Oscar face race

Like everyone else in the developed world, I'm obsessed with finding out what beauty treatments actresses are secretly undergoing to make them look so darn good.

Everywhere I go during the awards season -- screenings, parties, premieres -- I run into 40-something actresses -- including those I know are actually 50-plus -- looking better and younger than ever.

Has anyone else noticed that Demi Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Jane Fonda, Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, not to mention Annette Bening and -- hello, can we talk -- Helen Mirren -- look simply amazing lately?

I inspected Helen up-close at "The Queen" premiere this week and trust me, the lady has never looked better. It's not that she looks 25, but she looks flipping incredible for 61.

And frankly, I find this infuriating.

Because I know these women aren't just aging gracefully. They can't be! It's my opinion (and sue me if I'm wrong) that they must be getting help -- a lot of help -- from new skin resurfacing and tightening lasers and a flood of face fillers now available.

And dammit, I want whatever they're having.

So I did some scholarly research -- okay, I called a few age-obsessed female friends -- for the scoop on the hottest Hollywood face-savers.

Seems that yes, a few actresses are having mini-lifts done in their 40s. And no, I cannot name names because I will be killed. A few have even tried the Feather Lift that uses tiny hooks and threads to pull back your face without cutting/removing any skin, the way a surgical face-lift does.

I actually have a friend who loves her Feather. She looks great. I think "refreshed" is the operative word. But there have been reported complications (slipped hooks, protruding threads) and no one really knows how long the Feather will float.

"One of my patients had the Feather Lift done by a cosmetic surgeon," a top Beverly Hills dermatologist whispered. "She was thrilled. But when I looked at her, I could see the lines of the threads in her temples. But with her over-45 eyes, she couldn't see them."

Which just goes to show that what you can't see, won't obsess you.

One face firming treatment called Thermage was strongly recommended by top L.A. spas and dermatologists. And it sounded a lot simpler than hooks and pulleys. The Thermacool TC uses radio frequency waves to heat the deep layer of facial collagen, which causes the skin to tighten as it repairs itself.

Studies show that Thermage lifts brows, smoothes foreheads, tightens cheeks, softens lines around the mouth and lifts neck wattles. But it's not going to work major miracles. If your face has seriously fallen through the cracks, this is not the answer. But if you're still at that pull-your-face-back-while looking-in-the-mirror-and-wondering stage, Thermage is worth a shot.

After peering at my face, neck and eyes, Joshua Wieder, Associate Clinical Professor at Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA told me I was "an ideal candidate" for the face-tightening procedure, which made me happy until I realized it was actually a backhanded compliment.

"Most of my patients do one Thermage treatment and don't repeat it until the results wear off, in one to two years," Wieder confessed. "But I do have some patients, mostly celebrities, who push it and do a Thermage every six months."

A-hah! Maybe this is the never-aging actress secret.

He also said that now is the perfect time for my Thermage. There's no downtime so I won't miss covering any parties. And the final results -- tighter face, eyes and neck -- will appear over the next three to five months. "If you do a Thermage now, you will be seeing peak results by mid-January to late February," he told me.

Peaking at the Oscars? I like the sound of that.

After I am cleansed and de-greased with alcohol, Wieder applies a grid-like numerical transfer all over my face, upper eyelids and neck. This looks like a combination of a New Guinea islander's face tattoo and something from "The Matrix."

But don't panic. It's actually a map, a detailed guide for the series of three Thermage passes over my face. And Wieder promised that the black ink would come off. I made him sign a paper to that effect. I think it's about time patients made doctors sign releases, don't you?

There is only minimal discomfort because the Thermage "fast tip" puffs a cooling spray onto my face as the deep heat penetrates below the skin's surface. Doing upper eyelids is tricky because Wieder and his nurse must jointly insert a rubber suction cup into my numbed eye to protect it from the Thermage heat beam.

Every few zaps, Wieder asked if I felt any discomfort. Had I whined, he would happily have lowered the intensity. But the higher the intensity, the better the results.

I don't know how to describe the sensation other than it feels like someone is putting out a lit match on your face about 450 times. But strangely, the pain only registers as "ouch" for half a nanosecond, and then the discomfort is gone.

The whole upper lid, lower face and neck process takes about two hours, including prep and removal time. You can take a Valium if you want. I didn't, because I wanted to remember the drill to write about it. And I wanted to be able to drive home.

Afterward, my face grid is wiped off and I'm ready to go, skin slightly rosy and glowing, like after a tough spin class. Amazingly, my lower face and neck felt tighter immediately.

