Celebrity interviews


Dr. Oz: America’s Doctor

The Times of London

June 7, 2014

The notion of Too Much Information does not exist for Dr Mehmet Öz, or Dr Oz, as the surgeon turned TV star is more popularly known. It’s why four million largely Middle American housewives watch The Dr Oz Show every day, delighting over his solicitousness and advice about diet, health, disease prevention and nutrition. Tall and slim, he delivers all this to his millions of fans (who include Michelle Obama) dressed in blue surgical scrubs.

It was Oprah Winfrey who dubbed Oz “America’s doctor” and the sobriquet stuck. And for many Americans he is the only doctor they can afford to see. Esquire calls him, “the most important and most accomplished celebrity doctor in history”, he has written 12 bestselling health books and he ranks consistently in the Top Ten of the Forbes Most Influential Celebrities list – this year at No 6, just below Martin Scorsese, with a net worth of $14 million and a salary of $4 million.

In his New York office next to Radio City Music Hall, the 53-year-old heart surgeon talks about everything, from the secrets of keeping his own marriage alive, including his sex life and the sex life we should all be enjoying, and why we should marry young for our health (particularly young male doctors), to the evil of “white foods’” and why he believes in angels. He’s one of America’s top daytime talk show hosts and, boy, can he talk.

Oz is lean and sexy, a salubrious flirt dressed in a smart suit made by his Turkish tailor. His hair is mostly pepper, with any threat of salt dyed brown. The show’s make-up artists used to colour in his white temples with mascara. The sides would be totally white without the dye job.

There are Emmys on the shelves and pictures of his four children, including his eldest, Daphne, cradling his first grandchild. There is a painting of Istanbul and there’s his new magazine, launched this year, Dr Oz: the Good Life – the latest issue, with a picture of Oz on its cover and exhortations to “Walk Off the Weight” and “Zap Stress in Just 10 Seconds”. We can even “Eat Like Dr Oz”, with his “favourite greens” and superfood smoothies.

Before this all-conquering multimedia life, Oz was a respected surgeon. In 1982 he graduated from Harvard, four years later obtaining MD and MBA degrees from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School. (He tells me how proud he was, at Penn, where he was student body president, to have introduced nutrition as a focus for patients’ recovery and treatment.)

Since 2001, Oz has been a professor in the Department of Surgery at Columbia University, and directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Programme at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He still operates on patients every Thursday.

So far, so good. But last year, Oz’s methods and medical advice were questioned. While listing his impressive achievements (he holds a patent on a solution that can preserve organs and another for an aortic valve that can be implanted without highly invasive open-heart surgery), a profile in The New Yorker quoted eminent medical peers who criticised him “for following the dictates of daytime television more than the demands of scientific truth”. Oz was criticised by scientists for relying on flimsy or incomplete data, distorting the results and “wielding his vast influence in ways that threaten the health of anyone who watches his show”. The magazine reported that Oz installed a reiki master in his operating theatre (his wife, Lisa, is one, although it was not her) in an “attempt to help patients survive risky operations, such as heart transplants”. On his show Oz claimed that apple juice had “dangerous levels” of arsenic. He talked up a herbal supplement that supposedly burnt fat but had only been tested on animals; the same fat-burning power was ascribed to green coffee beans. Scientists questioned what he was recommending – the real or the magic, as one put it. I ask him if the central charge – that his show is a haven of quackery – was fair.

“Sure, that’s an appropriate charge to make,” he says. The author got some basic facts – dates, principally – wrong, he says. On the graver charge, Oz says, “The big challenge, as well as the line between entertainment and education, is what do you tell people when you don’t know the answer? There’s precious little we know for sure.” Really? Science has proved quite a lot, especially in healthcare.

A doctor’s responsibility is to “connect the dots”, Oz says, to bridge science and alternative medicines and treatments. “I always tell the team here what I tell my family: I may not be right. I cannot prove homeopathy works, but we use it in our own home on our kids, so I think it’s worth trying. It’s safe enough. The downside is minimal.” Oz also meditates, and does a little yoga. Lisa, he tells me, has been key in influencing the inclusion of alternative health in his surgical and TV spheres.

Of the scientific evidence cited against him, he says there are “liars, damned liars and statisticians”, whose results can be twisted to suit certain trials. As for being criticised for recommending medicines that proved ineffective, he says, “I am responsible for what I say always, but not responsible to it.” On every show, he says to check carefully products that claim to be endorsed by him, many of which haven’t been. If any say you can lose 15lb in a week, he says, forget it: “You can’t do that without amputation.”

I ask if he has ever regretted anything he’s said on TV, and he comes up with one example of asking a woman who’d had the wrong breast operated on in a breast cancer case if she’d sought a second opinion. “It was a logical question, but not the right thing to say in the moment,” he says. “The right thing to say would have been, ‘I don’t know how to make this up to you; where do I begin to apologise for my field?’”

