How Exactly Do You Build a Fortune Popping Pimples on YouTube?
Dr. Sandra Lee — AKA Dr. Pimple Popper — followed in her father's footsteps and became a dermatologist. Then she found herself embracing a celebrity born of weird human internet impulses.
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Wealthsimple is an investing service that uses technology to put your money to work like the world’s smartest investors. In “Money Diaries,” we feature interesting people telling their financial life stories in their own words.
One thing I’ve learned from my older patients is how long life is, and what you think it will be at 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 is never what it ends up as. You never know where it's going to take you.
Like “Dr. Pimple Popper,” what the heck? I don't even like popping pimples! I'm not — as I call my followers who LOVE pimple popping — a popaholic. I'm rarely saying, "Oh I want to pop this because it's going to make me feel amazing." I don't get that feeling like my audience does.
As children, my parents were both really poor. My dad lived in Singapore and my mom lived in Malaysia. They were both one of 10 kids— each side of the family. They were malnourished at certain times in their lives. My dad didn't have any toys— he said he played with spiders. He loved books.My mom lived in a one-room house — 10 kids — and an outhouse in the back. She said they used to sneak and try to use the neighbour's bathroom — until he came out and chased them off with a shotgun!
My dad, who is a retired doctor, came to the United States in 1969. I was born in 1970. He said that when he came to New York, he had never seen snow before and all he owned was a "Members Only" jacket. It was his only coat. He had to wrap his feet in plastic when he walked. So my parents knew what it meant to have nothing. I don't think they told me those things when I was growing up, or maybe they did and I didn't listen. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I understood they had that hardship.
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Money wasn't really discussed in our house when I was growing up. I guess I would say that I knew that we were upper-middle class. I knew we were stable. Like, there was a money drawer. I could go and get money if I wanted to. If I needed something I could ask for it, and I'd often get it. I was fairly spoiled. I'm almost embarrassed to say — I wasn't a ridiculous socialite or anything — but I never really needed anything, you know?
On the other hand, my dad was very modest. He would get mad at me when I was in high school because I’d wear Ralph Lauren. He’d be like, "Why are you wearing things that are just advertising people's logo? You're just showing off that you have it.” So, I think that there was always this feeling that we had money, we were stable, we were comfortable, but we weren't really supposed to show it off.
I didn't work until I was at college at UCLA and even then, I was mostly working because I wanted something on my resume when I applied to medical school. I was a medical assistant to an allergist in downtown LA – I had to collect people's snot and count the white blood cells in the microscope. I'd have people hawk a loogie into napkins and smear it on a slide and then count how many cells were there. I had to give people injections in the arm with their allergy medicine — I don't know how they let me do that, I was a student. Nowadays, at least, that's illegal.
In college, I had help from my parents. I had a condo in Westwood. I had a car. God, I sound so pompous, but it was just my life. But I worked hard. I think if you combine laziness with things being handed to you, that's when you get into big trouble. I'm motivated. I want to do things. I'm competitive. I want to accomplish things.
I'm still not really good with money. I'm not breaking the bank, but that’s mostly because of my husband, Jeff. He really holds things down. If I was married to somebody like me, I’d probably be broke. It’s funny — we have two kids and one of them is so like my husband in terms of money. Like, "Oh, don't spend it on that. We don't need that. That's too expensive." And the other one is like me. "Oh yeah, get it. Whatever, just get it. I want it. I want it." But I also feel like the fact that I make money and generate income myself makes it so I can spend when I want. A lot of my girlfriends, they don't have jobs and their husbands make a lot of money and they have to listen to them. They don't get to control any of their finances.
When my husband — he ’s a dermatologist, too — and I decided to start our practice, I wanted to be flashy and establish ourselves in Beverly Hills or the O.C. And Jeff was the smart, reliable, stable one, which is to say not as fun. He was like, "We're going to take over your dad's practice." And you know, my dad has been living in Upland, which is this far-flung suburb of LA. It wasn’t flashy, but he’s had a stable, well-loved practice for a long time. Because we took over when he retired, we essentially had a five-year start on other people. We owned our own practice from the get-go.
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I think what's so amazing about my job is that I’m kind of stuck talking to a patient for a half an hour to 45 minutes. And it’s not somebody that I’d normally talk to. You know, like you're standing in line at the grocery store — imagine that the person in front of you turns around and you have to speak with them for half an hour and make small talk.
