Seated at her Park Avenue office on a recent afternoon, podiatrist Dr. Suzanne Levine, D.P.M, was describing the kinds of patients that often drop by her office for a quick “foot facial,” chemical peel or perhaps a little Botox or Juvéderm injection for their tired tootsies.
“They have several face-lifts, a nose job, their neck done, their lips enlarged a little too much and lo and behold you look down to discover your grandmother’s feet!” said Dr. Levine, clutching a large latte from Starbucks with her pink manicured fingernails. “It’s shocking. On top, they’re wearing a Chanel jacket and orthopedic-type shoes on the bottom. It’s not very sexy.”
Plagued by bunions, corns, wrinkles, age spots, hammertoes, blisters and swelling brought on by seasons of trotting across Manhattan in rickety high heels, some women are paranoid about exposing their feet to others, she added, even in the coming warm months. “You cannot even imagine! They are so embarrassed, they go to a separate section of Bergdorf to try on shoes and they leave their socks on during intimate moments or even at their gynecologist’s office, which I just find so hilarious!”
Dr. Levine, a compact blonde with big, round cheekbones, dark makeup smudged around the eyes and tan, well-cared-for skin (she would not reveal her exact age, but conceded that she is “past my 50s”), has been a podiatric surgeon on the Upper East Side, where she also lives, for over 20 years. She grew up in New York; graduated from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and New York College of Podiatric Medicine; and became a foot surgeon in the 1980s. In the mid-’90s, Dr. Levine, one of the few women in her field at the time, realized that there was a need for “aesthetic podiatry” to fix, plump, and patch up women’s tired feet to help them slide into stilt-style designer heels. She has penned several books on the topic, including My Feet Are Killing Me! (McGraw-Hill) and Your Feet Don’t Have to Hurt (St. Martin’s).
At her office, or Institute Beauté, as she has dubbed it, Dr. Levine has patented the foot facial ($225), a treatment that includes a foot mask, callus removal and a collagen-inducing copper cream; and a procedure called Pillows for Your Feet (starting at $500), recommended twice annually, involving Juvéderm and Sculptra injections that provide cushioning for foot soles, making it easier to wear sadistic heels. She also administers foot Botox to get rid of wrinkles and swelling—gotta avoid the dreaded cankle!—and does a bleaching treatment ($225) for yellowing toe nails. And then there is the controversial toe-shortening procedure of pesky extra-long second toes—sometimes done to ease discomfort, other times for cosmetic reasons—in which middle bones of the toe are removed, making it easier to squeeze into a wider variety of designer shoes. It starts at $1,500.
Before settling on her foot fillers of choice, Dr. Levine tried using fat from other parts of the body and Restylane, but the former didn’t seem to last as long and the latter proved to burn a bit.
“Women want to wear heels. What else can you put on where you immediately lose 10 pounds?” said Dr. Levine. “I think it’s important in order for women to keep their jobs and to feel and look younger to wear appealing shoes. I’m not a proponent of doing surgery just to fit into shoes, that’s not where I’m coming from. But I want to give women the opportunity to wear heels because they’re going to do it anyway.”
TENDING TALLEY’S TOOTSIES
Dressed in blue scrubs, she pulled back her surgical slippers to reveal a pair of Christian Louboutin studded boots with three-and-half-inch stacked heels. “How cool are they?” she asked, extending her leg. “I always do surgeries in these kinds of shoes.” Pulling open the filing cabinet behind her, Dr. Levine showed off a pair of backup Manolo Blahniks. “I would think of myself as a fashionista, although I don’t dress as well as some of the fashionistas that walk in here,” she said.
On the credenza in her office, between photos of her two grown daughters (one a psychologist, the other a lawyer), are framed thank-you notes from Barbara Walters and Bill Cosby as well as photos of the doctor with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer. In the waiting room sits a prominently displayed Emmy statue—a gift from patient Sheila Nevins, president of Documentary and Family Programming for HBO and Cinemax. “I was expecting a bottle of Champagne or flowers or something and she gave me her Emmy Award!” Dr. Levine said with a laugh.
