Interview: Darren McKeown, cosmetic surgeon

The first clue that Darren McKeown is not your average Scottish GP comes in the finely crafted form of his doctor's bag. Not for him the battered black sturdy frame of his profession's typical vade mecum, instead each morning he swings a Damier print Louis Vuitton Gladstone bag through his clinic's door.

• McKeown says cosmetic surgery is an art which takes great skill to get right

From the polished tips of his brown leather Prada shoes, to his finely tailored Armani suit, neatly knotted Hermes tie and the snowcapped Mont Blanc pen that peeks out of his breast pocket, it is clear that quality and appearance are his Poilane bread and butter.

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Oh, and I should add that he pays his PA in Louboutins. Then again, he's not even a GP, or a "Dr" for that matter; as a recently qualified member of the Royal College of Surgeons, he's been propelled into the premier league of flamboyance and arrogance, traditionally exemplified by those sporting bow-ties and going by the soubriquet "Mr".

But his gestalt is not quite complete. He has just added another string to his bow, after doctor, then surgeon, now comes entrepreneur. At the moment one can book an appointment to see him in his private practice in Glasgow and in London's fabled Harley Street, but next month he may well make an appearance on your bathroom shelf with the launch of Naked Truth by Dr McKeown, a skincare line which he hopes will one day be as recognisable as the designer labels he wears.

So what exactly does this well-dressed 28-year-old do? Well, the prerequisites for his trade are discretion, a keen eye and steady hand. With his arsenal of Botox, Restalyne and syringes he softens features, smoothes crinkled foreheads, plumps lips and turns even the flattest cheeks into rosy apples. His clinics in London and Glasgow are well attended by women keen to hold back the hands of time for as long as possible, or, at least to slow down the ticking. They also include many a well-kent face, but he's not naming names.

"Injecting Botox is an art and something that takes a great deal of skill to get right," says McKeown, as he settles into a booth at Rogano in Glasgow. "Anyone can pick up a needle and inject Botox but there is a big difference between simply doing an injection and actually making a face look better. When done properly the results should be natural and attractive so that no one suspects any work has been carried out. There is nothing worse than that over-arched Botoxed brow look that fools no one about your age but tells everyone what you have had done."

As for whether the good doctor takes his own cosmetic medicine, he prefers not to comment, but something tells me his looks aren't the result of raw DNA alone. In person, he's elegantly dressed with a white pocket handkerchief that's straight out of Mad Men, with a thick dark fringe that reminds me of a Lipizzaner pony.

He's also thoughtful in his responses and knows how to treat a lady; when I arrive he immediately orders a bottle of Laurent Perrier.

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He's only just wrapped up work at his clinic for the day where he saw 30 patients, which he says is an average day. When I suggest that he's in a very lucrative business he shrugs and says: "There are those who are in it for the love of the green stuff and those who are in it for the love of beautiful women. I'm the latter."

To describe McKeown as driven is like calling an Hermes Birkin a bag; accurate, but a startling understatement. He first raised the issue of handling a scalpel when he was a pupil at John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton where career officers are clearly myopic. "When I told them I wanted to go to medical school to become a surgeon their advice was that if I wanted to have a career in something technical then I should think about becoming a car mechanic." One can just picture the Louis Vuitton tool belt, but surely Kwik-Fit's loss is surgery's gain.

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While studying for a medical degree at Glasgow University, he took a year out to complete a science degree and, at the age of 22, published his first paper in the British Journal of Cancer. He has since published multiple papers on the subject of burns, breast reconstruction as well as cleft lip and palate surgery. After completing his medical degree, he spent two years working in general medicine and surgery before he was accepted for surgical training, specialising in plastic surgery and has recently completed his third year of training.

"The great thing about plastic surgery is the sheer variety of the work involved: there is no other specialty that has so much variation. Our domain is the skin and supporting structures, which essentially is the whole of the body. One case you can be operating on the head and neck, the next case might be breast and then followed up by lower limb trauma. It is the diversity which makes it interesting.

"One of my favourite parts of the job is the skin cancer work. You cut out the cancer along with a margin of normal tissue which then leaves a hole in the face which you have to fill, either by moving flaps of skin around or putting in a skin graft. I love designing the reconstruction, planning out the geometry and aiming to select the method which is going to produce the most normal appearance. This sort of work is usually done under local anaesthetic and the patients are normally a bit older with tales to tell. I am a real people person so I love to hear all the stories."

