Michelle Visage opens up about breast implant removal in 'Explant' documentary: 'The medical system is failing women'

Michelle Visage in 2015.  (Photo: Jennifer Lourie/FilmMagic)
Michelle Visage in 2015. (Photo: Jennifer Lourie/FilmMagic)

In 2019, on the Season 11 RuPaul's Drag Race finale, an entire “In Mammoriam” farewell was devoted to Drag Race judge Michelle Visage’s famous double-D’s, shortly after she’d gone public about her surprising decision to have her breast implants removed. Perhaps no modern-day celebrity, other than Dolly Parton or Pamela Anderson, had been so well known for her buxomness; Visage had always made her breasts a big part of her act, literally, and she’d always been in on the joke. (“Breast in Peace,” that finale segment amusingly declared, after which RuPaul asked her, “Is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?”)

But for decades, Visage had been secretly battling Hashimoto's disease (an autoimmune disorder in which the thyroid gland is gradually destroyed) and other illnesses, which she now believes were caused by silicone in her implants.

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The singer and TV personality, whose real name is Michelle Lynn Shupack, got her start in show business as a member of Seduction, a late ‘80s/early ‘90s freestyle girl group produced by C+C Music Factory’s Robert Clivillés and David Cole and best known for the top 10 hit “Two Make It Right.” But even before that big break, she was terribly self-conscious about her small bust, and so she underwent her first breast-augmentation surgery at the very young age of 21. Two more enlargement surgeries followed, most recently in 2003, but Visage now says she started experiencing bad side effects from her implants after her first operation. And in her new whistleblowing documentary Explant, which premieres June 13 at the Tribeca Film Festival, she’s chronicling her harrowing journey to wellbeing and self-acceptance — and calling on the medical industry to take her complaints (and the complaints of thousands of similarly suffering women) seriously, and to warn patients of implants’ potential dangers.

Visage, now a 52-year-old mother of two teen daughters, tells Yahoo Entertainment that when she set out to make Explant (which was directed by Emmy-winner Jeremy Simmons, produced by World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, and executive-produced by Visage and her husband David Case), she “didn't want it to just be gloom and doom. Because I'm not anti-plastic surgery. I can't tell you how many times I say that in the documentary. I'm pro-transparency, not anti-plastic surgery. I'm pro-transparency and pro-efficacy. Just know what you're putting in your body. That's what's so important.”

While many doctors insist that breast implants are totally safe, and breast augmentation is still the most popular cosmetic surgical procedure in the U.S., the debate continues, as Explant makes clear. According to the National Women's Health Network, some studies have suggested that toxins in silicone gel could trigger an autoimmune disease in women who are predisposed to such conditions. And in 2019 — the same year that Visage had her “explant” surgery — the FDA proposed that manufacturers add a serious warning, highlighted in a box, to information given to women considering implants, along with a checklist to ensure that patients understand all possible side effects, which include scarring, rupture, and a rare type of cancer called anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL).

Below, Visage discusses Explant, the A-list Hollywood director who back in 1990 told her she should stuff her A-cup bra, her post-surgery “Ghost Boob Syndrome,” and her happy, healthy new life as a “very proudly flat-chested woman.”

Michelle Visage today. (Photo: Attitude Magazine/Attitude Magazine via Getty Images)
Michelle Visage today. (Photo: Attitude Magazine/Attitude Magazine via Getty Images)

Yahoo Entertainment: So I want to start with the obvious question, which is addressed very early in your film that your boobs were your brand. There was even a concern that removing them would actually hurt your career! You’ve joked about your surgery on Drag Race, but obviously you didn't take the decision to remove your implants lightly.

Michelle Visage: Yes, my breasts are the topic that in my life has been, for a lack of a better term, a joke. And I've used it. My boobs have always been a very big part of my persona, for better or for worse. And for me it was for the better, because I absolutely loved my boobs. … It was a big deal for me to let go of my boobs, because they were a big part of my life for 30 years. But the funny thing is, I absolutely had no problem when it came to taking them out. In the documentary, RuPaul asks me if I am mentally prepared for what it's going to be like to live a life without boobs, but I didn't even think twice about that. I was totally fine with it, because I knew that my health came first. I was ready to say goodbye and evict them.

