‘You’ll just feel a scratch,’ says Dr Viel, wielding a giant knitting needle
It’s the most drastic anti-ageing treatment in Britain, but would a procedure that injects your own stomach fat into your face give your correspondent new skin?
There are times in your life when you wonder what you are doing and why. As I lie on an operating table at the London Centre for Aesthetic Surgery in Harley Street, I have one of those moments.
A kindly nurse is holding my hand as a plastic surgeon pushes a thin metal rod repeatedly into my abdomen through a small incision he has made in my stomach. In the background there is rap music blaring from a radio. Can it get any worse?
What’s extraordinary is that I’m here voluntarily. I am not being cured of some nasty disease, or undergoing a lifesaving operation. I am here for a treatment known as facial stem cell rejuvenation. This has nothing to do with health and everything to do with vanity. Is it possible to trick your cells into turning back the clock? I am lying here, like a piece of meat on a slab, undergoing a minor operation in order to look younger. Have I finally gone mad?
As the author of an anti-ageing book called Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles, I am not unused to anti-ageing treatments. I have tried everything from the pedestrian such as Botox to the totally nuts like the Vampire Facial (see below). But this is the most drastic thing I have ever done. It is the latest in anti-ageing. I heard about it when I was researching my book, but it took me a while to pluck up the courage to try it.
The idea is that you stimulate the skin’s ability to repair itself by injecting it with fresh stem cells, which encourage it to produce collagen and elastin. The damaged skin cells that cause fine lines, wrinkles and all those things that age us will be outnumbered by new, healthy cells that will go to work, rejuvenating my skin by restoring lost volume, as well as improving my complexion and reducing wrinkles.
No one has said much about this part of the treatment, although I was told to take arnica for a week beforehand and avoid alcohol — both of which, of course, I have failed to do.
In my (limited) experience, plastic surgeons and dermatologists often say a treatment will have hardly any effect on you, and then it always does. I’m not quite sure what I expected when Dr Maurizio Viel said he was going to harvest fat from my stomach. I guess I just thought they would pop in a tube and suck it out. But this is a proper operation that involves my surgeon and a nurse “scrubbing in” (I have loved that phrase since Grey’s Anatomy), me under local anaesthetic and covered in green surgical material. Dr Viel approaches me with the most enormous needle I have ever seen.
“Don’t worry, it’s the same kind as dentists use,” he reassures me. I’m not sure why that’s meant to make me feel any better.
“You’ll just feel a tiny scratch,” he says, pointing the needle up in the air and squirting some liquid out in a fountain. I daren’t look as he inserts it into my swabbed, exposed stomach. Next up is the scalpel. He cuts a tiny slit in my flesh and then inserts what looks like an oversized knitting needle. This is poked and prodded around inside my stomach. It lasts about a minute and a half.
That wasn’t too bad, I think.
“Now we wait,” he says settling down in a chair next to me.
“For the anaesthetic to take effect.”
“You mean that wasn’t the fat harvesting?”
Dr Viel chuckles. “No, that was the anaesthetic going in.”
In fact there is a lot more to come. After about ten minutes, Dr Viel sticks a metal tube in my stomach and asks me if I can feel anything.
It is slightly reminiscent of the caesarean I had with my middle child. You can feel something going on, but it doesn’t hurt. Next Dr Viel inserts another overgrown knitting needle with holes in it, and pushes it back and forth energetically.
The rap music has now been replaced with Jack Johnson, which slightly relaxes me. At the end of about 20 minutes (but it feels much longer) Dr Viel proudly shows me two vials of what looks like blood mixed with fat. I try to look impressed.
“Is it enough?” I ask him. I am really not keen on more harvesting. I feel as if I’ve been beaten up.
“Yes,” he smiles, handing the vials to his nurse to be labelled.
Dr Viel stitches me up (OK only the one stitch). It occurs to me that I have had a minor operation. Once the stitch is in, he straps tape tightly over my stomach. I am told to leave this for three days.
I get dressed and notice that the tape is pushing my poor, swollen stomach into a Michelin-style tyre. My stomach is not yet sore but I know it will be by the time I get home. It is, and it remains sore for several days, as well as extremely bruised and rather unattractive. Should have taken that arnica . . .
Phase two of the treatment involves the injections and takes place three weeks after the harvesting. This time I am in the hands of Dr Roberto Viel, the twin brother of Maurizio who removed my fat. I find it impossible to tell them apart. I ask Roberto if they ever stand in for each other with patients. They don’t, he tells me. But they used to with girlfriends.
A nurse covers my face in a cream that will numb it slightly . I am proud of my pain threshold and smugly think I won’t need it. How wrong I am. Today’s process has two main components. The first is the preparation whereby the second Dr Viel runs a “derma roller” over my face to create hundreds of tiny incisions that will receive the stem cells. The second part is the actual injection of stem cells using an extremely thin needle. Both parts are bloody painful, especially on the bonier areas. I can feel the liquid pouring down the side of my face and I hate to think of it being wasted on my ears.
