Some are born into wealth and privilege and some aren’t, but there are those amongst the latter that flat-out refuse to be limited by their circumstances. They dream big, figure out a strategy, and get straight to the action of making their dreams come true.
Such is Dr Michael Apa’s story, the grandson of Italian immigrants born into humble lower middle class roots in Upstate New York, who decided at aged five to break the mold and become master of his own destiny through dentistry.
With offices in New York, Los Angeles and Dubai, and an exclusive line of luxury oral cosmetics, Dr Apa is now an industry pioneer in this $24 billion per year field, and one of the most in-demand cosmetic dentists in the world. He realized that our smiles are our calling cards. “It really is such a pleasure to have the ability to recreate the way someone looks by creating a new smile,” he says. “A smile makeover is about so much more than just teeth; it’s about the way a smile controls the overall appearance of the face. When designing smiles, I am considering each unique facial feature and how they all work together. It’s my favorite part of the process and when I feel most creative and calm. A great smile has not so much to do with the teeth, but how the person’s face lights up.”
Dr Apa’s signature style and award-winning results have inspired a revolution in aesthetic dentistry, drawing the highest level of talent from around the globe to work at his clinic, and with it a star-studded patient roster, evenly split between men and women.
Armed early on with a canny strategy and an acute understanding of how to harness the power of social media and the value of celebrity endorsements, Dr Apa saw a niche gap in the market and the potential in branding a cosmetic dentistry like a great fashion house such as Giorgio Armani or Brunello Cucinelli, aimed predominantly at an elite clientele. Always a fan of fashion he saw that, whether you’re wearing sweatpants or a tux, a beautiful natural smile will compliment any cashmere or couture.
“Back in the day, being featured in Vogue was the Holy Grail. Now it’s about huge social media engagement… with the right people following you. I would say 80% of our patients come from my Instagram account, which is insane. I have very famous people direct message me on Instagram about their teeth all the time.
“I started with Instagram in 2014. The interesting thing was that social media was much stronger in Dubai than in the United States in 2014 and 2015. There were influencers there while there were none here. Huda Kattan [@hudabeauty, with 48.4m followers] became a client of mine and was amazing. When I opened my office in Dubai, my marketing campaign was to get Huda, and whomever else that had big social media followings, into the office. They had a specific story that they had to tell, which was the actual process of getting their teeth done. They would share a certain amount of stories and posts. That’s when my clientele really started to grow. I had a publicist from 2003, when I first started practicing dentistry. So I understood the whole media way.”
Aside from Huda, Dr Apa also now counts Uma Thurman, Chloe Sevigny, The Olsen Twins, Dree Hemingway, Kyle Richards, Damon Dash, Simon Cowell, Elsa Hosk amongst others as clients. “When you get really good at something, other accomplished people seek you out,” he says. “Some of my closest friends are people I met as patients. I spend a fair amount of time getting to know my patients and, of course, treating them. When you do a procedure as intimate and involved as I do, sometimes patients want to reciprocate. That’s led to really special relationships that have taken me on some of the greatest adventures of my life.
“When people come into the clinic, we take a diagnostic set of pictures. Part of being accurate is getting all different levels of smiles. You really work at making them laugh so you can capture a big smile and a social smile and so on and so forth. Their big smile when they come in, because they’re psychologically not happy with their teeth, is just like being conscious of being overweight and constantly blousing your shirt.
“When people smile, their musculature actually won’t go over their teeth and you’ll see it quiver. After the Apa process, their musculature will actually retrain itself to really let it go and smile, and then you’ll notice the 5lb weight loss, the new haircut, the different dress. They look happier and that is the real benefit of doing these procedures, going through the process with us. Going into the lab and seeing what actually goes into what’s being created. It’s more like fine jewelry than it is dentistry. It really does psychologically change the way that people appreciate their teeth.”
He adds, “Designing and equilibrating smiles is an artistic and highly specialized process, so veneers look different depending on who does them. I think the best veneers are undetectable; they look, feel and function like natural teeth. I have a very natural aesthetic and think people sometimes overdo it with cosmetic procedures. The key is to understand what each individual procedure will do for you and have transparency within your doctor network – from your dentist, to your dermatologist and plastic surgeon. When patients approach their cosmetic work holistically, it can take years off.
“I used to be a fat person. I was a fat kid that grew up in upstate New York with a chip on his shoulder. Now, I don’t drink, I don’t do anything. I workout like a madman. I get up at 4.45am and work out with a personal trainer who is on staff, and who travels with me. I went vegan two years ago and have a chef who makes all my food, which is critically important.
“This is my alter ego – Doctor Apa. And then I go home, I’m like Mike, the fat kid from upstate New York again… but I’m no longer fat. Like everything you can see in my life, when I laser in on something, I’m going to get there.”
