Monday, June 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
MyFreeImplants: Oakland, Calif., TV news report
What Susan wanted was simple: She wanted her husband to come home from Iraq and she wanted breast implants.
She couldn’t do much about the war — but the bigger breasts she couldn’t afford? She got them for free.
Susan spent months in front of her computer on MyFreeImplants.com, a Web site where women who want breast augmentation can connect with “benefactors” willing to contribute to the cause, sometimes a dollar at a time. In May she was one of two Las Vegas women who went under the knife on donations alone.
Susan is a success in the eyes of more than 130 Nevada women trying to do the same thing right now — cyber-solicit cosmetic surgery. There are thousands more across the globe. A woman in Ukraine recently scheduled her implant operation. As of Friday, 425 women had raised enough money for implants through the Web site, where messages, photos and videos are exchanged for cash donations.
When MyFreeImplants.com launched in 2005, it started slowly. Initially, only four women raised enough money for implants. Today, women reach their fundraising goals of $5,000 to $7,000 almost daily. The site’s founders expect $2.6 million in donations this year. The recession has taken its toll. In 2008, they raised $2.8 million.
“This is a financing tool,” co-founder Jay Moore said. “This is a boob bank.”
Some view it as more akin to an offshore lottery, however.
“It turns a surgical procedure into a contest, and that is not something we think is appropriate,” said John Canady, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons has been much more direct, denouncing the site as “degrading” in a 2007 news release that quoted a past president as saying, “I thought I could no longer be appalled by the circuslike atmosphere surrounding plastic surgery, but this is really quite shocking.”
Of course, that circuslike atmosphere is what gave Moore and co-founder Jason Grunstra the idea. The men, who live in California, were at a bachelor party at Pure nightclub in Caesars Palace in early 2005, getting drinks from a cocktail waitress who explained she was saving money for implants. Someone in the group pledged $5, prompting someone else to up the ante: $10, then $20, then $50. By the time the night was over, they had raised $750.
When they returned to California, they put the idea online. In three months, a woman had raised enough for implants. Moore quit his consulting job this year to run the Web site full time. The co-founders each expect to make something in the low six figures in 2009.
Women who want implants join the site for free. At a minimum, men must buy “message credits” to speak with the women — $1.20 per message, $1 of which goes to the woman being messaged. Men who want more from the site must pay $9.95 a month in membership fees, which buys the so-called “benefactors” a few free message credits and, more important, access to the every woman on the site; her photos, blog entries and anything else she makes available, not unlike a MySpace profile. These benefactors can make direct donations to women they like, or negotiate an exchange for their donations: “Receive custom photos of your favorite girls,” the site says, “request specific outfits.”
Moore likens it to an eBay auction for consenting adults, one he doesn’t police for content.
It’s strictly forbidden to exchange actual addresses, e-mail or otherwise, and giving out your real name is cautioned against. The Web site founders do not want women and their benefactors knowing too much about each other or, worse yet, meeting in person. This is not just because of the risk and potential liability — “we understand breast implants create a sexually charged atmosphere,” Moore said — but because if people using the site develop private relationships, they no longer need MyFreeImplants.com.
About 2,000 men are paying the monthly fee, men who are, in effect, paying money to give money to women they’re told they will never meet.
The average donation is $30, though Moore said one man donated the full cost of a surgery. Though the site founders take a small percentage of every donation and message credit, this money largely goes to site maintenance, Moore said. They make more money on advertising. Provided they’re board certified, surgeons can pay for ads to appear on the site or pay $295 annually to be listed among recommended doctors.
The real money, the real coup, is in the wait.
Women on the site never actually get the money they raise. Instead, it’s held in a trust until they meet their surgery goal. When the surgery is complete, Moore pays the doctor directly. On average, women take from six to seven months to meet their goal, though it can take years. In the meantime, their donations sit in the trust with everybody else’s donations, collecting interest.
The trust holds about $2 million right now.
Some surgeons have refused to accept MyFreeImplants.com women as patients. They’re worried about reputation, Moore says, adding that the vast majority of surgeons are happy to accept payment from the Web site: a lump sum, in cash.
Las Vegas plastic surgeon Tracy Hankins did Sarah’s implant surgery. Hankins does hundreds of breast implants a year and says women like Sarah — because they’ve worked so hard at getting implants, in a community of women also working hard at getting implants — are more educated about the procedure, at least compared with someone who has the idea one day and pays for it the next.
“It’s not for us to judge where the payment comes from,” Hankins said. “In this economy, people are going to find ways to get the procedures they want done, and this is one avenue.”
But persuading strangers to give you money, online as on the street, takes time. Women have to spend hours developing relationships with benefactors, enticing them to send more messages, buy photos and make donations. This may explain why so many of the women on the site are stay-at-home moms, Moore said.
“These are people who have a lot of time to be on the Internet,” he said. Though 140,000 women have created profiles on the site since it was launched, only 3,500 are active. The rest quit, Moore said, “because they find out it’s work.”
A college student holds the record: She was home during winter break, Moore said, decided she was going to make it a job, and spent 12 to 14 hours a day on the site, if not more. In 13 days, she met her goal.
When the surgery is done, women are contractually obligated to provide “after” pictures, so the people who made the donations can see what they paid for, Moore said. (The post-surgery photos available online are all of clothed women.)
The contract also requires women to stay on the site, talking to their benefactors, for an additional six months.
The contributors know that they have had “a hand in changing someone,” Moore said. “It’s kind of knight-in-shining-armorish. It’s sort of science fictionish.”