Insta-Famous Plastic Surgeon Accused of ‘Chop Shop’ Horrors

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/YouTube/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/YouTube/Getty

Judy had known Dr. Arian Mowlavi for years, but at her appointment in November 2020, she sensed something was off. The 60-year-old preschool teacher had visited the Instagram-famous plastic surgeon’s Laguna Beach office multiple times over the last five years and was returning that fall for a small, discreet liposuction procedure around her bra line. But this time, she says, the doctor pressured her to give him free rein, cajoling her into letting him remove skin as well as fat.

Days later, when she pulled the foam rubber dressing off of her incision, she knew she’d made the wrong call.

“It smelled like you forgot a gym bag in the car for a while, with a wet towel in it,” she said.

After more than a week of excruciating pain, Judy collapsed in her home and was rushed to the emergency room, her vital signs crashing from multi-system organ failure in her kidneys, liver, lungs, and heart. At one point, she said, doctors called her family together to say their goodbyes. She remained in a medical coma for more than two weeks. Even after waking, she had to stay in the hospital for two months as doctors removed necrotic tissue from her back.

“My injuries look like I am a shark bite victim,” she said.

Three years later, Judy—who asked to use a pseudonym for privacy and fear of retaliation—is still grappling with the harrowing ramifications of Mowlavi’s surgery, including heart failure. But what’s worse, she says, is that other patients have met the same fate.

“He didn’t even slow down after my surgery,” Judy said. “He just kept going, and more people got hurt. It’s just callous disregard.”

Mowlavi, a 52-year-old board-certified plastic surgeon, is a University of California, Berkeley, graduate with more than 500 published articles, 81,000 Instagram followers, and more than 10,000 surgeries to his name. He is also the focus of a growing number of gruesome legal complaints.

A December 2021 class action lawsuit by more than 30 former patients alleges that Mowlavi groped them in the exam room, made lewd comments about their bodies, permanently altered their bodies without their consent, and gave some of them life-threatening infections. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office filed a lengthy civil case against him this summer, seeking millions in damages. In one case, according to court filings, a patient died shortly after being released from his care.

Mowlavi’s license to practice was suspended for three months by the California State Medical Board over the patient’s death in 2022, and he remains on probation. He is also in the process of filing for bankruptcy. But Mowlavi is still actively courting new patients and is not required to disclose his probationary status or mounting legal challenges to potential new clients—to the outrage of several of his alleged victims.

Mowlavi’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment for this story, which is based on hundreds of pages of court documents and interviews with four former patients and two former employees. In a declaration attached to a defamation lawsuit against a former patient, Mowlavi said he had never been found liable for medical malpractice and that a patient had never died on his operating table.

“I’m disgusted and sad that this monster is still out there and still butchering people,” said Millie Martini, a patient of Mowlavi who has filed her own lawsuit. “I’m mad that the state allows him to continue to destroy lives physically, mentally, and financially.”

She added: “Arian Mowlavi, just turn yourself in and face your victims."

A triptych of Charlene Johnson, Milli Martini, and Harmony Williams

Charlene Johnson, Milli Martini, and Harmony Williams

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

Growing up in moneyed Orange County, Mowlavi was an ambitious student who graduated at the top of his already competitive high school class. He delivered the commencement address for his class at UC Berkeley, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and obtained his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego. At age 18, he told an Orange County Register reporter he’d wanted to be a doctor since the first time he saw an ambulance as a child.

“I wanted to know how they felt,” he said at the time. “Just think: they know they’re about to save someone’s life. That’s unbelievable.”

As Mowlavi’s career progressed, his personal brand blossomed. By the time he opened his plastic surgery practice in Laguna Beach, Mowlavi had branded himself “Dr. Laguna,” touting himself as a “sculptor” of the human form. His book, High Definition Liposuction, describes him as “one of the top body sculptors around the world,” and his outcomes as “beautiful,” “majestic,” and “real masterpieces.”

In surgery videos on social media, Mowlavi describes how the naked patient on his operating table wanted more “pop” or “magic.” His specialty was VASER liposuction and Brazilian butt lifts, and he developed a personal scale for classifying patients’ backsides and the derrieres he wanted to achieve. In one video, he remarks on a patient’s ​“deformed belly button” and declares her rear end “a 3 or 4.”

