It may come as a bit of a shock to the system to see Michelle Visage, so often at the side of RuPaul looking fabulous, appearing less so in “Explant,” but the “Drag Race” judge realized that in order for anyone to believe that her breast implants were slowly making her sick, she’d have to reveal herself in ways she never had before, which is saying something for the outrageous star. In Jeremy Simmons’ eye-opening documentary, Visage allows audiences to see inside the process that led her to go under the knife again to remove what had become one of her signature features after no one could tell her why she was experiencing any number of debilitating maladies from brain fog to chronic yeast infections. She could take some cold comfort in finding others online facing the same issues, but in “Explant,” it isn’t just a matter of women sharing the same belief that they may haven’t been warned properly about the risks of silicon absorption or leaks in their body before getting their implants, but that like so many medical conditions specific to women, their claims are so readily dismissed by a medical community that remains dominated by men.
As with all things related to breast implants, Simmons finds a far larger story in “Explant” than just Visage’s when looking into the wild history of how they were made and marketed, from the invention of a Houston doctor named Frank Gerow, who realized that upon holding an IV bag full of blood that the same material could be repurposed for cosmetic surgery, to Dr. Gerald Johnson’s misguided innovation of polypropylene string implants that expanded to obscene levels, under the belief that the swelling thought to enhance the bust would eventually stop. While appreciating that scores of women look to surgeons to boost their self-confidence for reasons of their own, “Explant” outlines an often arrogant and sexist industry that has made promises with implants that have proven not to be true as the years have gone on, particularly when it comes to the material that the implants are made out of, with entirely silicon implants replaced with saline after their health dangers yielded a $4.23 billion-winning class action suit, yet still use silicon as a shell.
Although “Explant” serves as a dire warning with testimony from a number of women who have been led to believe they’re hysterical for thinking something’s wrong with them, it is also surprisingly entertaining with the types of audacious characters that the implant business attracts, more so behind white lab coats than the patients themselves. Simmons and Visage go on the wild ride together, traveling from Los Angeles to Houston with a number of interesting detours in between as Visage’s own emotional journey comes to reflect that of so many who have wondered whether they may have put their health in jeopardy as a result of breast augmentation. With the film making its premiere at Tribeca later this week, Simmons spoke about uncovering this fascinating history and working with Visage to bring it to light.
How did this come about?
Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey at World of Wonder], who I have known for decades and decades, called me and said “Michelle Visage has decided to have her signature cleavage removed and I should talk to her because there’s a story behind it.” So Michelle and I scheduled a call and we talked for about an hour. She’s a very convincing person, to say the least. She had a lot to tell me and it was a little bit like information overload, but also incredibly compelling and then I took the rest of my weekend to just do my own research and once you go down that rabbit hole, the story of breast implants just gets weirder and weirder the more you learn, so I thought, “You know what? Let’s do this.” I had so many women in my life who had gotten implants — my mom got them replaced a month before and she’s 70, so I thought if I have a hard time ascertaining what the truth is about implants then I’m not alone.
When there are so many interesting rabbit holes to go down, did you know how much this might be Michelle’s story versus a history of implants?
It started very much as Michelle’s journey. I thought she’s doing this, she’s a hundred percent convinced, despite what the medical establishment says, so let’s film a verite doc, which will consist of her going through the process of getting the explants and [see if] things change after it or not. But once you start on that path, you can’t help but ask yourself questions like, “Why is this coming up now?” Then you start to pick at it and a larger story starts to reveal itself. There’s lots of studies that say different things, depending probably on who’s funding them and what their objective is, but when you look at the 60-year history of implants, you’re looking at a cycle that’s repeated itself over and over and over and that’s undeniable. You look at that and everything is put in context that became clear this is what the movie’s about and without that context, I don’t think you can fully understand her story, so it started as just a story about Michelle and it became something much bigger in the process [over] two and a half years.
This must’ve been a little topsy-turvy where if you’re going to a doctor, they’re expected to be the experts on a subject. Was it an interesting dynamic when there’s some skepticism there?
It was interesting in the sense that look at how brave Michelle was to do this. She didn’t know a hundred percent what was going to happen and she believed in something that several doctors told her didn’t exist and she is a part of a long line of women who have been called crazy over the years as a way to dismiss and discredit – to shame them and to make them feel like a hypochondriac. This story has been told over and over and over, so to see the women who maybe [felt] they had nothing left to lose and decided to stand up against the “professionals” in a way that brought this all to light, that’s powerful and that’s a story that needs to be told, so I was inspired by the bravery of Michelle and the other women that are featured.
Did you know in advance how colorful some of these characters would be? For what’s ostensibly a medical documentary, everyone drawn to this world seems to have incredible personality.
It’s a world full of interesting characters, and each one more unbelievable than the next. Like you said, you expect it to be these dry doctors, and that is not the case. The more you learn about these people, you’re like, “Oh my God, they’ve had incredible lives.” And even Dr. Rosen at the end, it’s like these Texan characters are just over the top.
When you start out in Los Angeles with Michelle, did you have any idea you’d be spending so much time in Texas? I was amazed you could track down Timmie Jean Lindsay, the first woman who received implants.
As a native Texan myself, I was returning back to the home state. [laughs] It was an interesting process because we did spend a lot of time in Texas and Timmie Jean Lindsay, well, she was hard to find. She didn’t respond to e-mails, she didn’t respond to snail mail. We weren’t sure if she was still alive. So when we were in Houston on one of our trips, we just went to her last known residence and started asking around. We went to the dive bar that was two blocks away from what was her house. We went to the gas station, we went to the hair salon and ultimately we ended up finding her through a woman who worked at the hair salon who knew her and had done her hair a couple years ago. She called her friend, who said that Timmie was going to be in the neighborhood and we literally found her driving down the street. That’s how we found her, driving in her car.
Oh my gosh. Were breast implants a difficult topic to discuss? I know some don’t feel it’s actually a part of their body, so they feel free to, while others it might be a deeply private subject.
It’s generational in a lot of ways. There was a period in the ‘90s where the way they were marketed changed pretty dramatically, so it became something that was originally very medical – you would go through the phone book. Then around the ‘90s, and this also started in Houston around the time implants were having their first reckoning, there was this explosion of advertisements — full color ads — that sexualized breast implants and did what we all know because we’re all living with it today. I think people who came up in that period, particularly Anna Nicole Smith and how she popularized it, are much more willing to talk about having breast implants and it’s not an issue, but a lot of women who came up before that, it was something that wasn’t discussed. That has to be respected and those people need to be approached in a different way, so a lot of those women in the documentary who were early patients of Dr. Gerow, who invented the breast implant, I tip my hat to them because this is a very difficult thing for them to have dealt with and they did it with grace and dignity. But that would be very different than someone who got their breast implants today and was talking about it on social media.
What’s it like getting to the finish line with it?
We’re still working on it as we do this interview [a week before the premiere], but it’s been two and a half years in the making and that’s what it took for us to put it together the right way, but it’s time. Ultimately, this documentary is about transparency so people have the information that they need to make the choices that they need to make. So the sooner the better, I say. Get it out there.