February 21, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jean-Simon Chartier
Culture Representation: Taking place in the the Miami area, the documentary “They Call Me Dr. Miami” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class discussing the career of famous plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Salzhauer.
Culture Clash: Dr. Salzhauer, who has the nickname Dr. Miami, markets his services through sexually suggestive videos and social media, which are sometimes at odds with his religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew.
Culture Audience: “They Call Me Dr. Miami” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the sociology and mentality of people who are addicted to fame and outward appearances.
Love it or hate it, plastic surgery is here to stay and has grown into a billion-dollar business. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, people spent $16.5 billion on plastic surgery in the United States in 2018. That number is expected to rise to $67 billion by 2026, according to Fortune Business Insights. Dr. Michael Salzhauer of Bal Harbour Plastic Surgery in Bal Harbour, Florida, is milking this market demand for all it’s worth.
He’s the subject of the documentary “They Call Me Dr. Miami” (directed by Jean-Simon Chartier) that’s equal parts fascinating and cringeworthy. People who are for, against or neutral about plastic surgery will find plenty of interesting aspects about the documentary, which takes a candid look (flaws and all) at this flamboyant plastic surgeon, who has the nickname Dr. Miami. The movie isn’t a one-sided fawning documentary, since some of Dr. Salzhauer’s critics are interviewed, and the movie has necessary information about the dangers of plastic surgery.
It’s probably no coincidence that the rising demand for plastic surgery is almost parallel to the rise in visually oriented social media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. There’s pressure to look a certain way on social media, where everyday people are often expected to have photos and videos that look like they’re professional models and look like they have glamorous and idyllic lifestyles. Some people feel the pressure to look this way more often than others, depending on their self-esteem and social circles.
Dr. Salzhauer is the first to admit that social media is the main reason why he’s as well-known and successful as he has become. Social media took his plastic surgery practice from being prominent to being world-famous. He even starred in a short-lived reality show on WE TV called “Dr. Miami,” which was on the air in 2017. Dr. Miami has also been name-checked in songs by famous rappers, including Snoop Dogg (“I Don’t Care What You Do”), 2 Chainz (“4 AM”) and Future (“Cuddle My Wrist”).
As Dr. Salzhauer explains in the documentary, he started promoting his plastic surgery business on Instagram, but his Instagram account got deleted because of all the nudity he posted on the account. And then his daughter Aleah, who was 15 years old at the time, suggested that he join Snapchat. And that’s when his Snapchat activities propelled him into becoming a celebrity. He did livestreams of surgeries from his operating rooms and expanded his Dr. Miami persona into music videos and a thriving merchandise business.
His music videos and other short films, which often show him as a rapper, are definitely cheesy but are meant to be humorous. He also parodies other pop culture in his videos. For example, the documentary shows him directing a “Game of Thrones” spoof, with actors in cheap-looking costumes. One of the actresses, who’s supposed to promote breast implants, tells an actor, “My boobs will keep you warmer than your books.” Another actor talks about Dragon Botox.
Needless to say, his videos are definitely geared to adults. There’s a lot of nudity and almost an obsession with close-ups of women’s barely clad rear ends “twerking” or dancing in other sexually suggestive ways. Take the worst stereotypes of how rap videos can be degrading to women, in terms of images and lyrics, and chances are that type of content has been in a Dr. Miami video. He also uses a lot of real-life rappers (who aren’t famous) in his videos to make it look like he has some kind of “street cred.” It’s all just so tacky and fake—and the same can be said for how a lot of bad plastic surgery looks.
In the documentary, Dr. Salzhauer says he doesn’t care if he makes a fool out of himself, as long as he can continue to be famous and it’ll benefit his business. It’s clear from watching the documentary that Dr. Salzhauer is addicted to being in the limelight and craves constant approval from the public. The risqué content of his videos, as well as his habit of livestreaming his surgeries (patients’ faces aren’t shown and they sign waiver forms allowing the livestreams), have made him a controversial figure in the medical industry.
And that’s why some people might be surprised to know that underneath the slick and often-smarmy persona, Dr. Salzhauer is a very religious Orthodox Jew. It’s this duality that makes the documentary so intriguing to watch. He literally squirms as he tries to justify how he presents an almost decadent image as a famous plastic surgeon when he’s promoting himself in public, compared to the reality of how he is in private at home as a happily married, religious father of five.
Dr. Salzhauer admits, “There are moments when my persona as Dr. Miami and my activities on social media conflict with my core religious beliefs, mainly in how I’m perceived by others.” He says that his “salacious” promotional content is the best way to get people’s attention. And he justifies it by saying: “It’s hard to sell or explain surgery of the body without showing bodies.” What he doesn’t explain is that even though men and women get plastic surgery, women’s bodies are almost always the ones used in sexually exploitative ways in his videos.
