CL Profile: Dr. Charles McLaughlin, plastic surgeon and connoisseur

But he’s at first uneasy with the whole profile thing. Seated in his den-like office in a medical tower near St. Joseph’s Hospital, he hardly fits the TV stereotype of plastic surgeon as slick skin salesman. In a plaid flannel shirt, with white hair, blue eyes and something of a gut, he comes off more as a congenial English prof. And though he’s got a healthy ego, he’s not crazy about overt self-promotion.

“I’m from a different era of American medicine,” he says. “I’m not comfortable with plastic surgeons on billboards and medi-spas selling Botox by the unit.” The first surgeon on FL’s West Coast to perform liposuctions, he’s done more than 10,000 breast augmentations in this 32-year career, beautified billionaires and Playboy centerfolds, But he’s also the go-to guy for other doctors’ families, says Gina; she knows, because her own father, an OB/GYN, recommended she go to McLaughlin.

But the current economy is none too hospitable to plastic surgery. Hence the need for hype and billboards (or CL profiles).

The son of a high school principal, McLaughlin decided to be a doctor when he was a child, after a dose of penicillin saved him from a near-fatal bout of strep. What attracted him to plastic surgery in particular was his abiding love of beauty.

“I was facinated with the concept that normal people could be made beautiful and that deformed people could be made normal.”

His training at the University of Miami with Ralph Millard, a renowned plastic surgery pioneer, reinforced his aesthetic bent. When he interviewed for the job, Millard asked, “Are you an artist?” then made him draw a face — and later paid for him to take art classes.

McLaughlin is none too keen on some of the excesses he sees in current practice. What he strives to create, he says, is “the ideal normal. If a woman walks into an expensive restaurant with breasts the size of basketballs, someone’s missed the point.”

For his own peace of mind, he retreats to his farm, Phoenix Rising — though he concedes that the horse-racing industry is suffering just as much in the current economic climate as the medical profession. (He estimates he works 35 hours a week on the farm and 35 hours on his surgical practice.) And it is a business; the formal dining room table in McLaughlin’s handsome, 25-year-old brick farmhouse is covered with paperwork — genetic charts showing the hypothetical offspring of various mares and stallions.


He traces his love of horses to his maternal grandfather, who used to say, “A handsome horse and a pretty woman are the two most beautiful things God ever put on this earth.”

Charlie responds to the beauty of both. He’s obviously good with horses, even though on two recent occasions he’s suffered kicks to the ribs and the leg. “Fifteen years with no injuries, and within 30 days I’m nailed twice.”

Inside the house, he takes me on a tour of his cherished collections of 18th and 19th-century paintings and antique guns.

He buys the paintings at auctions, choosing artwork that fits into one of two categories: “landscapes of a place I want to be, and portraits of people I’d like to know.” In his wood-paneled “contemplative room,” he lovingly shows why guns can be works of art, too — like a Belgian pinfire woman’s gun from the mid-1800s engraved with an image of the owner’s pet bulldog.

“They represent a simpler world,” he says of his firearms. “Rather than attorneys, you had guns.” (He takes pains to add, “I don’t have a single gun that could be fired.”)

Married and divorced three times, he has three grown children, one of whom — his youngest son, a student at the University of Florida School of Building Construction — is helping McLaughlin restore a 1991 Alfa Romeo.

“I can’t not work,” says the doctor, who has been known to drink 15 cups of coffee a day. Yet for all that caffeination, he’s remarkably low-key when he’s in the country. On the farm, away from the pressures that come with his profession, he can take time to listen to the rustle — or, as he puts it much more evocatively, the “susurrus” — of the bamboo trees.

[image-2]The farm also seems to nurture his sense of humor. Pointing to Sweet Pea, his tiny Silkie terrier, he says, “She came to us as a Basset hound.”

Her transformation? “I accomplished that surgically.”

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I agreed to interview Tampa plastic surgeon Dr. Charles McLaughlin. I knew that his family friend Gina Flynn-Carmack had been enthusiastic enough about him to place the winning bid for “Buy the news” in the Creative Loafing Holiday Auction, ensuring that CL would do a profile of the good doctor.

But plastic surgery? What did I know of the profession beyond Nip/Tuck and Cher? What would we talk about?

Well, as it turns out, lots. Because Dr. McLaughlin, aka Charlie, is a raconteur of the first order. From his memories of why he got into medicine, to his love of horses (which he breeds on a 40-acre farm in Wesley Chapel), to the art and antiques he collects, the 63-year-old North Carolina native has a story for everything.

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