My fascination with lips began around 10 years old when I met Rachael at summer camp. Rachael had beautiful skin the color of cinnamon and the plumpest, prettiest top lip I had ever seen.
Until then, lips were only noticed if they seemed too big for a person’s face, and usually that meant the person was getting teased.
“Damn, Troy, you got some BIG lips!”
But Rachael came along and changed everything. I would find myself just staring at her lips while she talked. Sometimes I even made excuses to have a conversation with her. Dumb shit like, “Hey Rachael, do you like meatloaf?” I convinced myself that if I had Rachael’s top lip, I’d be the most beautiful girl in the world.
Fast-forward some 15 years later when I met a drag queen working at the makeup counter of Patricia Field in New York. She had beautiful lips, too, that I suspected weren’t real, and after a few visits to the store and some girly-girl conversation, I walked away with the name and number of her lip “doctor.”
It almost seemed too good to be true; for just $100, I could permanently get the lips of my dreams. Honestly, the permanent part concerned me a bit, but not enough to keep me from taking the train to W. 159th Street in Harlem to see the woman who was plumping lips out of her apartment.
A plain-looking black woman who resembled my aunt greeted me at the door. She wasn’t at all the type of person I expected to be injecting queens for a living. Silly, but on some level I thought I’d be getting a real doctor.
Nonetheless, I told her what I wanted and felt pretty confident that she could deliver. In less than 20 minutes, she had injected my top lip with an unknown solution she pulled off of a tray -- there was a silent understanding that questions were not allowed. She never even offered her name -- and I was ready to go.
Her only instruction was to lay low for a few days because my lip was going to blow up two to three times its normal size. OK, how bad could that be?
I stood in front of my best friend’s mirror in horror while my top lip stared back at me like Daffy Duck. The woman said my lip would swell but this was surreal. It was like something out of a big creature movie and my lips were the star. If it didn’t go down, I’d be f*cked.
My bestie tried to put on a brave face, but she was freaked, too. She kept urging me to call the doctor (correction: the woman), but I didn’t want to. This lady was not the type of person that I wanted to bug with silly questions. It would be a last resort.
After a day and a half of looking like Daffy with no sign of letting up, I phoned her. She reiterated that it was normal and that it would go down in a few more days. Thank God I was freelance and didn’t have a job to go to, because this required total seclusion.
After about a week, I started resembling a normal human being and was able to assess my lip. OK, not bad, but there wasn’t much difference.
A few months later, I was back at the woman’s apartment. She was warmer this time and even sold me a novel she had written about a nurse who was stealing supplies from a doctor's office to perform surgery out of her apartment. Hmm.
My lip blew up again, went back down, and all was gravy once more. Except that it still could be a little bigger. Just a pinch. But this time, instead of running back Uptown, I discovered that if I blew air out of my mouth really fast and hard my lips would bang together and my top lip would pout a little. So I did this and did it until IT happened.
I remember the exact moment as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to meet a friend for drinks when I decided to do my air-blowing trick to give myself a little added boost. When I stopped something had shifted and there was a lump on one side. Whatthefuck? That wasn’t supposed to happen!
So I started blowing again, hoping that it would move back, but no such luck. At that point, I just set into prayer mode. If there was a God, he was going to return my lip to normal. When that didn’t happen, I called the woman first thing in the morning.
About 10 seconds into my story, she hung up the phone and that was that. Come on, what did I expect? But man, I needed to fix this like yesterday, so I borrowed some money and went legit.
This time, I went to a plastic surgeon on the Upper East Side that I found in the phone book (this was before the Internet). The nurse greeted me looking like she was 110 years old, even though it was clear she lived under the knife. Granny was creepy.
So I talked to the doctor, a 50- or 60-something-year-old man, who assured me that I came to the right place, that he could fix it with no problem. After a few injections of a solution that he said would take away whatever that woman put in, because the truth was no one knew, I was told to come back if necessary in a month.
I went back. This time he said that he could pump some stuff into the side with the lump to try to fill it in. Not a bad idea. Might as well pump the other side a bit, too, while you’re at it. Because remember the reason it happened in the first place was because I was trying to get them a little bigger?
So he pumped them and they blew up again; by this time the Daffy Duck face didn’t faze me at all, but in the end the lump was still there. Come on now, really? You’re supposed to be a legit doctor who can fix this. So I went back and showed him that the lump was still there and he wasn’t trying to hear me. In fact, he said that he didn’t see the lump, and it was fine.
Whatthefuckareyoucrazy?! There is a f*cking lump on my lip and you SAID you could fix it! Come on, look again. But he wasn’t trying to hear me and the more he kept acting like I was crazy, the crazier I became. And just when I was about to reach for his neck, the spooky granny came in asking me nicely to leave.
So I tried to explain the situation to her, but she was siding with the doctor, and the next thing I knew I was screaming that there was a lump on my lip -- I knew it, I could see it -- and then another nurse came in with an armed security guard and I found myself being escorted out of the office while screaming to anyone in the waiting room who would listen that the doctor would throw you under the bus so be afraid, be very afraid of his ass.
But he did give me another doctor’s info before things got out of hand.
He was also on the Upper East Side, but his office was much classier.
This guy was the real deal, and I liked him immediately. Who knows, perhaps it was because I hated the other doctor so much. But anyway, he said no problem, he could try some shrinking drops.
OMG! Shrinking drops! That’s what I needed all along! Why didn’t that other asshole think of that? I tried it, no dice. So his Plan B was making my lips smaller by cutting out everything the others put in with a device that looked like the thing they use to sear crème brule. It literally sounded and smelled like he was cutting through plastic and perhaps that is what was in my lips in the first place.
It seemed to do something, so I went back to have him sear my lips one more time.
But overall, the lump was STILL there.
After that I went through years of depression. I hated taking pictures because my lips were always there, staring at me in that weird way. And if I saw myself on video, they seemed to move with a mind all their own. Like whose f*cking lips are those?
And I always wondered who knew they were fake, because they just looked crazy. If you see crazy-looking lips on someone’s face, chances are they aren’t real. And it was such a shame, because putting on lipstick was the highlight of my makeup routine, but I stopped wearing it because I didn’t want to draw attention to my imperfection.
And I couldn’t speak to anybody about it because, one, I felt stupid, and two, people don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who get plastic surgery, let alone models (my job at the time) who do, because they feel like you’re being greedy. How good do you need to look?
Then my modeling work tapered off, which was my rock bottom because modeling was everything to me. It was the one thing that gave me hope that I could be somebody when I was growing up poor in Ohio.
After a few years of being lost, I realized no amount of depression was ever going to bring my lips back. It was time to move on. So I started writing my thoughts on paper and discovered I enjoyed writing. And I was good at it. Before long, I ended up getting published and also landed my own column in a successful New York magazine.
By looking at the open door, instead of banging my head against the one that was closed, I was able to gain a whole new career! Who woulda thunk that depression could have such a silver lining?
Today, I’m able to look back on what I did as something that has made me a better person. I’m not perfect; I never will be. I know sh*t will happen, but I also know there will always be another open door.