On any other night for Dr. Sal Calabro, hanging in the living room of his sprawling Newtown Square home overlooking the Darby Creek as it mumbles and hums through his five wooded acres would offer some relief from the pressure of rearranging faces and removing fat. But on this July night in 1998, Calabro had a decision to make. After spending time in the backyard by his waterfall pool filled with Japanese koi, Calabro and his pal, TV host Wally Kennedy, sat inside by the fireplace, drawing up a pro-and-con list, debating whether the cosmetic surgeon should make an appointment of his own, with Howard Stern.
A couple weeks earlier, Calabro had been listening to Stern on a break from seeing patients when the topic of breast implants came up, as it often does. He was a casual fan of the radio show from the days when he'd drive his two sons to Malvern Prep and they'd beg him to turn it on. When the implant talk ended, Calabro had called to offer his liposuction services, and the show's producer called back with an idea for a contest dubbed “The Howard Stern Frankenstein Makeover.” They'd round up the usual menagerie of women, ranging from attractive with minor flaws to comically hopeless. Calabro would help evaluate them and provide the winner with free surgery.
Calabro spent a week soliciting advice from family and friends, and it came down to this-Sal and Wally, huddled up in Calabro's cavernous house, munching on eggrolls prepared by his Asian housekeeper, hashing out their list. The cons ran the length of the paper. “You know what this could do to your reputation,” said Kennedy. “Howard is a very intelligent guy, but the show gets wild. There's a line you can't cross.”
Calabro knew that once he aligned himself with the King of All Media, his image would be altered forever. He'd no longer be Dr. Calabro; to millions across the country, he'd be Howard Stern's boob-job guy. His own wife wasn't too sure it was appropriate for a physician to join Stern's cadre of lesbians, strippers and freaks. But then there was the lone “pro” screaming off the page: Do good work, and you'll get an endorsement from Howard Stern, which will reach millions of listeners and translate into untold business. Dr. Calabro was sold.
The lobby and consultation rooms at the Calabro Cosmetic Surgery Center, in the shadow of the Art Museum, feel less like a doctor's office and more like someone's house, decorated with thank-you cards from former patients, white leather couches, and a print of a Picasso sketch outlining a woman's posterior and thighs. If image is everything, whether you like Calabro's or not, he has done a masterful job of branding himself, much like the Main Line's own Julius “Dr. Nose” Newman, a pioneer in popularizing liposuction and his own celebrity. (His Rolls-Royce featured a dr lipo vanity plate.) “He was great,” Calabro, 65, says of his retired predecessor. “He did good surgery; he knew how to market himself. But he wasn't in the mainstream. I guess I'm not in the mainstream. I'm a bit of a character.” With his radio appearances, aggressive advertising campaigns, and a website featuring topless patients in sexed-up poses, Dr. Sal takes Newman's game to a new level.
Thanks in large part to his recurring role on The Howard Stern Show, Calabro has parlayed his work into stardom, becoming arguably the most famous cosmetic surgeon in the country. He has offered his services free to more than 20 Stern guests-women who want new boobs or leaner legs, and who, to get them, will walk the streets of New York with tampons on their heads, stick their faces in some guy's posterior as he passes gas, or, if they're lucky, just get bare-ass naked. In the end, courtesy of Dr. Sal, many of them get their new look.
On a Friday afternoon in November, the mostly bald doctor, with his well-fed six-foot-one frame and the back-slapping South Philly Italian demeanor that leads patients to call him “Dr. Sal,” conducts a tour of his office-“Shangri-la,” as he calls it. It's all exceedingly cozy, intended to put you at ease with Dr. Sal and the fact that he's about to permanently alter your body. But as you turn the corner down the hallway, the decor changes. There's the operating room, with its cold blue floors and a matrix of anesthesia-dealing machines surrounding a horizontal chair. On this Monday morning, Calabro will see two patients: One is getting fat removed from six areas; the other is scheduled for a chin augmentation, an arm reduction, and lipo on her abs, waist and flanks, but not the hips-she wants the “J.Lo look.” Because Calabro offers only elective surgery, there are none of the hmo hassles that plague other doctors. Both patients have already paid in full-$16,100 combined. He'll be done before you eat your lunch.
