Plastic surgery... on safari
by Decca Aitkenhead
When Shonali Rodrigues returns from her trip to South Africa, she will have more than a suntan to show for her travels. The beautiful 27-year-old is bringing home a souvenir she has wanted since she turned 13.
Every birthday, her parents would ask her what she'd like for a present. The answer was always the same. Last week she went to Johannesburg and bought it for herself, packaged in five-star luxury, and wrapped up with her very own safari. Shonali is coming home with a new nose.
She is the latest Londoner to buy an all-inclusive deluxe African vacation offering cosmetic surgery and a safari tour of the bush. Holidaymakers can fly to Johannesburg, stay in its finest hotel for a week, undergo surgery and look at elephants, often for less than the price of treatments in Harley Street.
The package, one of post-apartheid's more unusual dividends, is possible because of the value of the rand. "We have the best surgeons, but this shocking exchange rate," explains Lorraine Melvill, founder of Surgeon and Safari. "I simply thought, lets use it to our advantage." She is flying out five patients a week already, and the number is growing every month.
Shonali has been counting the days until she checks in at Heathrow for her nose job. A self-possessed, professional young woman, she researched the other cut-price international options - Russia and Thailand - before booking South Africa through the web. She has e-mailed photos of her nose to the surgeon, but won't know exactly what he can do to it until she meets him.
"I know I can't go in and say, 'Give me a Julia Roberts'. I'm not going to go for a Liz Hurley. Christy Turlington's nose is nice, but I want more of a Helena Christensen - less sharp."
The more procedures a client undergoes, the more cost-effective the trip becomes. Two or three are the norm, usually liposuction, breast implants and a tummy tuck. Shonali had considered having her breasts enlarged, "but they don't affect my life or my job. I'm really quite happy with the rest of my body. It's just my nose."
A limousine chauffeurs her from Johannesburg airport to The Westcliff, a wildly opulent Orient-Express hotel dripping with livery and chintz. Lorraine adopts the role of instant big sister, escorting her to a nearby clinic. At the door, Shonali is greeted by a concierge in top hat and tails, before undergoing her pre-op consultation with the surgeon. Forty-eight hours later, she is back at The Westcliff, sitting up in bed in silk pyjamas with a bandage on her nose, ordering room service.
"It's straight! Now my friends won't ever be able to call me Schnozzer again." The whole experience is closer to an AbFab minibreak than a medical procedure, and faintly surreal.
Another young woman has just arrived from London for breast implants, and is perched on the bed looking slightly nervous, but Shonali purrs reassurances. "The doctor is a craftsman." They pore over photos of Shonali's old nose, while congratulatory text messages arrive on her mobile. Lorraine pops in. "We're having a hen party!"
And that is pretty much what it feels like; Shonali is glowing, euphoric, and cannot stop smiling. She jumps up and down to look in the mirror, as if she has a Christmas present on her face waiting to be unwrapped.
Only hours earlier, a surgeon was looking up her nose with a head lamp, smashing it with a hammer and chisel. The embodiment of patrician calm, Dr Rick van der Poel practises in stately offices lined with black and white photos of Vogue cover girls, visions of perfection gazing down on his clients while they wait. Like most surgeons in South Africa, he is highly trained, but many potential patients have emigrated since the end of apartheid.
Prospective overseas clients e-mail him a medical report with their requests, which sit in a file on his desk, clipped with photographs of the offending body parts. One girl has added a picture of Posh Spice, as a suggestion.
"One of my biggest problems," the doctor sighs, "is that many are just too fat. They think I can suck all the fat out of them and they will go home thin, looking like Dolly Parton. I have to e-mail them and say I can trim you down a bit, but you really need to lose a little weight. I try to tell them, I'm a physician, not a magician."
Sometimes the requests are wildly ambitious. An American woman wanted six procedures in one visit. Most of Surgeon and Safari's clients are British women, but there have been gay couples, young men, and married pensioners having his 'n' hers face-lifts.
"I don't get the dumb-blonde bimbo coming out here," says Lorraine. "These are professional people, conqueror spirits." So far, not one had been to South Africa before, but all have said they will come back. "They've been fascinated by what South Africa is," reflects Dr van der Poel. "They have misconceptions about elephants walking down the street. Particularly Americans."
British clients are more inclined than Americans to take advantage of what the Surgeon and Safari web site refers to coyly as "privacy in paradise". In other words, they keep their surgery a secret, pretending to have gone on a safari only; most of the bruising has gone by the time they fly home.
"Brits are always trying to save a buck too, I'm afraid," laughs Lorraine. "They know they're getting it cheap, but they still want it cheaper. People must understand, this isn't cheap. Go to Poland or Russian - that's cheap. This is an experience."
A typical package of breast enlargement, liposuction and tummy tuck, with 12 nights' accommodation, all meals and a care assistant, comes to around £7,000 - still less than the price of some procedures in London. "And we have so much fun too." Indeed they do; once on their feet, Lorraine's clients are taken to dinner, shown the shopping malls, and generally spirited about in the style of a bawdy girls' night out.
A petite tour de force, with a dirty laugh like a fog horn, Lorraine is charmingly unselfconscious about shepherding a procession of what look like car crash victims around town. She is seldom seen out of the company of women hobbling along in dark glasses, and the post-op, face-lift patients look a little scary. If it is faintly macabre, Lorraine is oblivious.
On day three, Shonali goes shopping in a vast, glittering mall in the northern suburb of Sandton. In Sophia Loren sunglasses, the only sign of damage is her bandage, a thin, white strip that looks like a cricketer's sun block. She still attracts a few knowing glances from flawlessly sculpted white women, who are everywhere; when a fast-food chicken restaurant opened here, it's slogan was: "At last! A real breast in Sandton."
After four days, she is fit to go on safari. Another Londoner, Sally, has flown in that morning for a boob job, and together the girls are driven to a wild game park. They see giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, and, of course, rhinos, which are the cue for a great number of puns. In the back of the Land Rover, the chat is about magazines and lip injections.
"This is wild, isn't it?" Sally marvels. "This time yesterday I was cleaning the house. And that's a giraffe over there." Sally has forgotten to bring any bigger bras. "No problem, darling!" Lorraine trills. "Everyone does. I'll pop into Woolworths and get you one while you're having your op."
Between the shrieking and giggling, though, there are hints of something more contemplative going on. Alone in Africa, according to Lorraine, most Surgeon and Safari clients undergo unexpectedly intimate post-operative soulsearching. "They take a long, hard look in the mirror, and their true self comes out. They are forced to look at themselves." Without any irony, she claims it is a "profound" experience.
"They have time to process why they've come. I'm passionate about my country, and I love the bush. It's where I get rejuvenated, my sense of soulfulness. And that's what they get - external rejuvenation, with a very profound soulful experience. It is so beautiful here, it uplifts everything about them."
There is even a quote from Nelson Mandela on the Surgeon and Safari web site: "Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a personal sense of renewal." He was unlikely to be thinking of a nose job, but this is what Lorraine hopes the new South Africa will become famous for. "You know when people say 'nice shirt'?" says Shonali. "And you go, 'Thanks, River Island, 20 quid.' When people say, 'Nice nose', I'll be like, 'Cheers, South Africa, two grand'."