By Galina Espinoza Mike Neill
October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Shove over, Cher! Make room, Melanie! Average Americans, not only celebs or the super-rich, believing that looking good is a vital part of aging well, are putting their money where their (collagen-enhanced) mouths are. In 2001, 8.5 million procedures were performed in the U.S., up more than 300 percent from 1997. “Nobody wants to look old,” says businessman Tom DeBonis, 56. “Some people never do anything about it—and some people go for it.” Now he and others on the following pages are nipped, tucked and talking.

Barbara Bailey

Getting her eyelids fixed helps a waitress lose the glowering look that kept people away

Ask Barbara Bailey what was so bad about living with droopy eyelids and she’ll rattle off a list. For starters, “people perceived me as unapproachable,” says Bailey, “because my eyelids made it look like I was angry a lot.”

Wearing eye makeup was near impossible, since the colors got smeared by her saggy skin, while looking in the mirror only became bearable after Bailey “developed a habit of raising my eyebrows,” she says. “I was trying to see what I wanted to see, as opposed to what was there.”

In September 2000, Bailey decided to reconcile the two visions. Having heard through a friend about Beverly Hills facial plastic surgeon Paul Nassif, Bailey, then 33, booked a consultation. “I thought she was in her mid-40s when I first saw her,” says Dr. Nassif, who recommended a two-part approach. First, he gave her an endoscopic brow-lift, making three small incisions (later closed with staples) at Bailey’s hairline so he could elevate her eyebrows.

About 11 weeks later, after the staples had been removed, Dr. Nassif snipped away the excess skin on her upper eyelids—a delicate procedure, since Bailey’s right lid was fleshier than her left. “You have to be very precise,” Dr. Nassif says, “or she’d be uneven.”

Not to worry: Bailey was delighted with her eye work, which left her with only a small amount of swelling and bruising that disappeared within a week, thanks to a combination of anti-inflammatories and ice packs. The following month Bailey returned to Dr. Nassif for a Botox injection between her eyebrows to smooth away a crease—and she plans to repeat the procedure when the effect (which lasts on average three to six months) wears off, as a way of preventing future wrinkles from forming. “It’s always nice not to line your face if you don’t have to,” Bailey says.

Nine months later she went back for more, plumping up her lips with permanent implants of Atrium, a soft, rubbery material that permanently retains its shape. “It was a little more painful than I had anticipated,” Bailey says of the procedure, “but the pain lasted just the first day.”

The total tab for her surgeries was $10,000, which Bailey, 35, who works as a cocktail waitress at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay casino, admits “was a strain on the budget.” But the gamble is already paying off. “I’m not sure if it’s directly related to the change in my appearance or in my personality,” Bailey says, “but my tips have gone up!”

Kim Manning

For her, a little bit of liposuction makes a big difference

Every time she saw a picture of herself, Kim Manning thought the same thing: Her face was too big for her body. “In my 30s, I noticed my face was changing,” says Manning, an English teacher at San Bernardino Valley College in California, of the sagging skin underneath her chin. “I hated to see myself from the front or side.”

At 5’4″ and 150 lbs., Manning, now 47, didn’t consider hers a weight problem. “I wasn’t bothered by my body,” she says. “Weight I can control.” So last summer she started searching the Internet for a surgical answer. In August she consulted Dr. David Amron of the Spalding Drive Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology center in Beverly Hills. His advice? Mini-liposuction.

“Kim’s skin tone is still quite good,” says Amron. “You remove the fat and the skin springs back and defines the jaw-line.” He suggested the procedure for Manning’s neck and jowls and laser treatment for her cheeks, overly reddish from rosacea, a persistent skin condition whose cause is unknown. The cost: $3,200.

Although her husband of 23 years, Steve, 50, a billboard-sign contractor, wasn’t enthusiastic—”She looked fine the way she was,” he says—Manning underwent the procedures, which took about 50 minutes under local anesthesia. For five days afterward, she says, “I felt pressure from the swelling,” and her cheeks, she recalls, “were purple for a week.” A week later, as the swelling subsided, Manning’s newly chiseled jawline emerged. Steve has altered his opinion as well. “I definitely see the difference,” he says approvingly. He’s not the only one. “Men now say ‘Good morning’ to me even if they don’t know me,” says Manning. “Imagine that. I’ve become a babe at 47!”