In the bathroom, the notoriously fractious supermodel Naomi Campbell scribbled a note on a magazine cut-out of herself: “To Levine, Peace and Love. Please help these feet, Naomi.” At the reception desk: a head shot of actor Liam Neeson with the words, “Thank you Suzanne. Love, Liam.” (Dr. Levine said her male clients are usually either in the entertainment industry, transgender males trying to fit into women’s shoes or husbands sent by their wives to fix nail fungi.)
She is often called to film sets and hotel rooms to administer her injections. “I can’t tell you who I’ve treated, but I can tell you women I admire,” she said coyly. “Liz Smith is one, Cindy Adams, Barbara Walters. I’m not saying I’ve treated them. I’m just saying I admire them and maybe I have seen their feet.”
Dr. Levine’s services have become increasingly popular as fashionable footwear has grown as much as 6 or 8 inches from the ground. One can only imagine the injuries to be suffered from this season’s designated It shoe, the YSL cage bootie, which looks more like an S&M device than a walking apparatus. Or the damage that might be done by Nina Ricci’s heel-less, gravity-defying platform boot. Or Burberry’s sling-back, peep-toe, lace-up Oxfords.
“This season it’s just outrageous,” said Dr. Levine, who owns about 300 pairs of designer shoes and is organizing a mini-museum of shoes from different eras in history at the institute. Currently, some 30 pairs are on display. “The average person cannot walk in them—they’re limousine shoes,” she said. “I myself have a pair that I can only wear for about three seconds. … When you’re at a restaurant and you’re going to the ladies room, you need someone to escort you because it is super-dangerous to walk up and down stairs alone.”
Critics might argue that Dr. Levine’s apparent advocacy of treacherous heel heights is medically irresponsible. “The key is moderation,” she argued. “You can wear heels but not to the extremes of 6 inches. If you are going to wear them, keep in mind that they’re not shoes to walk around in.”
A young nurse wandered in.
“She’s allergic to codeine, what should I give her?” she asked, referring to a patient in one of the operating rooms recovering from a hammertoe procedure.
“Give her some Vicodin,” the podiatrist replied, before reconsidering. “Actually, do Darvocet. Always Darvocet when they’re allergic, O.K.?”
A different patient, 64-year-old hairstylist Raven Dolling, who had come in for the toe-shortening procedure and a bunionectomy, ducked her head in on her way out. “She’s the best!” she said, seemingly still a little woozy on pain meds, before waving her frail hand and making her way to the reception area.
“She wants to look young and what better way to do than to keep her heels on,” explained Dr. Levine when Ms. Dolling was out of sight. “So I made the foot look aesthetically pleasing so she can wear Louboutins, which are her favorite.”
On the way out, Ms. Dolling bought one of Dr. Levine’s self-designed kitschy surgical boots, decorated in zebra print and Pocahontas-type fringe, or Swarovski crystals.
“People stopped me on the street and asked me where I got them! Aren’t they just fabulous?” said Dr. Levine, who test-drove one when she sprained her ankle. “I’m showing it to André [Leon Talley] tonight because I’d love for Vogue to have it. I guess I do things that are out of the box. Most people would think I’m a total lunatic, but who cares.”
Lunatic or not, Dr. Levine’s following has recently earned her an invitation from a relative of the royal family in Dubai to extend her practice to the booming city, where most of the social set seems to be partying these days, but she said she’s too busy on Park Avenue to think about new locations just yet.
“Surprisingly, we’re fine,” she said, referring to the gloomy financial mood that has washed over the Upper East Side. “People are walking more for health reasons, to not spend money on gyms and to cut down on taxis. They still need their feet!”
Dr. Levine does have her limits. She marveled at some of the masochistic requests of some clients, who “come in and say, ‘My foot is too wide, can you make it narrow and chop the bones?’ Or, ‘I want my foot to be dainty, I want it to go from a size eight and a half to a six.’”
And she refuses to do liposuction on the toes, which some patients have requested lately.
Said Dr. Levine: “I tell them they have to see a psychiatrist.”