Oz chose thoracic surgery, he tells me, “because that field was built for my personality. This will sound audacious, but I like getting big decisions and getting immediate feedback, immediate gratification.” You know immediately if heart surgery has worked, he says. So he’s a glory hunter? “You have to be honest with yourself. It would be hypocritical to deny that there isn’t a bravado and controlled arrogance to heart surgery. Anyone in the field knows you have to be arrogant to take something out of someone’s chest. It’s when you start to believe your own bulls*** that you kill people. Every surgeon has been on that line. Every good surgeon has a closetful of skeletons, patients you lost because you thought you could do it better. When someone dies, you do think you’re partly responsible. In your mind you know there’s something you did you could have done differently.”

In the beginning those feelings were hard to deal with; what got Oz through was: “When I got home, the kids didn’t care a patient had died; they just wanted to play horsey. I tell all the young doctors to get married. It’s hard enough to go through life without a partner, but to go through your formative years as a surgeon, it’s really difficult. You need someone to pull you back from the belief you are God, and also the abyss.”

Are you arrogant, vain? “I don’t think I am a vain person. I’m definitely an arrogant person. I don’t know if that’s bad. There’s a very thin line between arrogance and confidence. I think they melt into one another.” The problem is when arrogance segues into selfishness rather than service to others, he says. He went into television, he claims, because he felt he achieved more broadcasting to millions, rather than operating on people one by one.

Surely, I say, there’s a trace of personal ambition in being on screen. “If my motivation wasn’t the right motivation, I couldn’t have gotten there at the beginning,” he says, referring to his guest appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “The amazing reality is I was never aiming for this, which is why it happened.”

I ask how important his looks were in his TV career. “Yeah, there’s no question it makes a big difference in everything.” But, he says, people go to a doctor for his competence, rather than his looks.

How does he respond to the sexual attention of fans? He tells me that he is never alone with a woman in any room or lift.

“You give off the right vibe,” Oz says. “My vibe is, ‘I’m not just married, I’m very married.’ ”

But those scrubs are meant to be hot; they’re sex scrubs, I say.

Oz laughs. “There’s no question about it. We’re sexual beings. You want there to be a sexuality, a passion.” Lust is important, he says, not just sexual, but also for your family, for life.

How important is sex to him and his wife? “Critical,” Oz says sharply. “This is a sensitive topic for a lot of couples. If you have the ability to have sex, being in a sexless marriage is a really big challenge and often a major risk factor for a marriage’s failure, so you should be serious about fixing it. Lisa and I are very active. I do a lot of things to make sure it’s active. Foreplay for women is a 24-hour reality. I’ll text her today about tomorrow to create an environment – setting it up: ‘What about this?’ Innuendo and subtleties.” He looks at his phone and laughs. “No pictures! If we go more than a couple of days it creates tension, and she starts getting mad with me about things that are not worth fighting about.”

Oz met Lisa in medical school in 1983. After five months, he proposed. “I knew there was such depth there. I could spend my life exploring those caves and never really get it. It’s the same reason I chose to study medicine: I knew I’d never get it all. It’s not gettable. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

Oz was born in Cleveland and grew up in rural Delaware. He always did well at school. There had been a “tremendous emphasis” on education in Turkey where his parents grew up. His father, Mustafa, also a doctor and now 88, grew up in a poor, strictly Muslim family; the children were educated via scholarships. Mustafa was one of eleven, five of whom died.

Oz’s mother, Suna, came from one of the wealthiest families in Turkey, and was “very secular”. They met because Mustafa’s sister was Suna’s seamstress. His mother never wanted to live in America. “She grew up in a bucolic villa in Istanbul. The family had ‘help’. My father ran from poverty. He wanted to be here; this was the land of opportunity. And Delaware of all places; there was no opera house.” His mother eventually moved back; his father followed a couple of years later. “He couldn’t take it without her.”

Divorce never crossed their minds. Marriage, he says, is about “finding a worthy opponent and putting a ring on their finger, and going at it. I think about that in my own marriage. No matter how much we fight and argue, failure is not an option. It’s more, ‘What’s going to happen to make you make up?’ ”

His wife, Lisa, who is absolutely the power behind the Dr Oz brand, is a “strong-willed woman, very opinionated. We fight a lot.” The family live in Cliffside Park in New Jersey, “a big Mafia neighbourhood. Al Capone’s bodyguard lived in the house next door.”

Their marriage has had no serious problems, Oz adds. “But you’re not married to one person for more than seven years. You have to reinvent the relationship. I have been married 29 years, to four different women.” He means different Lisas. “They all have the same name and social security number, but they’re very different to the women who have gone before.”

Men, he says, generally marry “the woman exactly as they want her, and then she changes. Women marry the man they think he can become, and then he won’t change. They’re both stuck in this weird place, and the moment you’re married, you’re travelling in the wrong direction.”