The Calabro Cosmetic Surgery Center handled more than 300 lipos, 200 breast jobs and 100 face-lifts in 2001. Dr. Sal's personal specialty is large-volume liposuction, removing approximately twice what his colleagues take out of a single person. Four days a week, he slips out of his house in the darkness, arriving at the office by 4:30 a.m. to walk through the morning's surgery in detail. He considers the possible complications, knowing that a slip-up, even in something as seemingly simple as lipo, could lead to scarring, nerve damage, or even death.
When patients are up on the table in his O.R., looking nervous as the anesthesia begins to sweep over them, Dr. Sal offers comfort. “I go to the end of the table and touch their feet,” he says. “I like to massage the tops of their feet-the bottoms, they get ticklish. I just say, 'I'm going to spoil you rotten for your husband.' A man, I go over and put my hand on his shoulder.”
Not exactly typical bedside manner, but Dr. Sal is anything but typical. To remove fat from a person's body, a cannula-a tube with tiny blades on the end-is inserted into a small incision. Calabro uses the largest, most aggressive and unforgiving model, sliding it under the skin and pumping his arm back and forth like a woodcutter. “It's very exhausting when you do big cases like I do,” he says. “I could be criticized for this-I took about two gallons of fat from this woman in one sitting.”
The American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, to which he belongs, sets a safety limit of removing 5,000 cubic centimeters in any liposuction. (He holds memberships in various cosmetic and liposuction organizations, but none are recognized by sanctioned medical boards.) Calabro removes as much as 8,000 cc's-enough to fill two milk jugs-but there are no complaints against his medical license in Pennsylvania, and he says he's never had a serious complication; the last patient he admitted to a hospital, he says, was three years ago, due to dizziness after the anesthesia wore off. “Doctors who don't do [high-volume lipo] say it's dangerous,” he says. “But it's not dangerous when I do it. It's dangerous to walk the high wire, but there are people who can do it.”
Taking up every inch of a Japanese garden stool in one of the consultation rooms, Dr. Sal attempts to explain how the underachieving son of a dry cleaner graduated from medical school, married a wealthy, witty Australian babe, took up hobbies like collecting exotic fish and cattle ranching, and became a Ponce de León for porn stars everywhere. Even he has a hard time figuring it out. So do his detractors-physicians who feel he's underqualified and say he cheapens the profession. But when talk turns to growing up poor and to memories of his mom, all the cheeky bluster and bravado of the clown prince of cosmetic surgery fades.
He recalls the day in 1972 when he broke the news to his mother that he'd been accepted to an internship. She had been saying the rosary and was at the door of her rowhome when he arrived. The moment she saw him, Lena Calabro cried out with joy: “I knew it!” She thought he got into his second-choice program; when he told her he'd landed his first choice, she was overcome. He'd exceeded even her expectations.
“She was just so happy,” Dr. Sal says, as his voice cracks. He grabs at a Kleenex for his bold nose that's definitely never seen a surgeon's blade, and for just a moment, it's easy to see the old Sal Calabro, before his Howard Stern makeover.
The road to fat-sucking superstardom began, inauspiciously enough, at the intersection where 12th, Cross and Dickinson streets come together. Calabro's parents, Sam and Lena, owned Sam's One-Hour Cleaners at 18th and Tasker, where Sal worked from the age of nine. At South Philadelphia High, Calabro never brought books home for fear of being called a worm. His grades reflected that. He graduated in 1955 and figured he'd do what his father expected him to do-take over the family business. For four years, Calabro lived at home and drove a laundry truck, spending his free time on “corner duty” with the guys. But inside, he felt like he didn't fit in. He began taking night classes at Temple University Prep, where he sheepishly asked a professor to teach him the proper way to speak. “I used to daulk like dis,” Sal recalls. “'Th' fuck you lookin' at?' I just wanted more. When I learned to speak English, when I became a good reader, it opened up a whole new world for me. I wanted to be a writer. I wrote terrible stuff, full of self-pity.”
Sal's spirits were lifted as his lust for knowledge grew, and for the first time, he thought he could make something of himself. His father, however, was sure he was wasting his time. They stopped speaking, and Sal left the family business to make his own money for school-often by boxing at local gyms that needed a pug to take a fall for easy cash. He eventually graduated from La Salle College and applied to local medical schools, but was turned down, he says, because he was already 27 years old.
Feeling down on himself, Calabro ended up pursuing medicine at the University of Bologna in 1967. Two years later, he met Paulette Corry, a 21-year-old Aussie who was traveling through Europe. Calabro left Italy in 1971 with an M.D. and a wife.
