How Joan Kron's Reporting on Plastic Surgery Changed Beauty Journalism

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This year is Allure's 30th Anniversary, and we're celebrating by looking back at iconic moments in beauty from the past three decades. You can read more articles like this one here.

“It’s never too late – that’s the message of my life,” says Joan Kron, whose 25-year career at Allure began at the age of 63. When I started my own career at Allure, I was excited and intimidated about working with Kron – her plastic surgery reporting was legendary, and I have always been a science nerd. She arrived at meetings in oversized black sunglasses and a perfect blonde bob, and spoke with authority and wit. She talked about how she was going to night school to learn to make a movie. And then she did. In her 80s. (It’s called Take My Nose… Please!, about comedians and plastic surgery, and has won film festival accolades. You can watch it on Hulu or Amazon Prime.).

Kron was open about having had a facelift at a time when I had never heard someone own up to plastic surgery before. (Kron has, in fact, had three facelifts; “the first was more extensive, the other two could be considered touchups,” she says.) She whipped up copy that was as smart as it was funny.  In a 2005 story on Joan Rivers’ plastic surgery, Kron got unprecedented access to Rivers’ longtime plastic surgeon and dermatologist – and of course Rivers herself. Kron wrote: “To be the butt of a joke in front of 80 million viewers is “wonderful, wonderful,” says Rivers, turning the other cheek implant.)” But her stories could also get dark: “Actually, the higher ups at Condé Nast came to [Allure founding editor] Linda [Wells] and said, ‘Joan Kron has to stop writing all these dark stories!’ I suppose I was scaring too many people,” says Kron, whose more sinister subject matters included a plastic surgery-addicted patient who murdered her doctor and a woman (who happened to be a personal friend) who died after having a facelift.

Kron has lived 100 lives: “I was only 17 when I went to Yale Drama School. It’s a graduate school but I guess I was lucky or precocious. I was the youngest person there,” says Kron, who studied costume design. “I did well but because it was a masters program, I couldn’t get a degree until I had a bachelor’s degree. Every year I write to them and I say, ‘When are you going to give me an honorary degree?’ And they ignore me.” Kron worked at NBC in New York — “I was one of the early costume designers there” – and then ran a cultural institution in Philadelphia (the Philadelphia Arts Council). “I was bringing Andy Warhol to Philadelphia, producing limited-edition art by Roy Lichtenstein, and putting pop art on billboards. We [produced] one of the first pop art shows in the country in 1962, and everybody was shocked. Whatever we did, they were shocked. Let’s say I was notorious.” She also had one of her first forays into the beauty world: exhibiting a Warhol perfume called You're In. (Say it out loud.)

Then at the age of 16, Kron’s daughter passed away from a horrible accident while volunteering in Sri Lanka. “My husband was volunteering on a hospital ship called the Hope ship in the summer of 1968. We were very involved in raising money for the project, and we went to Sri Lanka. My daughter was cleaning the walls of a leper colony, god forbid, and she came down with a sinus infection and died four days later,” says Kron. “That upended whatever I was doing, and I was in this terrible funk. Then these kids came to me and said, ‘We are starting an underground newspaper’ — because that’s how old I am, everybody was starting underground newspapers – ‘and we want you to be the society editor.’ I said maybe this will cheer me up.” It was the beginning of a new career for Kron, who then went on to start the New York Times’ Home section and was the first fashion editor at the Wall Street Journal. “I was writing about decorating and design and death and dying,” says Kron, who has published four books, including one on the psychology of design that landed her a job at Allure in the magazine’s first year. “I told Linda there were many overlapping sociological studies about design and appearance and I really thought I could help her. She was trying to start Allure and everyone was saying, ‘Oh my god, how much can you say about lipstick?’ No one had any idea about how much you could say about lipstick.”

“Linda always started meeting with her own ideas, and she said, ‘I want to see if plastic surgeons talk people into plastic surgery. I know that our readers aren’t interested in plastic surgery because they’re much too young, but I want to know. And I’ve already hired somebody to write it.’ I never liked to disagree with Linda in a meeting because I thought it was bad manners, so I waited until after the meeting and I asked, ‘How old is that person?’ 35. I said, ‘Nobody who is 35 understands plastic surgery. Let me do it. I’m the oldest person here.” Kron met with Jackie Kennedy’s plastic surgeon for a consultation and “wrote it up as if I was writing to a girlfriend, like a diary, and I handed it into Linda and I said, ‘I’ve just got started. I’ve got three more appointments.’ She read it and she said, ‘Oh my god. Keep going.’ And by the fourth appointment I signed up for a facelift, and my husband said, ‘What are you doing? You didn’t want this.’ And I said, ‘I think I need this.’ And he said, ‘Well, this is your caper, Joan.’ Meaning he’s not paying for it.” Meanwhile, the story came out and Wells started getting calls from readers. “She didn’t realize anyone would be that interested in plastic surgery. And I said, ‘Linda this is such a fantastic subject and now that I’ve done it, I know that you can’t understand this until you’ve been through it. I want this beat, and I promise you, you’ll get some good stories.’ And she said, ‘Go to it.’”

