The BBC Apprentice winners: interview with Leah Totton

Dr Leah Totton Apprentice winner and Lord Sugar

Ever seen the man smiling like that before?

Even though she won the BBC Apprentice in 2013 and she still owns the very successful cosmetic surgery Dr Leah Cosmetic Skin Clinics with Lord Sugar, the young and beautiful Dr Leah Totton has never forgotten why she wanted to become a doctor in the first place: in fact, believe it or not, she still does shifts as an NHS physician.

The girl who conquered the Series 9 of The Apprentice under the motto disarm with charm comes from Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, which doesn’t differ from London only over a derry; the city has the highest rate of unemployment in the United Kingdom, with only 55% of people employed in 2016 in Derry City and Strabane.

The reason I’m lecturing you about Northern Irish unemployment ties in with the fact that, in addition to being a doctor and a businesswoman, Leah is also a former model – and given, the broken economy in Derry, she could certainly have it easier by continuing walking on the catwalk, 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 professional life.
Whilst the common belief might suggest that if you’re attractive you’ll have it easier, this is true as long as you are either attractive or qualified, not the two altogether.

It goes without saying that some beautiful young woman will probably be preferred over a less attractive candidate to work as a bartender; however, when high-paying roles are concerned, things work differently: beauty is rarely – if ever – linked to competence, especially when it comes to women.
I once read on Quora the story of an average-looking female secretary who was told by her (male) boss that she was preferred over an equally-qualified but absolutely stunning lady, as they wanted somebody easier on the eye not to distract and disrupt the rest of male employees.
And had the boss been a woman herself, she would have probably hired the average-looking girl as well, just to cut the competition off.

You cannot really sue employers if they don’t want you because you’re attractive, and the bottom line is that if you are beautiful and competent, they’ll always wait for your first failure to criticise you, while if you look like a monkey nobody will say anything for fear of being accused of discrimination.

So, even though Leah Totton is not a model anymore, she still is and forever will be a great role model for 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!

Leah, it’s now been years since you won The Apprentice, now. What have you learned?

Yes, the last financial year has been a record-breaking year for us and we are really happy about that. 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.

Like for example?

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… this has really been invaluable.

You still do shifts at the NHS; how comes a successful private doctor is 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 honourable from you, Leah.

Thank you! So I basically 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.

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

How come?

Yes, 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 your people of Northern Ireland feel more Irish or more British?

I feel more British… and 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.

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!

What are the differences in the labour market when it comes to England and in 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%.

It sounds a bit like Italy.

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.

Ok, it really does sound like Italy now. How do you feel about Brexit?

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. 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!

Why did you get interested in cosmetic surgery in the first place?

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 of 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 goal.

Do you 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 when it comes to careers?

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

I wasn’t really talking about gender inequality. This is more about whether being attractive may affect your career or not.

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 the 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.

Would you refuse to perform a treatment that 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’s best for the patient; you have an obligation, in my opinion, to refuse to treat.

★ Interested in what the others Apprentices are up to now? You may also like our interviews with all the others winners from 2011 to 2018: Tom Pellereau (2011),  Ricky Martin (2012), Mark Wright (2014), Joseph Valente (2015), Alana Spencer (2016), James White, Sarah Lynn (2017) and Sian Gabbidon (2018)

★ And if you are curious about why we called it quits in 2019, read this

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