Singing Fil-Am doctor’s life is an immigrant success story
LOS ANGELES –She’s the quintessential daughter of immigrants who made good – a doctor known as America’s Favorite Dermatologist – who effortlessly flutters from work to sing a duet with Gabby Concepcion or Rico Puno or pal around with Paula Abdul.
Dr. Tess Mauricio has serious credentials. After finishing summa cum laude with a degree in biochemistry and cell biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Dr. Tess went on to graduate at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The board certified dermatologist is the youngest woman to serve as the president of the San Diego Society for Dermatologic Surgery. UCSD honored Tess as a distinguished alumna with the Warren College Alumni Award last year.
With her vibrant personality and articulateness, Dr. Tess is often sought as a dermatology expert in TV shows, from “The Talk,” “Dr. Phil,” “Rachael Ray” to “The Dr. Show.”
Like many immigrants, Dr. Tess’ successful pursuit of the American Dream was not easy. “My family and I moved to the US in 1984,” she recalled. “I was twelve and the oldest of four kids. My youngest sister Angela was only a few months old. It was very difficult for us. The six of us lived in a two-bedroom cockroach- and-rat-infested apartment in one of the worst parts of San Diego.
“As new immigrants, my parents had to take any job that was offered to them so they were gone from 3 pm to midnight. I took on the role of caretaker for my younger siblings. I also felt a deep responsibility to help our family get out of poverty and make it. I don’t think I ever really felt like a kid and carefree because I was always responsible and focused to succeed. Failure was not a choice.”
That kid became the founder of M Beauty Clinic by Dr. Tess, which has three branches in California – Beverly Hills, San Diego and Chula Vista, and helped pioneer such dermatology technological advances as the Time Machine and Almi Procedures. With her reputation as a respected cosmetic surgeon and expertise in regenerative medicine and women’s health, Dr. Tess has been featured in various publications, from The Hollywood Reporter to Cosmopolitan UK.
Yet, what I found endearing in Dr. Tess is that she finds time to guest in Filipino shows and enjoys every minute of it, whether she’s singing “Magkasuyo Buong Gabi” with Rico or “I’ll Take Care of You” with Gabby.
“Life is about balance,” said Dr. Tess, who also juggles her hectic schedule as the wife of Dr. James Lee and mom of Jana and Michael. “We prioritize what is important to us. My family and I love music and concerts. I love OPM songs because these are the songs I grew up with. It is a dream for me to have the opportunity to perform with some of my music idols and I would not want to miss that chance.”
On her musical collaboration with Gabby, Dr. Tess shared, “My brother Rick composed beautiful songs. Gabby is one of my celebrity patients and our family friend. We had this idea to ask Gabby to sing the songs and he said yes. So we booked a recording studio in Manila and we created a whole CD full of Rick’s original songs featuring Gabby and me.
“And of course, to complete the whole singer/MTV experience, we filmed music videos to go with the duet Gabby and I sang together titled, ‘I’ll Take Care of You.’ It was a fun and surreal experience that I’m sure millions of women fantasize about and I am happy to say I got to do.”
Dr. Tess further explained why she loves working with Gabby. “My duets with Gabby are special to me because he is one of my ultimate favorite heartthrobs and of course, since I am his dermatologist and I have kept him looking youthful with my signature Time Machine Procedure. There is a sense of pride when people comment on how good he looks.”
As for her most recent show guesting in LA, a chance to belt with Rico, she said, “He is my mom’s favorite singer of all time. I remember my mom pregnant and about to deliver my sister Cheryl but she still insisted on going to a Rico Puno concert. That’s how much she loves him. So it was an amazing experience to sing with a legend. It was so fulfilling to know I have made my mom very happy and I am proud to say Rico said I sang well.”
She cited other talents she has shared the stage with. “I had the opportunity to sing with The Stylistics and my parents loved it. I also sang ‘Lean on Me’ with the Grammy award winning group Club Nouveau when they played with the Commodores. I sang part of ‘Brick House’ with the Commodores on a local news show in San Diego. I’m still really good friends with JD Nicholas of the Commodores. Of course, I was thrilled to have performed with OPM legends Rico, Kuh Ledesma, Cecile Azarcon and Nonoy Zuniga.”
Some of Dr. Tess’ Hollywood clients become her friends, like singer Paula Abdul. “I am struck by how truly humble and down-to-earth talented icons like Paula are. One night, we had dinner at Paula’s house. She cleaned up after all of us and even took the trash out herself.
