July 1, 2008
Photography by Jackson Hill
Wearing a starched white lab coat, Dr. Patricia Farris smiles confidently into the camera and out to the millions of viewers who are likely watching the infomercial. She’s helping promote Natural Advantage by Jane Seymour, a line of skincare products that sounds too good to be true.
More than 10,000 of Farris’ own patients have tried the products and have seen remarkable results in the appearance of their skin, says the announcer in a voiceover.
Wrinkles smooth into skin that feels like a baby’s, brown spots fade and those annoying “lipstick lines” around the mouth seem to disappear. And for the next 14 minutes these products are available at a special price. …
In the half-hour of paid programming, Farris (G ’78, M ’82) chats with the actress Jane Seymour, a former Bond girl who is perhaps best known for her role in television’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Seymour tells Farris says she has been using the products for about a year and marvels at the results.
Animated graphics dance on the TV screen as Farris explains the science behind the products, which contain retinol and alpha-hydroxys in a patented “microsphere” formulation.
All in all it is 30 solid minutes of Hollywood moments, so efficiently scripted and produced that you might think that both women are actresses and that the attractive Farris is merely playing the role of an expert.
And you would be very, very wrong.
Off the Hollywood set, Farris isn’t the glamorous best friend of a famous star. She isn’t high-maintenance and she does not employ a publicist. Farris has only met Seymour once, while filming the infomercial segment. Candid and funny, Farris flirts with celebrity at the fanciful crossroad where television and the cosmetic industries intersect, but she remains first and foremost a doctor, a scientist and, most importantly, herself.
Farris’s interest in cosmeceuticals is more than skin-deep. As a graduate student at Tulane, Patti Kokoshis studied immunology and worked in labs alongside researchers such as Nick DiLuzio, the chair of the Tulane’s physiology department who was conducting groundbreaking research into glucan, a yeast derivative with remarkable abilities to suppress tumor development and resist infections.
After receiving a master’s degree in physiology, she married Dr. Philip Farris (M ’79), who was a senior in medical school. During her third year of medical school, Farris had the first of her three daughters. Despite the demands of motherhood, Farris excelled in medical school and residency training, serving as chief resident in dermatology.
When it came time to begin practicing as a dermatologist, Farris approached Dr. Nia Terezakis (M ’66), a dermatologist in private practice in New Orleans. Terezakis was impressed by Farris and hired her as the junior doctor in her practice.
First-generation daughters of Greek ancestry, the two shared common interests as well as a philosophy and approach to treating patients. Terezakis took delight in mentoring the young doctor and recalls that Farris was quick to admit she had a lot to learn about running a busy private practice in general dermatology.
For her part, Farris proved to be open and direct with her patients. If she saw a patient who came into the office with a mysterious skin lesion, Farris would admit forthrightly, “I don’t know what it is, but I know how to find out.” If she sensed a patient was abusing recreational drugs she wouldn’t ask him whether or not it was true, but rather, to name which ones he was using—a skill she learned while moonlighting at a substance-abuse clinic while in training.
As copractitioners, the two doctors haunted department store cosmetic counters to become familiar with products. They would buy skincare products and try them on their own faces. Terezakis and Farris were able to incorporate these firsthand experiences with the information about products gained from patients. They developed strong opinions about which products had truly beneficial effects and which were harmful to people with sensitive skin or prone to acne.
Soon Terezakis and Farris were in demand as lecturers at dermatology meetings, and a few companies approached them to be consultants on new-product development.
As women in a field dominated by men, the two dermatologists were often asked about cosmetic products. At that time there were no books or other informational resources regarding medical issues relating to cosmetics.
“We didn’t like the products our male colleagues suggested,” says Terezakis. “Products containing retinoids began to be developed in the ’70s. They are the only ingredients out there that are proven to work. Much of the research about these compounds are done by investigators who have no financial ties to the cosmetic industry.”
Retinoids are chemically related to vitamin A and can be used to regulate cell growth. These vitamin-A derivatives evoke changes in the user’s DNA that substantively changes the way skin behaves, Terezakis explains. They are used mostly for the treatment of acne and skin cancer. The cosmetic benefit is a serendipitous side effect.
When skincare products contain pharmaceutically active ingredients such as the retinol found in the Natural Advantage line, they are called “cosmeceuticals.” Ironically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recognize cosmeceuticals as a distinct category of skincare products.
The American Academy of Dermatology supports members dispensing products as long as it is done in the best interest of the patient. According to Farris, it is estimated that 60 percent of her colleagues dispense cosmeceuticals to their patients. “Dermatologists should sell effective, reasonably priced products, and if we can’t make a product recommendation better than the girl behind the cosmetic counter, who can?” she asks.
Today, in her own thriving clinical practice, Farris dispenses Natural Advantage—as well as other lines of cosmeceuticals—from her office. She believes in their efficacy and considers it a value-added service for her patients, she says. Farris has lectured extensively on cosmeceuticals and also has published articles in professional journals that support the responsible recommendation of these products by physicians.