South Philly Sal flew to Sydney for his wedding thinking that Paulette's family ran a drugstore. Turned out they were major stockholders in the largest chain of pharmacies in Australia. The archbishop of Sydney performed the service. “I knew Paulette in jeans and miniskirts,” Sal says. “She came from a very wealthy family. That put a lot of pressure on me.”
Sal returned to his hometown a new man. After completing an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital and a residency in dermatologic surgery at Temple's skin and cancer hospital, in 1976 he opened his own dermatology practice on South Broad. Back on the streets of his youth, where he'd gotten into scraps and hauled laundry, neighbors became patients who revered him. Some of them even called him “Father,” as if he were a priest instead of a doctor.
He was successful, but Calabro was frustrated he couldn't do more to conceal the scars that surgery sometimes left on patients. In 1984, he enrolled in an oculoplastic surgery fellowship with a doctor based in Secaucus, New Jersey. After a year of assisting with eye work and attending liposuction workshops, Calabro began performing cosmetic surgery. In 1987, he'd redefine himself again, selling his dermatology practice to become a full-time cosmetic surgeon in new digs on Pennsylvania Avenue.
To bolster his transformation from dermatologist to lifter of faces and remover of flab, Calabro set aside an advertising budget of $100,000 to promote his “body sculpting” techniques, using former patients as his models, including a Mr. New Jersey and plenty of women in their underthings. He also appeared on local radio shows and AM Philadelphia, where he operated live in a segment dubbed “Lunchtime Liposuction.” By the early '90s, his patient list bulged like a saline-stuffed breast. But for all his success, his high profile as a cosmetic surgeon was limited to Philadelphia. That changed the day he met Howard Stern.
Calabro wore a sport coat and black mock turtleneck for his “Frankenstein Makeover” debut on August 7, 1998. Surrounded by a roomful of hopefuls with champagne wishes and silicone dreams, he was a bit stiff early on, but loosened up with each contestant. “Kristy” wanted her boobs to be “forever perky.”
“They're not horrible, but I think they could be bigger,” said Stern, after Kristy displayed her chest. “Dr. Calabro?”
“I think they could be a little bit bigger,” the doctor opined, looking her over, straight-faced. “I would narrow her waist a little bit to accent her hips and balance her figure.”
“Wow,” said Stern. “You're a genius!”
The judges rated Kristy on a one-to-10 scale: The higher the number, the more she deserved the surgery. Joe Cancer, so named for his inoperable lung cancer, gave her a six, as did Vin the Retard. Next up was “Rosemary,” who unfurled a monstrous pair that she wanted “firmer.”
“I think they're, uh, nice,” said Calabro, raising his eyebrows and frowning to make the opposite point. Stern's gang cracked up.
The eventual winner was Jayne Bidon, a five-foot-10, 125-pound middle-school secretary from Minnesota. Calabro sucked a quart and a half of fat from her inner thighs and injected some of it into her lips. An associate who works with him promoted her breasts from a B cup to a D and smoothed out her nose. On a visit to Frederick's of Hollywood, with an E! TV camera crew in tow, Calabro helped Bidon pick out a few new outfits. Stern was impressed by Dr. Sal's creation when they returned to the show.
“This is the closest thing to a Barbie doll I've ever seen,” Calabro declared, beaming as Bidon modeled a black bra and garter set.
“Dr. Calabro, did you have sex with her during the operation?” Stern asked.
“I just look at her clinically,” Calabro said, rolling his eyes, getting the big laugh.
With that performance, Dr. Sal won Stern over. No contracts were signed, but Calabro knew he'd be back. “You're our guy now,” Stern's producer told him. Dr. Sal was eager to return, too. In the limo home from New York, barely an hour after the show, Calabro called his office to find 48 new appointments for consultations on his schedule. In the months that followed, Calabro would call in and drop by for more evaluations and medical giveaways. As his name spread across the country, more and more calls poured in from outside the Delaware Valley and New York, and his load of local patients dropped from 80 percent pre-Stern to 35 percent today. In his lobby, housewives and girls-next-door mingled with strippers and porn stars.