Now, at the age of 93, Kron is making her second movie, a look at the cultural phenomenon of Botox. Kron has been working on the film, called Weapon of Beauty, for four years, and her reporting has taken her around the world, including to four neurotoxin factories (the Botox factory in Western Ireland, the Dysport factory in Wales, Xeomin in Germany, and Revance in Silicon Valley). She hopes to finish the film in early 2022. “I’m very lucky that I still have my mind. I have a bad back, but that’s about it. I’m chugging along.” On the occasion of Allure’s 30th anniversary, I chatted with Kron about the procedures she’s had over the years, and how her thoughts on plastic surgery and aging have changed.

On how plastic surgery is like a Tesla: “I just think that we live in a wonderful time when science has brought us some things that can make life better for us. I think that women have a very hard time about aging. There is definitely a bias against old people – and it’s not old people, it’s an old look. Why would we not expect people to take advantage of the science? Are we buying horses or are we buying cars today – do you want a Tesla or a horse and buggy? So be kind to people who have had work. People like Jennifer Aniston, who we assume do a little at a time, they look great. But if somebody waits until 60 like I did and changes, yes it is very evident. So be kind. Don’t make fun of them. It’s the last thing that is politically ok, to make fun of someone who had plastic surgery. And it’s very unfortunate because those people know that nobody complimented them for looking lousy. But when people see you looking better they say, ‘You look wonderful!’ They want to look at you more. They want to be in your presence more. And that makes a circle because then you rise to the occasion and you feel younger. I’m talking to you, I don’t feel older than you. It’s very strange to age, really. Some days you wake up and you say, ‘I really look like my age today.” But you don’t accept it. I refuse. I am aging disgracefully and I am proud of it. That’s my motto.”

On right and wrong and plastic surgery: “You know, there is this whole moral issue about, ‘I’ve earned every wrinkle.’ Well really, I don’t need to be reminded of the 50 years of crying about my daughter. I really don’t. I can just say her name and I can be reminded. I don’t need to look at the wrinkle. I’d like not to look at the wrinkle. For me, it is not a moral issue. It is for other people and I say, good luck.”

On the procedure she plans to have next: “I called my doctor recently. I’ve got these bags under my eyes that I’ve never had before — I had my eyes done when I was about 62, and usually an eye operation lasts your lifetime. So I said, ‘What am I going to do about these bags under my eyes?’ And he says, ‘Really there’s nothing to do but surgery.’ So I’m going to have to do surgery.”

On false prophets: “You know, everybody talks about Helen Mirren. But Helen Mirren is not that old – she’s much younger than I am! She’s in her 70s. It just upsets me when I see a woman in a magazine or on a website saying, ‘I’m 50 and don’t I look great.’ I just laugh. I mean, really. 50 is just a great age – 40, 50 they are all great ages. I mean, women think that they are old when they’re 40 or 50. You don’t know what age is until you’re 90!”

On the challenges of predicting the future: “One of the last stories I worked on at Allure was about a guy that had a way of aging faces because he was doing a lot of work with the FBI about how to find lost children. They would age a child’s face [to] help in the search for this child who changes so much that you can’t recognize them. He was at the University of North Carolina, and he did a project with some volunteer women who had their pictures taken, and then he aged them to, I think, 60 from 20. And then discussed how they felt about it. I was able to be present [virtually] when they had the reveal — when they saw themselves at 60 for the first time. It was very interesting because one of the questions I asked them was, ‘Do you think that you might consider a facelift?’ The one thing a lot of them said to me was, ‘Oh, when I’m 60 I won’t care.’ I shouldn’t have said anything – if you’re going to be part of this experiment, you should not say anything – but I couldn’t resist. I always say, ‘Well, call me when you’re 60. I would like to hear what you say when you’re 60.’ There is no such thing as ordinary. There is no average. Everybody ages in their own way. Some people are very accepting of aging, and they look like their mother and their grandmother and that’s fine. My mother cared about her looks, so then I care about my looks. Yes, I’m 93. And yes, indeed, I care! And it’s not that I’m going to look 50. But I’m going to look really good for my age.”

