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Q&A with a Phyllis Diller Plastic Surgeon

Q&A with a Phyllis Diller Plastic Surgeon

Michael Elam, M.D.
Newport Beach

CosmeticSurgery.Com brings you another one-on-one interview with notables in the global village of plastic surgery. We leave it to you to decide for yourself who is actually notable, who is unconventional and who is completely off the charts.

“I had to do something about my looks; I mean, a peeping Tom once threw up on my windowsill.” --Phyllis Diller

Plastic surgeon Michael Elam, M.D., in Newport Beach, California, was one of the first physicians to surgically enhance the features of comedienne Phyllis Diller back in the early 1980s and help bring cosmetic and plastic surgery out of the closet. Dr. Elam tells how he became acquainted with the then-first lady of standup comedy, how she – by her own count -- had 14 plastic surgeries and how he and Phyllis were later involved with cosmetic surgery and the beauty industry.

Question: Dr. Elam, how did you first become acquainted with Phyllis Diller?

Answer: I was making a movie.

Q: A plastic surgeon? Making a movie? How did that come about?

A: I rounded up five other plastic surgeons with various specialties from other parts of the nation, got a Hollywood producer and set out to make what we would now recognize as an infomercial.

Q: Is that something people would watch in 1980?

A: Absolutely, although we were a good 15 to twenty years ahead of our time. Back then, people who had plastic and cosmetic procedures did all they could to conceal it. Celebrities who had surgical rejuvenation considered the surgeries high state secrets. So there was tremendous curiosity about the field.

Q: Did the movie just show a series of operations?

A: No, it basically showed how plastic and cosmetic surgery can change lives by giving people a renewed sense of self-confidence and by showing how cosmetic surgery can create a younger, refreshed appearance that looks natural.

Q: Was Phyllis Diller in the movie?

A: No, she came along later. The thread that held the vignettes together was about twin sisters, one of whom did not want plastic surgery and the other who did. Throughout the film, we kept cutting back to the twins to keep the drama going. In the final frames, the viewer got to see the one remade twin next to the sibling who turned surgery down. So you had living before and afters. It was an unveiling of sorts; something like Extreme Makeover does now.

Q: When did Phyllis Diller enter the project?

A: We needed a narrator. We read in the newspapers that she just had a facelift along with a few other procedures and talked constantly about rejuvenation surgery on talk shows and personal appearances. So she signed on with us to do the voice-over.

“My Playtex Living Bra died…..of starvation. I never made Who’s Who but I’m featured in What’s That?” – Phyllis Diller.

Q: What was the name of the film and where did it first open?

A: It was titled, “Looking Better through the Art of Cosmetic Surgery” and premiered in Orange County as a big event.

Q: When you first met Phyllis, did she say who performed her first surgeries?

A: Yes. A very famous and skilled plastic surgeon, Franklin Ashley, M.D., who was then the head of cosmetic surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. Back then, he was already the plastic surgeon to the stars and had performed surgery on John Wayne and others. Phyllis opted for a full face lift; a rhinoplasty to fix the crooked, pointy nose that had bothered her all her life; and had some sagging skin from her neck and eyes tightened.

Q: So she wasn’t like other celebrities who tried to hide it?

A: Not all. In fact, she was known for going to parties with stitches poking out of her face and a pair of glasses taped to her forehead so the spectacles wouldn’t put weight on her fragile new nose. She was very open about her plastic surgeries and said she lived off the topic for years, discussing it on talk shows and other appearances.

Q: What’s the best one-liner you’ve heard her come up with regarding plastic surgery?

A: I think it goes: “I told Fang, ‘I’m gonna have my face lifted,’ and he said, ‘Well, who in the hell would ever steal it?’”

Q: Phyllis Diller is famous for using everybody she knows in her real life in her comedy routines. Were you ever the butt of any of her jokes?

A: I don’t think so although she did once adlib, “My plastic surgeon took one look at me and wanted to add a tail. He also said my face looked like a bouquet of elbows.”