As his Stern appearances added up, he was mobbed at cosmetic surgery conferences by colleagues looking for advice, and he lectured on how he built his practice up to national prominence. Patients brought copies of Stern's books for him to sign. But not everyone appreciated Dr. Sal's new superstar status. In the medical realm, many cosmetic surgeons are seen as margin-walkers, tiptoeing on the outskirts of medicine without the years of surgical training required to be a plastic surgeon, many of whom do reconstructive work in addition to elective surgery. Cosmetics often begin their careers with other specialties-dermatology, in Calabro's case-and attend fellowships or seminars to pick up cosmetic techniques. Calabro's appearances on Stern were just too low-class for some traditional doctors.
Most physicians contacted for this story were quick to snort at the mention of Calabro's name, but had little to say beyond questioning his credentials and expressing disgust for his connection to Stern. One well-regarded plastic surgeon who estimates that he has augmented the breasts of about 100 exotic dancers says he's seen patients who were unhappy with Calabro's work, but adds, “We all have some incidence of that.”
Interestingly, while Calabro was becoming famous for the implants he gave away on radio, he hadn't touched a breast, medically speaking, since 1987. “Breast surgery has a built-in complication rate,” he says. “You can do a perfect procedure and the breasts are uneven. It's how somebody heals.”
Instead, Calabro has associate doctors who assume that risk. Yet when he appeared on radio and TV for the “after” evaluation, he often took credit for their work. “He doesn't mention that at all,” says a local plastic surgeon whom Calabro considers one of his chief competitors. “That's a serious ethical violation.” Calabro says that when potential patients call for augmentation, they speak with the surgeons who do it, not with Dr. Sal. “There's no way they go into surgery thinking that I'm going to do it,” he says. “There's no misleading at all.”
When Jayne Bidon visited the Calabro Surgery Center for her makeover, Al Mameniskis, a board-certified plastic surgeon, was Calabro's breast man. “I learned a lot from him, especially in liposuction techniques,” says Mameniskis, 42, who formed his own practice last year. “He has tremendous experience in doing these things, and, by and large, good results. A lot of the criticism is sour grapes. [The Stern show] is a powerful marketing tool, and he certainly enjoys being part of it.”
Many physicians cringe to see doctors advertising in any forum, since most of them won't. On his website, created for free by a patient, Dr. Sal initially posted little more than his office number and some basic information about his practice. After the Frankenstein Makeover show, he loaded up on “before and after” photos of Bidon, and when Stern would plug Dr. Sal's site, the hits rolled in. The website was then augmented with more photos of Stern's guests. The ladies strike seductive poses in the “after” shots, most of which Dr. Sal photographs himself in his office, while his assistant of 26 years, Lillian Simonetti, art-directs. There's also the “Glamour Gallery,” which is about as medically relevant as a Penthouse magazine. Stern recently called it “the most pornographic thing ever.” When he's on the radio, Calabro says, his site gets as many as 500,000 hits; aol once named it “the hottest cosmetic surgery site” on the 'Net.
Mameniskis says that as Calabro's profile grew, so did the malpractice bull's-eye so many doctors in Pennsylvania feel threatened by. Over the years, Calabro has been named in a handful of lawsuits; some were thrown out of court, and his name was removed from others directed at the work of his associate physicians. Dr. Brett Garber, who handles some of Calabro's breast work now, is involved in two suits from patients at Calabro's center. “I'm pissed that I got sued at Sal's, but do I think these are frivolous charges? Yes,” he says. “Was Sal involved in either of them? No. When you're a celebrity, you're going to get kooks.”
With nearly 20 years of fat-sucking and face-lifting experience, and with all his notoriety, it's surprising that Dr. Sal hasn't been sued more often. Of the 15 cases against him in Philadelphia, some were filed by patients on whom he never operated, and despite his on-air and online image, only one suit charged him with inappropriate behavior. Out of his hundreds of patients a year, what's shocking is that only one has ever claimed that Howard Stern's favorite doc is really a sex-starved womanizer. That case settled out of court, and Calabro calls the woman who filed it “crazy.”
As for the numerous enemies among his peers, Dr. Sal and his friends say those opinions are based not on the work he does, but on jealousy. “It's hard to tell where the professional jealousy and ethical lines are,” says Richard Cavanaugh, a Doylestown prosthodontist who was the best man in Calabro's wedding. All Dr. Sal's pals have stories about folks from the old neighborhood who thank him for house calls he made decades ago, prescriptions he filled for free when they were low on money, extra cash he slipped to his assistant when she was buying a house. “He's got a challenge there, to develop a sound reputation,” says Cavanaugh. “They just don't know him, and that's a shame.”
