Bioethics Forum Essay

Dr. Oz Can’t Afford Me

The first time the Dr. Oz show called me, I was simply too tired to deal. The story of Caster Semenya — the track athlete whose sex had been called into question — had hit the international news the week before, and since then, as an expert on atypical sex, I had done 25 media interviews.

The woman calling me seemed incredulous. “You’re too tired to come and be on Dr. Oz?” She added, “But you were on Oprah!”

Did she mean that, by being on Oprah a few years earlier for a show featuring the novel Middlesex, I had unwittingly made a contract to appear on all the spin-offs? Or did she think my Oprah appearance meant I leapt at any opportunity to be on TV?

Please. You know what Oprah taught me? Unless you count as changing your life having a neighborhood dad say to you every morning at the school bus stop, “You sure don’t look as good as you did on Oprah!”, being on Oprah doesn’t change your life.

I had given Oprah what amounted to at least one full week of research assistance. What did I get? A stretch limo ride from my office to the studio (about a mile), and an Oprah branded tee shirt, mug, and baseball cap. And a week behind on work.

The show did not radically improve the lives of people with atypical sex development, an outcome that would have made it worth recovering from seven layers of eye make-up and enough hairspray to keep a flower arrangement looking fresh for a year.

By the second time the woman from the Dr. Oz show called, I had thought more about what I’d do if they called again. This time she was ringing about a show that would feature a fellow she was calling “Octopus Man.” He was a guy with an underdeveloped conjoined twin attached to him. As a consequence, he had extra arms and legs.

“We have to have you on this show!” the producer gushed. “You’re the best person for this.” I asked her the man’s story. She told me he was Filipino and that he had a wife, a kid, and was basically fine, just as I suggested could happen in my book, One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal.

“If he’s fine,” I asked, “why don’t you leave him alone?”

Awkward silence. Clearly she had not read up to chapter four, where I talk about obnoxious modern displays of people with unusual bodies.

I knew they were probably going to feature this man (who has a name, incidentally: Rudy Santos) whether or not I showed up. If I showed up, I might be able to mitigate the circus atmosphere, turn it more humane. But by showing up, I knew I’d also be legitimizing this.

And that led me to thinking about what we historians of unusual bodies  had been noting, namely that in the old time freak shows in the 19th century, often the people being displayed at least made some good money. They were even sometimes reasonably in control, much more so than when they were treated as hospital-based tragedies. Chang and Eng Bunker (the “Siamese Twins”), Joseph Merrick (the “Elephant Man”), Tom Thumb (the “General”) . . . they’d all made good money.

I thought about my friend Danny Black, who runs a dwarf talent agency. I thought about the grief Danny had taken from Matt Roloff for being shameless about making money off of people’s fascination with dwarfism. Yes, this is the same Roloff who stars in the “family-oriented reality show,” Little People, Big World. I guess Danny isn’t “family-oriented” because he’s willing, for a price, to deliver a singing telegram dressed as Cupid or to strip at bachelorette parties.

Over coffee, Danny had been teaching me how to feel good about asking for more money for my public speaking. Through long conversations, he and I had decided that unless I started asking for money from these TV exploitation gigs they’d never start paying “the star” — the person with the anomaly. And if they didn’t start paying “the star,” they’d never really approach that person with due respect.

So I had already decided that if this call came I’d ask to get paid.

“Okay,” I said to the Dr. Oz rep. “You’re going to have to fly me in and out same day, because of my schedule.” She said sure, and they’d arrange limos on both ends. “And you need to pay me.” I named a low four figure price.

More awkward silence.

“But this is journalism,” she said.

I tried not to guffaw.

“Well,” I said, “this will cost me a day of work, not counting prep and follow-up, and that’s what I charge to a university when they have me in for a long day. I won’t charge you extra for reasonable research help.” She said she had to ask.

Unsurprisingly, she called me back the next day to say they couldn’t do it. I asked her if they also weren’t paying “Octopus Man.” She said, ashamed, they weren’t.

“Let me ask you,” I said to her, “do you get paid for this?” She said yes. “Would my limo drivers get paid?” Yes. “Does the person who will do my hair get paid? The make-up artist? The person who cleans the studio?” Yes, yes, yes. “Does Dr. Oz get paid?” Yes. “So tell me why you can’t pay me, and why you can’t pay your featured guest, when you’re all making money off of this scene.”

“I see your point,” she said. “But we can’t start paying people to be on the show.”

Right. Because then it would be a 19th century freak show, where the freaks got paid, and then where would we be?

The mate came home and asked about the outcome of my negotiations.

“Apparently,” I answered, “Dr. Oz can’t afford me.”

He smiled. “And you don’t even look as good as you did on Oprah.”

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

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