The first indication that I was in the presence of no mere doctor, but something more akin to a rock star, were the T-shirts. Seven of them hung on the wall behind the reception desk, just like they would in the lobby of a concert venue behind the merch table. They were emblazoned with a variety of slogans: “I’VE GOT 99 PROBLEMS BUT A PIMPLE AIN’T ONE,” “DR. PIMPLE POPPER & Chill,” “popaholics unite.”
“I can’t believe I have a face on it,” said Dr. Sandra Lee, motioning to one that featured a line drawing of her likeness under text that read, “I’D RATHER BE WATCHING Dr. Pimple Popper.” It was early December, and she was showing me around her office, which sits in a sea of strip malls at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Upland, California, a suburb about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
There was more merch on display in her office, predominantly behind a glass case recessed into a wall across from reception. Housed inside were a baseball cap, a mug, and an external cell phone battery; all read: “Dr. Pimple Popper.” Under that were several products from the skincare line Dr. Lee launched in 2017, SLMD. In a frame nearby was a certificate of achievement—it wasn’t a diploma from the schools where Dr. Lee completed her undergraduate and medical degrees (UCLA and Hahnemann Medical College at Drexel University in Philadelphia, respectively), but a plaque commemorating her million YouTube subscribers. Since the plaque was issued a few years ago—she can’t remember exactly when—she has more than quadrupled that number.
“We don’t have as many subscribers maybe, but comparatively, we have a huge amount of views, almost 3 billion,” she told me proudly. Almost 5 million subscribers for squeezing shit out of people’s faces seems like a lot to me. I didn’t need a caveat to be impressed but come to think of it, 3 billion views is fucking insane. If her videos ran an average of five minutes (this is a conservative number; most of her YouTube uploads are several times longer), and people watched them in their entirety, it would mean that viewers have spent a total of 28,538 years’ worth of time watching Dr. Lee pop pimples and various other inconvenient growths. Just imagine what cysts were like almost 30,000 years ago—all that trapped pus probably could have filled the Nile if only there had been the concept of medicine and a prehistoric human enterprising enough to monopolize the irrigation of the extraction of said pus.
Dr. Lee, who is that enterprising, in addition to her phenomenally successful YouTube channel, has 3 million followers on Instagram and a show on TLC that is about to enter its second season. Its first, which aired in 2018, averaged about 2 million viewers for episode—approximately one million more than the most recent season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Dr. Lee told me that she was in the process of “trying to get used to it all,” but she seemed as seasoned and humble as a curly fry in person. She led me to her office within her office, which she warned me was messy but not dirty. “I know where everything is,” she said, referring to the piles of paperwork that cover virtually every inch of her desk. Behind her chair, I spotted some glossy 8 x 10s with her face on them, which she explained she will autograph at her patients’ request, albeit with ambivalence.
“I really found that to be weird at first,” she said about being asked to do so. “But people ask for them, so I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll just do them.’ I’m not like, ‘Here you go!’”
Dr. Lee seems simultaneously awestruck and zen at just about everything in her life, as if she’s always just a few minutes away from meditating her rapidly changing normal into acceptance. She told me that one of the hardest things for her is being recognized, though the nominal reason we were meeting in the first place was to discuss yet another Pimple Popper-adjacent product with her face on it: Her first book, Put Your Best Face Forward, which was released Monday, capping another remarkable year in her popping trajectory. In just a few years, her work (and onscreen display of it) has thrust her into the national spotlight with the velocity of pus leaping out of a particularly infected pore.
Face Forward is part memoir, part dermatology textbook, part advice column (Dr. Lee’s most repeated advice is: wear sunscreen!!!). Dr. Lee said it took her two years to write and the process was “torturous” because she wanted to include everything. It reads more like a reference manual than a proper narrative, and Dr. Lee freely admits to this sensibility—she seemed taken aback when I told her I read it cover to cover. Even though I found the rather long chapter on the type of skin conditions Dr. Lee has made her pseudonym by popping to be a bit too formal to really lend itself to easy airplane reading, it still went down easier than it probably should have because of the way Dr. Lee’s friendly, accessible voice comes through on the page.
“That’s how I speak to my patients and I think that’s part of what’s endearing, that I don’t talk down to them,” said Dr. Lee. “I speak to them like I’m their girlfriend or their family member and that’s part of the trust I think that’s generated there.”
