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Dr Lyras' interview in "Cyprus Mail" Newspaper


Eminent plastic surgeon Dr Ioannis Lyras attempts to bring the beauty of Brazil to his procedures in Greece and Cyprus.  Theo Panayides meets a man who is bothered to be aging.

My wife’s a bit like you, says Dr Ioannis Lyras wryly, “she doesn’t believe in plastic surgery”. I didn’t think I’d shown any special aversion to plastic surgery (though it’s true I’m dubious, both about the effectiveness and whether it’s necessary in the first place), but I guess when you’ve been a plastic surgeon for nearly 20 years, when you’ve performed around 12.000 operations, when you’re the president of the European Academy of Plastic Surgery, when you’ve just written a book called The Secret of Brazilian Beauty , touting plastic surgery with a Brazilian touch – when you’ve done all these things, you become adept at picking up on how strangers feel about your life’s work.

Not that my meeting with Ioannis (Yianni) is prickly or antagonistic. That would be impossible; the man’s a charmer. We meet in the lobby of the Hilton Park in Nicosia, the morning after he’s presented his book at the Shoe Factory as part of Brazilian Culture Month – and not only does he hold forth for an hour, open and articulate, but he also insists on paying for my tea at the end, even though he himself didn’t have anything. “I’m at home here” he explains, gesturing around at the Hilton Park, a reference perhaps to the fact that he comes to Cyprus from Greece quite often (about once a month) for consultation and surgery.

His face is oval, the features full, the eyes intelligent; there’s a touch of Antonio Banderas, who’s about the same mature (Ioannis will be 52 on New Year’s Day). His English is fluent, albeit clearly a second language. He was born in Athens, to a family of lawers, but was actually a trainee surgeon in New York when his professor suggested he might be (even) happier until the more aesthetic side of the profession. In a way, he says now, it was Fate – because that professor had himself longed to be a plastic surgeon in his youth, but never taken the plunge; “He passed his dream on to me”. But the prof’s suggestion also found fertile ground, because Ioannis had always “wanted to deal with handling shapes and forms”; even as a child, he loved moulding things out of mud or sand, “I wanted something artistic, but at the same time very serious as medicine” he recalls. “That’s why I’m happy, because I’m a doctor who creates shapes!”

Do we really want out doctors to be doing that, though? Wouldn’t they be better employed saving lives and curing disease? After all, as Ioannis himself admits, “in a way we don’t treat patients. We treat healthy people, and make them feel better”. Is that truly part of medicine – or just another case of the Culture of Narcissism?

“After so many years in this specialty,” he replies smoothly, “I would tell you that it’s part of our lives. The choice to improve your external appearance doesn’t depend only on you - it depends on social circumstances, the way others see you. They see you in another way than you see yourself. And you always need to socialize.”

Shouldn’t people have the courage to say “This is how I am!”, though?

Ioannis shrugs affably. “People have many, let’s say, weaknesses. You don’t expect a person to be a perfect democrat, you don’t expect a person to be a perfect degustateur” – he searches for the English word – a connoisseur – and of course you don’t expect him to be strong in the way he judges himself. What I really see after a procedure of plastic surgery,” he adds, warming to this theme, “is that the self-esteem gets up so high. The person really believes in him or herself after a procedure. He really feels more self-confident – and he becomes a better person with society, because he doesen’t have something that bothers him inside his mind all the time.”

“Like what?”

“Like for example a very small chin and a very, very big nose, which really creates a profile which is,” he pauses, trying to be diplomatic, “totally unfavorable for socializing. You cannot tell an adolescent who has uneven breasts – a very big one and an absolutely non-existent one – to wait, and explain why this happened to her in a very rational way. Or you cannot explain to a five-year-old kid with Dumbo ears – the big, prominent ears – why his classmates are laughing at him. You cannot explain this in a rational way, You have to treat that. And when you treat it , that’s it! The whole problem stopped. Disappeared.”

What if plastic surgery didn’t exist, though? Wouldn’t the five-year-old kid eventually come to terms with his big ears?”

“No”, he replies simply.

Clearly, there’s fine lines separating vanity from medical necessity. Sometimes the choice is obvious – as with patients in their 60’s or 70’s whose “upper eyelids are so droopy that they cannot really see”. Sometimes it’s more problematic as with wrinkles (Surely people can live with a few wrinkles? He shakes his head: “Not everybody can live with wrinkles.”) And sometimes it’s obvious in the other direction, as with the more eccentric procedures Ioannis has been asked to perform – like “a guy asking for a girl’s nose”, i.e. a very small nose on a big manly face, or “a 20-year-old girl wanting a facelift, which she doesn’t at all need! But she thinks her face is dropping”.

Those are the tricky situations – and the ones, he assures me, where he tries to convince the patient not to go through with it, using computer imaging to show them how silly they’ll look. Even though Ioannis has performed 12.000 operations (around 7.000 nose-jobs, 4.000 breast augmentations, and the rest mostly facelifts and lipoplasties) he’s consulted with some 80.000 patients, meaning the majority of candidates never get as far as the operating table. Yes – but, if self-esteem is the criterion, why shouldn’t people get whatever procedure they want, however ludicrous? After all, as he says, “It’s a human right, to handle your external appearance the way you think” If you’re arguing for choice, surely you have to go all the way.

