I was relieved that Michelle Visage didn’t have her Zoom camera on for our interview about her new documentary Explant, which outlines the history of breast implants and the business of downplaying their possible side effects. I wanted to see her, as the concerned but stern mother vibe she radiates on RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of my favorite parts of the show, but I was also wearing a compression garment from neck liposuction I’d gotten the week before, and in fact, was due to have my stitches out in an hour.
I’d had my concerns about Explant, as well, worried the documentary wouldn’t take into consideration that there are people who need their breast implants for whatever reason and would offer a pat, blanket assertion that fake tits are bad and everyone needs theirs yanked.
In both cases, I was dumb to underestimate Michelle Visage. In conversation, Michelle is the person she seems to be on Drag Race, delighted by the prospect of my new chin, full of questions about the procedure, and concerned about my wellbeing after I gave her a rundown of all the silicone that’s in me: cheek implants following a car accident that crushed my face when I was 18, and breast implants due to cancer in my early 30s.
But Explant is not a film that is interested in telling people the right and wrong things to put into their bodies. Instead, the film gives a comprehensive history of the invention, marketing, and mistakes made by doctors so eager to sell implants that they didn’t do much investigation into the safety of those implants, as told by some of those doctors themselves. It’s also the history of what those who have experienced it call “Breast Implant Illness,” a range of symptoms increasingly believed by the medical community to be caused by the slow leak of silicone from implants into some patients’ bodies, triggering an autoimmune reaction or in other cases, possibly even a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The story of Breast Implant Illness is a common one: thousands of women, including Visage, telling their doctors that something wasn’t right, and thousands of doctors telling these women to calm down, their illnesses were imagined. Now, as more and more women connect online to discuss their symptoms and together devise plans for convincing medical professionals to take their pain seriously, an increasing faction of the medical community is finally listening. In Michigan, for example, a group of doctors is demanding an “informed consent” signature addressing these very concerns from patients seeking breast enhancement, the exact same consent that is Visage is demanding with her film and through her advocacy. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.
Jezebel: I’m actually glad we’re not doing video. I have one of those stupid face bras on. I had my jowls liposucked a week ago.
Michelle Visage: Oh my god, how was it?
It hurt. But I’m happy with it. As soon as we finish this interview, I’m going to get my stitches out. I am also someone who has had breast cancer, reconstruction, plastic surgery from a car accident, so I do know a lot about the subject matter for Explant.
If you don’t mind me asking, were you implanted after your, did you have a mastectomy or no?
I did. I had a bilateral mastectomy. Was the first person to ever ask my doctor if we could make my tits smaller. I had a D and went down to an A, did the fat flap reconstruction, with a small, almost unfilled implant to hold them in place.
But you know now it’s got nothing to do with what’s in it. It’s the casing, so just be aware of it. You can always get it taken out if you want to.
And that’s my first real question. In the planning stages of this documentary, how did you prepare to make a film that informs without judgment for the people who, for whatever reason, want or have breast implants? Because for so long it’s been “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
Because I don’t like having shame or guilt attached to anything. This film is not anti-plastic surgery. It’s pro-transparency. And I’m absolutely never going to shame a woman for having breast implants. None of this movie is meant to scare people. It’s meant to wake people up. My goal is to allow people to make an informed decision and advocate for themselves.
For you, you’ve got an implant shell, and just be aware as you have them in, if you start feeling not right, know that they can be explanted, but they do need to be taken out right. As long as you know that you have an option. My goal is to call attention to the fact that women have been made a mockery of for years and not listened to, and told to go home and have a glass of wine and take a Prozac, that we’re totally fine, our tests say so, when really we’re not. But we’re not just fine. There are hundreds and thousands of us who have suffered and even died from having breast implants. The truth needs to be out there, and why is the FDA not listening.
The story of a woman saying “this is a problem” and the doctor says “the problem is the fact that you’re hysterical” is the entire history of women’s pain. But you’re a celebrity, I just assumed doctors would take you seriously. What is your history with talking to doctors about your symptoms and implants?
They don’t give a shit if I’m a celebrity. They really don’t. They don’t care who I am. I’m not slamming the medical field because we need doctors. But there are certain ones that have god complexes. When I first found out that I have an auto-immune disorder, which is called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I found out about it when I was trying to get pregnant. My mother was dying, I went off the pill, and I wasn’t getting pregnant. I was losing hair. My skin was getting very dry. I was coming home from the radio station where I worked in the mornings, and I was taking a four-to-five-hour nap, waking up exhausted. Eating one piece of lettuce and gaining weight. Finally, I went to my gynecologist and he said well not only are you not pregnant, you’re not ovulating. How long have you had this growth on your thyroid? He sent me to a reproductive endocrinologist who starts telling me I have Hashimoto’s. I started panicking, and as I asked a question, he says to me, “Shut up.” He said, “Do not ask any more questions until I am done talking to you.”
