Michelle Visage spent the better part of 20 years chasing her health.
Come 2019, the singer, radio DJ, actress and media personality, perhaps most well known for her role as a judge on VH1′s RuPaul’s Drag Race, was at the end of her rope.
That February, Visage announced on Instagram that she would be undergoing explant surgery to remove her trademark breast implants. “I know,” she told fans, “they’re a national treasure. But I believe for the past 20 years, these breast implants have been making me sick.”
Visage, who was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease — an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland — in her late 20s, had three breast implant surgeries over the course of her career, dating back to her time as a member of the 1990s pop trio Seduction.
Even before her third set, Visage was beginning to question whether the implants were to blame for her diagnosis, as doctors waved off her concerns. Undeterred, her research brought her to the Breast Implant Illness and Healing Facebook group.
The group, today totaling nearly 150,000 members, is where Visage found Newport Beach-based surgeon Dr. H. Jae Chun. Soon after, she made the decision to explant.
“I don’t want anybody out there thinking that this is an anti-plastic surgery film. It’s pro transparency,” Visage tells Realscreen. “I feel we as women are looked down upon in these situations, especially when it comes to medical care, and we’re told that we’re hysterical or we need some Prozac or, ‘Just go get laid.’ It’s so much more than that because we know something’s going on.
“For me, it’s about disclosure and the fact that we’re lied to and we don’t matter. We’ve been taken advantage of long enough.”
With encouragement from her husband, David Case, Visage began to document her journey. The resulting film, Explant, bows online Sunday (June 13) at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Produced by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, co-founders of RuPaul’s Drag Race producer World of Wonder, the doc is executive produced by Visage and Case. Jeremy Simmons (whose work includes The Last Beekeeper, Transgeneration and the upcoming Discovery+ original Homemade Astronauts) serves as director and producer.
“I’ve worked with Randy and Fenton for decades now, and I’ve done several films with them in the past. They called me and said that Michelle was thinking of having an explant and she would like to document it, and you should talk to her and see if you think that this would be a film you’d be interested in making,” Simmons says.
After speaking with Visage at length about Breast Implant Illness, Simmons decided to dive deeper and conduct his own research.
“What’s really going on here? I thought, let’s do a vérité documentary where we’re following Michelle, and we can see what happens through the course of the operation and if she improves, and how things change through the course of that,” he says.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, Realscreen caught up with Visage and Simmons to discuss the making of Explant.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
Michelle, what made WOW and Jeremy Simmons good partners for you on this project?
Michelle Visage: When World of Wonder started, they started as documentarians… What I love about their take on documentaries is, they see all sides. There’s no hidden agenda. We’re telling a story. I’m not here to shut down the medical field, I’m not here to stop plastic surgery. I love plastic surgery — I just love transparency. We have to be able to advocate for ourselves because nobody’s advocating for us.
World of Wonder could see both sides — meaning, they saw the light, and they saw the dark. We’re talking about boobs, so we had to infuse some comedy in it. Some lightness and levity needed to be in there, it can’t be all doom and gloom.
I love that Jeremy really had no idea about any of it. When I met him the first time, he was so intrigued by it, and he started researching on his own before he even agreed to do the project and couldn’t believe his eyes what was happening out there.
Jeremy, how did you work with Michelle to document this very personal journey for her and bring the film to life?
Jeremy Simmons: Well, first, I just have to say that I’ve always had respect for Michelle in terms of her career, but after working with her, that’s grown exponentially because she is not only brilliant, but she’s 100% in. She doesn’t do anything 99%.
When we started talking about this documentary and what I thought it might require in terms of, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to want to really film those moments, we’re going to want to be filming the surgery, we’re going to want to see you in a way that you probably have never been seen on camera before’ — she never said, ‘No way.’
She was so open to the process, so open to the journey… It’s rare, actually, to have a subject like that, so I was just very grateful to work with her, honestly, and I hope I get to again someday. She’s a real powerhouse.
In addition to Michelle and her story the film draws on interviews and archive and other footage. How did you approach weaving all those elements together to tell the story of Breast Implant Illness?
JS: Well, what I thought was going to be a documentary that we shot over the course of a few months turned into one that took over two and a half years. Part of that is because, once you start asking questions like, why is Breast Implant Illness just coming up now? And, wasn’t this all resolved in the ’90s?… You go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, and the history of breast implants is a weird and strange ride. So, once I started to dive into that, it became clear that in order to fully understand Michelle’s story and the story of Breast Implant Illness, you have to see it in context of the history. It became like, we need to open this up and make this a bigger documentary.
How did you approach securing and conducting interviews with the various subjects that you spoke with, especially the doctors who were disbelieving that this illness exists?
JS: It is a very controversial subject but it’s a controversial subject where most people who have an opinion on it or work in the industry feel like they’re right, and are happy to share. We told people we’re making a documentary, we were diving into the history of breast implants, we wanted to talk about the controversy of Breast Implant Illness. Of course, there were people who said, ‘Absolutely not, don’t want to be a part of it,’ and just hung up on us, but there were just as many people who said, ‘Let’s talk about it. I would love to share my point of view on Breast Implant Illness, or to share my role in the history of it.’ It’s a very sensitive subject, yes, except people who work in the industry have very firm ideas that have guided their career trajectory, and some of those people are willing to talk.
How do you feel about having the film premiere online, and what are your goals for Explant following its premiere atTribeca?
MV: I’m just grateful that the online option exists. Because of the lockdown and everything that we had to go through, everybody has shifted to watching things online… It’s a blessing for me that we’re able to reach more eyeballs with it premiering online.
JS: I think that the most important thing is that this film is seen. It just needs to get out there. It’s an important film for everyone — men and women.
It’s very hard to navigate the world of breast implants and having the transparency of the information out there for people is really important.
Michelle, is documentary an area you’d be looking to continue to work in in the future?
MV: I love it so much. There’s so many things that I see that I want to do documentaries on that aren’t really talked about. It’s sadly a lot of how the system lets us down, especially as women. I think menopause is one of them, I think mental health of kids that are over 18, this system really lets them down — there’s so many things that I can see that need a big fat loud voice behind them.