Dr. Oz is like ginger ale.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., can relate to anyone. That’s why his wife, Lisa Oz, calls him a ginger ale person. Because he’s the perfect mixer.
She recalls a time early in their marriage when a friend took them to a bar where members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club were hanging out. Oz wasn’t fazed by the bikers’ long beards, gruff voices or black leather jackets emblazoned with sharp silver studs.
Instead, he was fascinated by them, asking question after question about their bikes, despite having never ridden a motorcycle in his life.
“At the same time, he can go eat with prime ministers and presidents,” Lisa says. “You could be a fireman, you could be a Nobel [Prize-winning] physicist, you could be a stay-at-home mom. He doesn’t care. He’s actually curious about what you do, who you are and what makes you tick.”
Affectionately known by many as “America’s Doctor,” Oz has spent the last decade becoming a familiar face in millions of households as the host of The Dr. Oz Show. His health-based talk show explores everything from preventing type 2 diabetes and the importance of getting ample sleep to the best superfoods and tips for managing stress. Oz has developed an unparalleled sense of trust with the American public because of his innate ability to relate to anyone.
ASHLEY GALLERANI PHOTOGRAPHY / PHOTOSESH
Oz is a Harvard University graduate. He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon at Columbia University. He has written eight New York Times best-selling novels. He has his own magazine. He has nearly a dozen Emmy Awards. And his followers on social media number in the millions.
But his primary focus over the last decade—the thing that keeps him going year after year?
“To get you to realize your best years are ahead of you and not behind you.”
Related: 5 Attitudes For Aging Gracefully
At age 7, Oz stood in line behind a 10-year-old boy at Petersen’s Ice Cream, a small shop in Wilmington, Delaware. Oz’s father, Mustafa, asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I don’t know, I’m 10,” the boy replied. He grabbed his strawberry ice cream cone and walked away.
As Oz ordered vanilla fudge, his favorite flavor, his dad shot him a stern look.
“I’m going to ask you that same question, and I never want to hear that answer,” his father said. “You can change your mind—that’s your prerogative—but you never want to have an aimless destiny. You want to be targeting something.”
Oz pondered his father’s question, unaware that he was shaping the rest of his life through this seemingly insignificant moment at an ice cream shop.
“I think I’ll be a doctor,” he said.
Mustafa was a thoracic surgeon who specialized in the lungs and esophagus. Oz visited Mustafa’s hospital often, and was fascinated by how people wanted to see his father despite the fact that he was pricking them with needles. Oz believed there was something magical about medicine, and he admired the trust formed between patient and doctor.
“I thought, There’s something deeper here that I can tap into that might be enjoyable for the rest of my life,” he says, adding that he appreciated the endless learning experience medicine provided. “I also began to realize that [medicine] was a huge field. You never truly know everything. I liked that because that means you can continue to explore your whole life.”
Oz’s parents currently live in Turkey. His father is 93 and his mother, Suna, is 80. They met in Istanbul, despite circumstances that should have kept them apart. His mother’s family was very affluent, while his father’s family was dirt poor, Oz says. They met because his father’s sister was a seamstress who made his mother’s dresses.
Mustafa and Suna fell in love, got married and moved to Cleveland—where Oz was born in 1960—for Mustafa’s medical training. Oz and his two sisters, Seval and Nazlim, spent summers in Turkey as children. He even served in the Turkish military, and therefore holds dual citizenship.
Oz’s parents remained in the U.S. until his youngest sibling left home for college. He believes growing up in an immigrant household colored the way he saw the world.
“It was a pretty traditional immigrant household,” Oz says. “You don’t really understand all the rules. We spoke Turkish at home, English at school. I was a bit of an outsider. But at the same time, you see the world through different perspectives for that reason. I think a lot of immigrants process the world a little differently.”
Oz received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where he played both football and water polo. He then obtained both his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his MBA from the university’s Wharton School of Business before completing his medical residency at Columbia University in New York City. Immediately following his training in 1993, he accepted a staff position at Columbia and became a professor in 2001.
After several years working as a heart surgeon, Oz began to find his job disheartening.
“I would come home after a long day of operating on people knowing that some of these folks could have avoided me taking a band saw to their chest and opening them up if they’d known just a little bit about the lifestyle choices they were making—the cigarettes they were smoking, the weight they were carrying, the diabetes they were tolerating,” he says. “All of these classic risk factors that dramatically change the need for someone like me to do surgery on you.”
Related: How to Know If You’re Healthy Enough
His frustration grew, and he complained to Lisa.
“Well, why don’t we do a show together?” Lisa asked. She was an actress, and had experience working in TV. She would be the show’s producer, she said, and Oz would be the host.
