From Instagram-friendly veneers and Facetune facelifts to Kylie-esque lip fillers and facial surgeries that transform incels into good-looking “Chads," the internet is driving the young and connected to go under the knife. Now, high-profile YouTubers are completing the feedback loop by broadcasting their surgeries—at times in graphic detail.
In the tireless pursuit for a greater connection with fans, a surgical procedure is one of the last frontiers of extreme online intimacy.
Jeffree Star, the head of an eponymous makeup line with 16 million subscribers on YouTube, has returned to his surgeries as subject matter over the past three years—hair transplants, his boyfriend’s armpit botox, and the mending of a congenital esophageal deformity—most recently in February of this year when he had his botched lip injections corrected. Each video reached more than five million viewers.
Star’s original lip injections had, against his wishes, included permanent silicone fillers, a substance that made the underside of his top lips noticeably lumpy. “It’s something I have to airbrush in photos when I’m at different angles, and it’s something that has haunted me for a long time,” Star said in the video, framing his openness about the procedure as a kind of catharsis.
Sometimes, sharing a surgery is part of an intimate personal journey.
Two of the Try Guys, the four-man collective dedicated to testing their boundaries on camera for more than six million subscribers, have undergone knee and hair transplant surgeries, each in the past six months, before an audience of 7 million. More than 10 million watched all four of them receive surgery consultations in July 2018.
This March, one of the four, Ned Fulmer, described a close call with opioid addiction after a previous surgery. The video detailed the procedure and showed him dumping his prescription painkillers down the toilet in triumph.
Other times, an influencer might just film a surgery for a LOL.
The Dolan Twins, an identical influencer pair with more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube, filmed two videos in August 2019 about their sinus surgery that, in total, have 11 million views. They did the same thing in 2016 with their dual wisdom teeth removals.
“Basically, we’re getting surgery, we heard we’re gonna be loopy, we might as well film it so we remember and see what fools we made of ourselves, and we can share it with you,” Ethan Dolan said in the video. Watching and reacting to your own surgery, as the Dolans have done, is a subset within the genre.
And, like everything else on social media, a surgery can be an advertisement.
In November 2018, Rosanna Pansino, 11.5 million subscribers, filmed a Q&A about her egg-freezing surgery that featured clips of her apparently under anesthesia and ended with a sweepstakes sponsored by a kitchenware company; 2.7 million people watched.
AUTHENTIC BUT ENHANCED
The trend isn’t new—but it is newly popular. Trisha Paytas, a vlogger with almost 5 million subscribers, began sharing her journey through plastic surgery seven years ago. Gigi Gorgeous, a trans YouTuber, has closely documented her gender transition and its associated surgeries for at least the past five years.
But, according to social media marketing professionals who spoke to The Daily Beast, surgery videos are newly popular.
James Nord, CEO of the influencer marketing platform Fohr, said that medical content is a natural extension of a life vlogged. He’s seen it on the rise over the past two years, most commonly with cosmetic surgery.
“Once it becomes normal to document your life in the detail that these influencers are, you enter into this alternative universe where social norms are erased,” he said. “They get so comfortable sharing everything that it does feel natural.”
He attributes the increase in medical videos to the normalization of plastic surgery by the Kardashian family and others, but a key difference between celebrities and influencers, he said, is the level of disclosure fans expect. A celebrity might get plastic surgery and hide away for a month, but an influencer can’t even disappear for a few days without incurring suspicion from followers. As a result, influencer don’t feel they need to hide it; maybe they couldn’t even if they wanted to.
“It’s seen as a breach of trust with your audience if you don’t tell them, and if you lose that trust, you lose the following,” he said. “If your whole account is about beauty tips and looking younger and you get a bunch of plastic surgeries, your followers are going to find out.”
The fuel of an influencer’s fame and following is an impression of authenticity, Nord said, and sharing a secret with a person—or a few million—is a powerful connection.
Some YouTubers do integrate their health into their everyday routine video diaries. New Zealand beauty vlogger shaaanxo (555,000 subscribers) posted a video in May 2018 where she talked about becoming sick after her breast implants. In the video, she went shopping, cleaned her room, made toast, and got botox. The video appeared to document a regular day in her life, with the video thumbnail showing a needle stuck in her face.
Nord’s agency has coordinated a few campaigns with breast implant makers and influencers who have undergone breast augmentations, he said.
“It’s all about authenticity with influencers. If you’re pushing a drug for diabetes, you’re not going to have an influencer who doesn’t have diabetes do that,” Joe Gagliese, CEO of the influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, told The Daily Beast. “But plastic surgery, medical cosmetics—it’s exploding. Every single plastic surgeon is thinking about it.”
Gagliese said he’s personally seen medical videos on social media “really pick up” in the past 18 months, though he first spotted the trend a few years ago. He considers well-known influencers’ medical videos as an outgrowth of the groundswell of doctors who have become social media stars, garnering millions of followers in some cases. Some even share videos of whole surgeries (with patients’ consent).
“Cosmetic surgeons becoming big on social propelled it, celebrities started talking more about about it, and influencers followed suit,” he said. “Influencers are getting procedures from doctors who are also influencers. It’s becoming this social thing.”
Werner Geyser, CEO of the marketing technology company Influencer Marketing Hub, agreed with Gagliese that influencer doctors laid the groundwork.
“There are influencers in just about every field of life, so it should be no surprise that there are medical influencers,” he said of popular online doctors.
Fohr’s Nord sees the advertising power of an influencer making medical content in their recommendations.
“Plastic surgery is built on referrals,” Nord said. “It makes sense as an industry where you want trust more than anything else. If this trusted influencer is recommending someone, that would do a lot to move a person about to make that decision.”
Content trends also align with aesthetic ones. The polished Instagram look is going by the wayside, replaced by off-kilter and unposed photos with less sheen but more authenticity.
“A lot more people are going for ‘realstagram.’ They’re are trying to be as real as possible in contrast to Instagram as this perfect world where everything is edited,” said Lizzie MacNeil, public relations and partnerships lead at the social media scheduling and analytics company Later.com.
Medical procedures are often revolting, too, taking on a grisly aesthetic that thrives on social media in opposition to the expected manicured influencer look. “The more gruesome the better,” as Influencer Marketing Hub’s Geyser described it.
As far as more mundane horrors go, the cost of healthcare is an omnipresent American fear. Making a video about a cosmetic procedure, Nord said, can also be a way to barter for valuable services. Influencers who make videos with a certain doctor will often be provided the procedure gratis, he said. The quid pro quo can save them thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Traditional celebrities may not be as stressed about medical debt, but they too suffer the humiliating limits of mortality. The New York Daily News regularly updates a running story headlined “Hospitalized celebs” that includes snaps of Zac Efron, Jessica Simpson, Kate Beckinsale with the caption “There's nothing like a common cold or injury to remind Hollywood's biggest stars that they are—in fact—just human.” Maybe that’s what influencers want to say to us, too.
For social media stars, whose occupation is to plumb the depths of their lives in search of more to share, the medical is unfakeable, inimitable content.
“It gets a lot of attention,” Nord told The Daily Beast. “Other creators won’t be able to replicate your brain surgery.”