In 2015, the Los Angeles-based board-certified dermatologist posted a blackhead extraction video on YouTube and was immediately taken aback by how many people watched it.
Four years and over 3 million Instagram followers later, Lee is at the helm of a dermatological empire, which includes her own reality show on TLC, a new book, a skin care line that just launched a range of new products, and a massive following that loves her as much for her pleasant bedside manner as they do for her popping prowess.
Lee’s rise to viral skin-repairing-sensation status and fame happened fast ― and shows no signs of slowing down. She recently dropped by HuffPost to chat about the impact fame has had on her professionally and personally, why she thinks people are so obsessed with her videos, and the things that gross her out way more than a cyst ever could.
You have over 3 million Instagram followers and 5 million YouTube subscribers who can’t wait to see your next pop. Did you ever imagine that this was going to be your life?
No. Pimple popping? No. Absolutely not. But I’m proud of the fact that it has become this. I came upon it by accident but I grew it, I saw the opportunity and said, “What can we do?” I just never imagined it would be something so crazy like this.
What is it about pimple popping that you think fascinates and intrigues people so much?
It really pulls on emotions for people. It’s so interesting because something that is based on something gross and shocking actually makes people happy. It relaxes them, it decreases their anxiety, it’s thrilling. And when people like it, they don’t just like it ― they’re obsessed.
Myself included. There’s something so satisfying about it.
That’s really how it grew ― it created this reaction. If it created distaste or people really loved it, either way they would tag their friends and that’s how it grew so quickly.
Has doing your job changed since becoming a viral sensation and launching your reality show?
Dermatology is very competitive to get into because of the lifestyle. You definitely deal with complicated issues, but you don’t often deal with life-threatening ones, nor do you get calls in the middle of the night. It’s a lower-stress kind of specialty medicine, but this has definitely upped it a notch.
Before, I maybe removed 10 cysts in a year. Now it’s like 10 within a few days. It’s changed the things that I do, and the show has changed it to a different level too where we’re moving much bigger things on a regular basis. It’s challenged me, but I feel a sense of accomplishment and it’s made me proud to represent dermatology.
You don’t realize how much is involved with the show: the whole [office] kind of was torn apart and changed. We had to change the color of the rooms. [The crew is] really careful and considerate, but there are just a lot more people walking around now. I have to make sure my patients aren’t upset or affected.
Was there ever a time you thought about ending the show because of that?
The first season I was not having a good time. It was a really big deal for me to do it in the first place because I knew it meant giving up control. On YouTube and social media, I get to decide what’s on there, so to give the control to someone else was really hard. It was also extremely stressful for me because the most important thing to me is the patients and how they do and that I’m giving them the best care possible. I know ultimately the show cares about entertainment. They care about me and the patient of course, but not the same way I do. So it was really stressful. It was an adjustment, but I’m really proud of the show. I’m learning to enjoy it more now.
How has fame affected your personal life?
It’s awkward for me and it’s hard to get my mind around. I’m so aware that I don’t want to come off as not being the person I am on my show because I feel I am that person, but I’m also shy! I don’t feel like I deserve this adulation or reaction from people when they come up to me and say such nice things. I’m not the kind of person who says, “Oh, thank you, yes, that’s me,” and so I feel like maybe I come off as cold or not friendly. I’m trying to work on it. I say “thank you” and take a photo. I try to do that, but it’s uncomfortable.
Even when that person, say, asks for an impromptu skin check on the street?
People did that before the show too. It’s just part of what you do. Usually if I’m with someone and they ask, I answer them ― what are you going to say, no? But sometimes it’s awkward if they want to show me a body part that’s under their clothes, and you know, technically you shouldn’t make a diagnosis like that [on the street]. It’s a liability.
I’ve found that no matter what your profession is, everyone wants something.
Plumbers, electricians, lawyers ― everyone wants advice. My husband and I were on a cruise early on in our marriage and were set up with another couple for dinner. On the way to the first dinner my husband said, “You know what? Let’s not tell them we’re dermatologists.” I was like, “We can’t do that! We’re sitting next to them ― we’re gonna talk to them every day.” Then I said, “Maybe we should just say we’re in the XXX industry, something that will make them be quiet,” but then I thought if they were in that industry we would get caught in a lie [laughs].
We finally made a deal that I would take one for the team and say I’m the dermatologist and my husband is the office manager. Now that’s what we say every time we go somewhere.
You (and your millions of fans) say that watching popping videos actually relieves anxiety and relaxes people. But what do you watch to relax?
Mukbangs! I’m just amazed at how much food they’re eating and that they’re making money off this on camera, just talking about their lives and eating a huge vat of noodles. It’s crazy.
OK ― last thing I have to ask. Are you ever grossed out by anything you see at work?
No, but the funny thing is that it doesn’t mean things don’t gross me out. I’m plenty grossed out by other bodily functions ― diarrhea, vomit. I’m more grossed out by like, feet, than cysts and things.