They decided to go for it. Their show, Second Opinion with Dr. Oz, premiered in 2003 on the Discovery Channel and ran for 13 episodes. Oz was lauded for his ability to create high-quality animations that made certain health topics easy to comprehend.
“The one talent I may have that’s unique in my success is that I’m a popularizer,” Oz says. “I can take really complicated ideas and make them accessible. I know how to get people to understand stuff they don’t think they can understand.”
Oprah Winfrey was the first guest on his show.
“Aim for success,” Oz says, laughing. He admits that he had no business being so bold as to ask Oprah to be on his show. But he did it anyways. “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”
Following her appearance on Second Opinion, Oprah asked Oz to be a medical expert on her show. His appearances on her show grew with each passing week. Oprah eventually asked Oz if he would like to partner with her and host his own show produced by Harpo, her production company. It was 2009.
Now, 10 years later, The Dr. Oz Show, which is filmed in New York City, has aired hundreds of episodes and has a presence in over 100 countries.
DON GUTIERREZ / © 2018 SONY PICTURES TELEVISION
One of the keys to the show’s success has been the ability to relate complex messages to people of all different backgrounds, says Amy Chiaro, executive producer for The Dr. Oz Show.
“When we launched, the first iPad hadn’t been released,” says Chiaro, who has been with the show since it started in 2009. Currently, around 150 people work on the show. “Now we all manage in a world with just too much information coming at us 24/7. The brain is not equipped to deal with this level of constant input. The show is meant to be a place to make sense of what you are hearing about and sometimes being bombarded with so you can make the best decisions for you.”
Oz is proud of the strides his show has made in the past 10 years. “I’m a host, but I’m actually a guest in people’s homes,” Oz says. “To be a guest continually, every day for 10 years, you need to bring them something that’s not obtainable elsewhere.”
He still finds his role as a heart surgeon meaningful, and performs surgeries one day a week.
Related: 7 Tips to Keep Your Heart Healthy
“I really treasure being a physician,” he says. “I don’t practice medicine on the show, but I’m a doctor always. And I feel that’s what gives me the gravitas to address issues that people might not be willing to listen to from others.”
Michael Argenziano, M.D., chief of adult cardiac surgery at Columbia University Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital, has seen Oz’s career up close. “Even now that he is doing bigger and better things, he still comes back to the hospital, he still sees patients and he still operates.”
Argenziano has known Dr. Oz since the 1990s, when Oz was a resident and Argenziano was a medical student. They became close friends, and still perform surgery together to this day.
“When he was just a resident, he was asking questions that weren’t asked before,” Argenziano says. “He had a confidence and a willingness to think out of the box and push boundaries, even then. Mehmet, from the very beginning, was the one to break the mold and ask tough questions. He’s been an innovator and pioneer since the first day.”
A Trusted Voice
“Today, a health headline that’s going to want to make you check your medicine cabinet,” Oz says. Hundreds cheer loudly behind him. He’s wearing a gray suit with a white dress shirt—no tie, top button undone—his requisite on-air outfit.
“OTC pain relievers and other medications, when they’re used properly, they’re safe,” he says, pausing. “But there’s a surprising ingredient in them that may be contributing to your anxiety and depression.”
He proceeds to ask the live studio audience if they’re ready for a short mini quiz. “Yes!” they all cheer in unison, their excitement palpable.
Millions of people across the U.S. have grown to trust Oz’s reassuring, deliberate voice, warm smile and kind eyes. Take a peek at any given show, and you’re likely to see a crowd full of people—mostly women—wide-eyed and beaming.
“Oz has built trust with the audience to keep them on the journey with him,” Chiaro says. “They recognize the impact he has had on their lives. Ten years ago, Greek yogurt was only 1 percent of the yogurt market. Today it is 54 percent. Kale was a garnish, not a salad. No one could pronounce quinoa. Soda consumption is down and transparency in food is an expectation. I think the audience recognizes that Oz has had an impact on their lives and they don’t want to miss new areas of discovery.”
Cultivating this trust with the American public has been a crucial part of Oz’s mission over the past decade.
“Every single day, you go in to people’s homes with the exact same integrity that you brought them the day before—that you’re going to bring again tomorrow,” he says. “That’s what makes people trust you.”
Although his TV show remains his priority, Oz also has a robust social media presence, publishing short health videos on both Facebook Watch and YouTube. His magazine, Dr. Oz The Good Life, explores health topics through longform journalism. And he recently launched a podcast designed to take a more in-depth look at certain topics on his show.
“I think I’ve gotten better at meeting my viewers where they are,” Oz says. “They have a cup they’re going to dip into the stream of information. I want to make sure they have the right cup, and I want to make sure they can reach my stream of information wherever I am.”
