Getting better teeth has become a luxury rite of passage. “Got a bag and fixed my teeth/hope you hos know it ain’t cheap,” rapped Cardi B in “Bodak Yellow.” It starts, if you’re lucky, in your teens, when your parents shell out money for pricey orthodontia that you hope gets removed in time for senior pictures. But it doesn’t end there. In Hollywood, on Instagram, and pretty much everywhere, if you see someone with perfect, gleaming, straight white teeth, there’s a good chance that they’re made of the same material that makes up your toilet — porcelain.
“Teeth are the new boobs,” says Cassandra Huysentruyt Grey, founder of Violet Grey. She first said the tongue-in-cheek remark in an Instagram Story and I called her up to ask her to clarify.
Grey argues that “teeth jobs” — in which patients get a new set of pearly white veneers — are similar to what boob jobs used to be. “Teeth can really change your look, like boobs. They’re also sexual — your mouth can be very sexy and affect your sex appeal and confidence.” Then there’s the cost. A veneer is a slim layer of porcelain that the dentist bonds to each tooth. Patients are charged between $1,000 to $8,000 per veneer, and people can get partial or full teeth done. Veneers aren’t covered by insurance.
Unlike your average boob job, the “tooth” job is meant to convey wellness as well as attractiveness. Huda Kattan, founder of Huda Beauty, says, “There has been a shift in the last few years with wellness and beauty becoming one and the same. People are a lot more savvy about how overall health plays into confidence — and confidence for me is what really makes people stand out and be seen.”
“The word clean feels sexy and attractive right now. People are so conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies, and your teeth don’t lie,” adds Grey. The Goopiest of people want to eat antioxidant-rich blueberries, drink beet juice, and sprinkle turmeric into their smoothies, but they don’t want any of it staining their teeth.
We associate full, glossy, unstained teeth with good health, and see broken and damaged teeth as a sign of poverty and unhealthy behavior, like drug use. Smoking yellows teeth. Sugar increases the amount of plaque that a dental hygienist has to scrape off and the likelihood for tooth decay. On Orange Is the New Black, meth addict Pennsatucky is ridiculed for having broken, jagged teeth. Maintaining white teeth can almost feel like a moral imperative, but it’s undoubtedly also a class issue.
Calls for body positivity and diversity have shifted beauty standards over recent years, but those for your choppers haven’t really moved. There haven’t been any social media movements for teeth positivity yet — beautiful teeth are still seen as even and very white.
For this, we might have Hollywood to blame. In the 1940s, a Los Angeles cosmetic dentist named Marcus Pincus invented the first veneers. He used the technique to ensure that Shirley Temple’s movies had continuity despite her losing her baby teeth. Judy Garland also had veneers which reshaped and filled in gaps to give her the first technicolor smile — the creamy white grin seen in The Wizard of Oz.
Google celebrity teeth transformations, and you’ll see Miley Cyrus, Demi Moore, Tom Cruise, and Victoria Beckham, among others — with uneven, not-so-white, asymmetrical teeth in their befores and shiny, gleaming smiles after. “In Hollywood, people work with image makers and plastic surgeons, makeup artists, and hairstylists — and dentists are part of the glam team now,” says Grey. Nathaniel Hawkins, a celebrity hairstylist, says, “Part of the process of being a star is having a big, bright smile.”
The trickle-down effect has extended to non-actors whose selfies are part of their business, like Instagrammers and reality stars. Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants like Robby Hayes have been “opening up” about their new smiles. Bloggers like Amber Fillerup Clark (1.3 million followers) and NikkieTutorials (11.6 million followers) have also had veneers. Teeth whitening has over a million hashtags on Instagram. The cosmetic dentist Dr. Michael Apa, who a friend calls the “teeth wunderkind” of the Upper East Side, has over 230,000 followers and is so popular that people have started impersonating him on Instagram.
Dr. Apa has good-looking teeth that lack the artificial Chiclet look of many veneers. When I first met him, he was wearing a bomber-style lab coat that, incredibly, was designed by Brunello Cucinelli, and eating from a raw, vegan, dairy- and gluten-free, organic, sprouted snack-pack of “Amazon Crunch” from TB12, Tom Brady’s line of healthy snacks. (He offered me some. It was pretty good.)
Dr. Apa has been creating veneers practically seven days a week, starting from when he was 29 (he’s now 41), when he would fly to Dubai on weekends after putting in full weekdays in NYC. That puts him at roughly 40,000 hours of veneer practice, about four times Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour mark for being an expert in your field. “Everyone else was sleeping or partying, I was cutting teeth. Those hours add up,” he says. Once you’re in his chair, he can design a perfect smile in roughly 20 minutes.
He calls his procedure Aesthetic Facial Design. You could call it the haute couture of smile design — a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, luxury product. After a consultation and a mold, his patients are given Bose noise-canceling headphones, laughing gas to numb any pain, and a movie of their choice on Apple TV. Dr. Apa then begins designing a custom smile directly in the patient’s mouth. Like Alber Elbaz draping and cutting silk onto a client to make a dress, he drills, shaves (less than 0.5 millimeters, thinner than a fingernail), and molds a material called composite to craft the perfect smile. Next, the design is sent to an in-house ceramics lab to be recreated in a shade of porcelain that Dr. Apa personally suggests.
Not every so-called “tooth job” is this high-end, of course. But cosmetic dentists like Dr. Apa argue that changing your smile can change your entire face, adding fullness and support to your features. This gets especially notable over time, as your cheeks become less bouncy with the loss of collagen and your teeth shift in.
A common complaint Dr. Apa gets from patients in their 40s and 50s is that they have “lost their smile.” The bottom third of your face is supported by teeth which affect the structure of your face. “Black holes” — space on either side of your mouth when you smile — are also a common problem that makes your grin look less-than Julia Roberts ear-to-ear perfect. The solution is to build veneers that gently slope out in thickness so that they fill up the “black holes,” or what Dr. Apa calls “kicking out a smile.”
Dr. Apa’s patients range from celebrities like Chloë Sevigny and the Olsen twins (not to mention Vinnie of Jersey Shore fame) to 18-year-olds to service-industry people to housewives (including Kyle Richards). “My personal patients aren’t necessarily super high-maintenance,” he says. “But they all just want better teeth.”
“It’s transformative,” says celebrity makeup artist and founder of Surratt Beauty, Troy Surratt. “That’s why so many people do it.”
Adds Hawkins, “If everyone had a Julia Roberts smile, then it wouldn’t be special.”