Theme 1: Self Improvement

Dictoplasty The plastic lives of terrible men

Last year as we all watched the Arab Spring, confused, horrified, exhilarated, the faces of various harried men kept appearing, roiling in and out of the rolling news. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; Hosni Mubarak; Ali Abdullah Saleh; Muammar Gaddafi. A rogues gallery of falling strongmen.

And let’s not forget their lacquered cousin to the north, Silvio Berlusconi. The man had autocratic tendencies up the wazoo; it was just an accident of geography that got in his way. That guy is gone, too.

The faces all showed the same vague confusion, breaking through their hardened expressions. It was as if they couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about: “I got a golden iPad sent to me yesterday and there’s a naked dwarf handing out grapes and blow down by the pool. Life’s great. It’s the same for you guys out there, right? Let’s go skinny-dipping.”

After a while I started to get the players confused. The puffy lips and eyes; the smoothed forehead with the sheen of a mahogany table swabbed to perfection by a frightened man servant; the swollen cheeks like over pumped Michelin tires. Everybody looked the same.

The reason for this was, of course, plastic surgery.

Here lies an as-yet unspoken common element of the Arab Spring and the political ruptures of 2011. Right at the centre of the Venn diagram is a phalanx of plastic surgeons. Each discrete and well paid, flown in from private clinics around the world to administer bouts of brotox and beyond.

Indeed, perhaps this is the unheralded barometer of change in any dictator-based country? The sign that the time for regime change is finally ripe. When a strongman’s rearranged face turns from a curate’s egg to a salmonella infused omelet; that’s when the persecuted people should write up a list of demands, set up camp in the main square of the capital and wait for the downfall.

Now something to acknowledge upfront is that neither Ben Ali nor Saleh do much to advance my theory. Though the former’s hairline is suspect, I must admit, if either have had work done, their surgeons’ hands are delicate, and I will have to leave them to one side, unless new shit comes to light.

But before you push your drink across the table and take your leave, gaze upon the features of the most glaring – and well documented case. Muamar Gaddafi. Our boy; the Mad Dog; the Arab Swashbuckler. In his day, a deeply handsome man. Look at this picture of Gaddafi in 1971: those cheek bones; that square jaw; a prominent, well-proportioned nose; beaming pearly whites… Exuding that rare glow of a strapping 29-year-old who’s just put himself in charge of an oil rich nation. Swoon. In short, he looks like a god-damned superstar.

It is difficult to imagine a more gruesome sight than Gaddafi, one cheek full of hamburger meat, the other with his own stomach fat, the whole face slack from the anaesthetic…

If Hollywood had come knocking, Warren Beatty could have played in him in a biopic of those early days. A nice companion piece to Ishtar, perhaps.

But by the end, Gaddafi’s face, like his regime, was a hideous joke. They injected and primped and rearranged his face until it became a face for the ages: waxy and grotesque and expensive – unlike anything his people could afford, could understand, could recognise.

Everything was pulled and stretched – attempts to contain his face’s age were everywhere. His upper lip, which retained its peculiar squiggle, latterly looked raw. The square jaw remained, but layers of wax-like skin sag around it. His head resembles a football that has become deflated or a burned out candle.

Whatever was being injected in there made the thing – for a thing is what it was – appear as if it had been punched a lot. That was one of the key elements of Gaddafi’s latter-day face. It looked sore.

Gaddafi built his sandcastles in the desert on identity politics. A powerful, good looking soldier bravely leading the nation, fighting anti-Libyan imperialist dogs wherever they roamed. Then, when the aging process presented itself, he declared holy war on that too, fought a multi-front campaign against it. He lost. This is the great tragedy of Gaddafi’s face: despite all his best efforts, a man who could impose his will – could project himself – on a whole nation for 41 years, could rule it with vicious power, couldn’t control his own face; couldn’t take on time.

It can’t have been easy being the doctors in this arrangement.  (Death by peckish sharks surely awaits the man servant who has brought home insufficiently quilted toilet roll; imagine the havoc wrought by a botched nose job or duck-bill lips.)

Last year the AP reported Brazilian surgeon Dr Liacyr Ribeiro’s claims that he was summoned to work Gaddafi’s face in 1995. The brave or foolish Brazilian (seen here posing with the dictator) said he recommended a facelift but Gaddafi refused so the surgeon instead extracted fat from the Libyan leader’s belly and injected it into his face.

Quite why Gaddafi considered slamming stomach fat into his face preferable to lifting it up and stretching it out, remains unexplained, but I suppose you’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere, if only so you can blow it away later.

Just to add to the pressure of the procedure, Gaddafi insisted on remaining conscious, opting for a local anaesthetic so he could “remain alert”. That’s a pretty serious set of eyes on you while you work.

Also, Ribeiro claims that midway through the operation they stopped for hamburgers.