Dr Apa is a master of manifestation. He wanted to be a doctor since he was five years old, and set his sights on being a dentist in his teens. His inspiration was Larry Rosenthal, one of the true pioneers of the art and science of aesthetic dentistry. Dr Apa didn’t only emulate his hero, he ended up buying his practice.
He says, “I put blinders on when I was five years old. I wanted to be a dentist, and that was it. I was really sick for six months and they thought I needed a kidney transplant. I remember my mother calling my pediatrician at 2am, 3am, 4am just hysterical crying, thinking I was dying. I remember then thinking I wanted to be a doctor of some form.
“Then I had a career day at high school and they sent me to visit a local dentist who gave me an audiotape of the guy who started cosmetic dentistry. His name was Larry Rosenthal and he’s one of the leading pioneers in cosmetic dentistry and super inspirational.”
Michael was in 11th grade when he heard Rosenthal’s tapes. Rosenthal had the first cover line about cosmetic dentistry on American Vogue in 1997, which completely opened the world up to him because people didn’t know what cosmetic dentistry was, it had never been written about before. The piece was about how to get a covergirl smile, which was a first for Vogue in those days.
Thus Michael set out to achieve his dream career and began at Buffalo Dental School, a state school costing $10k per year. “I was that kid who was not exposed to a lot, so in my family, going to dental school was a huge thing. But there was no Larry Rosenthal [at Buffalo] and I wanted to work for him. So I dropped out of the program and went to NYU for four years. Mr Rosenthal lectured at NYU, so I finally met him and ended up getting hired by him, and then years later, eventually I bought his practice. Larry was the dream, he was the aspiration. He changed dentistry. He really changed it from people going in to get holes drilled into their teeth to people going in and wanting to feel good about their smile. It was amazing.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, Michael had to earn his wings. ”I began sticking my foot in doors. Nothing was given to me. Larry didn’t know who I was. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh there’s this prodigy coming into dental school.’ It was more that I just wore him down and eventually got in. I was actually hired out of dental school to bleach teeth in a spa owned by him down the street. I wasn’t a dentist in his office. Now I hire associates coming out of dental school and they think that they’re going to be me, sit in a chair and see celebrities and that whole thing, and they’re not. I was more like a dental assistant when I first started under him, and I was treated like one. He didn’t know my name, but I just got on with it. Did I really want to be a dentist and stick my hands in people’s mouths? Growing up, Wall Street was one of my favorite movies, Miami Vice was one of my favorite shows – I just wanted to live that lifestyle. So I bought Larry out in 2014. He’s been my employee for seven years and we’re closer than we’ve ever been. I mean we’re both egomaniacs, right?! He comes into work every day… he’s hilarious.”
Dr Apa didn’t have a passport until he was 30 and his first visit to the center of New York was for his interview for NYU. Now he travels between his offices in New York, LA and Dubai each month, utilizing a schedule that actually gives him eight work days in a week as he switches time zones. “I have made travel work in my favor, to gain some time somehow,” he says.
“You know those people that can do really constructive things with their time when they’re not working? I am not one of them, I’m not the type of person that’ll wake up and say, ‘Oh, today I want to learn how to sail.’ I’m just not that guy. I have terrible anxiety. I’m an introvert. I don’t like doing things outside of my own comfort zone. This is my comfort zone. I’ve built this partially for myself to feel good, you know what I mean? I didn’t know where my drive was coming from, but the drive was to be the best. Once I became the best – or at least in my own head – then I could create the atmosphere where I feel comfortable going every day. That’s where I am.”
He travels so much that the private and personal time that he has with his family is very protected, and these are the important values that he carries as a person. He is a true artisan, someone who is determined to provide his clientele with the highest caliber bespoke work. All the lab work is on site in each of his three offices. His technicians are taken from the greatest schools in Brazil and other countries who lead in this education. There’s no escaping the fact that this is an art form that is not taken for granted or homogenized in any way. It is about individual service with an exceptional attention to detail. That, of course, comes out in his work and his patient experience. He’s responsible for a staff of 100 plus in three different locations, two continents, which includes hygienists, partner doctors, front desk, ceramists, digital technicians and more.
To undergo his treatment is to be invited into a luxury experience akin to a 5-star spa. Dr Apa wears Brunello Cucinelli bomber jackets to work, and his self-designed office is architecturally slick and elegant, not dissimilar to a modern 2001 Space Odyssey set, but warmer, not in the slightest bit sterile. And all his people seem very happy and committed to what they do, a fully functioning team invested in the collective quality and growth of the Apa brand.
The doctor has also pledged a $350,000 donation to CUNY to establish a new focus on the intersection of oral health and population health. This investment will support a new scholarship fund for ten students who aspire to address significant research gaps in the area. He is especially trying to encourage health insurance to be inclusive of dental and not separate from it, with the knowledge that there is an indisputable connection between chronic illness and poor dental healthcare.
With regards to all his current success, he says there’s still work to be done. “You never really feel like you’re there. It is in my nature to problem solve, understand people, and see the big picture. ‘Cannot’ is not an option.”