Harmony Williams, who worked as a surgical coordinator for Mowlavi in 2018, described her former boss as “larger than life”—a salesman obsessed with boosting his image and making as much money as possible. She said Mowlavi acted almost as if he were on a reality show, swinging between exaggerated motivational talks and violent anger and making loud, crude remarks about his staff and patients. More than one former patient described Mowlavi as acting “like a bad used-car salesman.”

“At first, I thought maybe this was how plastic surgery was,” Williams told The Daily Beast. “But it didn’t take me very long to figure out, no, this doesn’t feel right. This isn’t right. This is not normal.”

“I actually nicknamed it the chop shop, because I was trying to deal with working there,” she added. “I was like, ‘I can’t stay in this chop shop. I have to go.’”

The problems at Mowlavi’s practice started in the exam room, where he allegedly forced patients to strip naked, grabbed their bodies, and made unsolicited comments about their appearances, according to the class-action suit and the DA’s complaint.

One 16-year-old patient, identified in the amended class action as M.P., said Mowlavi boasted he would make her look “so hot” and that she would “look like a model” as he pinched and shook parts of her naked body. Another patient, identified as J.H., said that while Mowlavi was marking her naked body, he told her, “you should have seen the whale I did surgery on yesterday.” She said that when she chastised the doctor for his comment, he laughed and said, “What? She was a [sic] disgusting and she was a whale.”

The women allege Mowlavi would use these consultations to upsell them on procedures, pointing out their flaws and evangelizing his quick fixes. According to Williams, the staff often looked up patients’ home values on Redfin before appointments to determine how much they could spend.

One woman, B.C., said she went to Mowlavi for liposuction on her arms, but that he made her stand fully naked in front of a mirror, “grabbed and pulled” at her body, and told her her flanks were the real problem. Another woman who went to Mowlavi for a breast lift and a mini tummy tuck said that Mowlavi asked her unsolicited questions about her labia, prodding, “Doesn’t that bother you? We are just going to cut the lips and stitch it up.”

Chalene Johnson, a former fitness influencer and former patient of Mowlavi who is part of the class action, told The Daily Beast that the doctor groped her repeatedly during a consultation, grabbing and lifting her breasts and her lower stomach just above her vagina to demonstrate the promised results of the surgery. “He wrapped his right hand around the front of me and grabbed [the inside of my underwear],” she recalled. “He yanked down and said, ‘This is what I want to do to you; you would look so hot, so snatched.’”

Before surgery, Johnson said, Mowlavi asked her to “get naked for me” in front of two unidentified men who accompanied him into the prep room. She wanted to leave on her disposable underwear, but said he became impatient and accused her of “being difficult.” In the operating room, she said, more unidentified men made comments about the number 11 tattoo on her forearm, joking about a nightclub in Miami called E11even that is part strip club and laughing about the “naked women all around.”

“I just kind of went numb. I felt like I was having an out of body experience, and like, I wasn’t even there,” Johnson said. “I wanted to run.”

Multiple women in the class action also allege harassment in the operating room, where they say Mowlavi and his associates would discuss their sex lives while prepping them for surgery.

In a declaration attached to one of the lawsuits, a nurse said she witnessed Mowlavi comment on a patient’s large lips while she was under anesthesia, saying he would “do some crazy things to those lips.” Another nurse said she saw Mowlavi comment on how “hot” a patient’s butt was before he slapped it twice, according to the class action. A patient identified in the class action as G.C. said that Mowlavi conversed with another man while marking her up for surgery, saying things like “I think these women look so hot,” and, “Here’s someone that was a 4/5, we’re gonna make her look like an eight.”

During post-surgery visits, the women said, Mowlavi would unexpectedly show off their naked bodies to potential clients or other visitors. A client identified as C.C. in the class action said the doctor appeared in the room with an unknown man during her post-operative massage and spun her around “like a trophy” to showcase her naked body. Polly Valencia, a masseuse on staff, testified in a declaration attached to Martini’s lawsuit that Mowlavi would bring other patients or “unknown third parties” into the room while she was performing a massage to “show off” their results without consent.