His wife Eva Salzhauer, who is interviewed separately, and has been married to him since 1995, says about the sexually exploitative music videos that her husband makes: “The music bothers me. The words bother me. I understand that you have to do certain things that may not be what you would do in your home.” She calls him an “amazing husband and father” who can be a “silly guy at work, who’s very serious about his work as a doctor, but then he likes to do creative things with his social media.”
Who is Dr. Michael Salzauer? Born in 1972 in New York City, he says that his first major influence to go into medicine was by watching the 1972-1983 TV series “M.A.S.H.,” the sitcom based on the 1970 comedy film about American medics in the Korean War. He comments, “That was my idea of what medicine was. It just looked like they were having a good time, making jokes, operating, and saving people’s lives.”
He and Eva began dating when she was 19 and he was in medical school. According to Dr. Salzhauer, she was the reason why he first became interested in plastic surgery. When they were dating, she got into a car accident that left a scar on her mouth, beneath her lower lip. Eva wanted to get plastic surgery to remove the scar. At the surgeon’s office, Dr. Salzhauer saw “before and after” plastic surgery photos for the first time. And he says that’s when he knew he wanted to be a plastic surgeon. (Eva says the only cosmetic procedure she’s had since then is Botox.)
Dr. Salzhauer doesn’t talk much about his upbringing, but he says he was raised Jewish but didn’t become Orthodox until he was an adult. Dr. Salzhauer says that becoming an Orthodox Jew was “the most important decision” he ever made for himself and his family. His wife Eva says that he’s deeply insecure about his looks, going back to his childhood. (There’s a brief flash of a family photo of him as a child, with his parents, brother and two sisters.)
Eva says of her husband: “I think he is vain. I think part of the vanity comes from self-esteem.” She further comments. “He always jokes that his brother and sisters were so beautiful, and he was the most unattractive one of the family. He always tells me, ‘I thank you for settling for me,’ like I did him a favor.” Eva also says that her husband can relate to his patients who also have insecurities about their looks. “Maybe that’s why he chose this particular type of work,” she adds.
Later in the movie, Dr. Salzhauer says that he’s definitely “self-absorbed” but that he doesn’t fit the psychiatric definition of a narcissist. He admits that he’s had surgery on his nose, teeth and chin. And he mentions that if he could get any more surgery, it would be to make himself taller. The documentary also shows Dr. Salzhauer getting a Botox treatment to get rid of wrinkles around his eyes.
“They Call Me Dr. Miami” shows some of what he’s like in his personal life, such as having meals with his family, attending temple and having a religious meeting with Rabbi Menachem Katz. Dr. Salzhauer’s five children are daughter Aleah and sons Tzvika, David, Jacob and Yonaton. The doctor is shown proudly looking on as one of his sons plays the piano in their home. In another scene, Dr. Salzhauer trains three of his sons in weightlifting and then takes them out for some ice cream.
For whatever reason, Aleah is his only child who’s interviewed in the documentary. She comes across as intelligent, down-to-earth and very intuitive about the dichotomy of her father’s Dr. Miami persona and who he is in real life. She says that she stopped following her father on social media because it was too embarrassing for her. Aleah mentions what she dislikes the most about her father: “I disapprove when he tends to be someone he’s not.”
She also tells it like it is when it comes to the dangers of putting too much self-esteem in social media, which is something that she thinks has happened to her father. “You could have so many followers and have no actual friends,” she says of the superficiality of social media. Eva also confirms that although her husband is a celebrity doctor, he doesn’t have many close friends.
Dr. Salzhauer’s patients who spoke on camera for the documentary were all young women (under the age of 25), whose names were not included in the film. One was a 20-year-old car salesperson from Las Vegas who wanted butt implants and was prepared to spend up to $16,000 for the surgery. She traveled from Las Vegas just so Dr. Miami could be the one to do the plastic surgery on her. She says she became a fan of the doctor through his Snapchat videos, and her goal is to look more like an Instagram model. Another patient shown in a consultation was hoping to get breast implants because she also wanted to improve her looks for social media.
The documentary also includes archival news footage of plastic surgery horror stories of patients (all women) who died after botched plastic surgery, usually from unlicensed people and shady “discount” surgery centers. Dr. Salzhauer says he’s never had a patient die because of surgery he’s performed (he mentions that it’s his biggest fear), although he says that some of his colleagues have had that fatal experience with patients.
The documentary includes a scene of Dr. Salzhauer somewhat panicking when a female patient is unable to regain consciousness after surgery. The attempts to revive her are not shown on camera, but the audio can be heard. Dr. Salzhauer makes a frantic phone call to an anesthesiologist, who instructs him on what to do. It turns out that the patient had mucus blockage, and the problem was able to be resolved.