Farris has conducted clinical testing of skin products since the 1980s, including two FDA trials for new drugs, most recently for Reloxin, which is expected to come onto the market soon as a competitor to Botox, a toxin that is FDA-approved for the temporary treatment of frown lines and brow furrows.
Farris says she would never endorse a product she didn’t believe in.
“Since I know a lot about active ingredients and I’m a practicing dermatologist, many of the companies I consult with have me look at products they’re taking to market,” she says. Her involvement with Natural Advantage began when she conducted clinical testing on the line at the request of the developers.
“The before-and-after pictures I took were quite impressive, and my patients loved the product,” she says. By the time the first commercial was filmed she had 700 of her own patients on the cosmeceutical system.
“Clinical testing is one way we can serve as a resource and advocate for our patients,” says Farris, whose 54-year-old face barely reveals any sign of middle age.
Farris sits in the private office of her practice located in a retail shopping center in Old Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. While being interviewed, Farris—an inveterate multitasker— gets a manicure from a manicurist who makes office and house calls. Farris’ nails are neat, short and buffed.
Farris’ clinical practice is bustling and her demeanor is calm and caring as she moves efficiently from patient room to patient room. About a third of her patients initially come in for cosmetic treatment.
Most have serious medical concerns. In one room, Farris deftly wields a pressurized can of Nitrospray to freeze rough patches of skin on patient after patient. The pesky pre-cancerous lesions are the No. 1 reason men and women come into her office, and Farris will use the liquid nitrogen spray to perform cryosurgery throughout the day.
But there are other reasons patients seek out Farris’ help. A 48-year-old woman sits on the examination table. When Farris enters the room, she exclaims nervously, “I’m dying! I’m losing my hair!”
“You’re not going to go bald in spots, like your dad did,” Farris reassures the anxious woman. She asks if the patient is being treated by another doctor for thyroid disease. When the patient says yes, Farris requests a copy of her recent blood work and then zaps with Nitrospray some “bo-hicky things” that the patient points out on her hands and back. The woman tells Farris that she has been using Natural Advantage for over a year and loves the products. Farris smiles knowingly and writes out a prescription for Rogaine.
Skincare products are serious business. In the United States, there are more than 100 privately held producers and distributors of cosmeceutical products. One marketing research firm estimates that cosmeceuticals grossed more than $5 billion in 2006. According to marketing forecasters, consumer demand for cosmeceutical products is expected to grow at more than 8 percent yearly.
Farris has been interviewed hundreds of times for magazine articles as well as radio and television shows. She says she considers each interview an opportunity to educate consumers about medical conditions and to outline effective treatment. She’s asked questions on a range of dermatological topics, but most commonly about aging skin. She has been a consultant to a dozen cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, including L’Oreal and Neutrogena, and has helped develop and market products from skin lighteners to sunscreens.
“I’ve always felt comfortable on camera and I’m a pretty good public speaker,” says Farris. She is in demand to conduct media training with other physicians at national professional meetings.
Yet when Guthy-Renker, a leading directresponse marketer known primarily for their infomercials, asked Farris to promote Natural Advantage in a television spot, Farris balked. She had worked long and hard to develop her reputation, serving on the board of the American Cancer Society and on the American Academy of Dermatology’s Presidential Commission on Melanoma and Skin Cancer, chairing the academy’s Youth Education Committee and cochairing its communications council.
As a nationally recognized skincare expert, she was concerned about the marketing company’s approach and its credibility. What would her colleagues think and say? Farris proceeded cautiously.
Doing her homework, Farris learned that Guthy-Renker is a reputable company.
“Infomercials have gotten a bad rap,” Farris says. “But our testimonials are real, not paid. There’s no doctoring of the photos. I was impressed with the company’s carefulness.”
When Farris finally decided to take the plunge into the world of infomercials in 1998, she worked with Guthy-Renker to develop a brochure that would be inserted into each kit so that consumers would receive information about proper skin care and how to use the products. When she filmed her first Guthy- Renker infomercial, the celebrity spokesperson for Natural Advantage was Kathie Lee Gifford of “Regis and Kathie Lee” fame. Just before filming the third commercial, Guthy- Renker approached Jane Seymour to become the new celebrity spokesperson for the line.
Farris has become something of a celebrity herself. In addition to the TV infomercial that airs over and over, her face and endorsement are on the Natural Advantage website. She appears from time to time on the QVC shopping network. When she’s in an airport, strangers sometimes stop Farris to say, “I’ve seen you on TV!”
As for her future plans, Farris mulls over the possibility of developing her own skincare line. She’d also love to do a call-in radio show and will continue to look for opportunities to educate consumers.
Farris also contemplates that she’s now at the same age that Terezakis was when the senior physician invited Farris into her practice.
“It’s time for me to start interviewing and going through that process,” she says. “I think mentoring is one of the most valuable things you can do as a physician. I’ve always loved Nia for mentoring me, and I would love in turn to mentor somebody else.”
Farris says that any success that she has had is a tribute to Terezakis.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I’m so happy. I love every aspect of it.”
Fran Simon is Class Notes editor for Tulanian and managing editor in the Office of University Publications.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 email@example.com