“His care for the patients was just so fake—the way he would talk about them behind their backs,” Valencia told The Daily Beast. “I honestly thought at the end that he just had no humility or humanity left in him.”

A photo illustration of Dr. Arian Mowlavi
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Handout

The complaints against the plastic surgeon also contain more serious allegations of jeopardizing patient health, including one instance in which the “Mowlavi magic” proved fatal.

At 1 a.m. on Aug. 30, 2018, one of Mowlavi’s patients arrived at a local hospital in an ambulance, unresponsive, after complaining of shortness of breath and collapsing. Hours earlier, according to the California Medical Board, she’d been on the surgeon’s operating table, undergoing a tummy tuck and liposuction in which he allowed two unlicensed surgical techs to remove the fat from her abdomen, back, and thighs. A note Mowlavi wrote after visiting the patient in the hospital listed her prognosis as “devastating” and diagnosed her with an anoxic brain injury. The patient died three days later, the result of hemorrhaging from the surgical intervention, according to the medical board.

Mowlavi settled with the patient’s family in August 2020 for $1 million. The medical board concluded its investigation two years later, accusing Mowlavi of gross negligence, dishonesty or corruption, failure to report the event on time, and general unprofessional conduct. It placed the doctor on a 90-day suspension and 10 years probation, requiring him to complete educational courses and obtain a practice monitor, and barring him from supervising other physicians.

The discipline did not take effect until October 2022—more than four years after his patient died. So when Millie Martini, a 49-year-old hairdresser looking to “treat herself” with Mowlavi’s famed liposuction procedure, searched his name on the medical board’s website in July 2022, she had no idea her future doctor was about to be temporarily barred from practicing medicine.

Martini’s story starts similarly to many of the other complainants’ accounts: a rushed appointment that she left feeling unheard and pressured into signing up for a “mommy makeover” that included a breast lift and the removal of her implants.

On the day of her surgery, she said, she was rushed into an operating room where she was painted with betadine antiseptic solution while Mowlavi asked staff to put on loud heavy metal music.

“I’m literally thinking, ‘I need to run. I need to get out of here.’ But I was stuck,” she said.

When she woke up, Martini told The Daily Beast, she was surprised to find herself slumped in a wheelchair in the office’s hallway outside the operating room. Her confusion only grew when Mowlavi walked by and said there had been a problem with surgery, the lawsuit states. She was transferred to a post-care facility, where she learned—in the middle of the night, when she said a nurse removed the bandage from her chest—that Mowlavi had not completed the surgery.

“I freaked the hell out about my nipples,” she said. “They were black and oozing. They were not even attached; they were half off.”

Suffering from debilitating pain, Martini returned to Mowlavi’s office on Aug. 25 for what she thought was a scheduled post-op appointment. The lawsuit states she said she did not want more surgery and believed him when he said he just wanted to “clean her nipples under the surgical lights.”

The next thing she knew, she was waking from a procedure.

“I looked down, and there was blood coming out of my ACE bandage on my chest,” she said. “When I went home, I took off the ACE bandage, and I saw that I had no nipples.”

Martini went to her local hospital days later, where her lawsuit states doctors diagnosed her with acute sepsis, left leg cellulitis, and acute blood loss anemia. She said doctors also told her she would have died if she’d waited another 24 hours to seek care. She underwent a third surgery to remove the compromised breast tissue and breast implants and insert chest expanders in their place. The hospital pathology report states that Martini’s breast tissue had extensive necrosis, ulceration, and abscess formation.

She was released from the hospital on Aug. 31, stopped seeing Mowlavi about two weeks later, and sued him for medical battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress in June.

Many of the women in the class action suit allege similarly botched procedures and occasionally life-threatening results. One woman, identified as C.S.J., suffered a collapsed lung and required hospitalization. Others, including the 16-year-old, reported suffering severe burns during their surgeries. Three women developed MRSA, a life-threatening infection.

Valencia, the masseuse, said in a signed declaration attached to Martini’s suit that she regularly witnessed Mowlavi leave the operating room with patients on the table to perform consultations or to eat. In an interview with The Daily Beast, she said she attempted to warn Mowlavi and his staff about the risk of infection but was rebuffed.

