Skin Decision's Dr. Sheila Nazarian Is a Top Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon, and She's Not Done Yet

Courtesy of Dr. Sheila Nazarian
Courtesy of Dr. Sheila Nazarian

Sheila Nazarian, MD, MMM, is a board-certified plastic surgeon, founder of Nazarian Plastic Surgery in Beverly Hills, and star on the new Netflix series Skin Decision. For our column UNTOLD, she is sharing her journey from fleeing Iran as a child to becoming a top surgeon in the United States. This story was told to Jessica Harrington and edited for length and clarity.

I'm a Persian Jew, and I was born in 1979 during the Iranian revolution. Before I was born, my mom knew stuff was going to get worse, so she flew to New York when she was nine months pregnant and had me there so I would have citizenship. After I was born, we went back to Iran and the revolution was in full swing.

As Jews, there was a lot of discrimination. My dad was a physician and, in 1985, had saved the eyesight of this guy in the revolution. He later came up to my dad and said, "Listen, you saved my eyes, so I'm going to save your life. You're on the list to be killed, so you better leave within the next two days."

I was 6 and a half and my sister was 13, and this organization called Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped us escape. We went to a bazaar, and smugglers put us in the back of a covered truck with corn on top of us. Other people were there, too. Then, we drove across the border to Pakistan. At the border, we got into the back of pickup trucks with our luggage and escaped at nighttime. We spent three months after that waiting for our visas, then flew as a family to New York before settling in Los Angeles.

I think plastic surgery was the only part of medicine I'd want to be in.

When I first came to the United States, I was very different and got teased a lot. I was super skinny, didn't speak English — all of that stuff. I was nerdy and didn't want to tone down my smartness, so that wasn't "cool." That gave me a little bit of drive to prove people wrong. Growing up, I was really artsy and loved working with my hands. I thought maybe I could go into orthopedic surgery, but it was very cookie cutter; I didn't think it was creative enough for me. At the time, I had a friend who was like, "Well, why don't you look into plastic surgery? As a matter of fact, we have a really nice plastic surgeon if you want to go shadow for a while." So I did. It was the perfect fit for me. I always joke that if I didn't get accepted into plastic surgery, I just would have gone into the business of medicine or something — plastic surgery was the only part of medicine I'd want to be in.

I went to Columbia for economics, and in between general surgery and plastic surgery, I went to business school and got a master's in medical management at the University of Southern California at Marshall. In 2013, as soon as I was done with residency, I opened up my private practice. I had three children during residency, so I was, for lack of a better word, tired of being somebody else's b*tch. I'd already missed so much that I just thought, I really need to be on my own schedule. I knew what kind of practice I wanted to build, and that's what I did.

My passion was to be the Sanjay Gupta of plastic surgery. I wanted to be able to influence and educate the masses, because I think if we don't fill that void, then people who are less qualified will. That's what happened in skin care; it's all influencers, but they're just touting things that they're getting paid to tout, not what's proven or studied or scientific in any way. I'm trying to take that back.

My passion was to be the Sanjay Gupta of plastic surgery. I wanted to be able to influence and educate the masses.

The opportunity to film Skin Decision with Netflix presented itself about two years ago. I had worked with the producer before, so he brought me on, and we filmed from August to November. The show is so important for many reasons.

For one, I think the series shows women that plastic surgery is not all about big this and big that, and that there are different aesthetics that you can aspire to. You don't have to have the biggest butt and the biggest breasts and overblown lips; there are other ways to do it. Plastic surgery and things like Botox are becoming a little bit more mainstream. Younger people are talking about it, and they're not as embarrassed. But that's just one reason it's important.

Two: I wish I had more female mentors I could identify with in school. I didn't. You couldn't be "feminine" back in the day to survive, but for me, it was very important to have a family as well as my career. I think it's very important to show other women and young girls that you can have it all. It's going to be hard, you have to work really hard, but you can get to the point where you have your family and you have your career. You have to put in the work in your 20s to reap the benefits in your 30s.