It’s a slippery slope, and a question that may never be answered. Like many technological marvels, plastic surgery is so uncanny that it’s not really suited to the moral rules laid down in an earlier age; Ioannis Lyras is more like a shaman, a post-industrial high priest. “I don’t want to lose my mind by creating an over-inflated ego” he jokes,” [but] people really think of us as modern miracle-makers. In a way, it’s a miracle, what you do. I mean, if you have a girl that doesn’t have a breast today, and four hours later she has the breast she always dreamt of,” he shapes his head in wonder, “then you are a miracle-maker in a way.”

Even his aforementioned wife – the one who doesn’t believe in plastic surgery, “she believes in the inner world” – may be coming in terms with the need for “aesthetic help” after a certain age. She’s also a doctor, an endocrinologist; they were married in 1993, two years before he qualified as a plastic surgeon. How important is appearance in his own relationships? Did he fall in love with her because of her looks? “Well, she always looked nice, and she matures well” counters Ioannis amiably (when your husband’s a plastic surgeon, he can say things like that without sounding piggish) but of course “we love each other, and love is more than anything. We are companions and we trust each other. There are more things that just the looks. But she also recognizes that looks are important nowadays, which she didn’t before”

Getting older will do that to a person. Does the doctor worry about his own aging process? “First of all, I feel lucky,” he replies, “because I was – could we say ‘blessed’? Could we say that?”

I’m not sure if he means whether we can say it in English, or whether it’s presumptuous to say it at all. ‘Sure’, I reply.

‘I was blessed not to mature badly. I feel blessed, and lucky.”

It’s true; he could pass for a man in his early 40’s. Yet it’s also true that he’s had some work done. “I asked a friend to aspirate my chin”, he says, “because I knew it would create a droopy double chin” later on; he appears in the media a lot, due to his work, and didn’t like the way it looked in photos. He also asked a friend to correct his septum, as he wasn’t breathing properly. “I don’t like ageing,” admits Ioannis frankly. “I really see my strength diminished from when I was 22, or 32. You know, you kind of smile a bitter smile when you think about it – and you say ‘Well, the next generation is coming’, you know? But I’m being very philosophical on this”. He’ll wait and see what the future brings – and get his face ‘improved’, if necessary. “I mean, what do you think of Michael Douglas? Is it a bad example?”

Not at all, I reply. Michael Douglas (who’s now 68) looks great.

“So, when we become his age, we’ll see”

Right now, however, there’s the present – and a full life, the life of a successful professional just beyond the cusp of middle age. Three days a week are devoted to surgery (each operation takes about an hour), another two to consultations. He works hard, often 12 hours a day, and is also involved in charity work. He’s part of a team who venture into Asia (especially the Philippines) for pro-bono work 10 days a year, doing reconstructive surgery in places where there aren’t any specialists, and is also part of the “Omada Aigaiou” (‘Aegean Team’) who visit remote Aegean islands to offer services, in his case treating patients with small skin cancers - that’s also part of plastic surgery – which might otherwise be neglected. He also loves to visit Brazil – his home for many years, when he picked up a taste for Latin jazz and studied the ways of the ‘Brazilian school’ under famed plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy.

Would he ever move back to Rio?

He shakes his head, his eyes crinkling ruefully: “I’m too lazy to start over again”. He’s not even tempted, adds Dr Yianni Lyras: “I’m a satisfied person. I don’t want to buy anything in my life, I’ve bought everything. I don’t want to change my profession. I don’t want to become something bigger than I am.”

His only real ambition is the book writing – and his next book, he announces , will contain “nice stories of plastic surgery”, anecdotes of a life-time’s vocation like the 65-year-old woman who barged into his office once, “laughing like crazy. ‘Dr Lyras’ she told me, ‘all these wrinkles you see on my face did not exist until last Monday. Last Monday they all appeared all of a sudden. All these million wrinkles appeared on my face four days ago.’

“I said, “How come?”

‘She said, “Because last Monday I had laser surgery on my eyes. And I saw them all! That’s why, four days later, I’m in your office now – because I want you to take them all off!”

We laugh – but it’s true. That’s what plastic surgery is: the art of seeing imperfections, then attempting to disguise them. Ioannis sees them all, every little flaw, every slight asymmetry and incipient double chin – not to mention all the sagging breasts and flabby tummies. “I see everything,” he shrugs. It’s the craftman’s curse. ‘I see them naked. I always tell this to women, I say ‘Don’t try to hide with any trick of fashion that you women have: I know you naked!’

“In a way now, I don’t enjoy naked people anymore,” he muses, “because I know them. I enjoy dressed people. I’m one of the few men in the world who enjoys the female body dressed rather than naked! To me, a naked body is an obligation. It puts me in my professional responsibility. Whenever I see a naked body as a professional, I know I’m responsible for it – so I’m not seeing it socially, I see it medically. Whereas when it’s dressed, I can enjoy it as an artist!”. Which he is, needless to say.