Barbara Leight

Fear of aging wins over fear of the knife

When a friend told Barbara Leight, 58, a manager at the Maryland Port Authority in Baltimore, that she was attending a plastic surgery seminar at a local hotel, Leight, who had long been thinking, “I don’t look like I feel inside,” tagged along. Impressed by the featured surgeon, Dr. James Vogel of Owings Mills, Md., she set up a consultation. Although Leight had only a brow-lift in mind to correct her drooping eyelids, her loose neck skin and deeply lined forehead led Dr. Vogel to suggest a face-lift as well as laser surgery to eliminate the fine lines around her mouth.

In March 2001 she underwent the five-hour procedure. By lifting the skin as well as the supporting muscles beneath it, says Dr. Vogel, “you don’t need to pull the skin so tight.” Leight is thrilled with the changes, which are subtle rather than startling. Her jowls are gone and the lines smoothed away. “People say, ‘Gee, you look refreshed,’ ” she says. “I say, ‘Thanks for the compliment!’ and walk away.”

Pam and Tom DeBonis

A couple go in for his-and-her surgeries

Within six weeks of having $10,500 worth of plastic surgery, including an eye-lift, lip augmentation, laser resurfacing and a chemical peel on her neck, Pam DeBonis, 46, “had skin like a teenager,” says stepdaughter Renee, 31. One night a waitress even mistook her for husband Tom’s daughter. “That,” she says, “is when I said, ‘Honey, you better do something!’ ”

So last November, Tom, 56, who owns several businesses, including a gas station, with his wife, spent five hours and $12,500 in Dr. Brent Smith’s clinic in Littleton, Colo. Tom got a face-, eye-and brow-lift and liposuction under his chin, and later he had a hair transplant.

“It was uncomfortable sleeping for a while,” says Tom, who took pain pills for a few days. An allergic reaction to ointment dabbed around his eyes was cleared up by switching medications. “But,” he says, “I would do it again if I thought I needed it.”

To maintain the results, each day Tom uses Kinerase moisturizer and Pam applies sunblock (SPF 65) daily. She also keeps crow’s feet and forehead furrows at bay with Botox injections every four to six months. One time a misdirected shot caused a black eye, but she considers that a small price to pay. “I like it,” she says, “when people tell me, ‘Gee, you look good.’ ”

Neikie Reno

After multiple surgeries, a modeling career

At a Manhattan diner last November a middle-aged couple asked Neikie Reno, “Aren’t you Nicole Kidman?” Reno, 33, relishes the memory. Taunted in school, she says, “for being flat-chested and having a big nose,” she’s now a swimsuit model for catalogs, magazines and runway trade shows, thanks to 10 surgeries over a decade.

Reno’s transformation began in 1992, when she was living in Fayetteville, N.C., with her son Nicholas, now 14, by ex-husband Jason Reno, 34. During the year she had nursed Nicholas, Reno says she found that she “loved having large breasts.” She saved $2,750 from her bartending job to have her breasts enlarged from an A to a C cup (and later a D). Thrilled with the results, she decided to get a nose job, and in March ’99 she met with Manhattan surgeon Pamela Lipkin. In addition to the rhinoplasty, Lipkin suggested an eye-lift to open up what Reno calls her “fatty eyes. People were always asking me if I was tired.” Total cost: $3,000.

Still, Reno wasn’t satisfied. “It happens quite a bit—someone will do their nose and feel so great they come back,” Dr. Lipkin says, adding that Reno does not fit the profile of a surgery addict. “A junkie is someone who can’t be satisfied no matter how much work they have done. Neikie had the amount she was comfortable with.”

Six months later Reno, with financial aid from her boyfriend, paid $30,000 for cheek implants, a brow-lift, liposuction on her thighs and buttocks and lip enlargement. “My head hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep,” Reno says. “I really needed painkillers to get through it. It took a year for my face to heal completely.”

In April 2000 she had another lip job and her jawline tightened. Tooth veneers ($36,000) followed—as did a third lip enhancement in September ’01. Why so much? “You learn after plastic surgery,” says Reno, “that the world treats beautiful people differently.”