On facelifts and the workplace: “It used to be a skin lift in the beginning – in the 50s, 60s, 70s. [doctors were literally just lifting the skin, and now] the SMAS muscle is involved and the skin is not pulled as tight. In my last film [Take My Nose… Please!] I covered the very beginning of plastic surgery. Madame Noel, who was a dermatologist living in Paris, had a very big clientele. She would work on people after World War I who were losing their jobs because they looked old. They were in their 30s, and they were shop girls. She did their surgery for nothing. She had this technique where she did little ellipses around the hairline, cut out a little leaf shaped piece of skin, and she just pulled it up all around and made it tighter. Some early plastic surgery was scary. But you have to admire the women and realize how important the face is to some people. And it’s all well and good to sprout all this feminist talk about it, but when it comes right down to it, when you start losing your face talk, to me. When I was about to have my face lift, the girls at Allure would call me into their offices, close their door, and say, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re pretty.’ You can’t understand it until it happens to you. When they wanted their breasts done or their arms were a little flabby, then it was ok! Everything is ok if you need it, but not when I need it, right?”

On one of the biggest changes in plastic surgery: “The preferred standard [for breast implants] is getting much smaller. I think people are admiring smaller breasts. I think they’re beginning to realize that oversized breasts are uncomfortable and unwieldy and over the top. Literally over the top.”

On stigma surrounding plastic surgery: “There is a common idea that it has loosened up. I’ve read sociologists say that there’s less stigma and that may be true, but all I can tell you is that if you’re making a movie about plastic surgery, lots of luck in raising money. We had a party for investors and they did not invest. There’s one in particular I remember who said, ‘Thank you. I think your reel is fabulous. I think you’re fabulous. But if I invest in a film about nose surgery, people may assume that I had nose surgery, which I did but never told anyone.’ Then a woman who was teaching at NYU writes back, ‘Very entertaining. Very well done. Really impressive. But I would never support a film about plastic surgery because I don’t believe in it.’ These are real world experiences that I had. It's true that more people are sharing, but for many people there is still a stigma."

On the plastic surgery equation: “I think you tell half of what you had. When I was at Allure I said, ‘Whatever they say they had, double it.’”

On the ways Botox has changed... everything: “Botox is the blue jeans of aesthetic procedures, and its popularity represents a refusal — mostly, by women — to accept cultural rules that say women should age gracefully in a world that is hostile to aging women. We punish women for not meeting beauty standards, and reward women who don't look their age. It was only 200 years ago that a husband could divorce a wife whom the man discovered had used false teeth or hair or other beauty subterfuge to entice him. We are at the beginning of a beauty revolution where you don’t have to risk your life to look a little better.”

On motivation: “Maybe I saw my dad working very hard, doing paperwork at night at home. My father was very proud of me – when I had my first job, he wanted to make sure I would save, so he got me a savings account. I always wanted to have a career. I would judge the boys I went out with. They would always say things like, ‘No wife of mine will ever work.' And I would say, ‘Well then I really can’t see you next week.’ I left NBC to get married — I moved to Philadelphia [with my husband] and there wasn’t any television [there] — so I was always looking for something to do. It was a struggle because my mother was always saying, ‘Don’t be smarter than your husband.’ And my husband was always saying, ‘You run my home so beautifully. Why don’t you run my office?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t want to run your office! I want to have my own career!’ So I was so grateful when I found writing that I could do at home. That I could do any place. Both my husbands had mothers who worked, and I think that helped me quite a lot because they were very proud of me.”

In retrospect: “Plastic surgery made me retain a younger look. But more than that, when I look in the mirror, it makes me feel like I can do anything. Like I am still the person I recognize. [Without plastic surgery] I don’t think I would have been able to be 25 years at Allure – you know, I didn’t leave Allure until I was 88. I am 93 — I just had my birthday last week – and not only do I have my mind, but people listen to me because when they look at me, I can make them believe that I am still young enough to have an idea.”

And on what’s next: “I think the next big thing is going to be hair growth. I really feel there is a tremendous need. There are a lot of women suffering from thinning hair – I’m suffering from it. I always used to say, ‘I’m no beauty, but I’ve got great hair.’ Hair is very important to women and men. Women get something like 90 percent of injectables, but if they ever come up with one for hair, they’ll have both sexes. So it's a tremendous financial incentive for the manufacturers, and I happen to know there are companies who are working on it.”

Want more Joan Kron? Here are some of the legendary journalist's article for Allure:

A Farewell to My Friend Joan Rivers

Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Botox (But Were Afraid to Ask)

The Legacy of Arnold Klein, Michael Jackson's Dermatologist

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Originally Appeared on Allure