s campaign – says it wouldn’t have worked on her. "A campaign wouldn’t have put me off. I wish it would have, but it wouldn’t," she admits. "You just don’t realise how bad [it is to have something go wrong] until it happens to you. Nothing gets in your way when you decide you want something done, especially when you’re seeing this idealised body image of the hourglass shape, the big bum, the big lips. People want to be like that because they feel they’re not good enough as they are. There should be a law put in place, and that’s that. Beauticians shouldn’t be able to do this."
"If I had listened to [the woman I went to], what would that have done to my mental health?" she adds. "I would be without a lip right now, and I’d probably be without my sight."