Both partners have the “chemical handcuffs” of passion in the early years that guarantee they are bound together long enough to have children, “and then passion isn’t the prime driving force and you have to reinvent the relationship and relearn the person”.

Lisa is also an author and, Oz says, has more New York Timesbestsellers than he does. (One of her most successful, Us: Transforming Ourselves and the Relationships that Matter Most, includes a foreword by her husband.) She is his powerhouse, his motivator.

When they got together he was the conventional one – the doctor in training – while she, the reiki master and from a family with a famous heart surgeon as a father, promoted the use of alternative therapies and spirituality to him for the first time. Her father was the first surgeon to play rock music while performing surgery, Oz says.

His magazine is her vision: she works on it so she can be with him, he says. It sounds as if she is very bossy, and he likes to be bossed by her. “I don’t have an agent, just Lisa.” Without her, there would have been “zero chance” Oz would have been a TV star. It was she who encouraged Oprah to use him on her chat show and brand him “America’s doctor”.

On Oprah, he pulled organs out of a bucket, he recalls, and yacked about “different ways of talking about your own health”. After 50 appearances, Oz had become a star. In 2009, he got his own show thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s company.

Oz speaks urgently, evangelically. He is a communicator and conveyor. He doesn’t obviously railroad; he considers, agonises, thinks, but still charges on. Offer a criticism of him, and he will nod, seemingly accept it, then counter it firmly.

As a boy he remembers seeing his father puncturing a man’s trachea to relieve some breathing difficulties he was having. The procedure hurt, but the man smiled: Oz saw in the moment a doctor-patient relationship built on trust, “which wasn’t about being liked or loved, but being respected. I knew that if I grew up and did good, even if it hurt, it would be an incredibly fulfilling experience.”

His father wasn’t best pleased by his becoming a TV star, and Oz is concerned if people laugh at him rather than with him (when he made a rap video on his show with US rapper Doug E Fresh for instance), but he says the reason people watch his show is because he’s a doctor, not a celebrity. On the show, “Celebrities don’t do nearly as well in the ratings as when we talk about cancer. Cancer is my Angelina Jolie.”

Living better, eating better, some insight into an inoperable condition: that’s why people watch, Oz says. He says he must maintain his gravitas as a physician. “The biggest tension I have, one of the things I fight with my wife about, is being a jackass, people thinking, ‘I don’t want my doctor doing that.’ There is a line and that isn’t always transparent to me.” Perhaps this is why he gets himself into such controversy with the treatments and therapies he recommends that are later discredited: he is a conventional doctor, with a yen for the unconventional – I wonder if his excitement for the latter occasionally trumps what is known and has been proved.

He has never had therapy. “Depression is a very important asset. You want to be able to get depressed because you do your most creative work when you’re depressed. Why are you depressed? Because you’re not happy with the status quo? Why are you not happy with the status quo? Because it’s probably not good for you. Depression forces you to make a change your body is telling you you have to make.”

Ageing doesn’t bother him either (every plastic surgeon that comes on his show offers to fix the bags under his eyes, “but I sort of want to look like this”). What bothers him are the sprains that he sustains playing basketball or tennis. He can’t run more than five miles now.

Finally I ask him about angels. It was his wife who introduced him to the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish Protestant fundamentalist who believed in the kind of Earth-dwelling angels personified by Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life’s a Wonderful Life.

Does Oz also believe in these angels? “I do, but I could never prove it. I often feel energy, tingling, strength behind you, a feeling of warmth. When I meditate I feel it sometimes, like going beneath the waves into a calm space.” These angels don’t have voices, but rather it’s like someone being next to you, says Oz. People ask him if transplant patients take on anything of the personality of the donor whose organs they inherit. No, not obviously: you don’t suddenly start liking French fries as they do, Oz says, “but cells have a memory”.

“America’s doctor” takes a multivitamin, extra vitamin D and an omega-3 fatty acid. Does the gorgeous, broccoli-chugging Oz have any weaknesses at all? He drank beer to excess as a young man but never took drugs – “out of cowardice, not bravery”. Now he enjoys wine, but ice cream and chocolate-covered nuts are “a big problem”.

Our biggest issue though, he says, is white foods: flour, pasta, sugar – simple carbohydrates that cause obesity. “I would give papal dispensation for people to eat all the fat they want if they stopped with simple carbohydrates.”

One day he may have more control over his adoring followers’ diets and health. Republican-leaning Oz is contemplating a run for office, possibly as a governor or city leader. TV offers him a “pulpit” but not the ability to create change in “bricks and mortar”. Of Obamacare, he says it’s right to offer Americans “what you have in England”, but not enough thought has gone into how to pay for it, he thinks.

I ask the sexy multimillionaire doctor who he would have been had he not married a powerhouse for a wife. “A guy you would lead into a bar and say, ‘He’s a nice guy,’ a pretty successful but pretty ordinary person. A successful heart surgeon living in Delaware, just like my dad.”