x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fixing smiles of the rich and famous

Michael Apa is a jet set dentist who was brought to the region by Saudi royals and is now helping to bring a new look to cosmetic dentistry in the Gulf. But his busy schedule in Dubai and New York forces him to sacrifice his personal life for his chosen profession.

A day in the life of Dr Michael Apa is not for those who enjoy a lie-in. The New York dentist rises at 5am for a workout in the gym before heading to his practice over the road from the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, where rather than filling cavities, he spends his days perfecting the smiles of people such as Donald Trump, the property magnate, or the daughters of the US President Barack Obama, Natasha and Malia.

"I think the privacy is partially why people come," he says. "The clinic is tucked away on the fifth floor of a building with no sign." Rather than clocking off at 6pm, the 32-year old's evenings are usually spent at events that are intended to keep him at the forefront of cosmetic dentistry, which has taken off in the US in recent years as swathes of people look to beautify their teeth. Through his job, Dr Apa has become somewhat of a celebrity himself, having appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and done interviews for TV and magazines.

It was a TV show on one of the UK satellite channels that got him noticed by a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family, who chartered private jets to bring him to Saudi Arabia to treat their teeth. The word soon spread among other royal families in the Gulf, with the new client base prompting Dr Apa to set up a practice in Dubai. "That's why I'm coming here, because the Sheikhs wanted me to," he says.

"They found out about me through some cheesy celebrity programme, it's funny how things go." Dr Apa has visited Dubai several times over the past year, where he sees patients at a clinic on Jumeirah Beach Road run by Dr Michael Formenius. It wasn't easy, however, to convince the practice that cosmetic dentistry, which can involve anything from simple whitening to getting a completely new set of teeth, would work in the UAE.

This is mainly because there is no recognised dental association anywhere in the world that gives speciality training and credibility in cosmetic dentistry, says Dr Apa. "Any person who can talk the talk can say they're a cosmetic dentist," he says. "When I first came here, this practice was very turned off cosmetic dentistry because they had seen nothing but bad work; they had seen cases of gums being swollen because of it or people's mouths ending up being a mess; that's just bad dentistry."

But Dr Apa's regular visits, during which he spends a week or so in the emirate and sees up to 10 patients, have been a success, and he is now looking to set up his own practice. For aspiring cosmetic dentists in the UAE, the clinic would also include a training facility. Dr Apa has already established training centres in New York, Florida and London with Larry Rosenthal, his co-partner in the Rosenthal Apa Group, his New York practice.

"The idea is to graduate good dentists and then put them in clinics around the world," he says. Still, hiring a cosmetic dentist doesn't come cheap: a full mouth reconstruction, usually top of the list of clients' demands, can cost between Dh110,000 (US$29,900) and Dh277,000. But for those dentists wanting to expand their horizons beyond fillings, the job is a lucrative one, if demanding. It also comes with lots of hard work and personal sacrifice as Dr Apa, who grew up in upstate New York, knows too well.

He knew he wanted to work in the medical profession from about the age of five, and the inspiration for dentistry came from his grandmother, who ran a dental clinic. "I would go there and it just seemed fun ? they would give me flavoured toothpastes and call them after some of my favourite baseball players," he says. "So from that point on I thought, that's it, I'm going to be a dentist and never looked back."

Dr Apa went to dental school at a time when aesthetic dentistry was not part of the curriculum, so in his third year of studies he made contact with the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD) with a suggestion to set up a student society dedicated to the field. The plan worked, and in 2000 he founded New York University's Aesthetic Dental Society in association with the AACD, where he lectured for a while after graduation.

Fate then took its course; Dr Apa met his business partner when Dr Rosenthal donated millions of dollars to build a wing under his name at New York University for dentists practising cosmetic dentistry. A few months into lecturing, Dr Apa was offered his first job at Dr Rosenthal's clinic, which was fast becoming known in celebrity circles, in 2005. "It was a big deal to turn it down," he says. "The clinic was very high profile and it was a big honour to get to even just speak to the guy [Dr Rosenthal] in the first place ? the academic world wanted me to continue as a lecturer, so it was kind of a turning point in my career when I had to do for myself what I really wanted to do."

But making that move has come with sacrifices, he adds. He works six days a week. By the time Sunday comes, he has enough energy only to lie on the couch and watch TV. "If you look at really successful people, they have to sacrifice their personal life to put forward their professional one," Dr Apa says. "I've not been able to keep hold of a girlfriend for more than six months ? relationships take work and I can't put time into that."

Dentists also have to be sensitive, he says, as part of the role, particularly among the rich and famous, involves handling patients' insecurities. "You have to do the dentistry but you also have to treat the insecurities of the person in the chair," he says. "They want to change something and it's usually much deeper than teeth; 50 per cent of it is teeth, while the other 50 per cent might be because they're not getting enough attention at home. Some women, for example, do this to see if their husbands notice."

While there are perks to the job, including being whisked off in private jets and having access to the best seats at sporting events, he has some advice for aspiring cosmetic dentists. "You have to be talented; you have to always learn; you have to keep up on reading; you have to be artistic and scientific ? but you have to be able to balance life, too." Dr Apa's balance comes from regular visits to his home town where he spends time with family and old school friends, as well as through painting and drawing.

But with the planned clinic in Dubai, his schedule is about to get busier. He hopes the move will open up a client base beyond the region. "It's a great place from where I can reach further across the globe," he says. "So rather than go from Asia to New York, patients can come to Dubai ? it's a short trip from most places around the world, so people can stay for a week, have their teeth done and go home."

agiuffrida@thenational.ae