Beauty

Dr. Vicki Belo on Building a Beauty Empire in the Philippines

The celebrated dermatologist and aesthetic doctor to the stars talks about experiencing bullying as a child, new technology in skincare, and empowerment through beauty

by Joanna Fu

7 Nov 2019

In the Greenbelt Makati district of Metro Manila, two figures emerge from the Belo Medical Group clinic, attracting a small group of giddy passers-by who gather with a reverence usually reserved for celebrities. But this is Dr. Victoria Belo, dressed in a white lab coat and joined by the Philippines Secretary of the Department of Tourism, Bernadette Romulo Puyat. Dr. Belo boasts a social media following of 2.1 million on Instagram and a clientele of “Belo Babes” from Filipino megastar Anne Curtis to international figures Floyd Mayweather and Martha Stewart. The clinic – a glassy powder pink space replete with orchids and custom sequin cushions – is a familiar sight to any Filipino celebrity buff or beauty enthusiast on Instagram, thanks to various Asian fashion influencers (from Bryan Boy to Tina Leung) documenting their experience there.

“I was born to be a beauty doctor, I always say, because my name is Belo and ‘belo’ means beautiful in Portuguese and in Italian,” says Belo. But her fateful journey wasn’t built on a series of serendipities. “The story also goes that I was a fifth child of my biological parents and the fourth girl – they only had one boy. They made a deal with my aunt, who had married a lawyer whose name was Belo, that if I came out a girl I would be given to her, but if I was a boy, I would be kept [by my biological parents]. So I was given to my Belo parents because I was a girl and it was an open secret that I was adopted. It wasn’t anything negative when I was young, but when I got to school, everyone would bully me and make fun of me, asking ‘why were you given away?’ Some would say ‘oh, it’s because you’re so fat,’ or others would say ‘no, it’s because she’s ugly.’ That happened a lot and so in my head, even at the age of five, I already had the thought that I’m going to make everyone beautiful so that no one will give them away because when you’re ugly and fat, they give you away — that was my conclusion as a kid.”

“When I was 11, I lost the weight but I had pimples so I spent every week at the doctor’s and dermatologist’s office. During that time, I would be planning my whole career, looking at my surroundings and thinking about all of the things that could be improved — the flowers were plastic and the magazines were six months late. I had a little notebook and would jot down everything I was going to do: I was going to do everything by appointment because I hated waiting for two hours, I was going to have classical music in the background to drain out the auditory sounds of dermatology.” Belo references the unappealing sound of comedone extractions.

Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat and Dr. Vicki Belo
Photo: Courtesy of Belo

Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat and Dr. Vicki Belo

Photo: Courtesy of Belo

Belo eventually went into medicine and became a dermatologist, studying in Thailand where she discovered lasers. “This was 1990, and it was the beginning of lasers. When I saw them, I realised I wanted to do that rather than dealing with common fungal infections. So from Thailand I continued my studies of lasers at Harvard, where I was exposed to people doing surgery. There was a dermatological liposuction there that was amazing — no blood, and it could remove so much fat — none of the negativity usually associated with liposuction,” says Belo. “When I came back to Manila, I introduced new lasers and new ways of liposuction. I wanted to be a master, not a jack of all trades, but a master of something.”

This year, Dr. Belo’s beauty empire Belo Medical Group celebrates its 30th anniversary. It currently operates 14 clinics across the Philippines where it was the first medical aesthetic ambulatory clinic given international accreditation by the National Accreditation Board of Hospitals and Healthcare Providers, and among the first to pioneer dermatological laser and liposuction.

Today, clients from around the world visit Belo’s clinic to discover new technology as she travels to discover the latest innovations, techniques and requirements: the fast attitude of the US; the subtle, skin quality-driven philosophy of Europe; the unique aesthetics and beauty standards of South Korea, Brazil and Japan. “I think what makes Belo Medical Group so special is that I know how to combine machines. When you come to Belo, it’s like you went around the world to have your beauty treatments but you’re just in one place. And of course, the prices are more reasonable and I think the doctors in the Philippines have wonderful hands — just like Thailand. I’m so flattered when we get patients from Beverly Hills, New York City, Paris, Singapore — all of the first world countries come here.”

Belo Medical Group clinic in Greenbelt Makati, Metro Manila
Photo: Courtesy of Belo

Belo Medical Group clinic in Greenbelt Makati, Metro Manila

Photo: Courtesy of Belo

But much of the clinic’s appeal is in its expertise in Asian skin. “Asian skin is very different from caucasian skin. So if you have your procedures done in America or Europe, you might have scars that are more obvious. If you do it in the Philippines, we know how to hide everything because people scar here, because of the colour of our skin and the way we tan,” Belo explains. “We have a lot of people from Hong Kong who fly here for the day and then go back the same afternoon. They just stay at the clinic for a few hours — it’s like their home-away-from-home.”

And the appeal is even stronger for the English-speaking Asian clientele. “We realised that a lot of people come to Manila for medical tourism,” Secretary Puyat said. “Firstly because all the Filipinos can speak English so there’s no language barrier. Communication is very important especially for a medical or cosmetic procedure. Secondly, it’s the Filipino sense of hospitality – the Filipino culture is very caring.”

New technology and machines are still the strongest pull at Belo. “The newest thing I got is from Korea, which I’m so in love with because Ulthera and Thermage only concentrates on lifting but it doesn’t include the quality of the skin. For the Koreans, because they are into skin quality, they have this machine called the Genius which does the tightening and lifting better than Ulthera and Thermage, but they have another step called the Lase MD, which puts serums into the skin and they have a laser to deliver the nutrients to the skin, helping it absorb through the skin mantle and to penetrate.”

Beyond the technology, Belo has facilitated a new approach to beauty in the Philippines. “We call it Halo Halo, which is a dessert with both fruit and vegetables. When I first started, everyone wanted to appear more white. It was the number one request in my clinic: whitening, whitening, whitening. And in the last three years, everyone says, ‘I don’t want to be white.’ A lot of people are embracing their dark colour and being very proud of it. It’s so empowering.”

“Before I even used to have a psychologist on board because a lot of people would come here and I wasn’t sure if they were doing certain treatments for themselves or someone else. And you know, that is the wrong reason to do something. But now I don’t really need a psychologist on-site anymore because the people that come in here are just like ‘I want to be more self confident and this thing bothers me, if I get it fixed I’ll feel better.’”

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