It is difficult to imagine a more gruesome sight than Gaddafi, one cheek full of hamburger meat, the other with his own stomach fat, the whole face slack from the anaesthetic – it’s like a Francis Bacon portrait … One can’t imagine Ribeiro ate all his burger.

Whatever the belly fat achieved, Gaddafi seemed pleased enough with the outcome. He also got some hair plugs thrown in for good measure. Ribeiro says he never heard from Gaddafi again, but he certainly called someone else and look how it all turned out. So, how did we get here? What drove Gaddafi to create a mashup of his facial features – a dubstep remix of face; all gloopy and full of murk, with its constituent parts hard to define.

Perhaps the real trouble all began with Condi. Things began to go south soon after Libya came in from the cold, renouncing nuclear weapons in return for a cosy, and oil cash based-relationship with the West. In 2005 George W. Bush appointed Condeleeza Rice his secretary of state. Rice took meetings with Gaddafi. She was thinking, “How quickly can I get out of here?” He was thinking, I’m smitten.

Did the words of Steve Earle’s song “Condi, Condi” reverberate through his head, an unrequited earworm, while lying in the doctor’s surgery awaiting one last, fateful botox injection? “Condi in my heart and romance on my mind/ Listen to me Condi don’t be afraid … Oh Condi, Condi”

Condi didn’t listen, alas, and Gaddafi, kept on pumping his face full of shit.

Heading north, it has also been claimed that Dr. Ribeiro worked on Silvio Berlusconi, though allegedly remains the operative word here – it seems one newspaper used as throw-away line and then everyone else just repeated it without question, while Ribeiro himself refuses to confirm the rumour (a cautionary note for any crazy dictator indulging in self-mythologizing propaganda, people can say any old bizarre thing about you and others will repeat it as gospel). It is tempting, though, to imagine that Ribeiro got the Silvio job, based on word of mouth. “Muamar, tell me, who is your nip and tuck guy? Favoloso.”

What is beyond dispute it that someone has worked their magic with Silvio’s face.

Like Gaddafi’s, Silvio’s is a face expensively attended to and reupholstered, robbed of emotion. His face was an awful impenetrable mask. Does he even know that his county is about to go bust or is he just thinking about where his next erection is going to come from?

He was ousted too, with slightly more dignity and slightly less tumult, in an EU led technocratic coup that everyone was fairly relieved about (even Silvio was perhaps slightly pleased to be able to concentrate on the bunga bunga for a while).

In 2004 Silvio admitted to having had some work done; this came after he went off the radar for a while and re-emerged sporting a glorious bandana look, like a small time drug dealer in an episode of Miami Vice. Or as Italian newspaper Il Foglio described him, “half-way between Boris Karloff and a baby.”

After much speculation, he eventually owned up to a hair transplant and some work around his eyes, coming clean at a press conference in Rome:

“Given the possibilities of today’s cosmetic surgery, I think that those who can afford it have a duty to present themselves in the best possible way,” he said, adding. “It’s a form of respect.”

Our boy Silvio respected his voters, respected Italy, respected life, so much he had to get work done on his face to preserve their dignity. He went on:

“I have taken one of the choices of modern life. It is a way of showing respect to those who share your life – your family. It is a way of showing respect to those who expect you to represent them on an international and national stage.”

There you have it: He owed it to Italy to redecorate. Forza botox.

I’m suspicious about his whole face: it looks like a pitched battle between impending wrinkles and imposed smoothness, with the plastic surgeon in the libero role – like that once occupied by Franco Baresi at Silvio’s AC Milan – dictating play and winning the day. The smooth forehead, the curiously rounded puffy cheeks, the unmarked chin.

“Given the possibilities of today’s cosmetic surgery, I think that those who can afford it have a duty to present themselves in the best possible way,” Berlusconi said, adding. “It’s a form of respect.”

In your average democracy it seems unlikely you’d get away with such obvious primping. You can’t imagine Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron or any of the US presidential hopefuls could trip off to a surgery for a quick facial rearrangement and be taken seriously afterwards.

If being reelected is a concern, it’s rather hard to convince the voters that you’re dedicated to improving their lives when you’ve been clearly spending much of your time thinking about getting a facelift.

Putin, of course, can get away with his alleged plastic surgery unquestioned, uncritiqued, because, well it’s Russia. A quasi democracy, quasi dictatorship. Putin controls the media, and seemingly the ballot box, so he can do what he likes. If his strong man image, killing bears with his bare hands and the like, can be buffered by a well-buffeted face, then so be it. Who is going to say no to him?

Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, had other concerns, back in the Arab Spring, as he tried to get his people to take their tanks off his expensive lawn. The similarities were clear to Libya: not just the repression, nor the socio-economic degradation but also in the well-manicured face. Mubarak tried to tell his people that he’d fix things, he’d reform, everything would be fine… They weren’t buying it, obviously. Not for a second. How could they when the dude selling them the cheap suit had an expensive face that couldn’t effectively crack a winning smile.

