Rereading this story takes me back to the Houston of the nineties, one that seems more provincial—and a little sillier, and a little more fun—than the one I now call home. The city then seemed to have a knowable cast of characters. One of them was a kind of nerdy plastic surgeon named Franklin Rose; another was a flamboyant trial lawyer named John O’Quinn. Rose was known for his work enhancing the breasts of local women, in particular the women who danced at the “gentlemen’s clubs,” the growing number of faux-fancy topless bars in town. O’Quinn was known for winning big judgments in personal injury cases involving breast implants that leaked, exploded, or otherwise harmed the wearer. In the case of both men’s careers, the word “huge” keeps coming to mind, describing both Rose’s finished work and O’Quinn’s awards in court.
I didn’t yet see the link between these two guys when I started the piece that came to be known as “Silicone City,” and I certainly didn’t think it was a candidate for a National Magazine Award (it was a finalist in feature writing in 1996). All I knew was that I kept hearing about lawyers who were making a lot of money both for women who wanted their breast implants taken out and for themselves.
I discovered that the breast implant wasn’t just being litigated in Houston; it had also been invented and launched into international infamy from here, thanks to the proliferation of those gentlemen’s clubs and the likes of Anna Nicole Smith, who worked in them before she became famous as an unusually well-endowed Playboy centerfold. I wouldn’t say the lawsuits represented the end of the story—lots of women are still getting bigger and/or better chests, and, unlike in the past, far fewer are getting sick in the aftermath. But I would say the piece holds up pretty well as a paradigm for the predictable phases of Houston innovation and entrepreneurship: an idea is born; lots of folks get rich off it; the lawsuits start.
The cover photo, of ample breasts barely contained by a low-cut neckline, probably wouldn’t run today. But it was, as the saying goes, a different time, with different sensibilities. Even so, my husband’s suggestion back then of “BoobTown” as a possible cover line lost out in favor of the safer “Silicone City.”
But you know what? Twenty-seven years later, I still like BoobTown better.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Silicone City.” Subscribe today.