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Interview with a dental icon: Dr. Michael Apa

Jan. 13, 2015
In the 21st century, there have been some notable additions to the field of dentistry. CAD/CAM technology. Cone beam imaging. And Dr. Michael Apa. It is no overstatement to say that NYC-based cosmetic dentist Dr. Michael Apa is to dentistry what LeBron James is to basketball. They both set the bar in the stratosphere in their respective professions. Dr. Iman Sadri sits down in an exclusive one-on-one interview to gain more insight into Dr. Apa, reflect on his incredible career, and learn about what lies ahead.
In the 21st century, there have been some notable additions to the field of dentistry. CAD/CAM technology. Cone beam imaging. And Dr. Michael Apa. It is no overstatement to say that NYC-based cosmetic dentist Dr. Michael Apa is to dentistry what LeBron James is to basketball. They both set the bar in the stratosphere in their respective professions. Each is at the top of his game, and neither settles on past successes. For Dr. Apa, his career accolades are an extensive and growing list that reads like a Morgan Freeman filmography. Some of these career highlights include speaking live on morning programs such asThe Today Show and Good Morning America, routinely treating A-list celebrities, traveling biweekly to Dubai to treat the royal family there and other high-profile patients, contributing dental health articles to the New York Times and CNN, and being featured in magazines such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan, but most of all, consistently creating exquisite smiles.

With a debonair flair to go with his artistic talents, Dr. Michael Apa is helping change how dentistry is perceived. He is the antithesis of the Ed Helms dentist character in the Hangover film trilogy … so much so that his Vanity Fair-esque appeal would more suit Bradley Cooper to play him in a cinematic portrayal. What makes Dr. Apa a rockstar in the dental community is not only that his articles are featured in dental trade journals, but also that his lifestyle is featured in popular magazines. He was recently front-and-center in a two-page spread in Harper’s Bazaar. Dr. Apa stands out as a rarefied outlier in the dental community. He combines precision with personality. Not only does he appear on local and national news programs showcasing advances in cosmetic dentistry, such as Facial Esthetic Design (FAD), but his Ferrari collection is featured on Bloomberg TV as well.

Interview with a dental icon: Dr. Bill Dorfman
Interview with a dental icon: Dr. Larry Rosenthal

Lecturing internationally and teaching as an adjunct clinical professor at NYU, Dr. Apa is also a highly sought-after speaker on topics in esthetic dentistry. After graduating from the NYU College of Dentistry, he partnered with the famed Dr. Larry Rosenthal, also an NYU alum. Shortly thereafter, the Rosenthal-Apa group came to fruition.

To gain more insight into Dr. Apa, reflect on his incredible career, and learn about what lies ahead, I sat down with him at NYC’s Sant Ambroeus Restaurant.
Dr. Iman Sadri (at left in the photo): At what age did you know that you wanted to be a dentist, and what inspired you?

Dr. Michael Apa (at right in the photo):
Initially, I wanted to be a pediatrician. One night, when I was 5 years old, I got so sick that they thought I was going to die. I got some crazy liver disease. My mother was hysterical. She called my pediatrician at 3 a.m. to ask him what was wrong with me. I knew that I didn’t want to be on the other end of that phone call, so I decided I didn’t want to be a pediatrician. Around the same time, my grandmother worked in a dental office. And just somehow me saying this to people, they’re like “Oh, you should do dentistry.” And it just stuck. I have always been artistic my whole life.

IS: What types of cosmetic cases are most rewarding for you?

MA: The visually challenging ones, such as a canted smile or something that is difficult to figure out and out of proportion … to figure out how to make it look real when you’re stretching the boundaries that far; the cases where there has been a previous attempt to restore one’s natural smile but for whatever reason expectations fell short. They are all rewarding.

IS: How did treating the royal family in Dubai come about?

MA: When I was 28 or 29 years old, I was on a lifestyle television show on VH1 that featured the top plastic surgeon, dermatologist, stylist, etc.; I was the dentist. The show got syndicated where it was also playing in the UK. One of the royal family members saw the show and came to me first in New York. They called me up again and about five family members showed up at my office. Later, I befriended one of the sons of the royal family, who was a rally car driver and also my patient. I showed him and his family around in New York. They then invited me to Dubai, and the rest is history.

IS: What are some common royal family dental cases? Or are they mostly veneers and cosmetic in nature?

MA: There is no such thing (as common). They can be full-on comprehensive and full-mouth cases. They involve crowns, bridgework, implants, etc.

IS: Are than any similarities or differences in working with celebrities compared to the royal family?

MA: The royal family is extremely unique in its own way, for many, many reasons. One significant difference is the level of heightened security. There have been times where we had to close the rest of the building down when treating one of the family members. In terms of similarities, they both don’t want to be seen as having treatment. In some cases, the royal family will fly you out to their palace and have you work out of a dental room they have built for you. The celebrity couldn’t do that exactly.

IS: How has working with Dr. Rosenthal been rewarding?

MA: How has it not? (Laughs) It’s given me the right mindset to be able to treat these cases with a certain time frame and style. I’ve never been one to settle with being second best. It’s all about who you surround yourself with … to try harder to be better. Coming out of school, you get to say, “I am working next to Dr. Larry Rosenthal.” Most guys would not want to rev up the engine that high and be working that hard. I put it in overdrive starting day one. Also, later it was difficult to hear people say, “You’re Larry’s young guy.” I wanted to be my own person. To be able to accomplish that when you have such a huge force in front of you, it makes you work very, very hard.