In 2014, I started an Instagram page, Dr. Sandra Lee. And I just thought I'd post some stuff that I do at work because I think it's very interesting. Dermatology is a visual field, you have to see pictures of it to understand it. Early on, I happened to post a blackhead extraction video, and I don't normally do those. Most dermatologists don’t because they're not billed. So I just happened to post it and it got a noticeable increase in attention. I thought, "This is very weird, let me do it again, see if it happens again." It happened again. I was like, “What's going on here? Why are people tagging their friends, and saying, ‘Oh that was really good’?” I didn't understand that.
That’s when all the planets aligned. What happened was my patient Mr. Wilson came in to have his nose treated and I thought, "Let's videotape him while I do these extractions." And he had amazing blackheads. It's like getting a BMW first — I got the most amazing blackhead nose like out of the gate. You can't come back from that!
I uploaded the Mr. Wilson video to my YouTube channel, which was all just TV appearances at that point. And then somebody happened to mention in the comments that I should visit the subReddit, /popping. I had heard of Reddit, but I didn't know exactly what it was. There I saw that there was like this whole community of people sharing cyst and zit popping videos with each other. And I thought, "This is weird, but I could be their queen." I was like, “I could do this, I see these all the time at work; I could post my videos here.” So I decided to do that. I then noticed that everybody had a screen name and decided, "Well, I'm gonna just call myself Dr. Pimple Popper."
Finding patients who are willing to be filmed is never a problem. I just ask, "Do you mind if I videotape this? It’s anonymous, it's up close. No one's gonna see that it's you that I'm working on and I'll do it for free." If a patient has a milia that they can't get out themselves and it's driving them crazy, I say, "I'll do it for you, but do you mind if I videotape it?” The answer is always that they don’t mind.
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Before YouTube demonetized, posting my videos was quite lucrative. At one point, my channel was bringing in six figures a month, and that was ridiculous. I was like, "This is what I'm doing from now on. I'm just gonna pop people and this is my life, and I'm okay with that.” But that ended. Still, I was lucky enough to have already built an audience. If I started posting to YouTube now, I don't think I could build it up anything close to what I have.
After that, all this other stuff blew up and I got my own show, Dr. Pimple Popper. I'm not getting paid anything for the show, really. But I'm so fortunate to have this — that this has been offered to me — and I'm so fortunate that they're making me look good. I feel like they make me look better than I am. I don't really see that part of my life. I don't see how people respond to me removing some growth on them. I don't really see how it affects their life. So it's cool for me to see that, and it makes me realize that what I'm doing is a good thing.
My ultimate goal is to expand my skincare line, SLMD, and to make something that is useful for a lot of people that don't have access to doctors. I’ve realized from comments on my videos that there are so many people out there who can't see dermatologists — who don't know what products to use and are learning about their own skin from my videos. So we're entertaining people, but educating them, too. And why can't I easily educate them about their acne? And then be able to tell them "Okay, because you have this kind of acne and can't see a dermatologist, you should know that these are the types of things that work for you and why, and this is why you need to get this kind of product."
At this point in my life, I'm killing myself working so hard. And sometimes I think, "You know, this isn’t really what it's all about. It's about family and friends and spending time with them and enjoying your life." Why am I working so hard? I already enjoy a lot of nice things — am I looking for like, a helicopter to take me everywhere? If that were to ever happen, would that be my answer? I don't know. I think that once I get something, I'm already moving onto the next thing. I’m persistent. I don’t slow down. I was posting a video on YouTube every single day for a good amount of time. The only reason I slowed down is the TLC show, which I love doing. It's just very stressful.
I’m a really good doctor and I love projects like my YouTube channel. I’m someone who loves to make things; I used to design and make my own clothes, and do other silly craft things. Creating this little video, posting these videos that I made, and putting them online — it's like that. The people commenting on my social media are all so nice. It’s like they found each other through popping videos, an interest that they didn’t know other people shared and now they're like, "Oh my gosh these are my people," They comment on each other’s lives: “You're getting married. Congratulations, you're amazing!" and "You just graduated, you're doing so well. Keep it up!" They make me feel good about myself and get me fired up to do it again.
As told to Madeleine Davies exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.
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