The BBC Apprentice winners: interview with Leah Totton

Dr Leah Totton Apprentice winner and Lord Sugar

Ever seen the man smiling like that before?

The reason I’m excited about this interview, it’s that BBC Apprentice 2013 winner and Lord Sugar‘s business partner Dr Leah Totton at cosmetic surgery Dr Leah Cosmetic Skin Clinic genuinely is amazing. Her business Dr Leah’s net worth is not the first thing you’ll want to know when it comes to this lady; the first thing to know is that – believe it or not – despite being a successful business owner, Leah Totton still does shifts as an NHS physician. This knocked me out. Totally. It takes a ton of humility and genuine love for your country and your people to continue doing this in her position.

The second thing you need to know about the girl who conquered the Series 9 of The Apprentice under the motto disarm with charm, is that she comes from Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. This place doesn’t differ from London only over a derry; the city has the highest rate of unemployment in the whole country, with only 55% of people employed in 2016 in Derry City and Strabane.

The reason I’m lecturing you with unemployment stats about Northern Ireland ties in with the third thing you should know about Leah Totton: in addition to being a doctor and a businesswoman, Leah is also a former model. Given the broke economy in Derry, she could have had it easy by simply continuing walking on the catwalk.

She could have made a fortune as a model, but since “being a doctor has always been the priority”, as she repeats all the time, she gave up modelling to become the first member of her family to go to University. And she eventually picked Cosmetic Surgery as a specialism.

The genius formula here is that she gave up a career based on beauty but managed to focus her new career on beauty, without neither denying her femininity nor using it as a career shortcut – which is amazing.

Dr Leah Totton BBC Apprentice winner

Doctor She.

Leah disagrees with me over the following, but I strongly believe that the more good-looking, the more competent and especially the taller you are, the more trouble you’ll have in your job search. The common belief might say that if you’re attractive you’ll find a job easily, but this is true as long as you are either attractive or qualified, not the two altogether.

An attractive girl applying as an entry-level bartender will probably be preferred over a less attractive candidate; however, when high-paying roles are concerned, things work differently: beauty is rarely – if never – linked to competence, especially when it comes to women. I once read on Quora the story of a girl working as an office secretary who was told by her (male) boss that she was chosen over an equally-qualified but stunning young woman as the man wanted somebody easier on the eye in order not to disrupt the rest of the (mostly male) employees. Had the boss been a woman herself, she would have probably gone for the regular girl as well, just to cut the competition off.

I once volunteered at a charity where every, and I mean every lady around was obese. No kidding. Never seen that much fat altogether in my whole life. At some point, I feared that this was going to be kind of contagious. My hydro spinning instructor always tells me that I must have a serious issue with fat people, but this is not a joke – the ladies working there were not simply overweight: they were like three times the average overweight person. I don’t think it’s good for you to be surrounded by fairly enormous people as everybody knows you become the average of your five closest friends.

Now, try to imagine someone looking like Dr Leah going for a job interview there and getting eaten alive. You cannot really do anything about this, you cannot sue employers for harassment or discrimination for this reason; everybody is sorry for people that get discriminated because they are disadvantaged, not because they look like Hollywood stars. The bottom end is that if you are beautiful and competent, they’ll always wait for your first failure to criticise you when if you look like a monkey, nobody dares to tell you anything for fear of being accused of discrimination.

So, even though Leah Totton is not a model anymore, she is still a great role model for all the girls and women out there: she’s one of the few successful businesswomen who went for the ladies’ way, far away from the cliché of the bitchy female boss. Bravo, Leah!

Hello Leah, thank you for your time. So, first of all, I read the financial results of your company in the last year, and you did extremely well, so congratulations! It’s now been five years on from winning The Apprentice, so I wanted to discuss how you do feel and the things you have learned…

Yes, the last financial year has been a record-breaking year for us and we are really happy about that. And it’s been five years, and what it is so interesting for me to have learned is that this is so different… being in business is so different from my work as a “normal” doctor, so I enjoyed the challenges that business brings. I think I’ve learned a completely different skill-set than what I previously had as a doctor. I mean, for example, I’ve learned so much about finance, about HR, about managing people, and about being a manager as well. I think, when you become a leader, especially when as a doctor you do pick a leadership role, learning how to manage a team is a different skill-set, and I think I’ve learned about this in business. And also, I’ve learned a lot about marketing, about the consumers, and about how that differs from working in a public sector, which I do obviously by working in the NHS. I think it’s a complex process and the thing I have taken from The Apprentice is the mentorship from Alan Sugar over the past… in four years it has been invaluable.

