Monster Tuck Rally

Plastic surgery “monsters” know what they’re doing — and that, to their phobics, is the scariest part

In 2015, 34-year-old Justin Jedlica checked into Dr. Leif Rogers’ surgical center in Beverly Hills. A cosmetic surgery veteran, Jedlica had had nearly 200 procedures — five rhinoplasties, cheek, chin and butt implants — and his body had been redesigned with silicone implants along his pectorals, biceps and triceps. But these surgeries had created a disparity between his sculpted arms and his unenhanced back, and unlike pectoral augmentation, back augmentation had never been done before. So Jedlica, a former sculptor, designed his own back implants by drafting a pattern from tissue he fitted and draped around his own body. The pattern was then sent to a medical technology firm, who cast it in silicone, and sent four flat, cutlet-shaped cutlets to Rogers, a known innovator in cosmetic surgery.

Over a four-hour surgery, Rogers reopened an old scar from one of Jedlica’s previous surgeries, and installed the implants under the latissimus dorsi and over the teres muscles on the patient’s back, layering two implants for a more beefed-up effect. He had less body fat than Rogers had hoped for, so Rogers had to make adjustments along the way, dissecting deeper into the tissue. Once he was satisfied with how the pieces were lying, the surgeon sealed and bandaged the incision, and declared it a success: “Now his back is going to look the way he wants it to.”

Eight weeks later, a healed Jedlica agreed. “I’m like made in Taiwan right now,” he said. “I definitely look dollish. It was the right call… It’s what I wanted.”

Jedlica’s groundbreaking surgery was featured on the hit TV show Botched, a reality vehicle for a prominent Los Angeles cosmetic surgery clinic; and the into media niches that regularly cover figures who are known for (or suspected of having) excessive cosmetic surgeries. Along with Jedlica — dubbed the “Human Ken Doll” — there is Jocelyn Wildenstein (“Catwoman”), Herbert Chavez (“Superman”) and Valeria Lukyanova, (the “Human Barbie Doll”), along with any number of competitors to these titles (Lukyanova shares hers with at least three other Human Barbie Dolls).

Contemporary vampires are sympathetic and sexy; the Victorian anxiety over blood transfusions has now shifted to new forms of technophobia

Together, they are staples of the lower-tier print tabloids and digital versions like the Daily Mail, Radar Online, and the Huffington Post; they occasionally also appear on general news sites like Gawker and Vice. Videos of their surgeries and interviews generate millions of views on YouTube, where they are scavenged for memes: Wildenstein in a scene from Batman; Jedlica and Lukyanova in a recycling bin. Wherever they appear, their altered faces and bodies provoke a stream of fascination and disgust: “Dude, she looks like a toy and not at all human.” “Disgusting human being.” “I am not a religious person, but if someone would say that he is an insult to god, I would understand it.”

Pop culture has always traded in freaks — pageant toddlers, polygamous Christians—figures who serve not to be admired, but pitied, reviled, and rejected. They are the flipside of the glossed-over, blandly perfect actors and models that populate the modern cult of celebrity. Surgery addicts have received top billing in this sideshow since the dawn of the industry. The media obsession with figures like Jedlica is the latest iteration of a symbiotic relationship between celebrity, surgery and society: We find these stuffed and stretched bodies irresistible, and speculate about the elusive motives behind their compulsion to alter them. But our scrutiny is just as compulsive and strange. Surgery addicts are vessels into which we pour our collective ridicule, disgust and horror. They are our monsters and our mirrors.

The word “monster” comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning “divine omen.” Early recorded monsters were deformed children, whom natural scientists believed showed signs of the mother’s error while pregnant. A child born with limbs resembling tree trunks was said to be the result of an arboreal curse on the mother. Joseph Merrick, the 19th-century “elephant man,” told his doctors that his mother had been surprised by an elephant during pregnancy. Another meaning of monstrum is “instruct.” Early descriptions of monsters served as both theories and warnings, circumscribing proper behavior for expectant mothers.

But the roots of the plastic surgery monster lie in 19th-century Europe, an era when our understanding of the human body was transformed in the wake of rapid technological advance. “Developments in geology, biology and evolutionary thought all changed how we understood the human body, a site we stake our identity and integrity on,” says Dr. Gregory Brophy, an assistant professor of English at Bishop’s University in Quebec. “When we picture what it means to be a person, the body is how we imagine that. Monsters are horrifying because they mix the categories by which we understand the body.” Early monsters blurred the boundaries between living and dead (zombie), human and animal (minotaur), single and multiple (Hydra).