Why you were so insecure about your A-cups when you were younger? A lot of 80s and ‘90s supermodels were actually quite small-chested, so if you were feeling aspirational, it’s not like your body type was out of fashion or not being represented in the media back then.

Well, bless you lumping me in with the supermodels of the ‘90s! I think your check is in the mail for that one! [laughs] Listen, I've always been 5-foot-4. I've always not been statuesque. I was a supermodel in my head, but in reality I was not. I was in a girl group, and I was told by the male producers — and by men in my life, boyfriends, before that — “You know, you're really flat-chested.” I'm going to even namecheck one in this interview. Do you know Michael Bay, the great director? Well, he directed one of Seduction’s first blockbuster music videos, which was for our song “Heartbeat.” They flew us out to Los Angeles, and he was a new director at the time. I remember specifically him going, “Can you make them bigger? Like, can you stuff them?” This was pre-implants. And I was like, “Hey, I have two sets of socks in my bra at this point. They can't go any bigger!” And if you look at the video, there's some shadow-dancing, and my boobs look big because they were stuffed with two pairs of socks. But the point is, this director was asking me if I can make them bigger. It was endless. The L.A. thing in 1990 was all about tits and ass — actually, not ass, just tits! And for me, I'd always been directly and indirectly told that boobs are sexy. I grew up in a household with a father that subscribed to Playboy, and I would find the magazines under his bed or in the back of his workshop. I would always see these women, and I remember writing in my diary, “When am I going to get boobs?” It was always an obsession. So to have men around me, whether they were boyfriends or producers or bosses or directors, asking me how can I make them bigger, that was toxic masculinity saying that I'm not worthy or I'm not pretty unless I have them. Everybody was telling me I should be bigger, that I wasn't good enough.

In your film, you note that for a long time you insisted to the public or maybe even to yourself that you didn’t have your breasts enlarged for anyone but you. Did you really believe that at one time?

I think we justify things, to be honest. I'm not going speak for everybody, because that would be stupid. But I worked in a strip club, and the reason I didn't strip there was because I remember seeing the girls that were working the lunch [shift], vapidly dancing and getting their money. … I remember looking at their bodies and thinking, “I am never, ever going to look like that.” They were beautiful and thin, with these huge breasts. No matter what I did, I was never going to look like them. I realized at that moment, I didn't have what it takes to actually do that. So, I was always self-conscious about my body. I was never confident in who I was. And it took me a long time to realize, oh my God, no, [the implant surgery] wasn't for myself. … Sure, partially it was for me, because it definitely changed my self-esteem, but it took me a while to realize that I was really not doing it just for me. That's a lie. There’s an element that you do it for yourself, but you're also doing it to feel more attractive to others. If you already felt attractive, you wouldn't do it.

So you had three surgeries over the years. At what point did you start to feel the symptoms, like something was wrong?

After the first surgery — but I didn't realize it. I started getting heart palpitations. I was about 21 with my first surgery, and I started getting palpitations at about 23. My doctor sent me to have an echocardiogram because he thought it might be mitral valve prolapse. Nobody was suspecting it could be my implants because the FDA had said they're fine, and that's what they teach in medical school. I had every test starting at 23 years old, every test done in my heart, and 23-year-olds don't usually get those kinds of stress tests — wearing a Holter monitor for 48 hours, having three brain scans. I had every test you could imagine done before somebody said — or actually nobody said, I figured this out myself — that it was my implants.

Did you have saline or silicone implants? Because for a while silicone ones did have a bad reputation, but then the medical community insisted that saline ones were a safe alternative which, as your documentary claims, is not entirely true.

