Saturday, December 14, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Balding, wrinkling, stooping? Don’t worry. From elevated cheeks to angulated teeth, a new breed of experts is outwitting the inevitable. Polly Vernon in London reports

HE cosmetic surgeon Laurence Kirwan, UK Botox pioneer and architect of some of the world’s most successful face-lifts, knows a great deal about the aesthetics of ageing. "There’s this period of time which we call a youth corridor," he says, and he almost makes it sound charming. "It’s between 35 and 45, classically, and that’s when you begin to see signs of ageing, but you’re not ready for, or don’t need surgery. Injectables — Botox, Nu-Fill, Restalyne — are perfect for that group of people." Or, "One thing I do is tighten up the angles of the eyes, because as we get older the eyelids tend to drop down a little bit."

Snipping off years


Kirwan has dedicated his life to identifying precisely this kind of subtle ageing signifier, and rectifying it. A trained general surgeon, he studied cosmetic surgery in America — which, he thinks, gives him the edge on UK-trained cosmetic surgeons because the process is much more tightly regulated in the USA. "Even when you’re a fully trained plastic surgeon in this country, you’re not really fully trained," he says ominously.

The face-lift is surely the definitive age-busting cosmetic procedure. Massively invasive, drastic on every level, yet inescapably promising and therefore inescapably potent. "What can you expect from a face-lift?" Kirwan says. "Ten years. Ten years off, and effects which will last for ten years."

In theory, the procedure is almost straightforward. Kirwan removes extra skin, suctions fat from the jowls and under the chin, tightens up muscles in the face and neck, and elevates cheek fat, thus recreating "cheek highlights". The operation takes around two hours, and recovery time is never longer than two weeks. But in practice, a face-lift involves improvisation. "Sometimes," Kirwan admits, "it’s terrifying. You’re sitting there with a situation that’s completely unexpected, and sometimes you have to invent the operation as you go along. It’s very creative; it requires a very adaptable brain and a lot of lateral thinking. You always have to have 10 or 12 or 13 different plans for every operation to get what you want." The ideal age for a first face-lift, Kirwan says, is between 45 and 55. "It shouldn’t change a person," he says. "It should make them look the way that they look, but a slightly better version of themselves." He also admits, freely, that there’s a certain amount of deception involved in a plastic-surgery promise. "If somebody has a face-lift, yeah, they’ll look better, but they won’t look 20. We say, ‘We’re going to make you look younger.’ And we do, but it’s a plastic-surgery younger." The future of anti-ageing, Kirwan thinks, is in his precious injectables — which, he says, are evolving all the time, and which he’s constantly finding new ways to use. Kirwan, who works on both sides of the Atlantic, and is therefore in a good position to spot new trends, is widely credited with raising the profile of Botox in the UK. He believes that Botox, combined with an increased awareness of the potential of skincare, the dangers of the sun and the ageing effects of smoking, means that the next generation will be able to put off invasive procedures for longer.

"Are we unhealthily obsessed by youth?" he wonders. "Well, the obvious answer to that is, is it possible to be unhealthily obsessed by youth? I think some people are, but we’re all living longer, and who wants to get older? I don’t. I think we’re all terribly pretentious about it, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll grow old gracefully’, but that’s an oxymoron. I’d like to stay young, get richer, be nicer. In that order."

For the record, Dr Kirwan has had an eyelift, regularly uses Botox and looks very good for 50. "I’ll need a face-lift sooner or later," he says, and you have to admire the relish with which he embraces the prospect.


There is something both unlikely and completely sensible about the claims that Noel Kingsley makes about the Alexander Technique. "It can take 10 years off you," he says. "Help you feel lighter, looser, freer. Make you two inches taller, two inches broader across the shoulders, make you seem slimmer, pop your pot belly back in, help your breathing and free up your circulation, make your voice clearer and stronger. It can take the hump out of your back, stop your head and neck aching, improve your balance, help you feel calmer, stop you seeming and feeling timid, help you realise your full potential."

The Alexander Technique is essentially about correcting the bad posture habits we’ve accumulated throughout our lives. It’s about regaining our "natural poise". Then, the theory goes, our internal organs will function better because they have the space to our spine and joints will no longer remain tense, so we’ll be taller, our skin will glow and our eyes will brighten because our circulation gets better.

Kingsley maintains that everyone had a fantastic posture at some point, specifically between the ages of two and five, and that it’s his job to teach your body how to rediscover it. The Alexander Technique is not age-busting by design, but in effect.