“We often spend nights at Paula’s Beverly Hills house. We just watch TV till the wee hours with our pajamas on and eat midnight snack like chips and ice cream. No maids, no entourage, no pretense, just friends hanging out and being real. It’s so refreshing and inspiring. You start putting fame and fortune in perspective.”
The Grammy and Emmy winning Paula even gives clothes to Dr. Tess. “Paula really loves to take care of her friends,” she said. “And she is grateful that I keep her looking amazing. I am very lucky since Paula and I are perfect body doubles. I don’t even have to spend any money on alterations. What’s not to love?
“She has beautiful clothes – some have not been worn at all and many worn only once. She gave me the dress she wore in one of the ‘American Idol’ season finales. I haven’t worn it yet. Since she knows I enjoy fashion, it brings her so much pleasure to give me her clothes and of course, it thrills me to wear them. Her clothes are so special. I love her sense of style.”
One of Dr. Tess’ favorite songs is “Ako Ay Pilipino.” “I do still feel very Filipino even though I have spent a big part of my life in the United States and my home is here,” she explained. “But I still feel very emotional when I sing ‘Ako ay Pilipino.’ I will never forget the special moment when I sang this song with Patricia Javier, at Kuya German Moreno’s show, ‘Walang Tulugan,’ shortly before he passed away.”
Asked where her showbiz performing inclinations come from, Dr. Tess laughed and replied, “It’s funny. Neither of our parents sing but my siblings and I do. My mom always stressed the importance of performing and sharing our talents to make people happy. My brother and I were lead singers for the Filipino American Senior Citizens Association (Fasca) band while we were in high school and college.
“I studied for my pre-Med classes at UCSD during the week and on the weekends, I performed with the band. And I still graduated summa cum laude. I was practicing for how to balance my eventually busy life without even knowing it.”
On how she met Dr. James, a Korean American with degrees from Yale and Stanford, Dr. Tess replied, “He and I were classmates at Stanford Medical School. We met across the anatomy table in cadaver lab! The joke is that we both looked and smelled much better than the cadavers so I guess it was instant attraction for both of us.
“But at the time, we were both in serious relationships. Being the oldest son in a traditional Korean family, he was supposed to marry a Korean woman so there were lots of drama before we got married. We just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary and still going strong.”
Doctors Tess and James, both attractive, smart and accomplished, are among the most popular couples in the Fil-Am community scene in Southern California. But in 2010, their life together almost came crashing down. Dr. James, one of the country’s top anesthesiologists, collapsed while working on a surgery in an operating room.
Dr. James was found to have a brain tumor. Soon, he couldn’t function at all – he couldn’t even brush his teeth nor tie his shoes. While chemo shrank the tumor and restored much of his brain function, Dr. James was told he was not going to be able to return to his normal self. He fell into depression.
While this grim news was also a blow to Dr. Tess, she bravely carried on. “My father had his own medical issues while I was growing up,” she said. “He broke his back when I was in high school. Then he had a heart attack in his early 40s. That put us in deep financial difficulties. We eventually lost our home. I saw how my mom worked two jobs and kept the family together and tried very hard to not let the sad circumstances of our life affect our family and our happiness.
“I learned well from my mom. It was my turn to be a supportive wife to James as we struggled to treat him and as he recovered from his brain tumor. I became the main breadwinner, while keeping the family together and not letting the situation affect our kids and people around us.
“I relied on my faith. I prayed constantly. My family helped us a lot (my parents live with us and my siblings all live nearby). I always believed God has a plan and trust that just like my Dad, who is in his 70s and doing great, someday James will be healthy again.”
Just as Dr. James was recovering from his brain tumor, he had a major neck surgery for cervical stenosis two years ago which further challenged the San Diego-based power couple.
“We look at our experiences as a reminder of what truly is important in life,” Dr. Tess said. “And also how much we take things for granted. We always try to live life to the fullest and look at life as an adventure.”
From these hurdles, Tess and James created something positive. Tess commented, “Out of our desire to optimize James’ brain health after his brain tumor and chemotherapy, we were able to use our biochemistry and medical backgrounds to create the most complete brain supplementation program, Liveli (as in livelihood). Liveli has over 70 natural ingredients, many backed by scientific studies, that provide our brain with the precursors and building blocks to help optimize mental focus, sleep and brain restoration.
“We know we will help many people live their best lives. Liveli is a continuation of our vocation as doctors to make a difference. Our goal is to see Liveli being used worldwide and for Liveli to help us be healthier, happier and live life to the fullest.”
Looking ahead, Tess said, “We now celebrate small victories. We are grateful for health, family and love. We have the best time together.”
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