Malaysia: Saving face

By Fiona Hawtin

Fiona Hawtin goes to Malaysia to discover why increasing numbers of New Zealanders are heading there for cosmetic surgery.

Christine Fiori before and after her cosmetic surgery. Photo / Supplied
Christine Fiori before and after her cosmetic surgery. Photo / Supplied

Instead of spending her 54th birthday with her four children in Paraparaumu, Christine Fiori is on holiday in Malaysia. As well as lazing in the sun beside a pool and shopping for exotic goodies she's planning an extreme makeover.

It's the first time she's gone further afield than Australia, yet here she is in a Kuala Lumpur hospital with a surgeon she's only just met and planning a list of procedures that reads like a shopping list: facelift including upper and lower eyes, jowls, neck and brow, liposuction to stomach and upper arms, tummy tuck and nose job.

Fiori is well aware that surgery overseas has drawn negative publicity, including warnings from New Zealand surgeons, but she is still excited and as prepared as she'll ever be.

She managed to get six weeks off work as a deputy registrar with the courts, gave up smoking a month ago to get ready for the surgery and even had an astrology reading. The prediction: there will be physical changes. Spooky.

Looking at her 1.5m frame in a white shirt with blue flowers and size 9 jeans, it's hard to see the fat.

But she does have the face of a 54-year-old. The upper eyelids are droopy, the skin is slack and there are jowls. She's sick of people asking her if she's tired.

"I'm actually bubbly and rearing to go. I've heard the odd 'Poor old thing' and that really cuts to the quick. Old, yes; poor old thing, no.

"The impression is you get to 54, you should be dragging out your knitting needles and fluffy slippers. I don't like knitting any more. I want to put on my jeans, and a crop top. I might even pierce my navel."

She stopped watching Extreme Makeover, before she decided on surgery in case it put her off. Her kids aged 15 to 31, and friends are supportive.

"I see my surgery as an investment in myself, into what I want to be. I never ever want another guy. I'm not good at [relationships] and you don't keep doing what you're not good at."

Her first husband, who was gay, used to invent excuses to avoid having sex with her, saying, "Your arse is too big" or "You're not feminine".

Her second marriage of 16 years went more smoothly and although divorced they're still friendly. And another serious relationship foundered.

Until recently, she never had any money or time to invest in herself and when she inquired about cosmetic surgery in New Zealand the price was more than $50,000.

By contrast her Malaysian package, including accommodation and flights is $18,000 and involves going to an exotic tropical location.

She started researching surgery on the internet and found the Gorgeous Getaways website.

Gorgeous Getaways was started two years ago by Louise Cogan, a 34-year-old Australian living in London who worked in marketing and management. Cogan kept reading about women having cheap surgery overseas, getting into trouble in back-street clinics with no after-care services and ending up stranded in hotel rooms.

Her idea was to set up a service which allows Western customers to choose their surgeon and provides them with good after-care.

"It's about helping normal people who want to have a better life and they're trying to do that by changing their body," she says.

"It's really extraordinary to see the long-term changes in people's lives. Some of them have changed from a bad job, a bad relationship because of the confidence they've got. We're helping people achieve their dreams."

Cogan says the main reason people book a Gorgeous Getaways package is money. "It's so much cheaper than having cosmetic surgery at home. The bulk of the clients come from Britain, then Australia and New Zealand with the odd one from the US."

For 20-year-olds breast enlargement (at just over $6000 in Kuala Lumpur and $11,000 in New Zealand) is most popular, while facelifts, tummy tucks and liposuction appeal to the 40-plus group.

Many clients also like the idea of combining surgery with a luxury holiday, so Cogan offers packages like Rainforest Recovery which means you can stay at a five-star resort in Sabah, Borneo, once you've had surgery in Kuala Lumpur.

"At first I wanted to set [the surgery] up in a beautiful resort, but I found more people wanted to come to the city, they want to go shopping in Kuala Lumpur ...

"As soon as many are able, they're off to Chinatown bargaining hard for the wall-to-wall knock-off handbags, watches and jewellery."

Fiori is already impressed with her arrangements, having been ferried from the airport to the Legend Hotel where she'll stay for three weeks, and now to Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital to meet Dr Abdul Jalil bin Jidon.

Already an admirer of his work, having seen plenty of examples on the internet, she asks him to "make me pretty please" without getting too specific about what she wants.

"I thought if you're getting an artist to paint something you don't tell them how to paint it."

The consultation doesn't take long - 15 minutes, tops - and he'll get started after a breast enlargement this afternoon. Her operation should take about 9 or 10 hours.

When television's Sunday did a documentary on a woman who was operated on by Jalil, it was critical of the length of time his operations took.

Auckland Plastic Surgical Centre cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgeon Martin Rees, who is also a senior consultant at Middlemore Hospital, doesn't take issue so much with the time on the operating table.

