With over 1.5B views and 3M subscribers on Youtube; Dr. Lee has become a hit!
You may not know Dr. Sandra Lee—but you surely know her as “Dr. Pimple Popper"—the moniker that made her a viral superstar. She's likely the most famous dermatologist in the world thanks to her 1.5 billion views and 3 million Subscribers on YouTube, her hit TLC show This is Zit and her renowned skincare line SLMD.
How did it happen? Back in 2014, Lee decided to experiment with content on Instagram. “As a working dermatologist, I would see—and still do see—patients struggling with blackheads, milia, cysts, or other various bumps upon the skin. While not life-threatening, they are a nuisance," Lee explains. “One day, I offered to remove a patient's blackheads in exchange for her allowing me to videotape the process and post on my Instagram. She jumped at the opportunity, and when I posted it—to my surprise—it immediately got a lot of likes."
Curiosity got the best of Lee, so she did it again and couldn't believe how much more attention she received. Realizing she may have tapped into something, Lee was intrigued.
“People were curious about, even obsessed with 'popping.'" I noticed that there was strong feeling on my Instagram posts—people were either grossed out or loved it and wanted more," says Lee. “But, no matter what their reaction, people still tagged their friends."
Lee rode the wave and started posting on social media every day plus uploaded a daily YouTube video. That was just over three years ago, and she now has over 2 billion views on her YouTube channel, and well over 10 million followers across all her social media platforms. Lee realized she was sitting on a huge business opportunity and started thinking strategically. “What was I going to actually DO with this?" was the question Lee struggled to answer.
“Creating a merchandise line was a no-brainer. But, what I really wanted to do was create a unique dermatology skin care line," Lee says. Her goal was to alleviate confusion in the skincare aisle at the drugstore. She realized not everyone takes the time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist—but they would want to buy a product that a dermatologist would recommend if they did see one. “I realized I had people around the world that followed me and would trust me to advise them about their own skin," Lee explains. “I created my line, SLMD skin care, to bring products to the masses that treated various skin conditions—and worked."
With her skincare line booming, Lee can admit that she never saw this as her destiny. “I never figured myself to be known as 'Dr. Pimple Popper' wherever I go!" she says. “But I think things happen for a reason. I saw an opportunity and seized upon it and it has transformed into the most wonderful, exciting thing. I'm having fun helping people around the world understand and take care of their own skin. I'm elevating the dermatology profession, and ultimately, the people who watch my pimple popping videos? It makes them happy and isn't life about being happy?"
So, what exactly is the allure of pimple popping videos? What draws people to watch and why can't they look away? Lee has some theories but ultimately, she believes it makes people feel both happy and relaxed. “There's a sense of completion and of cleansing. It calms people with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. People who have a tendency to pick at their own skin when they're stressed say that watching my videos really helps them to keep their hands off their own skin," Lee explains. “Many people actually watch my videos if they're having a panic attack, or to help them sleep!" And for others, it provides a little bit of a rush—similar to riding a rollercoaster or watching a scary movie. “I think it's fascinating for many people to see what can come out of the skin of a regular, normal, healthy human."
Lee admits she is not a “popaholic." “I call myself a 'born again popaholic,'" she laughs. “When I have a great case with a good story and an amazing pop, I get excited, but not because I'm going to be witness to it. More because I know the patient will be happy and the viewers will really love this one! People think I want to see big pops and will send me videos of a huge cyst they squeezed at home—but, I get shivers even thinking out it!"
While being a viral superstar wasn't something that Lee expected—a career in dermatology was in her blood.
Her father was an established dermatologist for over 35 years. Lee grew up flipping through her father's dermatology textbooks and going to his office as a child to help file charts while checking out all the skin product samples (makeup, moisturizers, shampoos and more) that he kept in the office. “I'm just lucky I knew how great dermatology was at a younger age than most. I think that people who go into medicine may find out too late in the game that they really like dermatology and decide not to pursue it because it is an extremely competitive and difficult specialty to get accepted into," Lee explains. “I was lucky to know about it early on and tried to position myself to get there at an earlier stage in life."
