Tales of a Celebrity Dentist: Brushing Up with Michael Apa
He does Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Chloë Sevigny and he can tell what George Clooney had done to his teeth.
Michael Apa is the cosmetic dentist behind the beaming smiles of Uma Thurman, Dree Hemingway, Chloë Sevigny and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, among others. He is very loyal to his patients—not to mention old-fashioned grooming standbys like Coast soap—but he also has firmly worded advice for those who want to achieve their ideal smile. Pay attention.
Whose teeth would you love to do?
Tom Cruise. He’s had his teeth done five times. His front tooth is in the center of his face. He went through adult braces, and it’s still just so off. He’s had a few veneers, not a whole set. Also George Clooney; he had his done two or three years ago.
Do you know this because dentists all talk? Or you can just tell with Clooney?
You can tell. He grinds his teeth really badly, so he has a reverse smile line. They’re longer in the back, and he has an upside down “U” in the front of his mouth. What you really have to do is bring the back segment up and the front segment down, but [his dentist] just brought the front teeth down far enough to make the circle right. Now he just has huge teeth. And speaks differently, and it drives me nuts.
Do you walk down the street, or go to a cocktail party, and notice everyone’s teeth?
I can’t help it.
I think people look at each others’ eyes, not their teeth. Unless their teeth are really bad.
I always wonder about that: Do I look at people’s teeth because I’m a dentist? I look at teeth when I’m speaking to someone, and bounce between that and the eyes. I don’t remember ever not looking at people’s teeth.
And when they’re bad?
It’s an eyesore.
Do you ever approach people?
First of all, eighty percent of my work now is fixing other people’s work, which is frustrating. Because once it’s done, you lose a lot of the things that can make a smile great, by which I mean their own teeth. So if someone’s overcut them or if they do braces first, and it changes the position—
It is or it isn’t. Because number one, the patient is not feeling great [after a bad experience]. I have a patient right now who’s had temporaries for two years and she’s afraid to do anything. She’s gone through four dentists and she’s mentally—it’s not about teeth anymore. But what frustrates me is how patients don’t know the difference. How people can look in the mirror and think, “This looks fine.”
But isn’t it also self-perception? Or misperception? Doesn’t everyone want Julia Roberts’s smile even if they don’t have her face?
Yeah, that’s the tricky part. I’m like, “How do you not know?”
I used to have really yellow teeth, until I had them whitened in my early thirties. Then I went out with this guy who I’d first met in my late twenties; back then, he showed no interest in me whatsoever. So I asked him one day, ‘How come you didn’t ask me out when we first met?’ He said, ‘Because you had yellow teeth. They were like British teeth.’ I told him to stop the car and let me out.
No way! That’s pretty bold.
It pissed me off. We didn’t last much longer after that, but there was truth to what he said.
The more frustrating part is that when people come in here, and they’re dressed really well with their Birkins, but they have terrible teeth. They have facelifts and all the other stuff, but when it comes to fixing their teeth, they’re like, “I’m not really sure…” And I’m like, “How can you not be sure? How can you not see this?” But then again, that’s my bias.
But when they come to you, they’re not coming to get their cavities filled. You are seen as someone who beautifies people’s smiles.
Yeah. I guess it happens more in Dubai. It’s the kind of place where people walk in and say, “Someone told me I should come in here, though I’m not sure why.” They drive up in their Bentley, and they have a lot of diamonds. What I don’t like to do is convince people to fix their teeth because there’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong; for example, they could get sensitivities. It’s a commitment in life when you touch a patient like this, because you’re always going to have their teeth to take care of. So if I have to convince someone, and then god forbid something goes wrong, they may see me as a charlatan trying to take their money. So I really need patients to tell me, “I am here and I need you to fix my teeth.” If someone sits in my chair and they vacillate and say, “I kind of like my teeth, but my friend said I should come here,” that’s my worst nightmare. Because what am I going to say? I think they need to fix their teeth, but I can’t really say that. I have to draw it out of them.
How often do you go to Dubai?
I go every two weeks. I figured out last year I slept more on the plane than I did at my house at the beach. It started when I treated someone there, and they invited me to come back. I’ve been a visiting doctor since 2008. Then in March, they funded our epicenter practice. It’s amazing. It’s a 5,000-square foot villa. I built a lab for my ceramist Jason Kim, so he comes with me every time. It’s really interesting because I’m one of the only people who’s really doing this kind of dentistry there.
Are you training local dentists there?
I am, but it’s like New York in the ’90s, when it really started happening. There were some dentists who wanted to learn it, and some dentists who really wanted to hate you for doing cosmetic dentistry. But it’s also fabulous in a way that is not like New York. Everybody gets wickedly dressed to the nines. Everyone dresses up for dinner. And there’s a buzz around the office. See, I wasn’t around when cosmetic dentistry first exploded. I could only hear stories about how Larry [Rosenthal, Apa’s partner] first started, how crazy it was, and the happening environment. It’s nice to be at the forefront of it over there.
And what’s at the forefront here in New York?