Kingsley works by guiding patients’ heads, necks and shoulders into better positions. "I’m not doing it for them," he insists. "I’m creating a stimulus in my hands which helps their own body to sort itself out. Everyone’s tightening, compressing, although the body’s not designed to be that way. Release the tension that’s pulling you down, and you’ll go up. All I’m doing is facilitating that change."

It takes little more than a few minutes with Kingsley to understand what he’s capable of. He’ll guide your head so it hangs more naturally on the top of your spine. He’ll ease your shoulders down and out. He’ll talk all the while, a gentle, semi-hypnotic spiel which, he says, makes your mind and body more receptive. He exerts no pressure, and yet somehow your body reacts. After a 45-minute session, you do leave Kingsley’s office feeling lighter, taller, looser.

It’s not about magic, he maintains. It all makes sense if you think about it. And he wishes that more people would. "We can age ourselves with our habits," he adds. "We’re getting older before we should. But we all think it’s normal, because everyone looks the same."


As the iconography of graceless, absurd old age goes, the wig is right up there. Comic, grotesque, generally considered "bad" by definition. But Richard Mawbey of Wig Specialities in the UK is patiently addressing the issue. He makes bespoke wigs for all kinds of people. Convincing, understated, painstakingly crafted in his eccentric shop in central London, at least US $ 2,000 a pop, Mawbey’s wigs are almost beautiful. "Until something like chemotherapy or forms of alopecia hits, I think everyone makes a joke of wigs," says Mawbey, who may or may not be wearing one of his own creations — it’s impossible to tell. "And I don’t understand why. I’ve never understood why." Wig Specialities dedicates around 65 per cent of its time to designing and making hairpieces for film, theatre and television. Mawbey’s walls are covered in posters and signed film frames, memorabilia from the work he"s done. But he also has a considerable private client list. "I’ve always been fascinated with an illusion, by how fantastic it can be to make people look really different. With a wig, I love the idea that within minutes someone can look older, younger, richer, poorer," says Mawbey. "But also I know a lot about the cosmetic business and the reasons why people would feel bereft without hair."

Mawbey’s introduction to the wig-making scene was a baptism by fire. He trained as a hairdresser in Brighton, graduated to a salon in London, where he met the British drag artist Danny La Rue, and had a wig epiphany. "I travelled with him as a personal assistant and a hairdresser for ten years all over the world," says Mawbey. "Apart from learning about the clothes, the hair, the make-up, there were all these wigs... I mean, the man wore 20 in each performance."

It takes Mawbey four weeks to make a wig, although he can do it in a fortnight. He begins with a consultation and a series of fittings. "I need to know a bit about the psyche," he explains. "Suddenly you discover that someone always thought they were blonde, when actually they’re not. So you might go for a matching colour, and you realise, ‘Hello, she thinks she’s blonde. She’ll hate that.’"

A convincing wig, Mawbey thinks, requires a proper design, and doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of hair. "If you want it to look natural, it’s better if there’s less hair. And you should have a good hairline. People never think about what happens at the front of one’s head, but the hairline starts with a few hairs and gathers momentum as you go back. So if you have a solid wig, very solid at the front, even if you’re wearing a fringe, it’s going to look false if there’s too much sprouting from the front."

Wigs can make someone look considerably younger, Mawbey says, but he clearly gets most satisfaction from helping customers undergoing chemotherapy. "When you’re going through a horrible time, if you can look in the mirror and think, ‘Well, I look the same’— that’s worth an awful lot," he says. "But if you look and see this mountain of hair you never had before, or no hair at all, that can be very disturbing. So it’s restoring a sense of normality. Yes, that’s worth an awful lot."


Tom Kirkwood, academic, author of The End of Age, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the cellular ageing process, has been researching his subject for 25 years. In that time, he has proposed that we are not programmed to age, that the ageing process is little more than the lifelong accumulation of random molecular damage, that it’s "malleable", which means that we can potentially improve the maximum life span and our quality of life through the extra years we already have. And from all this, he has concluded that there are two things we can do to help battle the ageing process ourselves: "Eat our greens, and get more exercise. It’s boring, but true. Nutrition and exercise. It works. I have the research to prove it." Happily, Kirkwood’s age-busting endeavours do not focus uniquely on such prosaic concerns. In 1977, after shifting disciplines from maths, he developed the disposable soma theory, which proposes that "our cells age because of limitations in energy investment in maintenance and repair". His reasoning runs something like this: back when life expectancy was much shorter, and we generally died young from infectious diseases or in battle, our bodies didn’t bother devoting energy to long-term matters like cell repair.