IS: Can you elaborate on the lab that you use and how you work directly with them.

MA: I work with a guy who has a lab (Jason Kim). I don’t work with a lab who gives me a guy; there is a key difference. I have a personal relationship with my ceramist whom I have been working with for 12 years. We communicate on a different level. He sends guys out to Dubai to make sure to keep the quality up. I know what he can give me, and he knows what I can give him. There doesn’t have to be miscommunication with what we’re trying to achieve.

IS: In terms of becoming a top cosmetic dentist, what are some of the best courses to take?

MA: Our course is really good. It’s hands on. You definitely have to know the basics. You have to know as much as you possibly can. Knowing it doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it, however. It’s not until you do it and make mistakes that you’ll really learn and be better the next time around. Anything that’s hands on will give you experience.

IS: If Dr. Apa had a tagline or taglines, how would you like to be defined?

MA: I would say trendsetter. The whole purpose of what I am trying to do is give people a different light as to what people’s vision of dentistry is … from both the dentist’s and patient’s perspective.

IS: What advice do you have for young dentists who aspire to be the next Dr. Apa?

MA: First of all, you have to work really, really hard. People think that this happened overnight for me. It didn’t. It took a lot of work. I always say when everybody else was sleeping, I was working. When you work a couple of extra hours every day, it adds up. The other thing is, use social media. Use the Internet as much as possible — resources such as DentalXP. It gives you such a good foundation. You know, I didn’t have that coming out; I only had Larry (Dr. Rosenthal).

IS: Some may consider you already on the Mount Rushmore of dentists, at least for your generation. What keeps you going?

MA: Years ago, Larry said something to me that stuck. It’s easy to get to the top; it’s harder to stay there. Dealing with large cases on a daily basis, based on my reputation, that’s the top of your profession. That’s something that most people don’t get the opportunity to do, but I’ve been doing that for a long time. I’ve been trying to make sure that that never goes away. One way I have been trying to make sure is by trying to reinvent the wheel all the time. It’s about never feeling comfortable where you are.

IS: What have you been most proud of in your career?

MA: I never really stopped to think about it. Looking back there have been many milestones that I have reached. Looking forward, one could say, building a 5,000-square-foot facility in Dubai, or the fact that I am launching a product line.

IS: What are some career milestones still left for you to achieve?

MA: I would say continuing to grow the Rosenthal-Apa group and work toward its transition … to continue to grow the Dubai practice … and also launching my product line.

IS: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change about the future of dentistry?

MA: How it’s perceived and how cosmetic dentistry is perceived. It’s interesting — cosmetic dentistry vs. dental implants. Cosmetic dentistry has a negative slant with the general public. Dental implants have a very positive image with the general public. With a dental implant, you have to take a tooth out and drill a titanium screw up into the jaw, something that nobody really knows the longevity of. Everyone thinks it’s permanent. Then you wait four months before you have a tooth. In cosmetic dentistry you go in, you shave 0.3 mm to 0.5 mm off of the front of the tooth, etch the surface, put a piece of porcelain on, which looks beautiful and lasts 15 to 20 years. It comes down to public perception. There have been so many naysayers of cosmetic dentistry since its inception. Half of the dentists who didn’t believe in it scared half of the general population. When patients come in, they are already on the defensive. They want veneers but they don’t want to cut their tooth down. And they don’t want it to look fake. Where does this come from? We don’t cut people’s teeth down. We don’t shave down; we reshape. Also, we are not in the business of making teeth look fake. It’s all about how it’s portrayed.

IS: What could be done to change that perception?

MA: Well, that’s what I am trying to do. That’s what we are all trying do.

IS: Can you name some of the celebrities whom you have treated?

MA: Lea Michelle. The Olsen twins. Dame Dash. Chloë Sevigny.

IS: If Michael Strahan came to you ...

MA: I would tell him not to touch his gap. I would tell him not to touch it.

IS: If you could change the smile of someone with a high profile, who would it be?

MA:Timothy Olyphant.

IS: Could you elaborate on your vision of the type of dental career you wanted to have when you were starting out.

MA: You look at someone like Larry. He is fun and exciting. He’s out there mingling with the press and the general public. For me, it was to be at the top of my profession with the type of lifestyle I wanted to have. I wanted to do all of this that I am doing now — to get to travel and create beautiful smiles … have fun while I was doing it … to make it all work.

IS: Who was most influential in your time at NYU?

MA: John Calamia.

IS: What is your typical schedule like at the NYC office?

MA: Monday to Thursday I get in at 8 a.m. and leave at 7 p.m. We do our cases at 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. After lunch, we go back to work on 14 units, for example, or to reshape someone’s bite. It’s either prep or insert.

IS: How about Dubai? What is a typical schedule like there?

MA: On average we’d work three days in a row and see about 10 to 11 patients in a three-day span — three to four patients per day — Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

IS: How do you see the future of dentistry?

MA: I think that it’s going to progress. People will understand that what we are doing is not cutting down teeth and giving Chiclets. We’re improving the overall health and function. I think that cosmetic dentistry is always going to involve multidisciplinary specialties. I think that the lab component is very important … to use a team approach. I think the office of the future will have everyone under one roof to comprehensively treat a case.

Iman Sadri, DDS, is a cosmetic dentist and writer. He is a 2008 graduate of the NYU College of Dentistry and maintains a private practice in Orange County, Calif. Contact him by email at [email protected].