Brophy’s own work focuses on “body horror,” a sub-genre of Gothic fiction that surged in popularity in the 19th century, populated by a new threat: the monster that sprung not from nature or the divine, but human technology, expressing the Victorians’ anxieties about the encroachment of new technologies that might transform their sense of self. Medical innovations like blood transfusions and skin grafts made it possible to join different bodies — self and other — in a symbiosis that troubled the Enlightenment’s ideas of the body as singular and distinct. Communication tools like telephones and telegrams collapsed the distance between voices, and refined transportation technologies like trains and automobiles threatened the integrity of national borders, national bodies. Frankenstein’s monster is grafted from the bodies of several different people, and “sparked” by electricity; Dr. Moreau sews animal to man, creating human–beast hybrids. Griffin, the protagonist of H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, monsterizes himself with a chemical concoction. “Even in Dracula,” Brophy says, “the vampire creates more vampires through a type of blood transfusion.”

In the early 20th century, techniques designed to repair the facial injuries of war veterans were refined to optimize the appearances of Hollywood’s studio-system actors, spawning a tabloid fixation that evolved in tandem with celebrity itself, fueled by the ever-present Anglo-Saxon taboo against vanity. In the 1930s, an era when even heavy makeup was considered scandalous, celebrity procedures were highly secretive, and the consequences of exposure were swift and harsh. (Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” was said to have been unable to smile after a regrettable facelift.) Even as surgery techniques improved mid-century, allowing an increasing number of celebrities to successfully achieve the rigid postwar beauty ideal, the taboo persisted, motivating a new era of invasive celebrity reporting and allowing the public to symbolically tear down the very stars they had elevated to iconic status. When Gary Cooper admitted himself to a New York hospital for a facelift in 1958, reporters tracked him down; one article accused him of “trying hard to look like Gary Cooper.” Marilyn Monroe’s surgeon kept records of the star’s chin and nose procedures under lock and key until his retirement, when they were passed down to his medical partner.

By the 1980s, cosmetic surgery was so commonplace, and in many cases so undetectable, that it alone was no longer newsworthy. Media focus shifted from the fact of surgery to its effects. Stars with extreme or failed procedures were viciously mocked: Ann-Margret; Zsa Zsa Gabor; Liberace; and one of Jedlica’s beauty icons, Michael Jackson, whose extreme transformation was a point of obsessive interest and revulsion for reporters. Jackson was regularly described in the stock terms of schlock horror: “Wacko Jacko,” “America’s Most Famous Sideshow,” “Freak.” Paparazzi installed themselves outside his dermatologist’s office. Full-page features compared versions of his face, and invited random experts to weigh in — tropes of surgery coverage that continue to this day. “The ideological function of the monster is that it marks the limit of the categories we use to understand our identities,” Brophy says. “Think of [how] Michael Jackson blurred those limits: adult/child, man/woman, black/white.”

Contemporary vampires are depicted as sympathetic and sexy; the Victorian anxiety over blood transfusions has shifted to new forms of technophobia. Digital culture has once again collapsed the boundaries between selves, creating new and transgressive intimacies. Social media and texting have eroded our expectation of a private self, allowing us unprecedented access to each other’s minds. The ease of global communication challenges the concept of the national body, while the increasingly free exchange of goods has democratized consumer culture, allowing an increasing number of people to access, and disrupt, traditional signifiers of class. Shifting ideas about race and sex, meanwhile, have challenged the categories of identity by which we organize social life.

Our surgery monsters — uncanny mixes of flesh and plastic, human and technology — symbolize our fears about these transformations. But unlike 19th-century monsters, who lumbered in the pages of books and penny dreadfuls, our “abominations” are IRL. And in contrast to their predecessors, surgery monsters are not just monsters, but also creators. Figures like Jedlica represent a disturbing breakdown between authority and subject, consumer and consumed, and they take pleasure in the startling, novel effect they have on others. The anxieties that motivate our revulsion are the same that motivate their enthusiasm. However surreal their skin and features, they’re not from some other world, but ours.