At one point in her book, Dr. Lee writes about the pride she takes in her impeccable bedside manner. It comes through even in a meeting with a non-patient like myself and it makes her an utterly disarming conversationalist. She seemed genuinely interested in my skincare routine and opinions. (Do I think she needs a therapist? I don’t if she doesn’t, but the amount of attention she gets on a daily basis seems stressful. Did I think her filming a video with one of the most hated, and yet one of the most popular, men on YouTube, Logan Paul, was a bad idea? I don’t really care, and frankly, she didn’t either—she told me he approached her with the idea to collaborate, that he was respectful and professional, and that she’s not inclined to judge him, nor is she much familiar with his work anyway.)
She gave me such a pronounced compliment on my face’s aging process (that, to be fair, I solicited) that I considered proposing to her then and there, despite her being married and me being gay. We shot the shit, the Q&As ping-ponging so rapidly that they blurred into each other. Dr. Lee’s affability/charisma cocktail remind me of that of J. Lo (or maybe it’s just that I find their speaking voices to be so similar). I liked her, knowing full well that part of her job (both in the office and in her various media platforms) involves making people like her, but she’s so good at it that it just makes me like her more.
She told me that a big motivation behind the book was to inspire the young women that follow her—her audience is about three-quarters female, she estimates. “I’m all about girl power,” she said. Dr. Lee, whose family is from Singapore and Malaysia (but ethnically Chinese), said she’s happy to be a rare prominent Asian woman within the U.S. pop culture sphere. “Do I feel a responsibility? Yes, but I’m just doing what I do,” she said. She alluded to her diverse friend group growing up (she was born in Queens and has lived in America her entire life) and how it “probably” resulted in her being considered “really white” by other Asians she encountered in her youth. She told me she wants to be in the Crazy Rich Asians sequel. She chuckled as she said this, the way I imagine a billionaire chuckles when he looks at a map of a city block he will soon acquire. She did not seem to be entirely kidding.
As we talked about her book, she sat at her desk and I sat, as directed, at the desk of her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Rebish. She and Dr. Rebish run their practice together, after taking it over from Dr. Lee’s father, now a retired dermatologist, about 14 years ago. About 20 minutes into our conversation, her husband showed up.
When Dr. Rebish entered his office and saw a man sitting at his desk talking to his wife, he gave said man (me) the look of someone… who just walked into his office and saw a man sitting in his desk talking to his wife. He was not amused. Dr. Lee asked if he wanted us to continue the interview elsewhere and he asked her if she would mind doing so. So we left.
(Earlier, Dr. Lee, who’s 48, told me that only one of her two sons watches her videos, and that her husband doesn’t care for them. “He doesn’t watch any of them,” she said. “We don’t really talk about it.”)
En route to our final resting place of a small, fluorescent-lit kitchenette area across the building, Dr. Lee spotted boxes of Botox piled almost as high as she was tall. She yanked out her phone and took a short video for her Instagram story and Snapchat documenting… a high pile of boxes as it compared to her height. When you are an influencer, every opp is a photo opp.
Dr. Lee pegged me for a “popaholic”—a fan of her videos and those like the ones that she posts who find satisfaction in watching pus and other unwanted material pouring out of skin. Exhilaration, joy, comfort, and happiness are just a few effects Dr. Lee has observed of her videos on her fans. In fact, I am not a popaholic—when I watch Dr. Lee’s work (which I mostly do via her TLC show), it is the very opposite of satisfying. It is an unnerving endurance test. I can never quite believe what I’m seeing or that we’ve gotten to a place in culture where a pore throwing up what looks like actual vomit can be considered entertainment. The extremeness and absurdity is what I love about it and what keeps me coming back for more. I told her it was very much like watching horror movies.
“I hate horror movies,” she responded. “I cannot watch any of them. My husband has been pissed at me before because he’ll rent a movie and it ends up being somewhat scary and I’m like, ‘Ah, I cannot watch it, we have to turn it off!’ Flowers in the Attic, that kind of thing, I feel like that could really happen. Someone could live up there and torment me. I don’t like to be scared.”
Dr. Lee, for the record, isn’t a popaholic, either, but in her four or so years of doing these videos, she has developed such a knack for what will or won’t work that she gets vicarious satisfaction from her specimens. She can appreciate the content she generates at a remove.
“If I see a good one, I’m like, ‘Oh, the popaholics are going to love this!’” she explained. Their future excitement is her present pleasure.