And I stood up, I said “You can go fuck yourself.” I walked out to the lobby and asked the receptionist for my blood results and told her I was never coming back here again. I told her what happened, and she basically said “Good for you.” The point being, there’s different types of doctors, and the god complex ones tell people to shut up, tell women that they’re crazy, tell them that they just need to relax and get laid. It’s so prevalent in this country in particular. But women know what they’re feeling. Do I have a bit of hypochondria, absolutely. Am I crazy? No, I know what I feel. I don’t want to feel this way.
One thing I was thinking about while watching Explant is who cares why women want their implants out. If a person has made the decision to put them in, surely they’re capable of saying they’ve changed their mind for whatever reason—maybe just wanting little boobs like I did—and want them out?
It’s incredible how many doctors, both male and female, have said to women, you’re not going to like the way you look. I told the doctor in the film, “You don’t know me, and if my doctor had told me that this could possibly be the cause of everything I have been feeling for the past 20 years, I would not have gotten that third set of implants.” And he said, “Yes you would have.”
This is what I think it is: I think there’s a moral code in the hippocratic oath that doctors take, and they’ve spent all that money getting their medical degrees, and, of course doctors have a right to make the money they make. But at the end of the day, I think, they have a problem with knowing that these implants have made some of their patients very, very ill. And that’s a lot to take on.
I always knew that I would eventually want them out, and the first man who did my implants said, “Oh no, you can be buried with these.”
You successfully advocated for yourself, which is a really difficult thing to do. We’re intimidated by doctors because they’re the ones with the white coats and the prescription pad. What advice would you give to someone who feels sick and is trying to find a doctor to believe them?
First of all, I only successfully advocated as far as making a documentary and showing how not successfully women are being treated in this country by the medical field. But I also fought for a year to try to get part of my explant covered by insurance because I had a capsular contracture, but I couldn’t budge them. So I didn’t successfully advocate on all avenues.
But what I say is you go to a doctor until you find one that listens to you and believes you. And if your doctor doesn’t believe you, you’re with the wrong doctor. We have an implant information page at World of Wonder with all of the helpful things that people need to help find a surgeon to explant them, to help find doctors that believe in breast implant illness. Just ask the doctor if they believe breast implant illness is real, and unless the doctor says, “Absolutely I believe it’s real,” I would run. Most of the doctors that don’t believe it’s real are plastic surgeons because it affects their wallet. I’m not saying you’re in a cult, so find someone who’s a member of that cult. What I’m saying is, you’re in pain, you have a suspicion as to why, find someone who can explain to you why this is probably correct.
How are you feeling now? Have you finally convinced Lola [Visage’s daughter, who questions her decision at the beginning of the film]?
She’s the toughest. She has learned from me to not take any shit and to not believe the first thing that comes out of people’s mouths. And she has every right to feel that way.
A lot of women wake up and say “Oh my god I’m healed.” Not me. It took me a good year to start feeling better, and it was like, the veil had lifted, I was feeling like me again. I think it took time for that stuff to seep into my system, it’s going to take time to get it out.
This wasn’t a documentary with a lot of laughs but when Lola was like, “Mom those boobs are how you make your money,” I was dying.
That’s why I wanted to make this with World of Wonder [the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race] because we’re talking about tits. So many people have so many divided ideas about what they are and what they should be. I love boobs. I love big boobs. I love small boobs. I have no boobs now, and I love it.
We need to celebrate them and at the same time take care of them. I wanted there to be humor because we’re not out to get the medical association. I would love the FDA to hear me, and to make it a mandate for all surgeons to have a piece of paper, like we have with our HIPAA form, that says “This may happen. The chances are low, but it’s a possibility that you may get an autoimmune disease, connective tissue disorder, possibly ALCL, which is a breast implant-related breast cancer.” Then when they’ve heard it they can still go ahead and do it. It’s pretty easy.
Right, I’m all for people putting into and taking out anything that they want or don’t want in their bodies as long as there’s informed consent.
Speaking of, I’ve got to go and get my stitches removed. Thank you so much for talking to me.
This excites me. I love plastic surgery. Just informed plastic surgery.
Explant is currently streaming at the Tribeca Film Festival website.