Like the Victorians, we are horrified by bodies that mix too obviously the natural with the technological. Of course, there’s an irony to this: surgery is technology, but so is soap, nutritious food, and dentistry. Everyone is part technology, especially those we consider “beautiful,” a label that is inseparable from wealth and social status. Beauty is mandated, especially for women (it’s notable that the male surgery addicts who make the news are almost all gay or gender-non-conforming). At the same time, beauty’s rigid definition — white, cisgender, able-bodied, lean, symmetrical, young — means few meet the requirements. Brushing your hair or shaving is just as much an act of self-manipulation as getting a surgeon to slurp fat from your thighs. The difference between Jennifer Aniston — who works out seven days a week — and Jedlica is one of degree, not kind.

Some theorists have called the myriad forms of work we do to appear attractive “beauty labor.” For previous generations, beauty labor was expected, but it had to remain invisible: the ultimate goal was a “natural” look. As cosmetic surgery becomes ever safer and more accessible, the public has come to accept it as part of the beauty labor that women in particular are expected to perform. The secretiveness with which the elite once approached their surgeries has given way to a winky, don’t-ask-don’t-tell ethos. “Patients in their 50s and 60s would never admit that they got something done,” Dr. Julia Carroll, a Toronto dermatologist, told the Globe and Mail in 2015, “but many younger women like to brag that it’s part of their beauty routine.”

Crucially, these procedures have become a class marker, a type of conspicuous consumption for the upwardly mobile. The same article heralded the rise of “richface,” the distinctively artificial, filled-and-frozen look epitomized by the Kardashian women. Cheap labor and easy trade has filled the global marketplace with endless knockoffs and imitations of the luxury goods that once signified upper-middle-class status. Cosmetic surgery, unavoidably expensive and time-consuming, now subs in for fashion as “an easy visual marker of wealth.” Anyone can have a designer bag, but Botox injections tell the world you have cash and time to burn.

In seeking to replicate a well-known product, the “Human Ken Doll” has created a new one, going beyond both human and doll to point at something as yet unimagined

If artifice is aspirational, why do figures like Jedlica strike us as horrific? Katella Dash, who has spent over $99,000 on cosmetic procedures, is proud of her synthetic appearance: “I love to look plastic,” she told the Daily Mail in 2014. To her audience, her fakeness is not admirable, but risible. “Remember when women were lovely and only got arse implants or nothing at all?” writes a YouTube commenter. “He/she look better with less surgery,” writes another. (Dash is transgender.) These commenters claim to be disturbed by the “unnaturalness” of her appearance — by the technology visible on her poreless skin, bulbous lips, and swollen breasts.

“Somebody recently said to me at a party that plastic surgery is okay, as long as it’s not Real Housewives surgery,” society columnist Shinan Govani said in the Globe article. “So there’s Housewives surgery and non-Housewives surgery. But when the conversation wound up, we agreed that not all Housewives surgery is created equal, and that Orange County Housewives surgery is so much worse than New York Housewives surgery.” The surgery narrative pivots on the question of limits and excess; the line between perfection and monstrosity is scalpel-thin. A growing body of cosmetic-surgery-service journalism exhorts readers to “be responsible” in choosing their surgeons and procedures, and to err on the side of conservative or moderate augmentation — “abusing” cosmetic surgery produces the stuff of nightmares. In language that would feel at home in 19th-century body-horror fiction, black-market surgery centers are referred to as “Houses of Horrors,” and illegal butt injections are described as “grotesque.”

Seen in the context of class, this starts to make sense: our celebrities use surgery to signify an upper-class status; our monsters use surgery to achieve it. Notably, many of them are from working-class or immigrant backgrounds, and many are open about this. “We lived in a little house with a dirt driveway, we had a free standing stove with coal,” Jedlica said in a 2016 interview, continuing, “I was extremely envious of people who had a lot — one of my favorite TV shows was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — I always wanted to be like those people.” Many finance their surgeries with funds from partners or loans. Rodrigo Alves, a Brazilian man with extensive surgeries who also claims the “Human Ken Doll” title, works as a flight attendant.

People like Dash and Jedlica — whose fame rest entirely on the fact that they’ve had cosmetic surgery — represent a glitch in the status quo: by undergoing surgery prior to wealth, instead of subsequent to it, they’ve hacked the class hierarchy.

What is the difference between Kim Kardashian and Jocelyn Wildenstein? How many Botox injections lie between beauty and monstrosity? Jedlica’s body is this question made flesh. In the new economy of beauty, surgery itself is fetishized for the risk it entails.