When I asked her if she considers her videos art, she chirped, “Yes!” She told me early on as she was editing a video of “a gentleman who had [clogged pores] within the creases of his forehead and you just take them out and they’re lined up like little ants almost,” she found herself mesmerized and kept rewatching a certain sequence of frames. She finally concluded that what sucked her in was the very beauty of the human body, or that particular part of that particular body that she then effectively squeezed the beauty out of.
Dr. Lee generally gets back what she puts out—friendly benevolence from her followers. She said she is happy that the comments her videos receive often play out like a popaholics support group (she also said she did not read the comments of the Logan Paul collaboration but got the gist that the feedback was largely negative). In general, she says she has the support of the dermatology community, even as someone who doesn’t take a hard line against patients performing their own (minor) extractions. She advises against it, sure, but in the same sort of reluctantly permissive tone a mother strikes when she tells her daughter that if she’s going to drink she’d rather she do it in the house, Dr. Lee provides tips for extracting pimples properly (and sells an extracting tool) because she knows people will do it anyway.
But there have been critiques—some run on this very site. A 2017 Jezebel article called “When Your Skin Condition Becomes Viral Content” polled several medical experts on Dr. Lee’s practices. In the piece, NYU Langone bioethics professor Dr. Art Caplan said that Dr. Lee not charging for extractions and other supposedly nonessential procedures not covered by insurance in exchange for the ability to use the footage of said extractions in her online content “smacks of coercion and pressure.”
Dr. Lee said she thought that was “dumb in a way.” She called the arrangement “win-win-win” (that’s one for the patient, one for her, and one for the popaholics, not necessarily in that order) and estimated that 10 people in her three or four years of doing this have said no. (She added that major removals like giant lipomas usually aren’t free but discounted.) She also told me a story about a woman who consented and then retracted when she erroneously thought Dr. Lee had uploaded a video featuring her voice when she explicitly asked that it not be featured the video (generally, the videos display extreme close-ups and thus are functionally anonymous). Despite her patient not living up to her end of the bargain, Dr. Lee said she didn’t charge her.
Also in the above-linked piece one Dr. Hassan Galadari, a cosmetic dermatologist in Dubai, called out Dr. Lee for posting her videos for shock value and self-promotion.
“It’s people’s lives,” she said, refuting the notion that she’s out to shock. “If you have a cyst, that’s you’re life and a lot of us have it. I normalize it. People understand that it’s okay, that you’re a normal person with these sorts of things. The show has really made me... what has been so worthwhile about it is that it’s really shown me what kind of effect I can have on people. Maybe it’s the show being all fluffy, like, ‘She’s changed my life,’ but I don’t really see that. I just send people home. If they have sutures maybe they come back for like five minutes.”
Dr. Lee said seeing her patients discuss how the procedure she performed changed their lives months later makes doing the show “worth it.” But translating her practice to television is not without its headaches. She told me initially doing the show was “extremely stressful.” She hated the “hurry up and wait” nature of filming, and she hated the scheduling, which sometimes had her performing surgeries at 9 p.m., a time that she’d rather be lying down in bed than standing up in her office.
But it seems what bothered her most is that she wasn’t running the show, which is cast by producers, whose presumable priority is narrative and not medical.
“I’m very into control,” she explained. “I have to be in control. Everything else has been in my control. All the videos I post are my responsibility and I have control over them.”
I noticed Dr. Lee’s investment in control throughout our hour-long discussion. She said another thing that motivated her to write Put Your Best Face Forward was giving the power of knowledge to people who aren’t experts in dermatology (i.e. just about everyone on the planet) or who don’t have access to a dermatologist. But I also saw it in the graceful way she dodged questions. I asked her how many hours a week she worked and she said, “Oh god, I’m dying right now,” running down the various reasons why—the end of year generally draws an influx of patients who have met their deductibles; the new season of Dr. Pimple Popper as well as the holiday special, which aired earlier in December; the book launch; a planned holiday trip to Maldives—without giving me a firm number. I asked her about her beauty regimen and she said, “Oh, I’m bad,” comparing her personal negligence despite her vast reservoir of skincare knowledge to owning a pool and not using it (“Do I fall asleep sometimes with my makeup on? Yes I do.”). She told me about feeling compassion for a huge celebrity she met at a recent holiday party, how seeing this person in the flesh made her consider how difficult it must be to always be on and look perfect, but she declined to name her.
And Dr. Lee’s investment in control is what ultimately makes the release of her book so daunting.
“Here’s my heart in this,” she told me. “People can say it’s a pile of crap and I’ll be hurt by that. But I’m really trying. I’m hoping that by me showing me and trying to put it out as truthfully as I can, that people will like that.”