■ The dentist, 50, on how a phobia turned into a career, working through years of IVF and filming Ten Years Younger
Is it true you had a phobia of going to the dentist?
When I was seven I had a tooth extracted with no anaesthetic and it was horrendous. My mum wasn’t there, I thought the dentist was going to give me an ice cream and he just yanked this tooth out instead. It left me with a phobia of going to the dentist — but that illogical fear I still have makes me a much better dentist because I can normally sense if somebody tenses and I really respond quickly. It’s my mission to make sure nobody experiences any pain at all at my surgeries. I originally wanted to be a doctor but after work experience I realised being a dentist had more scope because it would allow me to care, do the medical work and also run a business. When I told my dad I was going to be a dentist he fell about laughing because the last time he had taken me to the dentist I screamed so loudly the waiting room emptied!
But there’s a lot of studying. . .
It’s hard work, there’s no way around it. Getting into Guy’s Hospital to study dentistry was huge but I still remember studying for my finals. I’d be so tired I’d cry myself to sleep and I’d wake up and cry because I’d been asleep and wasted studying time. I went to Brighton for my vocational training and then St George’s Hospital in Tooting where we were referred difficult cases from around the UK. That ignited my love of aesthetics, so I saved to study aesthetic dentistry at the New York University (Rosenthal Institute) followed by a second Masters in aesthetic dentistry at the University of Manchester. If people ask why I’m so expensive, I say, ‘You’re paying because I know what to do if things go wrong.’
Are demands in the UK different to the US?
Ironically, I now go to the US to lecture on how to create British-style, natural-looking smiles as we have a gift here of restoring what we have and making it more beautiful. Also, the UK is more health focused. If I recommend braces first to someone here, they’ll do it, whereas in the US they want immediate results, whatever the cost.
How was it starting a business?
I bought a private practice in London’s Goodge Street and I inherited just two patients, all the staff left and I didn’t have a clue how to run a business. It’s hard to get started through word of mouth with cosmetic procedures because Brits don’t want to admit to any work they’ve had done.
What was your first big smile makeover?
My first case was during training in the US. You had to work on a live patient so I took my hairdresser, who was so self-conscious about her teeth she’d only smile with her lips. She had very short, worn teeth and I still remember her delight when I gave her eight veneers to strengthen and lengthen them — and how excited I felt about her transformation.
What does the perfect smile cost?
My first full paying case was a teacher who had just divorced and was using part of her settlement to rebuild her confidence. I was invited to her second wedding three years later, so it must have worked.
What’s been your lowest point?
When my dad died 15 years ago. I found out in the middle of treating a patient. I was called out by my receptionist and told the news but went back and finished because the patient was phobic and I knew what a big thing it was for her. I got through by fixing on the work, and that helps me with my TV job now. I can zone out from the cameras. It was also very tough losing my sister Nikru in 2016, aged 37, from a brain tumour. She worked with me and was my best friend. I miss her so much.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few?
I didn’t have a clue how to run a business and in the early days I had issues trusting staff. I’ve learned that gut feelings are always proved right — and I must not be so fast to hire on potential alone because people don’t always rise to that. I took two years off to raise my daughter at the height of my practice because I had waited so long for motherhood and I wanted to enjoy it.
Is it tough being a working mum?
I’m not someone who fails at stuff but I never realised how hard it could be to get pregnant. From the ages of 40 to 45, every year it was IVF. I had five rounds of fertility treatment and I don’t mind telling people because there’s this shame around it and I wish there wasn’t. It takes so much courage to inject a needle into your own stomach because you want to become a mum so much. Women should feel proud. My daughter is four and I walked away from the practice to focus on her. When I returned, I was surprised at how much confidence I’d lost. It’s taken a while getting used to juggling motherhood and dentistry. I used to rush out from work to get the 5.20pm train home. One day, everything went wrong with my train connections and when I got home the nanny said, ‘She’s just gone to sleep.’ I just bawled my eyes out.
How did your TV work start?
A producer came to see me and I had to send examples of my work and give them a list of patients. I love getting to know the people. One lady was like a little mouse but by the end she was laughing and wearing red lipstick. People ask me why it’s always women we choose — we’re the ones who let ourselves go because we’re busy nurturing other people.
‘Write to ten people you admire and ask if they have time for a coffee (so they know you won’t keep them long). Ask their advice and act on it.’
Salary: £30,000 to £150,000-plus with experience.
Regular hours? Yes, with some evening surgeries.
Short and sweet advice: People skills matter.
■ Okoye is the clinical director of the London Smiling dental group, londonsmiling.com. 10 Years Younger In 10 Days is on C5, Thursdays, 9pm