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More Than Skin Deep

Dr. Sheila Nazarian is one of the most famous plastic surgeons in LA, but it took a conflict in Gaza for her to find her voice

Ani Wilcenski
February 11, 2022
Editor’s note: To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here. 

It was May of 2021, Israel was at war with Gaza, Instagram was ablaze with politics, and Dr. Sheila Nazarian, a preeminent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, was feeling déjà vu.

Dr. Nazarian, who does everything from tummy tucks and chin lipo to burn surgery and hand reconstruction, was no stranger to social media supernovas. In 2020, she’d starred in the Netflix series Skin Decision, a reality show following her and beauty-adviser-to-the-stars Nurse Jamie as they worked with patients—from a mother looking for a makeover after having quadruplets, to a woman with a bullet hole in her side after being shot by her ex-husband. The popularity of the show, which was nominated for an Emmy last year, along with her own successes at the operating table in Beverly Hills, left her with a sizable following. (As of now, she has 826,000 Instagram followers, and says she gets 2,000 to 3,000 new followers a day from the show.)

Dr. Nazarian is also a Persian Jew who escaped Iran at 6 years old, smuggled out of a bazaar alongside her mother and sister into the deserts of Pakistan, hiding in a pickup truck full of corn. Her family only made it out of the country after a tip from a lab tech whom her father, a pathologist at the Shah’s heart hospital, had treated for an eye parasite that almost robbed him of his vision. The lab tech warned her father that he was on a list of government targets and instructed him to flee. “You saved my eyes,” he told her father. “Now I want to save your life.”

The Nazarians reunited in Vienna, where her father had been waiting on their visa approvals. From there, they moved briefly to New York before finally settling in Los Angeles when Dr. Nazarian was 7. In her new life as an Angeleno, she was a self-described nerd with excellent grades but insecurities about not fitting in. She wanted to be a blonde with a sleek ponytail instead of frizzy “rhinoceros-looking” hair. She went east for college, to Columbia, before years of graduate medical education and a plastic surgery residency at USC, during which she was often one of the few women in the room.

Dr. Nazarian’s immigrant drive landed her atop an aesthetic empire featuring not just a Beverly Hills surgical practice but also a medspa and a medical-grade skincare line. There is also the Nazarian Institute, which offers a hybrid of business and medical classes ranging from lessons on how to make a viral video to an immersive course on “Awake Vaginal Rejuvenation.” She has three children, all of whom were born during her residency.

Reflecting upon her successes, she points to the value of hard work, education, and a fierce inner purpose she calls “lioness energy.” She also reflects upon the luck she had in growing up as an American. Dr. Nazarian is unapologetically proud of the United States and grateful for its freedoms, especially having been shaped by a childhood in a country where there were dire consequences for voicing your opinions. She could be forgiven for thinking that she would never live in fear again.

In May, when Hamas rockets rained down on Tel Aviv and Dua Lipa began posting Instagram stories accusing Israel of human rights violations, Dr. Nazarian found herself having unwelcome flashbacks to a life she thought she had safely left behind. She was appalled by a mass social media campaign that was myopically uninformed at best and grossly antisemitic at worst. The tenor of that campaign was something she recognized. “It smelled like Iran,” she remembered. “You speak your mind, and they make you disappear. That’s the trauma.”

When she’d started out in her career, she’d been reticent to advertise her Judaism, fretting over saying Shabbat Shalom and debating with her family over whether she should put a mezuzah on her office door. Starting about six months before the Gaza conflict, she’d made a few tentative forays into Instagram activism, mostly about antisemitism, after reading one too many stories about hostility to expressions of Jewish peoplehood at universities and realizing with alarm that her eldest daughter was only a few years away from campus herself.

Now, watching largely ignorant medical colleagues and fellow influencers accuse Israel of apartheid and its defenders of virulent racism and even genocide, Dr. Nazarian knew she needed to use her platform on a much larger scale. As she put it, “OK, you have 100,000 followers—well I have 500,000 followers, so watch out, because I’m about to go ape-shit.”

Most of Dr. Nazarian’s audience existed outside of any pro-Israel echo chambers; they were just fans of Skin Decision. So she began to post, debunking widely circulated infographics and directing people toward educational resources. She wished her Jewish online followers strength, peace, and Shabbat Shalom.

Nothing about this activism felt easy—she felt terribly exposed and emotionally and even physically at risk. She was now spending eight-and-a-half hours a day posting from her phone in addition to her regular job, waking up with terrible anxiety, and fielding invective from online trolls (one day she sat down and blocked over 2,000 accounts). She cried for the first time in almost 10 years. But the experiences that made it anxiety-inducing to speak up also gave her an orienting sense of perspective. “I’m in America; I shouldn’t have to block what I think,” she says. “That was Iran.”

Part of having lioness energy is standing up for what you believe, even (or especially) if it scares you. These days, you’re just as likely to see a post mocking socialism or a story criticizing child mask mandates on Dr. Nazarian’s Instagram as you are to see a picture of her in Louboutins or in the operating room (though you can still find plenty of glamorous outfits on her recently verified TikTok account). She describes last year’s Gaza conflict as “her first foray into finding her voice,” a formative time that gave her the courage to speak her mind, even if it means upsetting a few people. That said, she now has private security at her home and office and owns three guns. She encourages other Jews to arm themselves for protection, too.

Dr. Nazarian has broadened the scope of her activism, tackling issues within her home state of California, where she’s grown sick of rising crime, draconian COVID policies, and their damaging effects on children. She’s stepped into the ring at her children’s school, pushing back against unscientific pandemic measures like a militantly enforced outdoor mask mandate. There, she takes a more behind-the-scenes approach, making her case by sending recent studies and statistics to the school’s medical board, an approach that ultimately worked; the school reversed the mandate just a few days ago.

It’s victories like that—tangible things that make a meaningful difference for her children and their quality of life—that animate her the most. Dr. Nazarian wants to set an example for her kids with her activism, showing them how to be brave, ask hard questions, and speak their truth even when it’s terrifying to do so. She’s vocal about her beliefs because she wants to change hearts and minds, and hopefully leave the world a better place.

“I’m a doctor,” she said. “If we want to solve a problem, we need to make the correct diagnosis so we can apply the correct treatment. I’m willing to talk about what we need to talk about, because I’m not afraid to diagnose what I’m seeing.”

Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s audience editor.