Liberties; Herd on the Street

April 11, 2001 The New York Times by Maureen Dowd

No one wants to talk about ruminant fears in polite society. But abattoir betes noires lurk.

Will elegant Upper East Side socialites, lunching at Cipriani, suddenly start foaming at the mouth?

Will pouty young Gotham beauties, sipping sake-tinis at Nobu, begin running around in circles trying to bite their imaginary tails?

Will high-powered women in leather skirts and Holstein-patterned purses find themselves sidling up to the famous pool at the Four Seasons and slurping at it like a trough?

Will bee-stung actresses in New York and Hollywood drop their celery sticks and demand salt licks?

Now for another episode of "When Bad Things Happen to Rich People."

Fearing diseased livestock, Wall Street's erstwhile bulls may be giving up their two-week golf jaunts this spring to Scotland. But the more women hear about mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease, the more jittery they get.

Inside and out, women are putting on the cow. They inject buckets of bovine collagen into their lips and faces. They starve themselves on the Zone and Atkins diets, which entail massive infusions of red meat, cheese, butter and cream. They truss themselves up in leather. They slather on anti-aging creams featuring collagen. Not to mention the Ben & Jerry's they devour when depressed.

"Elsie did not die in vain; we're using every little bit of her," says Patricia Wexler, a New York dermatologist who is known as the Vermeer of fat injections.

It is telling that the latest chic table arrangement is a small plot of grass -- perfect for grazing.

"Husbands have to start worrying now: if their wives are ranting and raving, is it menopause or is it mad cow disease?" Dr. Wexler says dryly.

British women are skittish. Andrew Markey, a London dermatologist, said many patients were switching from bovine collagen to hyaluronic acid, a line "filler" found in roosters' combs, even though his collagen comes from America. "It's not about science," he said. "It's an emotional response."

In America, vanity is still beating out health fears, according to Richard G. Glogau, a San Francisco dermatologist. "Most women would find the prospect of dying wrinkled a lot worse than the prospect of dying of dementia from collagen," he says. "As long as they don't drop dead 30 seconds later, they'll do it."

Dr. Wexler says vanity also trumps morality: "I've never had a patient ask about a kosher cow. I've never had a vegetarian model object to bovine collagen. I've never had an animal rights activist object to cows getting killed for collagen. When it comes to cosmetic matters, women have a 'Don't ask, don't tell me, please!' policy."

The Queen of Fat injects herself with bovine collagen, and says she prefers the cow product to alternative fillers -- including one drawn from human cadavers, which gets tested for H.I.V.

When her patients get antsy, she explains that the collagen comes from "a closed herd, a very elite club of cows. My patients want reassurance that they can go on guilt-free and wrinkle-free. They're not looking for written testimonials."

Some beauty-seekers are, however. "One woman wanted to visit the herd," says Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills dermatologist.

Executives of the McGhan Medical Corporation, which supplies a large share of the world's collagen, say it has 2,000 cows, a "primary herd" and a "backup herd," on 2,000 acres on the California-Oregon border, that eat grain, breed with each other and are slaughtered on-site.

But McGhan also has a biogenetically engineered human collagen waiting for F.D.A. approval that may eventually supersede bovine collagen. The foreskin of one infant boy -- the son of a company executive, according to Dr. Klein -- will be engineered into a supply that will replicate endlessly and provide lips, etc., for women all over the world ad infinitum. A bris to remember.

But until women can start injecting infant-boy foreskin into their faces, they must confront the specter of being quarantined if they start drooling and slobbering.

Tina Alster, a Washington dermatologist who gives herself bovine collagen injections, is calm.

"I would rather be among the quarantined than on the outside of the ring," she says. "Let everyone else look horrible."

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