Shooting up: Building biz at Botox parties

The table is set with wine and cheese, and the eager host awaits his guests' arrival. But this is no ordinary cocktail party– it's a Botox bash, and the guests won't be coming to let the good times roll; they're hoping to roll back the clock.

The host is David Blaine, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist whose office on Locust Avenue is the site of the recent Botox gathering. But by inviting new Botox clients through a radio ad campaign launched 10 days before the March 25 party, Blaine may have also invited controversy.

Is it a good idea to mix medicine with Merlot?

Botox is a purified and diluted form of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria which is injected into the face to paralyze "dynamic wrinkles" (those created by movement rather than gravity). Parties pushing the stuff have been a growing trend in such places as Los Angeles for several years.

Guests– primarily women– gather at a friend's house where they sip Perrier Jouet and are administered wrinkle-busting Botox en masse. But private homes are not sterile medical environments, and injections given by aestheticians or other unqualified individuals increase the chances of negative side effects, including drooping eyelids or a frozen look.

Blaine, 38, has been in practice locally for seven years and has been offering Botox for the past year. He says the popularity of home parties is precisely what made him decide to give one in Charlottesville.

"I wanted to offer the more relaxed atmosphere," he explains, "but in a safe medical environment." He hopes to make the parties a monthly event.

But other local doctors may not jump on such a festive Botox bandwagon.

"I would never consider doing a party because of the alcohol," says Dr. Anna Magee, a dermatologist who has been administering "a lot of Botox" to her clients for three years.

"It's a medical procedure," she explains, "and I don't think it should be put into the context of a social situation."

She's not alone. The American Academy of Dermatology issued a letter in April 2002 to all of its members, decrying the use of Botox in a social setting.

"I strongly discourage you from participating in these kinds of medical/social activities," wrote Academy president Dr. Fred F. Castrow II.

While Botox-bashing and Botox-botches have made for lively skits on Saturday Night Live about socialites with paralyzed faces, even critics concede the most serious Botox side-effects won't last any longer than the treatment– about three months.

Blaine says he agrees that home parties are not a good idea– and he says he wouldn't let someone who had been drinking heavily make a choice about receiving an injection. (And he, of course, does not imbibe prior to offering the treatment.) He also has guests sign a consent form that details the risks of the procedure before they begin to drink.

"In general," he says, "most people who are coming to this gathering have researched it and understand it pretty well."

And, at this gathering, Blaine's assessment seems correct.

Joanne (not her real name), already a patient of Blaine's, has come to the party to boost potential patients' confidence. At 36, she is a fresh-faced blond who says that Botox is one of the best things she's ever done for herself. After her first treatment six months ago ("a birthday present to myself"), she says her husband couldn't believe how thrilled she was with the result of the approximately $300 treatment. "I bought you a new BMW," she recalls him saying, "and this has made you happier."

Her enthusiasm does seem contagious to the one newcomer in the crowd. Margaret (also not her real name) is a 37-year-old marketing executive with big brown eyes, long hair, and a slim figure. She looks like a college coed, but she says that lines on her forehead have been making her self-conscious.

"I've always looked younger than I am," she says, "but I've started to feel like age is catching up with me."

Margaret says Blaine's party was the right atmosphere for her.

"I was already 95 percent sure I was going to get it done," she says. And hearing other people ask pointed questions about the risks actually put her mind at ease. "It can be more intimidating to be one-on-one with a physician," she explains.

After Dr. Blaine gives a 10-minute talk on Botox, Margaret retreats with him to a private room. Her new friend Joanne offers enthusiastic words of encouragement. About 20 minutes later, Margaret has returned– with a slight redness on her forehead the only visible sign that she's taken the Botox plunge.

Did it hurt? "A little," she says, reaching for a second glass of wine.

Meanwhile, as soon as Margaret has returned to the room, Joanne slips into the back with Dr. Blaine even though she says she had a Botox treatment just last week. It seems "shooting up" can become addictive.

It may take up to a week for the injection to actually soften the wrinkles. We checked back with Margaret three days after her treatment to see how she felt about the treatment.

"I'm thrilled," she reports. "I'm definitely going back for more."