"When survival is uncertain because of the many hazards of the environment," Kirkwood explains, "it is better not to squander effort on a greater level of bodily maintenance than is needed, but to attend instead to the all-important biological imperative of procreating." Our cells, he thinks, haven’t adapted to the fact that we now routinely live well into our seventies and eighties. But we can change this by modifying exposure to the molecular damage they sustain. Kirkwood is particularly excited by the possibilities of the "grid" — the successor to the web.

"Grid computing is based on a much greater sharing of data resources and computing power," he explains. "The other buzzword in this connection is e-science. What we are doing in our Basis project [Biology of Ageing e-Science Integration and Simulation] is developing a grid-based research node that will allow researchers around the world to access — and participate in developing — new tools and models to unravel the complexities of the ageing process."

Kirkwood isn’t interested in prolonging our lives indefinitely. His brand of age-busting isn’t about the pursuit of youth or immortality. "I don’t think we’ll see a time when we live to be 200," he claims. "Anyway, very few people would thank us if we extended life but did nothing about the quality." The practical application of his work, therefore, is about improving the experience of the additional years we’ve already gained.

"Our life expectancy has increased by a decade over the past 50 years. Which is an amazing achievement. Yet our extraordinarily negative stereotypes of the ageing process are becoming more negative as life expectancy increases. People seem to think that this means 10 more years of discomfort and reduced faculties. It shouldn’t be like that." And Kirkwood is working towards ensuring that it isn’t. In the meantime, however, we should just carry on eating our greens, and getting exercise.


Dr Sunny Luthra works from a flashily styled surgery on the Fulham Road, in west London. His waiting room is staffed by pretty receptionists, his chair is primary coloured and aerodynamically moulded, and framed, signed England football shirts hang on the walls.

"A lot of footballers are my patients," he explains. "They all want cosmetic work. I do a lot of celebrity work generally, TV presenters, loads of people. We’ve done most celebrities. I can’t really tell you who, though."

But Luthra will tell you that his brand of cosmetic dentistry isn’t just about gilding celebrity lilies. It is, he insists, at the forefront of the age-busting movement. "Botox, face-lifts, everything — I’m telling you now, if people do all that but they’ve got bad teeth, there’s no point. Look at Joan Collins. Very, very good teeth. She’s got wrinkles on her neck, she never wears short sleeves, but you just look at this bit..." He circles his own mouth area a few times. "And you think, ‘Corr, she looks good.’ Get your teeth done first, then get the rest done. Unless you’re getting a nose job, because then I’d need to make sure the alignment was right." Age-busting dentistry starts with tooth whitening, an increasingly popular procedure that Luthra specialises in (he initially trained in Manchester, England, but has worked in Australia and the USA, where cosmetic dentistry is significantly more advanced). Relatively cheap, non-invasive, quick, subtler than Hollywood-friendly veneers, it’s undeniably effective. Whiter teeth make you look younger, fresher, and healthier. Luthra has the only chain of teeth-whitening centres in the UK — 15 (Or maybe 16) dotted around the country. But he isn’t stopping there. "I’ve got a vision," he says. "I know what’s going to happen. Teeth whitening is now going to be part of your beauty regime. So why not put it into a beauty salon? So we’ve signed an exclusivity contract with Saks Hair & Beauty. Now we provide tooth whitening within the salon. He’s just hosted the world’s first ever tooth-whitening party.

Beyond whitening, Luthra performs a technique called a "smile lift" or "dental face-lift". "Face-lifts are all geared towards getting rid of wrinkles," he says, "because the collagen fibres lose their elasticity and the skin starts to sag, etc. Around the top lip you get little wrinkles, don’t you? And you get the drooping of the mouth because there is no support. What we do is we change the angulation of your teeth, we add little areas, we give it a little more support so when the lip rests over those areas, the skin doesn’t droop in."

Luthra can subtly build up teeth and jaws with veneers and bridges, so that hollowed cheeks, sagging lip lines and ruched top lips are corrected in the course of one day. Luthra cannot really imagine how cosmetic dentistry will develop from here. He thinks maybe there’ll be an evolution in gum-surgery techniques, so that the gum recession associated with ageing might be redressed. And he has a dream of a country populated by good-looking women with white teeth. "On a selfish level, I just want to see pretty girls with nice teeth. You want everything around you to be pretty and looking good, don’t you?"

(By arrangement with The Guardian)