The night after a December storm that left half a foot of snow in its wake, Dr. Sal and his wife are nestled in the living room of their expansive, expensive home, picking at a plate of sushi-Paulette with chopsticks, her husband with a fork. Not far from where Paulette sits is an oil portrait of her, a gift to the Calabros painted by one of his patients. Etchings by noted artist Peter Milton, Dr. Sal's favorite, hang near the table where he sat with Wally Kennedy and decided to redefine who he was and how he'd be perceived by not just local folks, but people all over the country.
Outside the office, Calabro constantly reinvents himself in little ways, nipping and tucking-picking up a new hobby here, learning a new surgical technique there, even role-playing by acting “a little dorky,” as he says, on the radio. He's eager to show off his favorite obsession-his Japanese koi, which he traveled to Tokyo to hand-pick. He leads me to his backyard and down narrow steps in the snow to get a look at some of the 50 red-and-white fish spread among three ponds, including a massive one that is eight feet deep, temperature-controlled and elaborately filtered. The koi are as much as two feet long, and many are worth thousands of dollars. His favorite is named Lazarus. Calabro once spent an hour resuscitating the eight-pound fish after it escaped its tank, holding it in his arms and feeding it oxygen until its tail began to flap again. He studies fish diseases, and once in a while, he puts a koi under at his house to operate on it.
Calabro's hobbies run a wide, expensive gamut. He shows photos of his prize-winning blue tick raccoon-tracking hounds, and the cattle ranch he bought in Oklahoma. Once a month, Calabro flies there to ride horses on his couple hundred acres and play cowboy, with a John Wayne hat and a six-gun on his hip. And four decades after taking night classes at Temple University Prep, Calabro still thirsts for knowledge. On a trip to Gettysburg, he became fascinated by military tactics; now, he can discuss battle strategy of the Russo-Japanese war. While he munches smoked eel, he sips a dark ale he brewed himself with a special ingredient: honey, from his own bees.
Dr. Calabro still feels at home in South Philly, where today, an Asian family owns his father's dry cleaners. But then there's the other Dr. Sal, with a private villa in the Dominican resort of Casa de Campo for family vacations, who spent a vacation in Jane Seymour's British castle and took a luxury barge trip through the South of France. In a way, he never left the old neighborhood-family friends and old patients still call his name when he walks its streets. But there's a part of him that can never get far enough away from those days when he felt too dumb, too poor, never good enough. So he learns about beekeeping and wartime strategy, and won't stop sucking fat until he physically can't saw that wood anymore.
Calabro makes fewer Stern appearances these days, but still calls in now and then. He says he has no regrets over joining the show, and while he hasn't spent any time with the “shock jock” outside the studio, he speaks reverentially of Stern's intelligence and kindness off the air. Calabro and Stern would have a lot to talk about over dinner: battling self-doubt, low expectations and damaged self-esteem to reach the tops of their fields; making plenty of money in the process; and cultivating images that people either love or hate, with little room in between. In response to critics who say he's “unethical,” “schlocky,” and “self-aggrandizing,” the old pugilist in Dr. Sal rises to the surface.
“You pick a surgeon by the work they do, not their boards,” Calabro says. “I know surgeons that are board-certified, but they can't do a face-lift. I could be a good salesman, I could be a bullshit artist, but in the end, it's the work I do. I'm glad that's all they can criticize me about. Eat their hearts out. I've found that successful doctors don't criticize other doctors. Maybe when their practices grow and they see as many patients as I do, they'll stop talking.”
But like a patient who has two gallons of pudge taken away yet never feels beautiful enough, for all Calabro's reinvention-from street corner to the Main Line, from skin doctor to cosmetic surgeon, from local guy to national celebrity-he's still South Philly Sal on the inside. With his wife by his side, Calabro remembers one of the jobs he worked after he left the cleaners. It was the end of a long day delivering mail near 30th Street Station, and he was flat broke, waiting in a freezing wind for a trolley he could ride for free, when a woman from a nearby café approached and asked if he was cold.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Why don't you come in and have some coffee?” she asked.
“I don't have any money,” he answered.
Calabro's eyes flood at the memory. “I never forgot that,” he says. But Dr. Sal doesn't like talking about those things. Pretty soon, he's back to fat removal and chin implants, glamour galleries and Howard Stern and making people beautiful.