Exclusive: Caitlyn Jenner's Surgeon Opens Up

"It wasn't until Caitlyn looked at herself in the mirror and smiled that I was truly satisfied."

Caitlyn Jenner - Vanity Fair
(Image credit: Instagram via @VanityFair)

When Caitlyn Jenner revealed herself to the world, people were stunned—not only by her bravery, but by her beauty. (When you draw comparisons to Jessica Lange (opens in new tab), you're definitely in good company.) And there's one man who can take (at least some) credit for helping Jenner achieve the look she's wanted all these years: facial feminization specialist Dr. Harrison Lee (opens in new tab).

Spurring other trans individuals to talk openly about their own experiences (opens in new tab)—and spurring hopes of a better and more accepting world for all—the impact of the reality star's transformation has really only begun to be felt. We caught up with the plastic surgeon who helped Jenner achieve the change that's ignited a movement.

How many patients have you helped to realize their true selves over the years?

"I've worked with tens of thousands of patients since I've been in practice. Female feminization surgery (FFS) is an incredibly niche market, but a lot broader than most people think. In the past 16 years I've performed a few hundred FFS surgeries on patients from around the globe."

How do you know what type of face to create?

"As a facial plastic surgeon I focus initially on understanding the patient's concept of beauty. Beauty is subjective. Everyone is unique and has a unique concept of beauty. Oftentimes, my patients tell me that they feel trapped in a face they cannot identify with in the mirror. My job is to create a reflection they can identify with."

Oftentimes, my patients tell me that they feel trapped in a face they cannot identify with in the mirror.

How does FFS differ from traditional facial plastic surgery?

"It's not as different as one would think. The surgical techniques are quite similar; the desired results—beauty, youthfulness, sex appeal, etc.—are similar. But FFS encompasses more specialized procedures such as jaw contouring, chin contouring, and tracheal shaving."

What was your thought process going into Caitlyn Jenner's surgery?

"Knowing how high-profile this surgery was going to be, I was thinking about all the people who were on the fence about this type of surgery, and knowing that if Caitlyn's surgeries were successful, they would empower other transgender candidates to realize that they, too, can live the life they choose."

Did you have concerns about working on Caitlyn Jenner?

"Although I have worked with many celebrities, the impact of this surgery and knowing how it would affect the social landscape was an additional challenge that certainly did weigh on me."

The impact of this surgery and knowing how it would affect the social landscape was an additional challenge that certainly did weigh on me.

What was your reaction to seeing Caitlyn's results for the first time?

"I was thrilled, but it wasn't until Caitlyn looked at herself in the mirror and smiled that I was truly satisfied. Only when my patients are happy am I happy. And yes, I am very happy."

Has the change in how we categorize gender identity affected your practice?

"When I first started performing FFS, the DSM-5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, classified gender identity disorder as a mental illness. In May of 2013, gender identity disorder (GID) received a new name: 'gender dysphoria.' The new classification brought about greater civil rights for gender dysphoria patients including the role of health insurance for surgery. Under the new DSM-5, insurance may pay for FFS with properly documented medical justification. To learn more about transgender rights, review the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) website (opens in new tab)."

Here's hoping Caitlyn's new look continues to inspire and encourage others to be their truest selves (opens in new tab).

Samantha Leal is the Deputy Editor at Well+Good, where she spends most of her day thinking of new ideas across platforms, bringing on new writers, overseeing the day-to-day of the website, and working with the awesome team to produce the best stories and packages. Before W+G, she was the Senior Web Editor for Marie Claire and the Deputy Editor for Latina.com, with bylines all over the internet. Graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University with a minor in African history, she’s written everything from travel guides to political op-eds to wine explainers (currently enrolled in the WSET program) to celebrity profiles. Find her online pretty much everywhere @samanthajoleal.