Ivo Pitanguy is famous throughout the world, but in his native Brazil he’s a legend, eclipsed in public recognition only by Pelé, the soccer god. That a plastic surgeon could reach this level of renown says something about the Brazilian worship of physical beauty and, of course, Pitanguy’s knack with the knife, for which he’s been dubbed “the Michelangelo of the scalpel.” But the doctor clearly possesses other, more subtle qualities as well. “Pitanguiser,” a word coined in the local Portuguese dialect, translates as “human charisma, intelligence and compassion.” In our harshly clinical Nip/Tuck culture, Pitanguy has said he sees his business as “the search for harmony between body and soul.”
At 82, Pitanguy still presides over a 70-person staff at the Clínica Ivo Pitanguy in Rio de Janeiro. Since 1963 kings, queens, presidents, movie stars and socialites have flocked to its fabled but discreet doors in search of rejuvenation. Beautifying the rich and famous has made Pitunguy rich as well: In addition to his leafy estate in Rio, there is a chalet in Gstaad, an apartment in Paris and a private island 100 miles from Rio, which he bought in the early Seventies. Ever since, an invitation to visit this inner sanctum has been considered a hot ticket—one generally offered only to family, close friends and select patients who are allowed to “rest” after procedures.
Happily for W, however, the doctor agreed to a visit, which begins at the heliport in Lagoa, a lush enclave of Rio. After lifting off beside an inland lagoon, the chopper soars past the outstretched arms of Jesus—the famous colossal statue of Cristo Redentor that sits atop Corcovado peak. Black rain clouds are gathering, but the pilot decides to do a 360 around Jesus, whose hands we can almost touch (and which we will need if this storm breaks, I’m thinking). After sweeping low over the delirious beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, we fly southwest over emerald- colored mountains and on toward the brilliant blue Angra dos Reis, the Bay of Kings. Among the hundreds of islands that dot the bay is Pitanguy’s Ilha dos Porcos Grande—Big Pigs’ Island—which, notwithstanding its rustic name, is a graceful curved landmass about a mile long.
As the aircraft lands at the end of a long dock, next to which Pitanguy’s large, gleaming yacht is anchored, white-shirted houseboys scurry to meet it. Pitanguy is waiting on a terrace next to an open-air stone pavilion, where lunch is being prepared by more servants. An elegant, compact man, he has a kindly face that projects curiosity. Joining him is his son Helcius, 46, and Helcius’s Italian-born wife, Beatrice, as well as another Italian woman who is wearing large black sunglasses and is clearly “resting” after being treated by “the Maestro,” as she calls Pitanguy, in Rio. (The doctor’s wife of more than 50 years, Marilu, is in Gstaad, while two more sons and a daughter remain in Rio.)