There hasn’t been much in the way of speculation about Hosni Mubarak and plastic surgery, aside from this searching exchange on Yahoo! Answers:

Q: Why does Hosni Mubarak look like he’s in his 40s despite being in his 80s?
A: Botox and roz maimur, egyptian food is some of the healthiest in the world.

Setting the healthy portions of baked rice and chicken stock to one side for now at least, I have suspicions about Hosni’s face too. In fact, it looks like he’s torn out a page of Silvio’s playbook. In this picture of Silvio and Hosni together in 2010, they look a pair of cousins meeting up at aunt Imelda’s birthday shindig – “Dinner, plus light dancing. Formal attire”.

The same smoothness pervades; granted, there are more wrinkles than Silvio, but as Yahoo! Answers suggests, this is a man in his 80s. He’s looking pretty fresh. The chin and forehead are blank, the cheeks are puffy, an element of surprise above the arched eyebrows. The hair-line is unnaturally sculpted. It’s a facial expression face that Hosni would need a team of sculptors on hand to rearrange.

Neither Hosni or Silvio had the matinee idol looks of a young Gaddafi, so there was less to preserve and less to lose. Their cuts were less swingeing than their Libyan brother.

There’s a pretty pivotal face I’ve been ignoring: that of Bashar al-Assad, the despotic ruler of Syria. He looks ok for a man in his forties. In fact, he looks too ok. Assad’s very ordinariness provides a dark counterpoint to the erstwhile Libyan Colonel.  He might easily have been a middle manager at an unassuming firm of accountants. Comedian Andy Zaltzam suggested Assad looked like a journey-man golfer.

While the Gaddafi’s regime was an obvious, sick joke, manifested everywhere from the face, to the hit squad of female bodyguards to the outrageous outfits to the green book – not to mention the human rights abuses, the terror sponsoring, his awful offspring – Assad, on the other hand, presented himself with a well cut suit and a forgettable mug. He entered crazy town inside a facial Trojan horse.

Then the deal went down and this went out the window; cue up instead, the usual bouts of craziness superficially associated with more extravagant iron-fist leaders. Assad is heading towards the centre of the synthetic venn diagram, with things only getting worse for unfortunate Syrians. Hopefully he’ll be deposed before the surgeons are called in.

When the face fried strongmen are gone, where does that leave our venn diagram and the countries they departed?

Some weeks back a news story emerged in The New York Times, causing lights to flash on my radar:

“Egyptian lawmaker forced to resign over nose job”

Sounds like a nosegate. Read on, I thought. It began so:

“The first political scandal of Egypt’s fledgling electoral democracy erupted Monday after an Islamist lawmaker was expelled from his ultraconservative party, accused of fabricating a story that he was viciously beaten by masked gunmen.”

Anwar el-Balkimy was newly elected to the recently formed Egyptian parliament and a member of the ultra-conservative Al Nour party, who typically condemn various forms of entertainment such as music, also have truck with plastic surgery which is considered sinful.

El-Balkimy, it seems, boxed himself off a nose job and then claimed the bandages and his time in hospital was a result of getting brutally attacked. And that’s when the trouble started. Not only did he get, in his party’s eyes, a morally objectionable bit of surgery he also fabricated a story to justify it, in the process leading a series of other elected officials to visit him to wish him well and some to suggest that Egypt’s interior minister may have been responsible for the attack. The ministry, it was reported, had to send a letter of condolence.

Eventually El-Blakimy was forced to resign. A spokesman for Al Nour claimed this showed the party was “establishing a principal of accountability” – something new to elected officials in Egypt, if a little more common around the world, he said.

Is this progress? Well, sort of. If he’d been forced out just because of religious objections to his surgery, then obviously not. Beyond the morbid fascination, who cares what people are doing with their faces as long as the public’s cash or time isn’t wasted. When his elaborate story unravelled however, then it was time to be called to account. In the Mubarak era, such questioning could readily be shrugged off.

“Vain, self-aggrandizing and hypocritical politicians are, of course, as old as politics, even in Egypt,” wrote David Kirkpartick in the New York Times article. “But for their foibles to blossom into public scandal requires conditions that are still a novelty here and elsewhere in the Arab world: lawmakers who win competitive elections with promises to honor their constituents, informants unafraid of extra-legal retribution from the powerful and a free press eager to expose the circus. In this case, it took just 40 days since the Parliament was seated.”

40 days since parliament was seated and some 388 since Hosni Mubarak was unseated. Although, given that the military appears to be still ruling the roost regardless in post-Mubarak Egypt, there might a powerful general looking at himself in the mirror, rubbing his hand across a sagging face and wondering if it’s right about time to do something about those lines around his eyes.