‘Dr. Pimple Popper’ Sandra Lee talks swift rise to stardom and changing lives through her practice
Dr. Sandra Lee talks with “Nightline” about becoming an overnight phenomenon.
Dr. Sandra Lee, better known as Dr. Pimple Popper, might just be the biggest celebrity in the world of dermatology.
Patients like 34-year-old Eric Legos travel across the country to seek her care, hoping she’ll change their lives.
“As far as I know, Dr. Lee's the best, if not, one of the best,” Legos said.
But why would a truck driver from Buffalo, New York go to this dermatologist in Upland, California? It’s because Dr. Lee has become a social media sensation and television star thanks to her namesake hit TLC show “Dr. Pimple Popper.”
Lee’s so-called “popaholics” can’t get enough of her extracting blackheads, tugging at lipomas and squeezing goo out of fruit-sized cysts.
“My videos create such a powerful feeling in people, whether love or disgust," Lee told “Nightline.” "Either way, they need to share it with their friends."
She has more than 5 million YouTube subscribers, a platform where her videos have been viewed more than 3 billion times. Not to mention she’s got more than 3 million followers on Instagram.
She has a collection of videos ready to post at any time, complete with her signature witty captions. She edits them on her phone, even setting some to music -– like one clip she captioned “Back to Black…heads” in a nod to Amy Winehouse. That post has now been viewed over 1 million times.
Her videos are entertainment for some people and educational to others, but to many of Dr. Lee’s patients, she does so much more for them. They say she’s saving their lives.
“I don't have people telling me that all the time,” Lee said. “Cause when I see them and take their sutures out they just -- they say, ‘Thank you. Oh it looks great.’ But they don't look at me and say, ‘You've changed my life.’”
Part of Lee’s appeal can be attributed to her bedside manner. She comforts patients as she works on them, saying that she likes to talk to her patients as if they’re just her friend.
“You know, they're not under general anesthesia," Lee said. "And we are coming at them with needles or something sharp... I do think that that is part of what makes my videos work or this TV show work-- any of this is because of the way that I interact with people and the way that they trust me. And I don't take that lightly here."
Lee started posting videos in 2014, saying she "just wanted to show how cool dermatology was.”
“I really wanted to start a page that shows a little window into my world. And it got mediocre attention. Nothing really crazy until I posted a pimple popping video," Lee said. "That was -- it was this definite shift I saw, or this increase in attention.”
She said the moniker came to her when she was on Reddit.
“I didn't know what to name myself. Everybody had a fake name,” Lee said. “So I just said, ‘I'll call myself Dr. Pimple Popper.’ But I do know that Seinfeld episode too.”
She’s referring to an episode that first aired in November 1997 in which Seinfeld was dating a dermatologist.
"Pimple Popper MD. She's one step above the Clinique counter," Lee said. “I feel like now it's really appropriate because we are much more than pimple poppers. It's sort of tongue in cheek.”
She counts several celebrities as ‘popaholics,’ including Kim Kardashian, who gave her a shout-out on her show “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” and Jenny McCarthy, who thanked her live on TV during “New Years’ Rockin Eve.”
Not everyone can stomach these often graphic videos. Lee said that as a result, when she first started posting them, she almost got “kicked out” of Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube.
“I think … a good part of that was due to the fact that these were gross or shocking videos," she said. "This was new to people."
Lee said she remembered getting warnings from Instagram and notifications that her content was removed from the platform –- before an unlikely ally may have “saved” her.
“I think Selena Gomez got interviewed by this CEO of Instagram and [was] asked ... the most interesting page that she follows," Lee recalled. "And she said my page. I felt like, really, that there was a change. And then all of a sudden I was okay. And so thank you, Selena.”
From a young age, Dr. Lee was obsessed with skin -- her father was a dermatologist. She met her husband Dr. Jeffrey Rebish in a gross anatomy class in medical school.
“We had a gross anatomy course ... and he would come by my cadaver every time we were there, like, once a week and just kinda stroll by and say, ‘Hey, have you found your colon yet? Yeah, we found our colon. Let me see if I can help you out,’ Lee said. “So he essentially picked me up over my cadaver. So it was very romantic.”
They now practice together -- he even appears on her hit TLC show, which launched last year. She admits she was hesitant about it at first, but it's only helped grow her brand.
“I was very obviously honored about it," she said. "But… this wasn't the thing that I wanted to do… I was afraid of losing control. And for me to give up that control, trust somebody else to show my practice, my livelihood, everything that I do, was really stressful for me. So I thought, you know, if this doesn't happen, no big deal... so maybe, you know, let's see what happens. And look what happened.”
Lee took "Nightline" into her office of 15 years, where the “Dr. Pimple Popper” episodes are filmed.
“There’s a little more emphasis on pimple popping," she said. "We are still a busy dermatology office, we see general dermatology, we do surgical and cosmetic dermatology. But we have now a lot of merchandise, a book.”
'Dr. Pimple Popper' T-shirts, mugs, shot glasses and socks are all available for purchase, in addition to products from her own skin care line SLMD. A map on the wall marking the home countries of patients who come through her office shows her international appeal.
Some patients who are not able to afford these costly procedures are able to do them with Dr. Lee, who often does not charge patients in exchange for posting their surgeries online or in the TLC show.
Lee explained that it’s “because they're allowing us to tape them and really they're showing their life ... So that's our thanks to them really.”
It wasn't until last year, when "Dr. Pimple Popper" debuted on TLC that she saw her patients' backstories, realizing the impact she has on them.
“Dr. Pimple Popper” debuted on TLC last year, giving Lee more insight into her patients before and after they walk into her office.
Amber Viega, a 29-year-old from Montebello, California appeared on the show last year after she noticed growths on both of her ears after getting her ears pierced.
Despite covering them up with a headband, Viega said her keloids -- raised scars on the skin -- got in the way of her life, especially when it came to dating.
“On my last date, it was noticeable [and] I did wear headbands a lot," Viega said on the episode. "He asked 'can I see them?' and so I showed him. He didn’t know what to say," she said on the show. “I would never show them. But I would just say, like, ‘This is what they are. And it's scar tissue’ … And then, like, they would never call me back. So then that would be discouraging.”
A self-proclaimed 'popoholic,' Viega sent casting directors an email when she found out they were looking for patients for the show.
“I prayed about it," Viega told “Nightline.” "I sent it. And she was meant to be. I was nervous, on the outside ... you're obviously scared of the pain and what's next. But I was just quiet. But I was just, like, screaming inside.”
A few months later during her first appointment, Lee was able to successfully remove Viega’s keloids.
“I saw hope again, hope for -- I can get married or have children," Viega said. "Because I was so afraid of dating. And you know, you can't get married like that. So you know -- family is important to me. So hope of that next chapter, of having my own family and not having to worry about my ears, that -- that's what I saw.”
Lee helped changed Viega's life, but the doctor doesn't look at it that way.
"It's just doing what you can do. I don't know. I don't really deserve these accolades. I mean, I'm just doing my job," Lee said.
"I can't think that way 'cause then I'm never gonna fit through the door and my husband would hate me," she joked.
After a long day of work, Lee looks to her family life to unwind. She said the first thing she does when she gets home is hug her kids.
“I get a lot of my advice from my patients .... one of the ... important things that I've learned from them is that it's most important to be around your family when your kids, when they're teenagers,” Lee said.
Lee said that though the work is challenging, she feels “so fortunate to be doing this right now.”
“There's so many things that could've stopped this along the way,” she added. “But look where we are now. I mean, we're in the second season of the show that I'm so extremely proud of now… it's just been a dream. A dream that I didn't really look for, but I'm really lucky to have.”