There’s nothing news bitey, but what’s exciting is that because of the way we communicate through social media, now you see everyone’s work scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. Everyone’s posting their stuff; the learning curve is insane. Cosmetic dentistry is irreversible and there are a lot of hacks. But now there’s nowhere to hide bad work. What’s also cool is we can do everything digitally even before we touch a person.
Did you always want to be a dentist?
Since I was 5 years old.
Nerd. Was dentistry in your family?
No. I wanted to be a pediatrician since I was two. Then I had this weird liver disease when I was five where I almost died. We still don’t know what it was. I was sick for about six months. My mother would lay in bed with me at night as I was vomiting and vomiting, and she was panicking because it was just bile coming out. No one could tell us what was wrong with me. I can remember her calling my pediatrician crying at three in the morning, and the pediatrician saying, “I don’t know what to do.” At that moment, I thought, “There’s no way I want to be on the other end of that call.” My grandmother, on the other hand, worked in a dental office, and that always seemed to be a happy place, so I thought that was more my speed.
The worst thing you’d have to say is, “I’m sorry, but that tooth has to go.”
Yeah. “You have an abscess.”
Let’s get to some fun beauty questions. What is your first grooming memory?
When I was young, I was portly. But I still had the image in my mind of what I looked like versus the real image of what I looked like, so I had a big personality as a kid. Bigger than I do now, so I really took care of my grooming, and I really loved gel and cologne.
So it didn’t matter that you were portly. And when did you decide, “I care about myself, I might need to get healthier”?
I think part of my success came from an ability to talk to people. Nobody was giving me things because of the way I looked. My friends were all ripped and athletic. They couldn’t say a word to anyone but they got everything that a high school kid wanted. I had to grind it out. In college, I fell in love with this girl, and I got put in the friend zone. I just wore her down and after a while we started dating. She took a picture of me with my shirt off, and I saw it one day. At that point, I decided it was time to lose weight.
And now you’re so buff.
I have to be because I will definitely get fat if I don’t work out. Here’s the difference: If you grow up athletic, it does something to your body that keeps that shape, unless you really let yourself go. My wife can eat pork sandwiches at five in the morning when she wakes up and she’s still fit because she was super athletic as a kid and it takes her no time at all to snap back into it. I’ve gotta really work at it.
What was the first cologne you bought?
Liz Clairborne, in the fourth grade. They used to have those free samples at J.C. Penney. Whenever I’d go to the mall, I’d grab a bunch of Liz Claiborne samples. Then that Christmas, my mom gave me my first bottle.
Describe your daily grooming routine.
No, back when you were in kindergarten. Yes, now.
I try to look as real as possible, so I don’t shave every day. I shave with a clipper, a beard trimmer. My hair’s probably the most important thing I care about. So, once I’m out of the shower—
Wait. What’s in the shower?
Julien Farel’s leave-in deep conditioner, which I use once a week.
The anti-aging one?
Yep. Then on the other days I’ll use his vitamin shampoo conditioner.
Nope. Coast soap. Old school. [laughs] My wife gets it. And I still use Clearasil face wash.
Good for you. What’s in your dop kit?
You’re going to laugh at this: I use this flip comb that’s half-brush, half-comb from the Emirates flights. I have about 400 of them in the house. I slick my hair straight back with a combination of Julien’s paste and gloss mixed together.
Do you use the comb or the brush end?
The comb when I get out of the shower, then the brush after I put the stuff in, which is why I need the flip.
What kind of toothpaste?
My own. We’ve been developing it for four years.
Is Liz Claiborne now a distant memory?
Yes. Now it’s Aqua di Gio, which I’ve used forever.
Are you a one fragrance man?
One hundred percent. I’m very product loyal.
What fragrance does your wife wear?
Good question. She doesn’t wear a fragrance. Sometimes she’ll borrow my Aqua di Gio. I think she has Chanel No. 5, but she rides horses every day and rarely wears fragrance.
Poor her. Are there women’s products or treatments that you envy?
I’ve always had really sensitive skin, so I could never use face creams. And my wife, even if she didn’t mean to, she could put hand moisturizer on her face and she’d look terrific. I see all her beautiful products and I read all the different things going into them and I wish I could try them, but I know I’d break out.
So you use no moisturizer?
You’ve got to use something! There’re lots of moisturizers out there that are super gentle. I need to conduct a hydration intervention!
I’ve been to every derm and they’re like, “Oh try this one. It’s fragrance free!” Nope. Acne and rosacea, fair skin and red hair.
We’ll work on that. Maybe a light oil. Anyway, which celeb has the best teeth?
Jessica Alba. J.Lo’s got great teeth, too.
Of your patients, who has the smile you’re most proud of?
Which male celeb has the best hair?
Brad Pitt. By the way, did you see him at the Golden Globes?
He looked 30 years old.
It’s insane. Freakishly good-looking.
What look do you like on a woman?
I love understated, soft and casual looks.
In that case, I bet you have certain patients who are all dolled up, and you’re thinking, “Stop trying so hard.”
Yeah, but in Dubai if someone came in looking like Jane Birkin, everyone there would be like, “Brush your hair. “