I know that you are still working in the NHS; why is a successful private doctor still working in the public sector?

I think… well when you become a doctor… that’s a personal choice for me. Over half of my time is spent at NHS as opposed to business. It is definitely not a business decision, it is probably costing me hundreds of dividends to do it, but for me, it is something important. I wanted to become a doctor from a young age, and I believe in the NHS, it has allowed me to practice medicine and it is important for my family as well. I’m the first member of my family that went to University, so for me to become a doctor was really important… for me, and for them as well. And I think it’s important to – you know – when you have a vocation to do something… and you know, I really enjoy it, for me, this is something I wanted to continue to do. So I had a discussion with my business partner about this and you know – obviously, it would be great for the business if I was there, you know – six out of seven days, but you know, this is for my personal development: it is important for me to still practice something that I trained as well for ten years to do. So I’m still at the NHS and I think to have the balance between having a business actually includes for me working part-time at the NHS. And I think it makes me – overall – a better cosmetic doctor because I’m very confident clinically and I can use it to improve my private practice as well. So, that’s a personal choice over a business one, to continue doing what I love and really I enjoy doing.

So honourable from you, Leah.

Thank you!

Have you seen any major differences in how the NHS works in Northern Ireland and England?

Mmm… so, I’ve always worked for the NHS in England as I went to an English Uni (The University of East Anglia in Norwich, Ed.) and I graduated here so I’ve never worked for the NHS in Northern Ireland. Do you know what I think? My aunt is an NHS nurse and I actually think that because the cost of living is substantially lower in Northern Ireland than it is in Southern England, especially in London, the quality of life of the NHS and the entire public sector workers is higher in Northern Ireland, because the cost of living is lower but the pay is largely the same. I mean, you get London weighting on your wage here, but it can be – you know, between £800 and £2,000 per year, so not enough to cope with all the differences of the living cost. I actually think that probably there is a higher level of satisfaction with those who work in Northern Ireland as NHS workers because they’re able to have – you know – slightly higher standards of life quality than their colleagues working in London, so I think this is probably the main difference.

Do people of Northern Ireland feel more Irish or more British?

I feel more British… that’s a very contended subject! But I feel more British, personally… I think… I mean, I’ve lived in England for 12 years, so, you know, that would be unkind not to feel British for that reason. But growing up in Northern Ireland, I can see there are religious divisions: just speaking very generally, Catholics tend to feel more linked – from a Nationality’s point of view – to the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants tend to feel more close to the British Nationality. But you know, I have a lot of affection for the Republic of Ireland as well, you know: when I won The Apprentice, Irish people were more encouraging about my winning than some of the British people… you know, I like both, I like the UK and the Republic of Ireland too, but I just feel more British.

So what do you think about Brexit? But if you don’t want to answer it’s fine… if it’s too political, it’s fine.

Nah… yeah, you know what? I really feel that Brexit was a general lack of information available about what the economic repercussion was actually going to be. You know, at the time we were offered a referendum to choose to remain or to leave, it appeared that both options would have been economically viable: so if it’s not going to be economically viable to leave, why were we offer that option at the referendum? So, I feel a bit shocked, actually, by some of the hypothesis about what the financials might going to be, and I hope this won’t be economically detrimental for us. A lot of the people I treat are European, so I talk about Brexit every day, you know – I keep my fingers crossed and we will see!

Is there a particular thing you miss from Northern Ireland?

Actually, apart from all the things we have and that England hasn’t, I miss the people. Northern Irish people are some of the warmest in the world… and I don’t want to generalise but English people can be more reserved, so I definitely miss that warmth!

How do you think the job market differs in England relating to Northern Ireland?

