Los Angeles—It took Dr. Vicki Belo barely six months to plan her latest baby, but she’s been entertaining the idea of taking the plunge for the longest time. In finally doing so, not only did she give up her “preferred” holiday destination, she also had to overcome her fear of America as a “litigious” society.
After 21 years in the beauty business, with eight clinics in Manila and one in Cebu tucked under her slim belt, the “doctor to the stars” finally opened her first clinic in the US last June 6.
American record producer-composer David Foster cut the ceremonial ribbon. Martin Nievera, Gary Valenciano and Las Vegas-based Lani Misalucha were the featured guest performers.
Located at Suite 201 Central Stocker Square, 1160 North Central Avenue, Glendale, California 91202 (less than 30 minutes away from Beverly Hills, Los Angeles), Belo Skin Care provides the same services offered at Belo’s chain of clinics in the Philippines except for invasive procedures such as surgical facelifts, liposuction, nose lifts, and butt, chin and breast enhancements.
These noninvasive services include facials, micro peels, Obagi blue peels, Botox, fillers, unwanted hair removal, intravenous whitening and glutathione treatments, Fraxel and Ulthera. (Call  2445811,  2445816; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
On top of its spacious and well-lit receiving area, Belo Skin Care has nine treatment rooms. Belo asked LA-based Filipino interior designer Alex Pineda to draw inspirations from her flagship clinic in Makati. Thus, instead of going all white akin to a typical spa, Pineda chose to inject vignettes of luxury and a dash of color in the form of sage green, taupe and dove-gray walls.
“I’d like to believe Belo Skin Care is the LA version, done in a smaller scale, of my main clinic at the Greenbelt Residences in Makati,” said Belo. “It’s probably as big as my clinic in TriNoma and the one I closed down in Rustan’s Makati.”
The development not only signals the arrival of Belo Medical Group’s (BMG) brand of beauty treatments in the US, it also strengthens Belo’s position to market the Philippines as a center for medical tourism. A whopping 40 percent of BMG’s market, composed of Filipino-Americans and other ethnicities, comes from the US.
Not only does Belo Skin Care in Glendale expand the Belo brand, said Belo, it also serves, much like her clinic in Paris, as a launching pad to entice tourists to visit the country to avail themselves of more complicated and invasive procedures.
Glendale and its nearby communities have a big Filipino-American population. The area also has a thriving Armenian-American community.
“I used to dream of opening a clinic in Beverly Hills,” she said. “But who am I here? Opening a facility in this location is more realistic.”
Corollary to Belo’s thrust of expanding the business she started 21 years ago was to promote medical tourism in the Philippines. It still baffles her, she said, that the Philippines has yet to achieve Thailand’s status in luring tourists to experience our facilities and brand of service.
After finishing medicine at the University of Santo Tomas, Belo further specialized in dermatology in Thailand. She saw the beginning of that country’s now thriving cosmetic surgery industry.
“I saw how it started and asked myself why it couldn’t be done in the Philippines,” she said. “More so since we speak English so much better and we’re such a caring society. The quality of service our nurses provide is known all over the world.”
Through word of mouth, Belo has also attracted a substantial clientele from Hong Kong, Japan and the Middle East. But after last year’s hostage crisis at Luneta involving a bus-full of Hong Kong tourists, most of her foreign clients are now reluctant to travel to the Philippines.
“I have yet to recover after that unfortunate incident,” she said. “Instead of going to Manila, for instance, interested clients in the Middle East now go to my clinic in Paris, where I also have a partner in the person of Dr. Stravinsky.”
No US license
Apart from being majority owner of the Glendale place, Belo clarified she won’t be treating clients there, as she doesn’t have a license to practice in the US.
The task has fallen on one of her partners, Dr. Eli Alegado, a seasoned Filipino-American dermatologist, who will be assisted by nurse Ronald Cayetano and several aestheticians. Cayetano, who used to head BMG’s Quezon City branch on Tomas Morato Avenue for 15 years, is a licensed doctor in the Philippines.
Completing the triumvirate is Glendale resident and Filipino-American concert promoter Anna Puno. She was responsible for throwing the launch party and bringing in Nievera and company to grace the event. It was Puno, said Belo, who encouraged her to finally give the project a go.
“I’ve always wanted to bring the Belo brand here,” she added. “But the society here is much more different than ours. People here have less respect for doctors. If not for Anna’s assurances, I would never have had the courage to do it.”
Since she won’t be around most of the time, Belo is dependent on Puno, Cayetano and Dr. Alegado to mind the “store.” But knowing how experienced and hardworking they are, Belo says she’s confident they will do a good job.
“Whenever I do my training here and exchange notes with fellow doctors, I get a bit shocked,” she said. “The US is such a litigious society. Clients threaten to sue their doctors even if they have yet to lift a finger. I never want to be in such a situation.”
Thanks to Puno, Belo’s fears have been allayed. But just to make sure, she has limited the menu of Belo Skin Care’s services to the more superficial. She’s inviting potential clients to fly to Manila for concerns that require more dramatic results.
There have been times in the past where BMG had to turn away visiting clients because of questions about their health. Some of them had no medical clearances from their doctors. Belo wants to save them from going through such trouble.
Belo’s motivation to open in the US also stemmed from her critical eye. Whenever she’s in Beverly Hills or some chichi place in LA, it’s common for her to see ladies who lunch with the classic deer-in-the-headlights look.
“There are probably cases which have been done well, and therefore not obvious,” she said. “But some are so obvious that you know immediately they’ve had something done—overfilled lips, cheeks that are too big, the startled look. It has come to a point that they’re all beginning to look alike. I said to myself, maybe there’s room for Filipino aesthetics here.”
With the opening of Belo Skin Care, her only regret is that LA, one of her favorite cities, will now cease to become a venue for rest and recreation. She used to hie off to LA (where her mother, Nena Belo, owns a house) for a week or so to recharge, catch up on sleep and watch TV shows she’d missed.
“God knows I’m so busy whenever I’m in the Philippines. Now I also have to work whenever I’m here. It’s the same thing in Paris,” she sighed.
Although she believes in the power of a story told well—no matter how controversial it sometimes seems—Belo has never been big on strategic planning when it comes to expanding her business. Belo Skin Care is no exception.
“I’m really a go-with-the-wind kind of person,” she said. “I never really plan things in their minutest details. I always say that God is good to everybody. If you plan too much, you end up not seeing the other opportunities He has for you. I’m 54, and I promised myself to slow down soon. That’s why if this venture doesn’t succeed, I won’t feel devastated.”
(This piece is dedicated to good friend and former PDI colleague Leah Salterio, BMG’s current PR and media relations officer. Salterio recently had a stroke hours after arriving in LA from Manila to help oversee Belo Skin Care’s Glendale launch. Get well soon, Leah.)