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Foundation Gives Free Face Lifts to the Not-So-Rich

August 02, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Adeline Rocha has been worrying about the sag of her jowls for at least seven years.

When she looks in the mirror, she says, she does not like the way her neck droops. And the skin on her cheeks could definitely stand tightening.

"I don't want to recapture youth," said Rocha, a 64-year-old South Whittier school board member who lives in Santa Fe Springs. "I just want to look good."

So she applied to a newly formed foundation dedicated to making dreams come true. In about three weeks she will undergo a face lift and fat suctioning worth $15,000. Meet the first beneficiary of the Magic Mirror Foundation, an unusual response to the demands of an increasingly image-conscious society. Its purpose: to improve self-esteem by providing free cosmetic surgery to needy recipients who otherwise could not afford it.

Services Donated in Mexico

The foundation is the brainchild of Dr. Michael W. Niccole, a plastic surgeon with offices in Long Beach and Orange County who says he got the idea while traveling to Mexico, where he has been donating his services to poor--and often disfigured--patients for years.

"A reporter asked why we weren't doing this for people at home and I was stunned," Niccole recalled. "I didn't know how to answer him."

The nonprofit foundation plans to offer free cosmetic surgery to a different recipient each month. Although initially all services will be donated by Niccole himself and by the Coast Plaza Hospital in Norwalk, the doctor said, he eventually hopes to make the project self-sustaining through a series of community fund-raisers.

"Hopefully this will mushroom throughout the United States," Niccole said of the foundation, which he believes is the only organization of its kind in America.

Judging from the response so far, there's plenty of demand for its services.

In the four weeks since the foundation began accepting applications, according to foundation administrator Melani Hurwitz, more than 200 people have applied. The would-be recipients' ages range from 19 to 67, about 80% of them women. "People are writing in saying they would like to apply for jobs and be more aggressive, but they feel no confidence," Hurwitz said. "Looks have a great impact on life. Society requires that."

Most Are Cosmetic Requests

While a few applicants suffer from serious birth deformities or disfigurement caused by accidents, she said, most want cosmetic procedures ranging from tummy tucks to nose jobs aimed simply at reversing the ravages of age or repairing perceived aesthetic deficiencies.

"We have young women wanting breast enlargements who say they won't go to the beach because they don't feel feminine," Hurwitz said. "One guy wanted a sex change operation--but we don't do that."

Screened by a panel including a psychiatrist, a pastor, a North Orange County Municipal Court judge, two television performers and noted comedienne Phyllis Diller, applicants are judged on the basis of financial need and the extent to which the desired operations--which ordinarily cost between $4,000 and $25,000--will improve their lives.

Rocha--who as a teachers' aide in the Little Lake School District makes less than $20,000 a year--was a perfect candidate, Niccole said, because she has "realistic" expectations about what the surgery can do for her.

Diller Had 16 Operations

That it can change one's life was attested to by foundation spokeswoman Diller, a well-known advocate of cosmetic surgery.

"I'm a new woman," said the 70-year-old comedienne, who hands out printed lists of the 16 cosmetic procedures she has undergone since 1970. Included on it were a complete face lift, breast reduction, teeth straightening, cheek implant, eye liner tattoo and chemical peel.

"Before this I had a lovely career life," she said. "Now I have a lovely social life with real men. Ponce de Leon looked for the fountain of youth; I've found it."

Although Rocha says she is not looking for a fountain of youth, she does have some specific ideas about how cosmetic surgery might improve her life. For starters, she says, it could help her win reelection this fall to the Los Nietos School District Board of Trustees in South Whittier, where she has been a member for eight years. And in a more general sense, she hopes it will help improve her overall self-confidence and eliminate the sometimes derisive comments of the students she helps teach.

"For years I've been doing things for other people, now this is for me," said Rocha, a grandmother who gave up a career with a telephone company to spend 15 years caring for her ailing husband; He died of multiple sclerosis in 1974. "This will make me feel better about myself. Maybe I'll wear prettier dresses."

'Something for Society'

Niccole vehemently denies suggestions that the foundation is primarily a marketing vehicle. His own medical practice, he said, already has more paying customers than it can handle.

"I'm very well off at this point," he said. "What I'm trying to do here is get away from the rat race to do something for society that will satisfy me in some way other than financial."

Nonetheless, he said, at the end of its first year of operation the foundation hopes to publish a calendar bearing before and after portraits of its first 12 recipients.

"People want to look beautiful today," he said, "If you look good you feel good. I think that's healthy."

Posing for the television cameras with Diller amid the comedienne's steady stream of one-liners, Rocha appeared as if she could not agree more.

"I still think I'm in a dream," the school board member said.

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