There are different types of surgery monsters. Celebrities — female celebs, mostly — who “overdo” plastic surgery are accidental monsters, and thus victims: Renée Zellweger, Melanie Griffith and Lil Kim, we assume, were aiming for an undetectable effect, but they made a mistake by going too far. We can see the seams on their faces and bodies, between the old celebrity and the new, the organic flesh and the plastic, but we register our disgust as pity. This represents a narrative shift from the “Wacko Jacko” days: in our thoroughly therapized, nominally feminist culture, the rhetoric of horror often masquerades as sympathy, or “concern-trolling,” in the language of social media. Brophy calls this a form of “sadistic voyeurism”: our pity of the surgically scarred, self-made exhibitionist is schadenfreude at her fall, punishment by scrutiny.

Artists using surgery as their media, like Orlan and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, are monstrous, but deliberately so: they aim not for conventional beauty or “naturalism,” and as such, are not often flogged in the press. They puzzle us, but their unique aims protect them from being truly loathed. Figures like Jedlica, along with Michael Jackson, Lukyanova, and Wildenstein, are more mysterious. They are aiming for beauty, for perfection; but where we see that they’ve failed, they feel they’ve succeeded. They transgress not only on purpose, but with carelessness and glee, abusing the resources we revere as a means to normative beauty — not to achieve “richface,” but to posit their own ideals.

“My back implants are one-of-a-kind, as I designed and handcrafted each piece to make sure they matched the Ken doll aesthetic,” Jedlica explained to the Daily Mail. His other inspirations include Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers, and Superman. “I don’t even know if I look like a Ken doll,” he told the Daily Beast in 2014. “But if other people want to say I do, it’s flattering. As a kid, you play with Ken dolls and kind of assume that is what a handsome guy is supposed to look like.” Surgery monsters don’t model themselves after beautiful humans, but the iconic beauties of modern corporate America: toys. They are representations of humans — exaggerated, distorted, unsexed; beauty at its most commodified and inhuman. Jedlica and his ilk aren’t copies of people, but distorted copies of distorted copies, a phenomenon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard described as the “hyperreal.”

In Baudrillard’s take, late-consumer capitalism is saturated with hyperreality: CGI effects in movies that look more convincing than live-action; media representations of war that seem more “real” than actual battle; theme parks like Disneyland that “re-create” a wholesome American past that never existed. Ariel the Little Mermaid is arguably more recognizable than Marilyn Monroe; at the very least, her image commands far more capital. Instagram and YouTube are saturated with Disney and Mattel-based cosplay, teens and 20-somethings using makeup, costuming, and digital effects to recreate themselves in the image of various toys. They model themselves after commodities; they also seek to become commodities. “The look I am going for is a walking blow-up sex doll,” Katella Dash told the Daily Mail. “It’s about as fake a person as you can be.”

It’s no shock, says Brophy, that the word “plastic” comes up so often in critiques of the cosmetic surgery industry — it’s a key concept in the development of capitalism. “Plastic used to mean adaptable,” he explains. “In the 18th century, you see references in literature to God as the ‘plastic artist.’ There was no sense that it meant something synthetic or wrong. That started to change in the 1930s, and that’s no coincidence. Now plastic means ‘artificial,’ and it’s tied to consumer culture. Plastic evokes credit cards, disposable toys.” It’s also associated with pornography, which Baudrillard also categorized as hyperreal: the explicit artificiality marks it as not sex, but a simulation of sex, twice removed from the actual act. Surgery monsters occupy the same troubling space, serving up an image of sexiness from which sexuality is absent.

“The look I am going for is a walking blow-up sex doll. It’s about as fake as you can be”

Jedlica uses technology to blur the line between consumer and consumed, human and commodity, embodied soul and plastic object — and yet Jedlica retains his agency. A cottage industry has sprung up around the plastic surgery addict: In addition to ongoing appearances in lifestyle media and on reality TV, Jedlica runs a cosmetic surgery consulting business and sells T-shirts imprinted with his image alongside slogans like “plastic makes perfect” and “proud to be plastic.” He speaks of his modified body in the distinct jargon of the marketing industry: His goal is to “brand myself,” to “make something that’s unmistakably Justin.” He is planning to release a line of custom silicone implants for use in cosmetic surgery centers.