The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is currently lower than in the mainland UK – our rate is around 3.5% versus the equivalent UK unemployment rate of 4.2%. In terms of getting people into jobs, Northern Ireland is doing well; however, what it is interesting is the nature of employment in Northern Ireland: a large percentage of the jobs are in the public sector, and almost a quarter (24.8%) of people are public servants – whereas in London the equivalent figure is just 14.5%. This is just one figure which illustrates the need for private sector growth in the region, growth which has no doubt been stunted due to the troubles. As a post-conflict region, the stalemate that exists within the devolved government continues to hinder Northern Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment. Educational attainment in Northern Ireland is very high, the education system is amongst the best performing in Europe, with 77% of school leavers going on to higher education. There is, however, a brain drain which has existed for decades, with Northern Ireland educating young people to the highest level, only to see an exodus of this educated youth as Northern Ireland is not able to offer job opportunities to keep them.

Such an interesting analysis, thank you, Leah! Let’s talk back about you; why did you get so interested in Cosmetic Surgery?

I first became interested in the cosmetic sector when my aunt became the victim of a botched dermal filler procedure. When we further investigated the matter we found that there was absolutely zero regulation to prevent patients from falling victims to rogue practitioners. At that time in the market, clients had the option of either paying extortionate Harley Street prices to have Botox injected by an archaic plastic surgeon, or going to a backstreet beautician and having the treatment done cheaply: there was no safe yet affordable, middle-market option. I was working as a full-time A&E doctor at the time, and I had a vision of medicalising the industry, creating a doctor-led cosmetic brand which provided these treatments by qualified medical practitioners but at a reasonable price point – that is what we created with Dr Leah Clinics for. 

And you’ve never thought of being a model, instead? It would have been less trouble…

Oh, I did, actually! I modelled in my late teens before going to medical school… yeah, I do not often talk about that! I’ve been a model for a while as I’m very tall, I’m about 5′ 8” so I think it was more for my height than anything else… yeah, I mean, it’s a great career, but I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a doctor since I was a child, so that was obviously my priority.

Do you think doctors should have patients or clients?

You know, it depends on what they’re in. I can consider people both patients and clients relating to why they’re coming to me: it largely depends on the nature of the treatment I am performing, so I would say doctors have both clients and patients.

Do you think good-looking girls get penalised or helped by their being good-looking when it comes to careers?

I definitely don’t think you’re penalised for being physically attractive.

Don’t you think this may depend on whether you’ve got a male or a female boss?

No, I don’t think so! I really think that being good-looking penalises you! I am really into giving speeches related to women and business and women’s empowerment, this is one of the causes I care the most about. I have never felt discriminated because of my gender or in any way, and I actually don’t think that being attractive or not should affect your success in the workplace and I firmly believe that everyone should be judged on their abilities and their attitude and it shouldn’t matter what gender you are or whether you are attractive or not…

That is fine, but I wasn’t really talking about gender… this is more a question about whether being attractive or not may affect your career.

No, I don’t think there is any difference, to be honest. And the thing with women is that even the most attractive of women if they don’t wear any makeup and tie their hair back they’re pretty clean. For example, when I work at NHS I don’t wear any makeup and I tie my hair back: there are ways you can protect yourself in different working environments in different ways. It all comes down to your credibility: you need to dress in a professional and appropriate way, so I think you have to be mindful in how you protect yourself.

Talking about celebrities who undergo heavy cosmetic surgery and then end up uglier than before, do you think a cosmetic doctor should say no when treatment will make the patient uglier? Have you ever refused a job?

Of course! There is a group of cosmetic doctors I call “Dr Loo” who turn away patients, and I do this as well, but I really don’t care because I think you can have minor adjustments to look better – but this is not directly proportional like if the more you have the better you’re going to look; there is a point when your attractiveness starts to decrease. I’m extremely mindful, and sometimes, when I explain to the patients why I am refusing to treat them, they become upset, and you know, even annoyed… but I think you have a responsibility as a cosmetic doctor to do what it’s best for the patient; you have an obligation, in my opinion, to refuse to treat.

This is impressive to hear, Leah. Would you like to add anything else at all?

Yes, we are opening a clinic in Canary Wharf, London, in December.

Thank you very much for the interview, Leah!

Read our interviews with all the BBC Apprentice winners from 2011 to 2018: Tom Pellereau (2011), Ricky Martin (2012), Mark Wright (2014), Joseph Valente (2015), Alana Spencer (2016), James White and Sarah Lynn (2017), Sian Gabbidon (2018).
And this is why we don’t work with reality tv contestants anymore.

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