While McKeown always had an interest in aesthetic medicine, it was magnified in the land of the swaying palm and font of eternal youth: Beverly Hills, where, as a medical student he spent an elective term with a plastic surgeon.

"Until this point I had worked on the assumption that if you wanted to make a real difference to the face then a knife had to be involved." Instead, a waiting room of beautifully preserved women educated him on the benefits of non-surgical procedures.

While developing a growing reputation as an aesthetic practitioner, McKeown arched an interested eyebrow towards the success of skincare lines launched by the leading names in the business such as Dr Sebagh, Dr Perricone and Dr Lowe. Now he too has decided to dip his fingers into his own brand of potentially lucrative pots of unguent. Over the past two years he has been busy developing his own skincare line, Naked Truth, at a personal cost of almost six figures.

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He seems uncomfortable with the title of entrepreneur. I'm certain that was his forehead less expertly Botoxed he would be wrinkling a furrowed chasm at the suggestion. "To be honest, I have never really considered myself as one, although I suppose in a sense I probably am. To me the word entrepreneur conjures up images of the contestants on The Apprentice; very brash, self-assured and willing to get into any sort of business in order to make a quick buck: but that's not me. First and foremost I am a doctor and my loyalties always lie with my patients. The reason my cosmetic practice has been successful is that I provide a good quality service I feel passionate about and I am hoping that the same will be true for my skincare range."

With the goal of having his eponymously branded bottles sitting on dressing tables the length and breadth of the country came a new set of challenges.

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"The first, and most important, step is to decide what goes into the products. I chose the active ingredients based on the strength of scientific evidence to support their efficacy rather than the latest bit of seaweed dug up from the bottom of the sea with supposed mystical healing powers. I wanted to select active ingredients based on science rather than fiction and if there is no scientific evidence that an active works, then there is no room for it in my product.

"The next bit was the fun bit, turning them into actual potions and lotions. I had a fabulous cosmetic chemist work with me on this step who has formulated creams for some of the biggest skincare brands in the world and is very experienced in getting the texture of the creams just right. Selecting the right active ingredients is one thing but if it doesn't feel nice on the skin, who is going to want to slap it on every day? Skincare needs to be enjoyable.

"I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by lots of fabulous women in my life and they were instrumental in getting this bit right. My mum and aunt would convene groups of up to 20 women along with several bottles of champagne and nibbles and we would have skincare trial parties, playing around with various samples I had produced.

'Nope, too oily', 'Nope, too dry', 'Nope, doesn't sink in quick enough' until we got the 'just right' response.

"I had initially wanted to keep the products completely fragrance-free but actually that soon went out the window after making the first few samples. The trouble is that a lot of the active ingredients don't smell very nice and when you are using the active ingredients at higher concentrations well, frankly, the products stink. It all comes back to making a product that women are going to want to use on their face every day and really, no matter how effective it is, who on earth wants to rub a foul-smelling cream into their skin? In the end, I added just the gentlest fragrance I could find to take away the bad odour and leave behind a very faint fresh smell, but nothing strong enough to interfere with your perfume."

Problems, as all entrepreneurs will appreciate, are there to be surmounted and in the process of launching the new line McKeown has soared above striking Nordic paper mills, faulty Milanese bottle lids and wonky box designs. He has been introduced to a new group of colleagues as anaesthesiologists and theatre nurses gave way to cosmetic chemists, graphic designers, copy writers and, his favourite, the structural cardboard engineer. "Yes" he laughs. "There is just such a job. He is the man who designs the fancy boxes with the special openings. I got him on board in the design of the packaging fairly early on because I had an idea to make the boxes open in the middle, except with the top section floating slightly above the lower section. It all looked terrific when it was on the computer screen but when I had it mocked up it just didn't look the way I had imagined it in my head and I abandoned the whole idea. It cost a small fortune."

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Even when he settled on a box design, industrial action at the paper mill forced him to spend a frantic day sourcing a replacement. "It all had to be co-ordinated from a sun lounger while on holiday. I had to whip out my MacBook on the fly every time my partner was at the bar. Thank God for poolside WiFi!"

If all goes according to plan the various lotions and potions of the Naked Truth line, handsomely packaged with nude script etched onto white boxes, will be available online and at major high street retailers nationwide next month. As the interview draws to a close, and evening turns into night I notice the doctor discreetly acknowledge a few of the bar's more glamorous patrons. He turns, sighs and comes out with a line straight from the mouth of Nip/Tuck's libidinous Dr Christian Troy: "You know the real naked truth? I just love beautiful women."

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, 21 August, 2010

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