Most surprising was the upper eyelids. This thing knocks off 10 years of late nights instantly. That beats the hell out of eye creams, teabags and cucumbers.

Wieder even blasted those annoying little vertical lines on my upper lip, a remnant of my one-pack a day nicotine jones in the 80s. Now the lines are hard to find, even with my harshest critic: the dreaded Plus 5 magnification hand mirror.

I think I'm ready for my awards season close-up, Mr. DeMille. But did my attentive husband see the difference? When I asked if he thought my face looked … younger, he said, "Honey, you looked fantastic before and you look fantastic after."

Gotta give him props. He's learned the fine art of marital diplomacy. He never thinks I look fat either. Even when I really do.

Speaking of fat, which reminds me of stomachs, thighs and upper arms, Thermage also works on those female trouble spots.

"It's not going to make fat go away, but if a woman has loose skin on her stomach from lipo, weight loss or after having a baby, Thermage can tighten those areas," says Wieder. And it works for crepe chests, saggy upper arms and wrinkly knees.

I'm gonna hold off on the full body Thermage treatment. Frankly, my wallet is tightening. The face/neck/eyes tab is $2,800. But damn the budget. Full anti-aging speed ahead.

Step One of my awards season prep was done. But with my face tighter, I realized my cheeks were -- dear Lord -- really hollow. When I was a baby-faced teen, I remember longing for sophisticated Dietrich-like cheekbones. Now I want my youthful apple cheeks back.

Check out Teri Hatcher and Cindy Crawford, then and now. Hollow cheeks after 40, it happens to us all. So, after five seconds of rational, thoughtful, careful consideration, I decided to get my cheeks shot up with Sculptra -- a new filler that stimulates your own collagen to grow, thickening your skin, filling in the hollows.

The ingredient (poly-L-lactic acid) is injected into the face to correct lipotrophy, the loss of facial fat due to aging. Initially FDA-approved for AIDS patients, it's now been approved for all patients to correct hollow eyes, sunken cheeks, etc. Results last around two years.

And I've heard rumors that it's being used on aging hands because, well, if you're a woman reading this, you already know why. And if you don't, look at your grandmother's hands. That is your future.

Wieder began by inspecting my face from all vantage points, then drawing circles and lines around my cheeks. He gave me six tiny anesthetic injections in spots where he then injected the Sculptra. It took about 25 minutes. My eyes didn't even water. I left the office with an ice pack that I tossed on the drive home. No bruising, just slightly fuller cheeks.

The only downside? The $1,200 charge on my Amex card.

But I did my homework. Wieder advised "Massage your cheeks gently. Five days, five minutes a day, five times a day." A five weeks later, my cheeks, while not exactly sweet 16, definitely look more like the ones I owned at 35.

Okay, so the cheek hollow situation was solved. But A-list actresses have to worry about High Def revealing every fine line, pore divot and sun spot.

And that's where Fraxel comes in. Or should come in.

I'd heard about Fraxelfrom a girlfriend who had just had her fifth treatment from Dr. Randal Haworth ("The Swan"), one of the hot Beverly Hills surgeons. She claimed that everyone in town was getting Fraxeled by Hayworth and she should know because she really does know everyone in town.

What's a Fraxel? My friend gave me a brochure that explained the laser treatment resurfaces your skin by penetrating deep beneath the dermis. Each session -- and you will need five over a period of five months -- does a fraction of your skin cells, hence the name. Imagine your face as a collection of pixels -- like in an enlarged photograph -- and you get the idea.

But unlike Sculptra, there is major downtime involved. "For the first few days, your face is bright red, like you spent two weeks on the beach in the Caribbean without sunscreen," another frequently Fraxeled friend whispered.

Hmmm. That's slightly worse than the "bronzed face" effect described in the brochure. After checking my calendar, I decided that while I probably needed a Fraxel, I should hold off until I found five consecutive months with one week with no personal/professional obligations, including taking out the trash.

Besides, with my tighter face/neck/eyes and fuller cheeks, I already feel like an Oscar-seeking Hollywood actress. And I'd like to thank the Academy for making all this possible. Without the incredible awards season pressure to look one's best, I might not have gone to the trouble, discomfort and expense of all these Oscar Face Race beauty treatments.

Now I won't dread my up-close-and-personal interviews with all those suspiciously younger-than-springtime actresses. And who knows? Maybe they'll wonder what I had done. Or maybe they'll notice that I missed something.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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    A rubber suction cup was inserted into Elizabeth's numbed eye to protect it from the Thermage heat beam.