Lee even married a dermatologist and together they took over her father's practice. Lee was equipped to understand the community so enamored by pimple popping because of her front row seat to the world of dermatology her whole life. “I'm very proud that the popping community, the people on all of my social media are very kind to each other and supportive. It's as if they have found 'their people,'" Lee explains. “I get very few trolls and that's what really keeps me going. If this were negative at all, I'm sure I would have stopped as soon as it started."
"What draws people to watch and why can't they look away? Lee has some theories but ultimately, she believes it makes people feel both happy and relaxed." Photo Courtesy of The Cut
For example, Lee had one patient named Pops with the most intricate blackheads. During the first extraction video that she posted with him, he revealed that he'd just lost his wife, needed to move into a retirement home but couldn't afford it. “He got hundreds of letters from around the world and through that, viewers encouraged me to start a GoFundMe account for him that raised $12k!" Lee says. “I mean, how does that happen from popping pimples? You should have seen how that changed his outlook on life. He learned that all these people who don't know him care about him and that is what makes it all worthwhile." Lee thinks her TLC show is a success because it shows the backstories of her patients. “My show came at a really good time in this world, where a lot of us don't know what's real or what's fake news," she explains.
“There are reality shows based on people being crazy and that's why people watch them - because they're bonkers. Pimple popping is crazy to start with, but I'm acting like it's normal. And, I feel like in this day and age we want crazy things to go back to normal and pimple popping surgeries and extractions are kind of a metaphor for this."
And, Hollywood has certainly caught on to the pimple popping obsession. Lee admits she did not realize how many celebrity popaholics were out there! “Gillian Jacobs from Love talked about her obsession on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Ashley Graham follows me and likes my posts. Ayesha Curry called me when she had a mini pimple emergency, so I drove down to give her a cortisol injection on set," Lee reveals. “Also, Sophie Turner who plays Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones is a follower. Last season, there's a clip that is very pimple popper-esque. I posted a meme that referenced it that Sophie liked, so I know she's been showing my videos on set. I think it's a discreet little wink to pimple popping and me!"
By making a name for herself in dermatology in such an innovative way, Lee admits she was concerned that there might be some backlash from others in the industry. “I worried that other physicians, especially dermatologists, would feel that I'm doing our specialty a disservice, or I'm taking advantage of my patients," Lee explains. “However, the comfort and condition of my patients are my highest priority. My patients and viewers know this. I think that other derms who may think negatively about what I do simply haven't watched the videos. If they did, they would see that I'm actually elevating the specialty. We're so much MORE than pimple poppers. We're surgeons, psychologists, friends and advocates for our patients." Lee finds validation in the outpouring of support she's received from dermatologists in training who use her videos in preparation to interact with their own patients! “It's the biggest compliment to know that I'm a role model for all of these young dermatologists, estheticians, physician assistants, people interested in going into health care."
As Lee prepares to continue to grow her skincare line and pimple popping following, she's grateful for the opportunities that keep coming. “I don't think I would have had the confidence to post like this on social media just out of residency training. I believe this came at the perfect time—all the planets—or pimples—aligned," Lee says. “I was comfortable posting on social media but mature enough to recognize the dangers and the pitfalls. I felt confident in my techniques and treatments as a dermatologist. I felt good about myself as a woman, a wife, a mother—all important before you expose yourself to the world on social media!"
For those who want to take the plunge and turn their passions into a business, Lee says if you really want it, you must be willing to put in the time and dedication. “And I'm not saying this because I'm there yet—but I have the drive and the determination to keep trying and keep working hard to get where I want to be," she says. “You get what you put into something, and a little luck doesn't hurt either. It's okay to be competitive, but not negatively competitive. If you're good, people will come to you—never step on others to get higher!"
WRITTEN BYLauren Brown West-Rosenthal