Not only is it not really true, it's 100 percent false. My first pair was silicone, my second pair was saline, and the last set was silicone. … Now I'm here to say that it doesn't matter if they're filled with dog poop. It doesn't matter if they're filled with sterilized holy water. What matters is the casing, the [silicone] shell that these implants are in. That's where the problems are. There are women that have ruptured and the silicone has leaked and gotten into their lymph nodes and stuff, yes, but the big issue is the casing is comprised of more than 40 chemicals that are the same chemicals in jet-printer ink, motor oil — horrible, horrible things that we're putting in our body. And instead of saying to women, “This can trigger an autoimmune response” or “This could cause breast cancer,” we get, “These are approved by the FDA.” … And as I said in the movie, if I had known that this could have been the contributor to everything that I'd been going through medically for all those years, and if my surgeon said this could be the cause of this, I would not have gotten another pair put in. I would have just taken them out.

Explant features a lot of archival footage from hearings, from when silicone implants started to come under fire in the ‘90s, of women sobbing as they testify about their terrible experiences. It made me mad that that was decades ago, and yet women still aren’t being listened to.

Well, who were they talking to? Old white men who don't give a f***. Those men couldn't even look at these women when they were crying to them. If I were there, I would have been like, “Can you just please pick your face up and look at me? I do not want your money. I just want you to listen to me. You have to sleep at night. If this was your daughter or your wife, would you look down at your paper and not look her in the eyes when she's telling you she's in excruciating pain?” It's disgusting that these women are not heard.

I think Explant sheds light on a larger problem, which is that doctors do not listen to women in general, no matter what the complaint.

Yes, and you know, I get really excited when female writers watch this movie. It gets me really excited that women see beyond just the topic. The underlying theme is women are not treated correctly in the medical world. There are even plenty of female doctors that actually don't believe breast implant illness is real, and that's extremely frustrating and a letdown. But the men that I've spoken to in general [about this film], they do see it. They watch maybe with their significant other, with their girlfriend or wife, or even with their daughter, and they can’t not get angry, because we actually are completely ignored, cast aside. And not just with breast implant illness, but also menopause and all these other things. We're just not treated justly by the medical system. The medical system is failing women. Women are forgotten. We are not taken care of. We are told we're crazy. We're told to just go home and drink a glass of wine — oh, and by the way, here's a prescription for Prozac. But we know we are not feeling like ourselves and that something is wrong. We are sick. Can you please just listen to us? So, I'm so glad that you were able to get that.

What has been the reaction from the medical community about your claims in this film?

I've been realizing, believe it or not, that more male doctors are understanding now. … There are shockingly some females that have gone on the record to say that we females are crazy and that breast implant illness is not real. Oh, I understand fully: If we don't get our surgery with you, you're not going to get to drive your Rolls Royce. I understand that. And good for you for going to medical school and becoming a surgeon — I think that's amazing, and it's certainly not easy and it’s certainly very expensive to become a doctor. But at the same time, what's the cost? I imagine it’s a very heavy feeling to realize that, morally and ethically, you may have contributed to somebody's demise.

What would you like the medical community’s response to be this film?

I just feel like there should be a mandate that every surgeon has to explain [the risks], like a HIPAA waiver. The surgeon says, “OK, there is a chance that you might get ALCL from breast implants, or you may get an autoimmune disease or a neurodegenerative disease. … I just want you to know that the chances are very small, but it could happen. Can you sign here?” Then every doctor, every surgeon, has done their job. And every woman has been informed. She can do the work herself. I have a page up on the documentary's website with any links you need to be an advocate for your own health and get the information you need. I will say though, if my daughters came to me today and said, “I want breast implants,” I would find it very difficult to say, “Sure, absolutely,” after what I've learned.

Michelle Visage in 'Explant.' (Photo: World of Wonder)
Michelle Visage in 'Explant.' (Photo: World of Wonder)

You made a jokes earlier about how it used to be all about T&A, or just T, but now it seems the body ideal for young women has become more booty-oriented. Bootylicious thirst traps are all over Instagram. Do butt implants carry the same health risks?

