"What are you here for - lips, sex, face?" says the mini-man with the ringmaster air, blindsiding me from within the crowd. "Uh, lips?" I venture. Dazed and confused (what the hell is the sex option anyway?), I find myself staring at a little white tube and being told I can get the plumping effect of injections without the pain of needles. I just need to buy, buy, buy this overpriced lip balm. Suddenly, my hand is starting to sign up for something my mind hasn't agreed to, until I opt to make a break for it. Besides, I'm in a hurry to muscle my way past the 300 booths and hundreds of mother-daughter duos at the cosmetic "enhancement" show, The New You, this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to get to my "Erase the years" demo.
I get to the botox-bannered stage midway through an explanation on why wrinkles bother us so much. We don't want to look tired, angry or old all the time, do we? Luckily, the good doc, a spectacled Robin Williams double, is here to turn those frowns upside down - or at least paralyze your muscles so you can no longer make any of those unsettling grimaces. Doctor Ice pulls out his trusty needle and starts pricking away at a parade of participants (from a girl not long out of university with just a few "too many" brow lines to a youngish blues singer who I assume must be tired of looking, well, blue).
"Look at Sue - no matter how hard she tries she can't frown!" Doc says with glee. I keep waiting for him to break into that bit from Patch Adams where Williams slaps on a rubber nose. But he doesn't. And I'm freaking. She can't frown? What would I be without my scowl? How would I communicate to the creep on the subway that if he touches me he dies? How would I tell my partner without nagging that I'm pissed he's leaving his underwear on the floor again? They might as well stitch my middle finger down while they're at it.
But as I scan the crowd for reactions, no one else seems bothered. The rows of 25-to-75-year-old women (among them a few middle-aged men) stare intently at the Jumbotron with nary a flinch. Why am I the only one twitching every time another needle freezes Sue's face into place?
A little queasy and perturbed, I huff off to my next seminar, where a much more animated crowd is learning about the wonders of non-surgical fillers, plumpers, primpers and freezers. They're oohing and aahing, clapping and nodding as though the lab-coated man at the front had hired them for his own private infomercial.
They've caught on especially well to what seems to be the main intention of the show - softening up the public for the real thing. Of course, more and more of us have already been broken in by slash 'n' pump TV shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover that have dragged such procedures out of the closet and into our living rooms. After watching months of severe, temporarily disfiguring body mutilations crunched into an hour of television, getting a couple of needles in the face on your lunch hour seems like a walk in the park.
Not that plastic surgeons are so comfortable with that kind of publicity. "It certainly draws attention to the plastic surgery arena," admits John McCahill, general manager of Inamed Aesthetics. "But I personally think it produces a myth - it makes people feel that they have to get something done or that plastic surgery will solve all their problems."
Reality shows also push the gorier side of plastic surgery, which expos like The New You tend to steer clear of. After all, blood and guts and three-month recovery times might not really broaden the procedures' appeal to the wider population. And despite the fact that cosmetic procedures have jumped a jaw-dropping 228 per cent since 1997 according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, most boomers aren't ready for such drastic action. Yet.
"They're probably 10 years away from wanting or needing a facelift," explains McCahill. "They're not wanting to go under the knife and do the recovery period that's involved. They're not ready to admit they're willing to go that distance." They're looking, he says, for that "natural fix." (Natural, I note, must be the new slang for getting fillers injected into your smile lines and lips with a 2-inch needle.)
But non-surgical facelifts and injectables do seem to be the industry's "segue drugs." Ann Kaplan, founder of The New You show, says those knifeless "enhancements" can be a stepping stone to getting full-on surgery later in life. In fact, she says the segue concept is behind the entire plastic surgery explosion. It's all about baby steps.
"I think the market has stemmed from the initial acceptance of laser eye surgery," muses Kaplan. "The general public realized that these procedures actually worked. They were more willing to step into laser hair removal, laser skin resurfacing. As injectable fillers came on the market, there was more openness.'
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the bulk of our population, the boomers and their kid sisters, the boom echoes, are hurtling toward the 50 and 60 mark at the peak of youth mania.
It's the first sizable generation of women who are still in the workplace in their 40s and 50s and are feeling self-conscious about sagging skin and dark, puffy eyes. God, even feminist icon Gloria Steinem came clean about opting for the knife because she didn't want to look "tired" all the time.
Dr Mahmood Kara, speaking to me after his 24-hour-recovery boob job seminar, boils it down to survival of the prettiest. "People who are beautiful sell more furniture and cars."
In fact, says the enthusiastic doc, "there's a lady who comes to us for botox who says, 'I'm starting to dip in my sales. I look angry. I'm frowning all the time and I don't mean to frown. But you get rid of that frown with botox, and I do $10,000 more in sales. So what's a $300 injection, then, that lasts three months?'"
Regardless of their reasons, waves of newbies keep signing up. Kaplan, no doubt, is happy. Her company, Medicard, a medical financing company, grew astronomically as more and more signed up for boob jobs, nip-and-tucks and botox injections they couldn't afford to pay for all at once.
After four hours of wandering this sci-fi freak show, I still have one question. Is anyone else scared?