MEHMET OZ CHATS WITH OPRAH WINFREY ABOUT WHY SHE NEVER GAVE UP ON LOSING WEIGHT.
Despite his traditional training as a heart surgeon, Oz features segments on his show that would fall under the alternative medicine umbrella. Recent show episodes, for example, have explored the health benefits of turmeric, an Indian herb, as well as how apple cider vinegar can improve one’s skin.
Oz says one source of his willingness to explore alternative approaches to medicine came from his upbringing in a Turkish immigrant household.
“I learned medicine and I respected medicine, but at the same time, I could see that there were other ways of seeing the world,” he says. “It wasn’t just through the lens of a traditional Western-trained physician. So my openness to alternative medicine, my willingness to tackle topics that were unorthodox within Western medicine, was heightened because I grew up in that paradox.”
Lisa, 54, has also had a strong influence on her husband’s openness to alternative medicine.
“When we first met, Lisa impressed me mostly because of her intellect,” Oz says. “She was so smart on things I was completely blind to, in particular the role of a spiritual life. And [she had] deep insights about the stories that govern our culture and our people.”
Lisa’s mother was a minister, and her father, Gerald Lemole, M.D.—also a cardiothoracic surgeon—was very open to nontraditional medical practices. In fact, Lemole was nicknamed Rock Doc by Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s for being the first surgeon to play rock music in the operating room.
“The fact that my dad was very science-based but was still open to alternative ways of healing gave it some credibility for Mehmet,” Lisa says.
Oz’s openness to alternative medicine, however, has drawn him occasional criticism.
He says the most disappointing result of his fame is not criticism, but having his name co-opted and applied as an endorsement to products he doesn’t actually endorse.
“[They are] fake ads,” Oz says. “They’re legal, unfortunately, in America. People can take your name and likeness and pretend you’re selling a weight loss supplement or a skin cream.”
Activists have critiqued his episode topics, such as one episode about the power of prayer for medical miracles.
“You should be getting criticized because if you’re saying things that matter, some people are going to be upset by the change that’s being driven.”
Oz says he always trusts his gut, and doesn’t shy away from doing things he knows will evoke criticism. “I’ve always been desirous of shaking up the status quo, because it makes us stagnant,” he says. “Creativity comes when you stand in the place of security and look out at the chaos and see opportunities to make it better.”
He takes all of the criticism he receives in stride, even joking about a website that was once created by the husbands of wives who watched the Dr. Oz Show called IHateDrOz.com.
“I’ll embrace the criticism, as long as there’s some meaningful commentary behind it,” he says. “You should be getting criticized because if you’re saying things that matter, some people are going to be upset by the change that’s being driven. And I’m in the change business.”
The Path to Longevity
Oz is a family man. He and Lisa were introduced by their fathers, and developed a spark that never faded. They live in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and have been married for 33 years. They have four children, including Daphne Oz, a media personality in her own right who previously hosted The Chew, a nutrition-focused talk show.
Daphne says her father had an immense impact on her decision to also work in the media. “He gets so much joy from being able to connect with and help people,” she says. “TV is such an important way to do that, where you can meet millions of people all at once and in such a personal way.”
Lisa says one of her favorite qualities about her husband is his insatiable curiosity.
“He always wants to learn,” she says. “He is always looking in new places to learn something. And he always wants to grow. He’s never comfortable staying in the same place.”
This never-ending desire to explore fuels one common topic on Oz’s show: how to live a longer life.
When asked what the secret is to living a long life, Oz pauses.
“It all comes back to giving your heart a reason to keep beating.”
For Oz, everything boils down to the reason we’re on this planet. To love and be loved. To find joy. To revel in moments of bliss.
He believes having a profound sense of purpose is what separates those who are deeply happy from those who aren’t. He has seen people who, despite hopeless situations, had well-defined purpose in their lives and a deep desire to fulfill their purpose. They persisted.
“And then some people sort of back their way through life, living at the 15th percentile of who they can be,” Oz says. “They tend not to do as well. Because that drive, that reason that you have to get up in the morning and succeed, isn’t there.”
Ten years ago, Oz started his show with the goal of getting people to care more about their health. His mission has not changed. He tries to help people see that when they prioritize their health, they’re modeling behavior for those around them. Especially when it comes to parents.
“If you don’t show up for yourself in your life, by losing weight, by walking around the block, by eating better food, then [your children] are not going to learn those habits, they’re not going to do it in their lives,” he says.
What Oz truly wants is for people to be around long enough to experience that feeling of true joy that comes from seeing their grandchild’s sweet smile or walking their daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
“Joy is different from happiness,” Oz says. “Happiness is the little bubbles fizzing out of a soft drink. Joy is a deeper appreciation of why this all went down.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.