There’s also an archival clip of social media influencer Freelee the Banana Girl explaining how she regrets having plastic surgery when she was in her 20s. She thinks that people, especially women and girls, are brainwashed into thinking that they have to look a certain way in order to be considered “beautiful” or “sexy,” when most people realistically can’t achieve those physical standards. Meanwhile, there are also some social media clips of a few young women who say that they like having plastic surgery because it’s their own choice to improve their physical appearance in the way that they want
Dr. Joshua Lampert, a plastic surgeon who is a critic of Dr. Salzhauer, has this to say about plastic surgery: “It’s not a game. These procedures can have bad outcomes. If I saw a pilot of a commercial airline dancing around in the cockpit, I probably wouldn’t get on the airplane. There’s a problem when the entertainment becomes the most important thing. You’re not going to see choreographed dances in my operating room, ever.”
Although Dr. Salzhauer’s patients sign waivers that allow him to use their surgeries to promote his business, there’s still something gross and inappropriate about Dr. Salzhauer apparently having no problem with taking selfie photos in front of an unconscious patient in the operating room, as if that person is a prop in his self-promotion. He’s shown doing this in the documentary like it’s no big deal. And once again, you’ll notice a pattern here: All of his patients featured in the documentary are female.
At the very least, this documentary will let more people know that this is the type of doctor who will take a patient’s vulnerable medical experience and use it to promote himself and his business in the most public and shameless ways. He’s been doing this for years, so it’s not exactly a secret. But it says a lot about how people might or might not respect themselves by allowing themselves to be used in this way.
If there’s one major shortcoming of this documentary, it’s that it doesn’t show enough of what it’s like for men to have plastic surgery. Even if none of Dr. Salzhauer’s male patients wanted to be interviewed, the movie barely mentions what men are thinking when they decide to do get these procedures done. There’s a brief scene of Dr. Salzhauer filming a comedic video with rapper Beach Boii to promote penis implants, but that video doesn’t count as a serious analysis of male patients who get plastic surgery.
There should have been more information on demographics and cultural context for plastic surgery. It seems like women are more likely than men to get cosmetic surgery at younger ages. And there could be sociological reasons for that, since women have age limits on biologically conceiving children, while men do not. The documentary makes it clear that women are more likely to be judged and exploited for their looks than men are, but the documentary doesn’t really examine why.
Other people interviewed in the film include plastic surgeons who have followed the Dr. Miami modus operandi of promoting themselves, such as Dr. Martin Jugenberg (also known as Dr. 6ix), Dr. Jonathan Kaplan (also known as Real Dr. Bae) and Dr. Scott Blyer (also known as Dr. B Fixin). They all do laughably horrible rap videos in their attempts to look cool. There’s also an archival clip of Dr. Salzhauer on the syndicated daytime medical talk show “The Doctors” as he unapologetically faces some of his doctor critics who were guests on the show.
Brittany Benson, who was Dr. Salzhauer’s assistant for several years, is also interviewed in the documentary. Like the other women who’ve worked for him (almost all of his employees shown in the documentary are young women), she believes there’s nothing wrong with plastic surgery, and she seems addicted to social media. Benson mentions that her parents feel that elective cosmetic surgery is vain and sinful, and they were shocked when they found out on the “Dr. Miami” TV show that she had plastic surgery, with Dr. Salzhauer as the one who operated on her.
And it seems that Dr. Salzhauer isn’t an easygoing or entirely pleasant boss. In the documentary, he is seen berating Benson on the phone because she didn’t post something on social media quickly enough for him. “Are you on drugs?” he callously asks her. She replies in a sullen and insulted voice, “No.” Not surprisingly, the next time Benson is seen in the documentary, she mentions that she no longer works for the doctor.
Dr. Salzhauer had “auditions” to replace Benson, where applicants could send videos of themselves. The documentary includes clips of some these job applicant videos, which show a series of young, attractive women dancing, often in sexually suggestive ways, for the camera. Dr. Salzhauer likes what he sees, and he zeroes in on a young woman who looks like she’s barely out of high school.
Dr. Salzhauer remarks that she looks like she could be a Kardashian-Jenner and that he could make her a social media star if she worked for him. It’s clear that his definition of being his ” assistant” means that the person he chooses has to be a young, attractive female whose sex appeal and willingness to do whatever he tells her to do on camera are more important than her intelligence and skills/experience working in a doctor’s office.
As divisive as Dr. Salzhauer’s self-promotion and his way of conducting business can be, “They Call Me Dr. Miami” does an admirable job of looking at many sides of the issue. This doctor might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But just like elective plastic surgery, it all comes down to personal choice.
Discovery+ premiered “They Call Me Dr. Miami” on February 11, 2021.