Text and Photo: Januaria Piromallo
“Why did you change the living room furniture layout?” He then adds, “Your husband has always had a humidor as big as a refrigerator filled with his collection of cigars. Unfortunately now I do not smoke them anymore ... “
And so begins my conversation with Ivo Pitanguy, 90 years old and the undisputed number one plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgeon. He is a phenomenon – a living legend known worldwide and especially beloved in his homeland of Brazil.
Although Pitanguy has not been to my home in seven years, he remembers even the smallest details.
Sprightly, witty and charismatic, Pitanguy charms in five languages – including my native Italian. This is no average 90 year old. He can hardly put down his iPad, playing with the skill of a little “digital” boy. First he shows off photos of his family, and second, a series of famous paintings – from Botticelli’s “Venere” to Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” illustrating the eternity of beauty for an upcoming conference. Now Pitanguy sees himself as a guru of the beauty of the soul.
JP: How many years have you been coming to the Saanenland?
I’ve been coming here for more than 50 years. My family loves the region, and one of my four children went to Le Rosey. I enjoy the landscape, the cheese, the people and, of course, the skiing. I was a champion! Just kidding.
JP: How often do you spend time here in your Gstaad chalet?
I don’t spend as much time here as I used to, nor as much as I would like. But that has nothing to do with my age … I’m simply too busy.
Despite his advanced age, Pitanguy refuses to retire and doesn’t even limit himself to teaching. He still performs surgery (with a team of assistants) in the Rio de Janeiro clinic that bears his name. A prolific author, Pitanguy’s medical series “Plastic Surgery of the Head and Body” is considered the bible in its field. His latest publication, “Maintaining the dignity of the body during the aging process” by the National Academy of Medicine of Rio will be released next month in the United States.
JP: What does beauty mean to you?
IP: Beauty is transcendental. You can’t explain it … and when we try, it runs away. True beauty is much more than skin deep.
JP: People call you “Michelangelo of the Scalpel”. There is a Brazilian Portuguese word, “pitanguiser” coined after you, and you are only surgeon to have inspired a highly successful television series in the US, Nip-Tuck.
IP: I am honoured that my life and professional achievements have inspired others, even for something as simple as a television program.
But it’s not all fame and fortune for Pitanguy. His philanthropist’s soul still brings him to the public hospital Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Rio, where he has operated for many decades without cost on the poorest of the poor who live in the favelas.
JP: What was the best moment of your career or your greatest professional achievement?
IP: My audiences with the Popes were very special moments. I was profoundly touched to be honoured with the “Prize for Culture and Peace” from Pope John Paul II for my surgical work with the Red Cross on severely deformed children.
Pitanguy’s commitment to education has enabled more than 600 surgeons to graduate from his Ivo Pitanguy Institute, founded to strengthen plastic surgery training and pass on his expert knowledge in the field. Professor Pitanguy’s commitment to the legitimacy of plastic surgery is clearly evident in the program – students first learn restorative surgery, and only after that begin study of purely aesthetic procedures.
JP: When you entered the field, plastic surgery was quite new, wasn’t it?
IP: Yes, plastic surgery in the 1940’s was not yet a respected and valued specialisation. I earned my Master’s degree in the United States and when I returned to Brazil, I saw the need to develop the field there. I created the first Clinic for Hand Reconstruction in Rio de Janeiro, then was invited to study in Paris, rebuilding the mutilated limbs of World War II victims.
The next day he extended me an invitation to his home. I sat down to tea with Professor Pitanguy, who was dressed casually in a grey and black tracksuit, iPad in hand.
JP: Even at 90, you’re still very active professionally. What is the secret to your longevity and good health?
IP: I exercise every day with elastic bands to tone my muscles. I’ve always been an athlete – I’ve got a black belt in karate, am a good swimmer and tennis player, and was quite a savvy skier too in my day.
Pitanguy invites me to touch his bicep, hard as marble. And while he shows me the trophies he’s won, all poised on a display shelf, he gives me some numbers.
His lifetime of achievement includes speaking at 2,500 conferences at the world’s most prestigious universities, from Harvard to the Sorbonne; 1,000 scientific publications; and 40 books, including his bestseller “Le Chemin de la Beauté”, translated into as many languages.
Still playing with his iPad, Pitanguy shows me the poster of a conference at the Benedictine Library of Bologna entitled, “The man between the suggestions of the world and a call from God”. Fittingly, right now Pitanguy is reading “E disse”, by famous Italian writer Erri De Luca, a re-interpretation of the Ten Commandments.
Pitanguy has his own 11th commandment embroidered on a pillow under the King of Swords which reads: “King of What’s Left”.
We move on to the topic everyone wants to hear about. It’s rumoured that Pitanguy counts royalty and the greatest celebrities amongst his famous clients.
JP: Can you name any names?
IP: No names. My lips are zipped. I am like the priest confessor.
JP: Is there anything you refuse to do?
IP: I don’t do corrections at the registry office (he smiles). I try to reseat the facial outlines against the effects of the law of gravity. A harmonious middle ground, or trait-d-union if you will, between youth and maturity. Only with respect and limitation can a person bear to look at himself in the mirror with dignity.
JP: Lifting remains the secret dream of women in general, is that true Professor?
IP: This is also now the secret dream of many men! My male patient rate has grown from 4% to 22%. If the average age of intervention was between 46 and 55 years, it has now increased. Today I see first time patients who are between 70 and 75 years old. Although I do not recommend waiting so long before a first procedure…otherwise the difference between the “before” and the “after” is too obvious.
JP: Have any of your four children followed in your famous footsteps?
IP: My three sons and daughter took a different path. Helcius is an entrepreneur, Ivo Jr a sports manager, Bernard paints and Gisella is a psychologist. She works with me in the clinic because interventions are not only for the body, but also for the soul. I do have a nephew, Antonio Paulo Pitanguy, who is 26 years old, and just finished his specialisation in surgery. He’s next in line to take over the throne.
Next to Professor Pitanguy’s pillow is another, embroidered with the words “Queen of Everything”.
JP: If I say love, what ‘s the first thing that comes to mind?
IP: My wife Marilù. We have been married for 56 years. She is the only woman I’ve really loved and I owe everything to her.