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The Wives Club

Being married to a plastic surgeon isn’t all free nips and tucks. Explore a world where imperfection isn’t an option

“My husband is about to have the perfect wife,” says Muffie Potter Aston cheerfully. Ooh. What does that mean? Since Potter Aston, a doyenne of the New York social circuit, is also married to Sherrell Aston, one of the leading plastic surgeons in the country, naturally my thoughts turn in one direction. Is she getting sculpted abs? The new pert breasts of a 16-year-old? Potter Aston laughs. “No, no, I’m having vocal-cord surgery,” she says. “I won’t be able to talk for a week. Sherrell will be a very happy man.”

Potter Aston is making a wee joke, of course, but her sly humor raises a question that’s occurred to many who live in this beauty-obsessed culture: What’s it like to be the wife of a prominent plastic surgeon? I’ve written about this medical specialty for years, attended dozens of conferences, and every time I’m at a gathering of these guys (and they’re overwhelmingly guys), I’m reminded of lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” The spouses are, in a sense, married to the Michelangelos—and they are often their husband’s works of art. Look at the wife and you see the aesthetic of the husband. I could never say that about any other medical specialty. Generally, doctors in other areas don’t operate on family members, let alone their mates. But plastic surgeons? There is not a woman I’ve talked to who wouldn’t go to her spouse for rejuvenation and modification. Recently Potter Aston, a fiftysomething whose cool Hitchcock-blonde looks belie a warm and witty demeanor, had a face-lift courtesy of her husband. When I mention the somewhat disturbing thought of a husband peeling off his beloved’s face and sewing it back on, she waves it off. “I never gave it a second thought,” she says. “I’ve seen his work. I’ve seen him at work. I know he’s a perfectionist. Why would I go elsewhere?”

First, there’s a sense of obligation felt to be a team player. Lisa Hochstein is the newest (and at 30, the youngest, she’s quick to tell me) of the Real Housewives of Miami; her husband is plastic surgeon Lenny Hochstein, known around town as the Boob God. Lisa has had her husband do her breast implants. (Her nose is courtesy of another surgeon she’d gone to before dating Lenny.) She says she hasn’t had any other work but is pretty sure there will be more in her future: “There is no shame. Everyone on the show has someone or something they are promoting, and by looking like this, I promote my husband’s business.”

There is also, simply, a sense of pleasure and pride in having the big macher doc that goes beyond being a loyal wife. As Potter Aston puts it, “There’s something about being married to a man who can affect one’s beauty and turn back the hands of time.”

But here’s an inescapable thought: Consider being in bed with a plastic surgeon. Is that not terrifying? They spend all their time looking at women as fixer-uppers. How the hell do they turn that off at the end of the day? Can their clinical selves, whose response to jiggling thighs in their office involves a suction machine and a cannula, walk into their houses and see imperfections as endearing and not problems that demand an SOS?

Apparently, insist their wives, they do. “Alan’s not critical at all. He looks at me the same way as he did when he met me,” says Melissa Matarasso, 56, who 27 years ago met husband Alan Matarasso, the Upper East Side plastic surgeon rumored to be the man behind the faces of everyone from Diane Sawyer to Kathleen Turner.

“I’m far more critical of myself than he ever is,” adds Gayle Sobel (an executive director of sales at DuJour), 41, whose husband, dermatologic surgeon Howard Sobel, counts Katie Couric among his clients and was once called the King of Lipo by W magazine. They met when Gayle was his patient about 20 years ago and 10 years later, when both were single, started to date. By the nature of that situation, she thought she might be his lifelong project. “I thought he would be like, ‘OK, we’ll start over here and work our way up.…’ And who knows? Maybe when I get older he’ll be telling me, ‘You need tightening.’ ” But now, she says, the very opposite is true. “Howard stops me from getting stuff done all the time,” Sobel says. “I’ll ask, ‘Should I fill these lines?’ ” She points at her forehead. “He’ll be like, ‘Gayle.’ Or I’ll think someone who’s just had a lip filler looks good, and he’ll tell me, ‘That’s a little too blowfish.’ He prefers a much more natural look.”

Surely there had to be some approval-seeking and concern? “I did worry that he’d be critical,” admits Hochstein about her husband. “He’s seen more breasts than any man in this world. I hoped he approved of my breasts, but I got over that quickly.” Well…sort of. Lisa Hochstein had undergone a bad breast job prior to dating Lenny. “They looked awkward—too close together, sat low. I had to have him redo them. I didn’t want to walk around and have people think this was my husband’s work.”

From left: Gayle Sobel wears an Etro dress, her own necklace, a Cartier bracelet and Sergio Rossi shoes. Laura Tisch Broumand wears a J.Crew top, her own pants, a Rolex watch and Christian Louboutin shoes. Melissa Matarasso wears a Trina Turk top, a Club Monaco skirt and her own jewelry and shoes. Hair and makeup for Gayle Sobel: Valery Joseph Salon. Photographed by Alex John Beck.

Yet the wives feel my skepticism is misplaced. Being observant isn’t the same as being critical, the women explain. Potter Aston recalls going on a date with Sherrell more than 20 years ago. When he told her she was pretty and she demurred with “Oh, you don’t even know what color my eyes are,” Aston replied, “They’re bright blue, and your left eye is slightly smaller than your right eye.” “And I ran to the mirror and he was right!” she says. As someone who has always counted bad eyesight as a huge bonus in a mate, I found this story deeply alarming. Potter Aston, whose own father was a surgeon, was impressed.