As many commenters have pointed out, Jedlica does not look like a Ken doll. His skin, however shiny and poreless, doesn’t look like doll skin — it looks like Justin Jedlica skin. In seeking to replicate a well-known product, he has created a new one. This produces an unsettling effect that registers as alien: an unfaithful copy of an unfaithful copy that goes beyond both human and doll to point at something as yet unimagined. And more horrific, still, is Jedlica’s insistence that this image is beautiful. Whereas figures like Orlan reject or oppose any concept of normative beauty, using surgical technology to become hyper-individual, even weird or “ugly,” monsters like Jedlica work within beauty norms, inflating and distorting them from the inside. Like Warhol’s saturated and celebratory portraits of soup cans and film stars, Jedlica subverts the current beauty ideal by embracing and exaggerating it. The result is uniquely monstrous: a mix of fantasy and reality, beauty and ugliness that is as provocative as it is horrific.

Prepping for Jedlica’s back surgery, a Botched producer asks Rogers about his patient’s mental state. “I think a lot of people would see him as crazy,” Rogers concedes. “I mean, who would go through all this? After examining him, interviewing him, he’s actually very rational, logical. He’s extremely bright. He’s been through it many times before. He knows the risks, even before I had to tell him. He’s been through some of the complications and dealt with it, without any issue. Based on that, I felt that he was actually a good candidate for something like this.”

Nineteenth-century monsters like Frankenstein’s were demonized; modern surgery monsters are pathologized (“he doesn’t need a surgeon, he needs a psychiatrist!”). Commenters speculate that he has body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, and schizophrenia. At the heart of these remarks is a concern about Jedlica’s perception. Does he know how he appears to us? When he looks in the mirror, does he see the monster we see? “Do I look sad?” Jedlica talking-heads to the producers of Botched. “If I did, I would fix it!”

The explicitness with which he and his ilk acknowledge something like the “beauty economy” is distressing to viewers who are invested in the idea of beauty as ideal and permanent, removed from the cynical machinations of money and politics. He also flaunts the means of his transformation, challenging the idea that beauty should at least be plausibly natural — and, by extension, that beauty exists outside our conception thereof, as something to be uncovered, or at least achieved through the tactful manipulation of technology. In his stretched and swollen face lies an uncomfortable possibility: Beauty is a thing that technology itself redefines with our use.

We are invested in beauty as something that is natural and ideal, but also universal. This is the motivation behind the growth of “beauty science,” a field of sociological and medical research that aims to define the most appealing faces and bodies across cultures and throughout time. We think Jedlica looks ugly. Jedlica — who believes enough in beauty to have given his body in its service — thinks he looks perfect. When we look at Jedlica, we see the fragility of the beauty concept itself: so tender that it can flip into ugliness with the slip of a scalpel, so amorphous that one person’s Ken doll is another’s monster. If beauty is this nebulous, what does it say about a culture that is organized around its worship? If seemingly immutable notions of beauty can change, what else can?

“What’s interesting to me about [Jedlica] is the awareness he has [of his position in society],” says Brophy. “He’s saying, ‘let my body present what is happening in this culture.’ That’s what a monster is, the bodily symptom of a culture’s anxieties.” At a time when so many of our social categories are under pressure, when we are being asked to renegotiate longstanding ideas about gender, sexuality, and sexual identity, the monster becomes a symbol of not just possible, but immanent change. Like all good monsters, Jedlica’s physical transformation parallels a greater social transition from which we can’t turn away.

Two days after Jedlica’s back surgery, he threw an “unveiling” party at his home. Botched followed the festivities.

“I definitely look dollish,” he told his guests, displaying his new enhanced back, still stained from the surgical markers. “It’s very swayback, which is what I wanted.” Wincing from the pain, he squeezes back into his shirt, a tiny black crop top with a detail resembling ammunition that enhances his superhero bulk.

“Why don’t you go to the gym?” asks a guest, smoothing his hands over Jedlica’s upper back.

“Oh Jesus, another one,” he sighs. “It has nothing to do with that… I don’t have my body implants to avoid the gym… I have better things to do than work out.”

“Would there be an end?” asks another guest. “Would there ever be a final step?”

“That’s like asking a painter, are they gonna stop, like putting down their paintbrush,” Jedlica replies. “I’m becoming the perfect living doll… When I’m 85 years old I’m still probably still gonna be having procedures done. I hope so.”

Alexandra Kimball is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Walrus, Toronto Life, Hazlitt, This, and the Guardian.