"We do 10-hour operations here. That's not a problem but it has to be managed properly."

But he says people who go overseas don't know how good their surgeons are and can't be sure about the quality of the after-care. "If anything goes wrong are you going to fly all the way back to try and get it fixed?"

He says, "I certainly wouldn't send a member of my family to have something done.

"But some people take these risks. They seem to think if something's cheap it's going to be to their advantage."

As Jalil is telling Fiori how fresh she will look, a Guns N' Roses soundtrack plays quietly in his office.

Jalil, a cosmetic surgeon for more than 20 years, is not what you'd expect of a surgeon who received the Malaysian equivalent of a knighthood from the king last year.

The 50-year-old loves rock music - Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple - and plays it as he operates, a hangover from when was in a band as a med student.

Nor does he dress like a surgeon, preferring adidas T-shirts, Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirts, Versace knits and jeans. The laid-back approach is not lost on clients. One Malaysian client in Dior sunglasses and highlighted hair is impressed: "Wow, you look so funky, my doctor."

But for all his rockstar trappings, the surgeon of choice to local celebrities is modest and committed to his work, taking time out to perform reconstructive surgery on patients with congenital defects and those who have battled cancer.

"You can try to improve someone and every case is different - even when the procedure may be the same - you adjust it for each case. I enjoy my work."

His current Gorgeous Getaways fanclub likes his work too.

They got together for afternoon tea at the apartment the day before Fiori arrived and before long were exchanging reconstruction stories.

Jo, a 47-year-old grandmother, just in from Cambodia, can't resist showing her boobs from last year's enlargement. It is Jo's third surgery trip, this one is to have her tummy tuck scars reworked, while husband Pete continues with veneers to most of his teeth.

New Zealander Jane, 49, had breast enlargement, a facelift and lipo four days ago. She's impressed with what she's seeing and is looking forward to the swelling going down.

Erin is a Scottish-born singer who has lived all over the world and has just had her second facelift, tummy tuck and 5.2 litres of fat liposuctioned out earlier in the week. She has minimal bruising on her face but her body, bound in the corset they must wear after such surgery, is so sore she can barely move.

Alice is more reserved. Although she had a facelift almost two weeks ago the bruising is still black around her jaw even with makeup and she has to catch a flight back to Wellington in a few hours.

Erin tells 46-year-old Mike, a blokes' bloke from Auckland, he'd be better off having his eyes done than his brow. Mike, who's told no one he's in Malaysia for a facelift, is worried about any telltale scars, but is impressed with the the almost invisible stitches and decides he'll have his eyes done too.

Now it's Fiori's turn. She is wheeled into the operating theatre at 3pm and leaves 10 hours later.

The following day she is confined to bed, can barely move and her right arm keeps oozing blood just above the elbow. Aside from the closed up blue/black eyes, there's no bruising on her face. And her stomach looks smooth.

Barely 36 hours after her surgery, Fiori has been up and made firm friends with one of the Muslim nurses. They have so much in common, they've already vowed to stay at each other's houses in the future.

She can see much better out of her left eye, although the right side of her forehead has suffered some nerve trauma and is paralysed.

Jalil will use Botox in the other side to match it up while the nerve comes right - fingers crossed.

Still, she's pleased with how she looks and when she flies back to New Zealand in three weeks, she's going to try to convince her friends to come, saying "I look like I did in my 20s."

CHECKLIST

Things to do before or after surgery

Batu Caves: This Hindu temple, inside limestone caves, has 272 steps to negotiate - not for those who have just had liposuction but for everyone else gentle exercise is good. It's the scene of the annual Thaipusam Festival where devotees spear their cheeks with long rods. Probably not what you want to see after surgery.

Suria Kuala Lumpur CC Centre: This is the luxury shopping six-level mall at the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers with 280 or so stores including Prada, Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Japanese department store Isetan, Spanish chain Zara, British chain Topshop and great food courts.

Petronas Twin Towers: Built by Petronas, Malaysia's oil company, the beautiful twin towers were the world's tallest building at 452m and 88 floors, until the Taipei 101 was built in 2003. A trip to the skybridge on the 41st floor is free and worth the elevator ride.

Petaling St, Chinatown: For every kind of fake - from LV bags and Cartier watches to Tiffany necklaces and Mont Blanc pens - this is where it's at. The Government is trying to clean up the counterfeit trade and police raids are common. But shoppers can return within minutes after the raids. Has a high degree of difficulty for someone recovering from surgery, given the heat and crowds.

Little India: The main drag, Jalan Masjid India, is one of the oldest parts of the city and one of the most colourful, thanks to the plentiful sari traders. Needless to say there are some great Indian food shops.

Further information: See gorgeousgetaways.com.

Fiona Hawtin went to Malaysia as guest of Gorgeous Getaways.

- NZ Herald

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