Skill, sass and ambition: women in cosmetic medicine

Dr Leah - Sara Lincoln Photography-3In July 2013, The Telegraph introduced an interview with BBC’s The Apprentice winner Dr Leah Totton in the following way: ‘It’s not that I dislike (all right then, hate) an interviewee before I’ve clapped eyes on them, but I think in the case of Lord Sugar’s latest Apprentice winner, I’ll have to make a dishonourable exception.’ (Wilson, 2013).

The journalist’s reasoning? Leah’s ‘Disney cascade of candyfloss hair’, her ‘improbably huge, cornflower-blue eyes’ and her ‘ice-maiden’ exterior.

I did a lot of research on Leah before I met her. I found countless numbers of articles where the first adjective or word to describe Leah was ‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’ or ‘babe’. Were it not for the fact that the journalist later goes on to applaud Leah’s ambitiousness, her calm, collected manner and the fact that she’s a genuinely nice person, I’d have written her standing as a professional writer off entirely.

It’s upsetting to see that when Leah won The Apprentice – and throughout her appearance on TV – she was being chastised for her appearance above all else. The latest Apprentice winner, a male, will not get the same treatment.

So why are we so quick to judge a woman – a bright, professional, medically-trained clinical practitioner who’s worked just as hard for her career as any other male or female doctor – for her ‘frosted pink pillowy lips’?

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The second cosmetic skin clinic founded by Apprentice 2013 winner Dr Leah Totton and her business partner Lord Alan Sugar

Under the skin

On Friday 4 March, Leah launched her second cosmetic skin clinic in the heart of Essex. The expansion comes following the success of the Apprentice star’s inaugural clinic in London.

Leah is courteous, collected and utterly professional. When I meet her for the first time at her cosmetic clinic in central London, she exudes expertise and confidence. I can see why Lord Sugar fell for her business acumen.

I met her at the launch for Silhouette Soft last year – a non-surgical facial aesthetics treatment with an immediate natural lift effect and a progressive restoration of loose collagen.

Later, when a woman near me appears nervous and agitated before receiving the treatment for the first time, Leah sits beside her, takes her hand and soothes her, asking if she would like a glass of water or a moment outside. The sort of treatment we’d all like to receive from any medical professional. When I speak to her after, Leah explains that The Apprentice did more than just boost her career; it helped push the cosmetics industry to the forefront of the media.

As a young woman, you know that when you’re going into an industry that is quite saturated and lucrative, you are going to ruffle some feathers

‘I think the industry gets a lot of negative press because of some quite poor cosmetic results,’ she observes. ‘And unfortunately, I don’t think there’s enough emphasis that, actually, when these treatments are performed by highly skilled practitioners in a safe environment, they can benefit the patient, improve their self-esteem and make a real difference to someone’s life.’

I ask her more about the negative press and bad feelings towards the industry. What makes cosmetics such an easy target? ‘Lack of regulation was something that gained a lot of air time around the time I won The Apprentice, and though I personally did come under some unjustified criticism, I think it was worth it because the media highlighted key issues that needed addressing, like patient safety.’

Once Leah qualifed as a doctor, she undertook several training courses in aesthetics and undertook a two-year mentorship, completed various courses in basic toxin and dermal filler and advanced toxin dermal filler and chemical peel. It was around this time she decided to apply for the show.

‘I wanted to specialise in cosmetic medicine,’ she explains. ‘I began to seek avenues that would lead me to securing investment to set up my own practice.’

Two years after her win, Lord Sugar is still an avid business partner. ‘I just got off the phone from him this morning!’ laughs Leah.

Since winning the show, Leah opened the first Dr Leah clinic in Moorgate. Later this year in October, she’ll be launching a range of skin care products. ‘I’m very fortunate to be in a sector where we’re seeing huge advancements in technology.

‘I love skin. I’m a woman,’ she laughs, ‘so I’m passionate about looks and the ageing process, it’s truly fascinating. We’ve recently launched a laser division, and I’m still astonished with some of the results that we’re getting, particularly from laser resurfacing.’

The face of it

It’s always been Leah’s dream to set up her own aesthetics clinic. ‘For me, the main thing was to set the standard,’ she muses. ‘The industry is quite divided. You have Harley Street clinics on one side, with high profile consultant plastic surgeons. On the other side you have bargain basements – and I think the market is missing somewhere in the middle. Somewhere that could offer Harley Street standards in terms of clinical access/innovation and patient safety, but equally, at a price point that’s accessible to the average woman or man.’

Hence, the Dr Leah brand.

Leah won The Apprentice in July 2013, which saw Lord Sugar invest £250,000 into her business. With this investment, she went on to launch the Dr Leah Cosmetic Skin Clinic in Moorgate, London, which has already more than doubled Lord Sugar’s original investment. Leah is determined to build on the success of the practice by establishing her second cosmetic skin clinic.

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Aside from Leah herself, the Dr Leah multidisciplinary team consists of GMC registered doctors and specialist nurse prescribers and aestheticians

She points to her young age as a huge motivator for her interest in facial aesthetics. ‘From someone who’s quite young coming into the industry, preventing the ageing process a key focus for me.’ Leah also has huge admiration for the dental profession and their ‘business acumen’. ‘I think dentists tend to lend themselves quite well to the business side of running aesthetic practices. For me, the key thing I find difficult is transitioning from an NHS mindset to working in what is essentially a private practice, and how you need to adjust the presentation of yourself, your business, communication skills and your relationship with the patient.’

Leah is currently undertaking a masters in dermatology. She also does a lot of work for women in business – in 2014, she spoke at the annual Institute of Directors Women in Business conference. She describes the experience as ‘humbling’.

‘It’s given me a fantastic profile not only as a cosmetics doctor, but as a young businesswoman,’ she notes.

‘[The media] gave me my profile, they made my clinic hugely successful, so you’ve got to roll with the punches’

I wanted to avoid the subject of her being a woman and a doctor in the media. I didn’t want to do a Telegraph on her. Her being a woman should have nothing to do with her standing as a powerful businesswoman and her medical credibility – and it doesn’t, not in real life. In the media, however, it’s a different story.

‘I think anyone who has experience of the media will know that it can be challenging, but at the same time, you just have to accept that as a young woman, you know that when you’re going into an industry that is quite saturated and lucrative, you are going to ruffle some feathers in the industry.

‘So that criticism, while I found it wholly unjustified, it wasn’t completely unexpected, given that this is essentially my competition.’ She goes on to explain that ‘the media is the media’ – their objective is to sell papers, so ‘you can’t bite the hand that feeds you’. ‘They gave me my profile, they made my clinic hugely successful, so you’ve got to roll with the punches,’ she adds, with a smile.

Still, I can’t help but think how unjustified the whole thing is. Sadly, it is still a big deal to be a woman, to be ambitious, and to be a doctor in the spotlight. Leah’s authority as a medical pratictioner and expertise was (perhaps still is) questioned and sometimes underestimated – by people who judge her from their sofas, and by professional writers (and women) with a public voice, who should know better.

Wilson J (2013) Apprentice winner Leah Totton says: ‘My pout makes me cringe – it’s just terrible’. The Telegraph [online]. Available at <> [Accessed 23/12/14]

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