Yes, they're silicone as well, and they can cause problems. Even a chin implant can, or pec implants, though the smaller they implant is, the less likely the response. But I know that you can get a breast implant illness-type response from anything silicone. … My message to anyone [considering elective implant surgery] is to love yourself as much as you can and realize your self-worth. You are so much more than likes on a picture or what a lover thinks of you, because you are perfect just the way you are. If you do still feel the need to do it, I fully understand that, but first find out why you're not loving yourself as you are. I am also not stupid — I know me saying that is not going to take care of all the issues that we as women have had thrust upon us by toxic masculinity and a male-dominated world, or even by gay women. People want their women should look a certain way. But that doesn't mean that you need to change who you are with chemicals. However, if you do, just know what you're putting in your body. I'm not here to tell anybody not to alter their body; I know the reality is they'd probably tell me to f*** off and do what they want to do anyway. I just think that they should know what they're putting in their body.

Do you ever miss your old fake boobs?

No. And I'm telling you that as a 52-year-old, very proudly flat-chested woman. I have a new bra company that only specializes in AAA, AA, and A-cup bras. I'm totally fine with it and proud. But it took me a long time to get to that. And I'm telling you now that I wouldn't have gotten that last set. So that's why this black box warning [a warning label on breast implants packaging that surgeons see, but patients never do] is such bulls***. It's not enough. I need to know that doctors are going to tell their patients that [these risks are] a possibility. That's all I want.

You seem very happy that you had the explant surgery, for obvious reasons, but did you have mixed feelings when you first woke up and saw your new, smaller chest? Any sadness at all?

No, no, there was no sadness. I did my time with my boobs. My husband was probably the only one who was mourning the loss! [laughs] I woke up and I said, “Doctor, I have nothing!” And he goes, “I know. That's what Mother Nature intended.” And I was like, “Oh my God. It is what Mother Nature intended!” It was like an awakening. I did have what I call Ghost Boob Syndrome — like, when I took my first shower after the doctor took the gauze off, usually my hand would be out in front of me by a good six or seven inches. And I thought, “Oh my God, I'm flatter that I thought I was going to be!” It was a harsh awakening, that there was nothing there, nothing. But I'm OK with it. I love boobs, I think boobs are amazing, I think they're sexy, awesome, great. But that's not my scheduled path in life. That wasn't what was meant for me from the beginning.

How did you physically feel right after the surgery, and how do you feel now?

I immediately saw improvements in my blood work, in my thyroid peroxidase. The Hashimoto's immediately improved. And for the past two years I have been getting better and better. I couldn't believe the energy that was coming back. The brain fog had lifted, when everything I'd done for years had been veiled and brain-fogged. My tinnitus has gone. … My immune system was in overdrive for 30 years, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, so it just makes complete sense to me that if take out the invader, I'm going to improve. As you saw in the documentary, there was silicone in every single part of my body. Every single part. So I think this is an ongoing battle. But I am much better, much better. And I don't regret a thing.

If there are women who are reading this interview or watching your film who have breast implants and are considering having them removed for health reasons, but they’re worried that they’ll look less sexy or feel less confident, what would be your message to them?

Oh my God. My message is: I promise you, no job will be lost. And you will still be sexy. There are definitely smaller-chested women out there that are plenty sexy. Look at Kate Hudson, Julianne Hough. But for me, being the woman of a certain age that I am, it’s more about… what is it about myself that I don't love enough? Really, that's what it comes down to. Why do I not think I'm worthy of attention or love? Because I don't have boobs? When you actually say that out loud, it sounds so silly. But really, when we look at ourselves in the mirror and don't like what we see, that’s because we're comparing ourselves. And we have to stop that. It's an endless vicious cycle, and it's really dangerous to our femininity and our female psyche. You are perfect the way you are. You are beautiful. If you have no boobs, celebrate them. If you have double-G’s, celebrate them! Do what you’ve got to do to make yourself happy. But know that you're perfect without any alteration.

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