“I was older when we met, already in my thirties, and had two children,” adds Laura Tisch Broumand, wife of New York–based plastic surgeon Stafford Broumand. “I definitely felt he was attracted to me for me. I didn’t feel he was looking at my flaws. I actually don’t feel he’s looking at anyone’s flaws. He always feels he’s looking to enhance what’s there.”

Are these women supremely self-confident, delusional or both? Hard to say. A Medscape physician lifestyle report surveyed almost 30,000 doctors in 25 different specialties, asking them to rate their lives on a scale of one to seven. Plastic surgeons, it turns out, are less happy than the average physician (seventh from the bottom on the specialty list) and have a higher divorce rate than most other specialties. (Psychiatrists have an even higher rate.)

This makes sense; after all, these men have a lot of opportunity to screw up their marriages. Consider the amount of admiration-bordering-on-worship plastic surgeons get. Now consider how demanding the specialty is—how many of them were too busy studying to get laid. Now, their geekiness has evolved into that most useful of social skills: making women happy. Draw your own conclusions.

While the wives dismiss my theorizing, they do cop to feeling more pressure to be just so. They are no strangers to dieting, exercising and all manner of personal grooming. (Though one could argue that this is not so much the result of being married to plastic surgeons as being the kind of women these men are drawn to in the first place. Who’s a plastic surgeon going to fall in love with? Jane Goodall?) They have a lifetime of free injectables and—particularly for those with husbands involved in clinical trials with various companies, as many of these men are—access to every new laser and filler. Sometimes they worry that people will think they’ve had more work than they actually have had. “I’ve had my nose and my breasts done and nothing else,” says Hochstein, who at one time posed for Playboy. “My figure is hard work, dedication, eating well and working out.”

“I guess people do look at me as an advertisement for my husband,” says Broumand. (She notes that her very favorite treatment from her husband isn’t exactly for beauty. “Botoxing under your armpits—it stops you from sweating!” she enthuses. “It’s fabulous, to be able to wear that little black dress and not worry.”) “If friends like the way I look, it means they’re wanting subtle improvements, nothing radical,” she says.

Muffie Potter Aston wears a J.Crew tank, an Oscar de la Renta skirt, earrings by Roberto Coin, a necklace by David Yurman and her own bracelets and shoes. Photographed at the Chatwal New York. Photographed by Alex John Beck.

But they do all know radical, those wives of surgeons who’ve helped themselves a little too generously to their husband’s bag of tricks. I recall going to one plastic-surgery conference a few years in a row and playing a guessing game with myself about how much larger one surgeon would make his wife’s breasts; after a few years he got a new wife, and her cup size began its upward trajectory.

“We all see them at parties, the ones who never saw a needle they didn’t love,” says one wife. Another adds, “There are the serial liposuctioners: They get it done, gain a few, then go back to get it taken out again.”

With all these benefits, however, comes a sense of responsibility. It seems the number-one credo of the plastic surgeon’s wife is full disclosure. You aren’t allowed to get some work and tell your friends, “Oh, I just had a relaxing vacation.” You’ve got to spill. “Times have changed a lot,” says Broumand, who grew up on Long Island as the daughter of financier Saul Steinberg. “When I was a kid, everyone was so secretive. Whole families on Long Island had nose jobs so the girls would look the same.” Broumand, who is 50, credits good genetics to her not yet needing a face-lift, but eye work may be in her immediate future—”and, yes, of course, I’d never hide it.”

“I tell everyone: My breasts are mine; my face is his,” says Potter Aston. “There is nothing to be ashamed of. We get our hair colored, our nails done—this is all on a continuum. And look, if you have a great hair colorist or dressmaker, you want to share. It’s the same for this. I weigh 125 pounds, I’m muscular, I keep fit, I swim, I eat healthy…to me this is one more thing. It would be silly if I pretended I look great and did nothing.”

The job of the plastic surgeon’s wife, they say, is not to encourage people to go under the knife but rather to quell anxiety, to make those who are considering surgery feel “like they are not totally bonkers,” notes Melissa Matarasso. “I see myself as a soother—but not, like, ‘Oh, my God, why did you take so long?’ It’s a fine line.”

At the same time, there’s a keen awareness of the dangers: “It’s not a candy store to me,” adds Matarasso. Today, in her mid-fifties, Matarasso has not had a face-lift or much besides Botox and fillers and lasers. She doesn’t say she won’t, but she is pleased her daughters like her lines and says of Alan, “The less I do, the happier he is.” Sometimes the simplest solution works. “I just don’t believe in trying every new thing that comes out on the market,” says Broumand. “I have a lot of skin sensitivities, so I stick with the gentlest products, like Cetaphil for washing my face.”

While all the wives say their husbands are very popular dinner companions—who doesn’t love a good surgery chat?—I was curious about how the women deal with being cornered at a party and asked, “What do you think I should have done?” Is there some sort of wifely etiquette? “Of course I’m like anyone else,” says Potter Aston. “I may have the thought, Oh, you could be pretty if you just let my husband shave your nose. But I would never suggest you have something done. Plastic surgery is such a personal decision—and it should be.”

Melissa Matarasso agrees. “Because here’s the truth,” she says, “No one really wants you to be honest.”