The impact made a dramatic sound, apparently. The day I fainted. Falling smack on my face on medical equipment in dad’s hospital room. Fade out. KAPOW! Muffled screams. My face hot, palpably throbbing from the blow. I blinked my eyes open. Mom was panting, dad lay motionless. Squinting, I clocked my sister crawling over. “You OK?” she whispered, seizing the front tooth that broke the fall, saving me from grave head injury. Tongue swirl. Blood. I felt the gap. And then the jagged edges of the chipped fangs and molars left like some razor-sharp mountain range.
I had just been on my honeymoon in Tanzania, returning to London, when I had got the dreaded call that dad had had a stroke. I had jumped on a plane to California. Minutes after I arrived, in the commotion, I blacked out.
Tooth problems have besieged me from the first gasp of adulthood. I chipped my two front tusks snowboarding in college. For my UC Berkeley graduation I gifted myself two front teeth. I rang a hotline, 1-800-DENTIST, about my predicament. They recommended “capping” – simple, permanent, beautiful, touting a top cosmetic referral. Mildly terrorised, settled in the dentist’s chair, I wondered why he was sawing my teeth. I remember lifting the hand mirror, eager to inspect my chiselled temporaries: two surfboard-oblong, bright-yellow bunny teeth protruded. Panic sucked me out of my body. He had shaved my teeth down to nubs, gracing me with metal crowns that emitted a grey haze through my gum line for graduation. Weeks of hiding my smile turned into years. A new dentist suggested porcelain crowns. My gums were happily pink, but the teeth were now pewter in low light. I saved up yet again to rectify this mess. And then the wretched hospital-room incident happened.
“We want to give you a Julia Roberts smile!” the New York dentist proclaimed. After amateur work, I felt an exaggerated ease in the polished Upper East Side digs. I succumbed to the inevitable: “prepping” the rest of my chompers for my Pretty Woman makeover. A gruelling year saw me wearing a temporary bridge to fit an implant. But a new nightmare unfolded: piano-key veneers, too large for my face, gleamed back at me this time. And not just two. A mouthful. Alarmingly, I couldn’t shut my lips. Then my jaw started. Clicking. Aching. When dentists play God in your mouth, rather than follow your existing bite, it can affect function. The ivory chiclets were so colossal, my occlusion so out of harmony, that my teeth started shifting. When the dentist recommended Invisalign, I plunged into despair.
I often wonder why most common nightmares are about teeth. I can only attest that tooth trauma is a cruelty far beyond vanity. I bonded with others who had been similarly maltreated. Quietly determined to find the master of revision dentistry, I booked consults from London to LA. I remembered that Hilary Duff was crucified in the press for getting horsey veneers, which she made smaller, and I clung to some demented hope of finding the guy who fixed her teeth. I scrutinised paparazzi photos of “Duff visiting a dentist in Burbank, California”, desperate to recognise the strip mall, to no avail. My best pal and dental confidante Chloë Sevigny (who also knocked her teeth out) had her reps contact Duff’s. They never responded.
Then the unthinkable happened: my implant got infected. Saved with laser surgery, it unleashed more disfigurement – severe gum recession. I needed a miracle.
I’m not a social-media enthusiast, but I’m eternally grateful for Instagram and its creepy algorithm. Because that’s how I found Dr Duval, the dentist who popped up in my feed, and the man who I believe is the best cosmetic dentist in the world. My eyes didn’t believe it at first. His photos were magic. The translucency, shapes, contours, angles, symmetry. Peerless. There was one giant catch: he was in Dubai.
With almost 370k followers, Dr Duval uses Instagram as his main gateway to the world. The region’s glitterati are faithful clients, but there’s an air of mystery surrounding the inscrutable dentist and his limited digital profile. Duval is his first name. Before dentistry, he studied architecture in his native Syria. When civil war broke out, he relocated his practice from Damascus to a sleek clinic on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach.
Still, my trust in him surprised me. I emailed X-rays and photos to Dr Duval’s office manager. Many emoji-ridden WhatsApps later, with my negative Covid test, I boarded a flight to Dubai, a crazed woman travelling alone to a country I’d never been to before, white-knuckled to get treatment from a fantasy dentist I had found on Instagram. My friends thought me insane.
But this time it was different. I’d rise each morning, do yoga, go for a dip in the warm sea, gorge on breakfast at the blissful Mandarin Oriental, my home and sanctuary for two weeks, and stroll 10 minutes to the clinic. Each day I felt listened to. I surrendered. Years of trauma melted away at the spa-like dental experience.
Dr Duval is warm and free of the ego typical of some hifalutin dentists. He wears a signature white NY Yankees cap, Moncler shirts, Gucci pants and designer trainers, which he rotates, sometimes on the hour. Like a sculptor, he said he could see the smile I was meant to have. Surrounded by a stellar team who work tirelessly six days a week, his process is the pursuit of perfection. Other dentists prep your teeth, take impressions and send them to a lab, in-house or external; you return for the fitting and are stuck with the results. Duval is different. With needle-like focus, one day he worked on me for 10 hours until midnight. Another day, he and his on-site ceramicist debated a .00001mm gum-to-tooth margin for an entire afternoon. Sometimes you nail it with the first set, sometimes it takes four, but he’s relentless until both the artist/dentist and patient are fully satisfied with the results.
It still feels like a dream. The person who left Dubai, by contrast, felt revitalised – indeed, a pretty woman. Swishing through the hotel to catch my flight to New York, grinning ear to ear.
Tooth fairies: expert tips on how to find the perfect dentist
Professor Damien Walmsley, the British Dental Association’s scientific adviser
“A quick scan of Instagram can bring up hundreds of untrained providers. Don’t take the risk. Any legitimate dental professional will be on the General Dental Council register. Experience is difficult to measure, as you’ll find dentists with basic qualifications who are very capable. Others will have taken advanced courses in a specialist area like periodontics or implantology. This is often a good marker.”
Dr Ben Atkins, president of the Oral Health Foundation
“It’s important you are comfortable with your dentist and trust them. Phone up a dental practice before deciding to have an appointment to get a feel for the place. If you want to go even deeper, you can also look at the practice’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection reports to make sure the practice is up to scratch.”
Dr Ruchi Sahota, spokesperson and consumer adviser for the American Dental Association
“Cosmetic dentistry is not one and done. It’s really important to maintain your smile and make sure your gums are healthy. Ask the same cosmetic dentist to also be your family dentist, so they can take care of your check-ups and cleanings.” Compiled by Baya Simons
Get alerts on Wellbeing and fitness when a new story is published