Nobody's Perfect

First the lawsuits. Then the bankruptcy, the divorce, the TV exposé, the attorney general's investigation. Before Dr. Harry Johnson knew it, his cosmetic-surgery empire was in ruins.

Dr. Harry Johnson was flying down the freeway that autumn morning in 1993--his 59th birthday--headed for his lakeshore hideaway with a half-hour to go before Duluth and a truckload of deck furniture, a few bottles of wine, and two valises stuffed with tax papers, when he caught sight in the rearview of the thin trail of black smoke coming from the back of his Chevy Suburban.

Johnson is a cosmetic surgeon, so he's used to noticing the details other men miss. Take actresses on the big screen: He can practically trace the outline of their implants under their blouses. And TV news anchors: The telltale symmetry in their altered features doesn't fool him. Models hawking exercise gear on late-night infomercials he finds himself watching when he can't sleep? Another man might be swayed by their pitch, but Johnson recognizes in their figures the work of a colleague who sculpted away fat with a liposuction hose. He knows the angles, and he sees what's hidden. That only made the business of his truck more troubling.

The smoke, as Johnson veered off the highway, seemed to him some kind of sign--a distress signal, maybe, or an omen. He got out, ran away from the truck, and then turned back, thinking to retrieve at least the tax papers before the vehicle blew. But the Suburban was history. In its place smoldered a pile of plastic dashboard and metal chassis and glass--dissolving in flames that were meant, Johnson is convinced, to kill him.

For 30 years Harry Johnson has plied his trade, cutting, stitching, and reconfiguring the faces and bodies of the Twin Cities' high society. Along the way, he climbed into the upper crust himself, counting among his Wayzata neighbors real estate tycoon Ralph Burnet and Twins owner Carl Pohlad. In the prime of his career, Johnson was a self-made millionaire 50 times over, with ownership in several downtown office buildings. Jaguar, Mercedes Benz SLC, Porsche...why choose? But the man who stood on the roadside and watched his Chevy melt was under siege, and he added the event to a growing list of discomfiting episodes.

There were the lawsuits: They'd come frequently in the past decade, and though he'd been able to fend them off at first, some had begun to stick. There were the millions he owed in back taxes, and his recent bankruptcy. His ex-wife was still dragging him through the courts and had filed for a restraining order. TV news reporters were sniffing around his office asking pesky questions, preparing a damaging report that would air later that year.

As menacing as these matters were, for Harry Johnson they paled in comparison to his exploding truck. The insurance investigator never could zero in on the cause of the fire that totaled it. The ensuing five years have brought other disturbing incidents as well: several break-ins at his Edina office and a rash of stickers bearing a skull and crossbones with his name printed beneath slapped up around town. To Johnson's mind the chain of distressing events since that autumn morning on the highway adds up to one thing: Somebody is out to get him. At this, the cosmetic surgeon narrows his sharp blue eyes, sinks his chin a little deeper into his wrinkled jowls, lowers his voice, and slips into a bitter reverie. "I don't know if you ever saw the movie Dirty Harry..."

Flashback three years: January 26, 1990. John Paulos, then age 32, is driving through South Minneapolis when a Honda buzzes up on his left side. The driver spots a car parked in his lane and muscles the wheel, swerving to clip Paulos's rear bumper. Paulos keeps an eye on the Honda as it weaves erratically through traffic. A block later, at a stoplight, the driver cuts Paulos off, causing him to bump the guy's back end. The man jumps out of the Honda, stalks toward Paulos's car: "What the fuck you hit me for?" Paulos opens his mouth to answer and, in a freeze-frame instant, a baseball bat smashes his face. Out of the blinding pain, Paulos makes out the silhouette of two, maybe three more men coming at him from the Honda. He floors the pedal and swerves into traffic, blood soaking his shirt.

Until that moment, John Paulos had fancied himself a rising star. Though his job consisted of a part-time position in a parking garage, he hoped the modeling work he was doing for magazines would eventually turn into a career. He'd been gifted with good looks since birth--thick, dark hair, a well-proportioned face with a full lower lip, and an aquiline nose, now mutilated.

To some, the injury might simply have meant a crooked nose for life. Not for an aspiring model like Paulos. A month after the incident, he scheduled an appointment with Harry Johnson. Paulos had in mind a round of surgery to rebuild his nose and restore his good looks. Strictly outpatient--a few weeks of healing and he'd be back in front of the camera again, selling his looks.

Johnson remembers Paulos because he was the last male model he operated on without reservation. "We are very suspicious of male models, especially those that bring their portfolio with them," explains the doctor, adding that men are more prone to fixations when it comes to their looks. In his line of work he's always on guard against clients whose obsessions with their features might warp into obsessions with their surgeon.

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