Jason Vance, a former OR nurse at the clinic, said in a declaration in Martini’s lawsuit that he witnessed Mowlavi “rip out” a patient’s endotracheal tube during surgery and “throw it across the room.” He said the incident was so terrifying that he refused to work in the operating room with Mowlavi again. In a text to Mowlavi’s wife, attached as an exhibit in Martini’s lawsuit, Vance wrote that the doctor’s actions “show a complete and total disregard for patient safety.”

“He needs some help. If this had occurred in another institution he would've been immediately removed from the surgical environment,” it read.

Vance said he then spoke on the phone with Mowlavi’s wife, who followed up with a text message.

“God is watching,” she wrote. “Remember that.”

A photo illustration of Dr. Arian Mowlavi
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/YouTube

Johnson, the former fitness influencer and podcaster, also walked away with an unwanted result after her August 2021 breast reduction and C-section revision surgery: a hip-to-hip scar. Horrified, she took to her podcast, “The Chalene Show,” to share her experience. She says she did not name the doctor at first, but soon got messages from other women asking if she had seen Mowlavi.

When Mowlavi caught wind of Johnson’s comments, his legal team hit her with a $1 million defamation suit, accusing her of having a “goal of destroying Dr. Mowlavi’s career.”

“Johnson has become ‘obsessed’ with Dr. Mowlavi’s practice of medicine and with utilizing a false, sensationalized version of events—which she exaggerates and progressively changes with contradiction, apparently to keep creating new social content for her public platform and podcast,” the lawsuit said, adding that the doctor has received death threats as a result of Johnson’s comments.

The doctor also denied several of Johnson’s allegations, noting that it is “standard medical practice” for a patient to undress during a consultation and that he did not “grope” or “parade” her naked.

While Johnson and Mowlavi were duking it out in court, the Orange County DA’s office was getting involved. In June, the office filed a suit with many of the same allegations as the class action, seeking millions of dollars in fines. Mowlavi has yet to respond to the complaint.

Mowlavi filed for bankruptcy in February 2022, shortly after the patients filed their class action lawsuit and the medical board filed its first accusation. According to the DA’s complaint, however, Mowlavi transferred some $13 million in real estate and business assets to his wife just months before the filing. He has continued to make mortgage payments on three of the buildings he transferred to his wife, the complaint states, leading prosecutors to believe he may not be as broke as he claims.

Many of his patients told The Daily Beast they are baffled that Mowlavi is allowed to perform surgery. Even now, Mowlavi is not legally required to disclose to patients that he was placed on suspension or is on probation until October 2032. The California Medical Board’s note about the probation on its website says nothing about a patient dying shortly after being released from Mowlavi’s care.

This knowledge outraged patients, many of whom said they had vetted him extensively before their procedures—including checking the medical board website.

“I did my research, I looked him up with the medical board,” said Martini, who scheduled her appointment in July 2022, before the medical board finished its investigation. “I went to Laguna Beach, across the street from the beach. High-end. Money. And I literally walked into a Tijuana clinic.”

Michelle Buxton Hemesath, a lawyer for Martini and the class action lawsuit, said the state medical board suffers from a lack of resources that keeps it from investigating doctors in a timely manner.

“There are a lot of bad doctors that just go unrecognized because they’re not investigating them,” Buxton Hemesath said. “And it’s really hard for patients to get access to this information and to have the information that they need to make educated decisions about their medical care.”

Despite the legal challenges and medical board probation, Mowlavi is accepting new patients. His website and social media pages are still live; when a reporter from The Daily Beast messaged the clinic for a liposuction appointment, she received a callback minutes later about setting up a consultation with the doctor that day. Mowlavi was briefly banned from practicing VASER liposuction—the procedure he used on the patient who died—but was allowed to resume after completing a clinical competence assessment program.

A medical board spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation against Mowlavi but said the board is “aware of the other public accusations against Dr. Mowlavi and is reviewing them.” Asked why the investigation had taken four years to complete, the spokesman replied: “The investigations conducted on behalf of the Board must be thorough and comply with the law and due process requirements, as the Board must be able to prove that a violation occurred by clear and convincing evidence.”

Johnson said she is deeply disappointed that Mowlavi is still practicing. But she wants authorities to go further than revoking his license. If she could talk to him now, she said, she would tell him: “I need [to see] you in orange.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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