FILM 2021

Michelle Visage on how ‘Explant’ Surgery Led to Her Revealing New Doc

“As a layperson who reads far too much medical literature, it just made sense that my body had an invader 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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With Pride month in full swing, it’s time to commemorate the struggles of LGBTQA+ people and acknowledge allies too. No doubt, one of the most beloved and high-profile supporters of the gay and drag community, in particular, is Michelle Visage, RuPaul’s bestie and the gal who always tells it like it is on their hit TV reality competition. Visage might be Drag Race’s toughest judge, but unlike say, Simon Cowell, she doesn’t relish critique in a mean-spirited way. Rather, Visage’s keep-it-real style is meant to release what holds the show’s contestants back and help them to achieve their full reigning queen potential.

But for the last 20 years, Visage herself didn’t feel like she could fully reign over her own body. Last year, the pop singer turned TV personality revealed that she had Hashimoto’s Disease caused by her breast implants, and that after years of suffering she was having them removed.

In the new World of Wonder documentary, Explant, Visage takes us along on her personal journey — from her days as a young singer in the girl group Seduction, to her busty transformation and career as a radio and TV figure, to her recent decision to have “explant” surgery due to a host of debilitating symptoms.

Beyond her own journey, Visage takes on the role of investigator in the film, exploring the link between severe health problems and implants via interviews with other women who’ve suffered similar ailments and a host of doctors, including the man who invented the silicone-filled bags initially used for the enhancement (which later evolved into saline, but curiously still utilized silicone materials to encase the liquid, despite it being linked to health issues).

The documentary, directed by Jeremy Simmons (The Last Beekeeper) and produced by Visage and her husband, is extremely well-researched, providing detailed information about the history of the breast implant. Visage is, as she is on her hit TV show, uncensored and candid as can be, sharing everything from the insecurities that led her to get the boob job in the first place to her frustration with the medical industry’s lack of transparency about the risks of getting enhancement. She was just as forthright when we spoke to her via Zoom about the doc and what inspired it.

“I felt all alone so I kind of went, ‘okay maybe this is just me.’ But if you have an auto-immune condition, that means your body is attacking a certain part of your body, whether like in my case — it’s your thyroid, or some other place,” says Visage about of her initial struggle and search for answers. “As a layperson who reads far too much medical literature, it just made sense that my body had an invader 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It just so happened it was attacking my thyroid, but I had these two huge blobs of silicone in my body that didn’t belong there. So the link made sense to me, but at the same time, I didn’t have anybody that was on my team 100%. They were like, possibly, perhaps… So I just kept googling and googling and reading papers like the Harvard Medical Journal and literature that I could barely understand. It led me to believe that I was right. I ended up in a Facebook group and there were thousands of women experiencing similar problems. Some women have Lupus, some have cancer, some women have rheumatoid arthritis, whatever it is. It’s all in the same wheelhouse. It made me go, oh my God, not only am I on to something, I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off that the FDA has been completely glossing over us and I’m pissed off that our medical field here in the United States doesn’t listen to women.”

When Visage started talking to doctors, she says they made her feel like she was crazy or hysterical. She insisted she was not imagining the link and that it was real and her research eventually confirmed it. The documentary, which was her husband’s idea, highlights what Visage went through and more. She says she is not against plastic surgery of any kind, but she does feel that more information needs to be provided to patients before making the decision to go under the knife, which can impact their lives in ways they’d never imagine.

“I want to live to be a century and I want to be here for my great-grandchildren, you know what I mean,” the 52-year-old mother of two shares. “My husband was like, ‘why aren’t you documenting this’ and I was like, ‘oh my god, what a great idea.’  I told Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey] [World of Wonder Productions heads] my idea and they loved it, and mostly because it’s a great subject– not just breast implants, we’re talking about boobs in general.  They started out as documentarians, and that’s their passion. So I knew that they would get it, because I didn’t want it to be all gloom and doom. I wanted it to be factual and tell my story, but also interesting… we’re talking about boobs!”

Visage’s explant surgeon Dr. H. Jae Chun was one of the first to specialize in removal and he provides an educational and credible voice supporting the mounting evidence in the movie. The Newport Beach doctor switched from doing implants to explants exclusively, after woman after woman came to him with problems obviously linked to the procedures.

“The reason for this documentary is to say to women that you are not crazy. This is new, but it is very real, and people are starting to take notice, including the FDA, and it’s not about a rupture or what kind of implants you had.  It’s not about silicone or saline because I have had three sets; it’s the shell that is going in your body and is made up of 40+ chemicals including the same chemicals that are in inkjet printer ink. You wouldn’t believe what is going in your body and we lay there and ‘go yes, put it in us.’
Ultimately, Visage’s desire for “black-box warnings” on implants like cigarettes has come to fruition but she says that with patients under anesthesia when packaging is opened, nobody sees the box. “Doctors should be handing the box to their patients and saying ‘read this before I put them in your body,’” she insists. “It’s un-fucking-believable that we still have to fight just to be told what they’re putting in our body.”

Her platform via Drag Race will hopefully help the cause. “I’m so blessed that people love our show as much as they do because it means so much to be not only part of this incredible legacy but to change lives the way that we’re able to,” she enthuses, adding that this issue affects the the LGBTQIA+ community as well. “Tits don’t make a woman. These health complications don’t know gender.”

Though she reiterates not being against plastic surgery per se, she does plan to fight for informed decisions about getting work done. And she hopes to encourage alternatives to feeling good. “For me, it was about self-love and self-worth and sharing that and I think it’s very important within our community to show that vulnerability and to show that you know, we need to love ourselves first despite what society says we should look like.”

“The most important lesson of all of it is to find a way to start loving yourself just as you are,” she concludes. “Let me be the catalyst because if I was happy with who I was at 21, I wouldn’t be here today, and I probably wouldn’t feel the way that I do and have for the past 20 years.”    ❖

Explant premieres online this Sun., June 13 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. More info here.

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