Q & A with a Phyllis Diller 

Plastic Surgeon

Phyllis Diller before her cosmetic surgeries and afterwards.
Photo, courtesy of
Phyllis Diller.

Q: In her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” Phyllis Diller writes that one of the most generous plastic surgeons she ever met was one Dr. Michael Elam, and I’m quoting now, “a young guy with movie star good looks...” So that begs the question, because you are in the plastic surgery business, have you yourself ever had your movie star good looks enhanced by a surgeon’s knife?

A: No, I’m all natural – so far. But at 57, I’m sure I will need cosmetic surgery someday and maybe someday soon. But I figure because I enjoy my work so much and live a clean lifestyle, I look about ten years younger.

Q: Which of the 14 Phyllis Diller plastic surgeries did you do?

A: She fell and broke her new nose and showed up in my office with a slightly crooked nose. So I fixed that. I also performed an upper face lift that lifted her forehead, put in cheek implants and gave her another eye job.

Q: Diller’s autobiography says this about the chemical peel you gave her. “The peel didn’t hurt until they ripped off the skin. Acid was applied overnight and the next morning, the surgeon fiddled around with my face before suddenly rrriiiippp! Oh, my God, that was painful, if only for a moment. And I must say, for a while my skin was smooth as a baby’s butt. What’s more, all the freckles were removed, so for the first time in my life, I had smooth, spotless skin.”

A: Actually, on a chemical peel, we tape the face with waterproof tape and let that stay on for two days. To remove the mask, we loosen the edges, apply a clamp and pull it off in one felt swoop, taking away the old skin. But it does startle the patients. After that, new, smooth skin grows to replace the missing layer of skin. The chemical face peel is one of the most astonishing procedures we offer in terms of results. Before the peel, she had heavy freckles, sun damaged skin and wrinkles. She was as pleased as punch with the results.

Q: Did it help your practice when Phyllis talked about your surgeries?

A: No question about it. I received a tremendous amount of notoriety. I think my picture was in something like 42 million newspapers.

Q: Whatever happened to the movie?

A: It was in video rental stores for a while but mostly it was used for patient education in the practices of plastic surgeons. For me, the fun and publicity I received from it were just priceless.

Q: What was the professional society award Phyllis was given?

A: The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery presented Phyllis with its first annual Franklin Ashley Award, given to the person who does the most to advance acceptance of cosmetic surgery. The award is named after the famous UCLA surgeon and reads: “For the tremendous breakthrough in acceptance for our field, when she was the first person to have the courage to proclaim her surgery and show her results publicly.” While she often told her audiences she was “a walking billboard for plastic surgery,” she told her close friends she was also a good billboard because she never looked like she had any surgery done.

Q: What was the connection among you, Phyllis and the beauty business?

A: We appeared on one of the first T.V. shopping channels together, from about 1986 to 1990, promoting a line of facial care products.

Q: What is Phyllis Diller like off-stage?

A: Totally opposite of the ditzy scatterbrain she plays on stage. I’ve been to her home many times and can tell you her education after high school was in music so she is an accomplished concert pianist who has performed with about one hundred renowned symphony orchestras in North America. She paints wonderfully and has artwork hanging in museums, plus she is a gourmet cook, has a line of jewelry, clothes and food. Moreover, she is a charming host and entertains friends and family in her Brentwood home.

Unfortunately, she is currently not in the best of health and has cut back her touring schedule considerably.

Q: Now, that Phyllis Diller is approaching her 90s and has scaled way back on her performance schedule, have you heard any one-liners that are more in character?

A: The one that sticks in my mind is when she says she is becoming known as the “Madonna of the Geritol set.” But then she quickly adds: “But you can count on me never to grab my crotch. If I do grab it, it will mean it’s falling off. And, hey, at my age, it could!”

Q: Thank you, doctor.

A: My pleasure.

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