Dr Viel rubs the excess into my skin. After about 45 minutes it’s finished. The nurse covers my skin in a heavenly serum called Dr Viel’s X118 Intense Hydrating Serum, that is one of the most soothing things I have ever felt. My face, by now, is really sore and I look in the mirror rather hesitantly, dreading what I will see. Actually, I have a deep healthy red glow that is approaching a tomato, or sunburn, but not terrible. My face feels like it’s been burnt; it is tight, uncomfortable, sore, vulnerable and raw.
The following day I look as if I’ve been punched in both eyes and dramatic grazes have appeared all over my face. I look, to be honest, extremely old and rather sad. The worst bits are under my eyes, which are rubbed raw. Imagine a combination of constant crying, being punched in the eyes, incessant rubbing and an eye infection, and you get the general impression. I am endlessly applying Dr Viel’s soothing serum in the hope that it will magically smooth it all away. It is supremely moisturising, and glides on like silk. It does help, but nothing can disguise the damage. (The serum costs £35, and is sold at the clinic. It is a lot cheaper than the main brands and much better, in my opinion.)
This is called “downtime” in the industry — when you can’t be seen in public. The problem is it coincides with the half-term holiday and I have things I need to go to, such as the mothers’ and sons’ tennis tournament, the fathers’ and sons’ cricket match and the school drinks party.
“Do I look like I’ve been punched in both eyes?” I ask my husband as we prepare to leave for one of these events.
“Pretty much,” he replies.
I wear enormous dark glasses for the next four days, even when it’s raining, which is most of the time. After that the scratches and bruising disappear. Ten days later I notice my skin is glowing. Two weeks after the injections, I have to collect someone from the airport and get to bed at 3am. The next morning I head to the bathroom and half open my eyes to look in the mirror. I expect to see a gaunt, exhausted face staring back. Instead, I see a fresh-faced person who looks as if she went to bed at 10pm. Incredible.
I remember Dr Viel saying to me that once it kicks in I will be able to go out without putting make-up on because the quality of my skin will be so much better. I am pleasantly surprised by the difference. My skin looks moist, healthy, clear and, above all, young. And what’s amazing is that the treatment will keep improving for weeks. It won’t reach its absolute best for another month or so. It also lasts for several years, depending, of course, on your lifestyle. Now four weeks on, I definitely look healthier. My skin is smoother and glowing. It’s not a dramatic difference, but as Dr Roberto Viel put it at my check-up last week “you look better but you can’t tell why”.
So I don’t plan on staying up until 3am every night but when I do, I know I will wake up looking like I haven’t.
Stem Cell Facial Rejuvenation starts at £4,000 at the London Centre for Aesthetic Surgery, 15 Harley Street, London W1; 020 7636 4272; lcas.com
Other things I have tried
The Vampire Facial
The PRP (platelet rich plasma) treatment, otherwise known as the vampire facial (yes, I know, what kind of an idiot would try a facial called that?) is supposed to reverse the signs of ageing on my face, neck and décolleté. The downside is that, as the name suggests, they need to draw blood, and quite a lot of it. Blood is spun in a centrifuge for 20 minutes, separating it into different components, as well as concentrating the platelets. Your face is anaesthetised with a cream.
The idea is similar to the stem cell treatment, as the platelets encourage new collagen growth. The skin will look refreshed, rejuvenated and younger. The injections hurt, and lasted half an hour. I felt sore afterwards. I was also alarmed as the doctor told me I would have bruising. I wouldn’t do it again and I would certainly not recommend this to anyone who has to be seen in public during the ensuing days. I had some very noticeable bruises that lasted a fortnight. But three weeks later the bruises had gone and my skin was still glowing. I would say the downtime is about the same as with the stem cell treatment, which is far more effective, although about ten times as expensive.
Otherwise known as the ice-chamber treatment. You are shut in a room where the temperature is minus 130C for three minutes. Apparently, the treatment helps with cellulite, fatigue and minor injuries. That’s if you don’t die of a heart attack. There is a facial equivalent, which I have also tried and my skin did look radiant for a couple of days. I would say it’s about as effective as any normal facial, although much quicker so useful if you’re pressed for time.
This is a contraption made out of a rather garish blue plastic, which can apparently change your life. You wear it on your forehead and it releases via an adhesive patch electronic impulses that relax your muscles and stop you frowning. You wear it for five minutes twice a day, over four to six weeks. The elderly (or seriously wrinkly) will have to carry on for a few months.
Once the initial treatment period is over, you need a top-up of two five-minute sessions a week. The manufacturers are heralding it as a safe and effective alternative to Botox and facelifts. I don’t know if it stops you ageing, but it does make you look like something out of Thunderbirds, which may have its advantages. I could see no discernible difference. Give me Botox any day: that really does work!
Sleeping on your back
This is the only treatment that doesn’t involve money. It dates from the 15th century when Diane de Poitiers, royal French mistress extraordinaire, announced that she slept sitting up in order to avoid wrinkles. You don’t need to sleep sitting up, but do sleep on your back. If you sleep on your side you create creases on your face where you lie on it. Invest in a silk pillow case to reduce damage should you unwittingly roll over in the night.
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles by Helena Frith Powell is published by Gibson Square Books at £12.99
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019