A rocky edge: just what the doc­tor or­dered

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

You know those medics in Amer­i­can hos­pi­tal dra­mas who are far too good-look­ing to be real? Meet Chan­drima Biswas, the world’s most glam­orous doc­tor apart, pos­si­bly, from Doug Ross MD – al­though ru­mour has it he was a fic­tional char­ac­ter played by Ge­orge Clooney.

Dr Biswas wears McQueen to work. And Jonathan Saun­ders, Saint Lau­rent, Stella Mc­Cart­ney and the odd bit of Zara – any­thing to cheer her­self and the pa­tients up. “And it does. You’d be sur­prised. It breaks the ice,” she says.

You can see how her flo­ral dresses, stripy blaz­ers and pearl neck­laces (that’s a work con­ces­sion: she keeps the emer­alds and chan­de­lier ear­rings for when she’s off duty) must brighten up a drab NHS ward. You can even take her word when she says that if she has to talk to pa­tients about obe­sity, they lis­ten to her – and in­creas­ingly of­ten, she does have to talk about it. Obe­sity is a topic close to her heart.

“Women with a BMI of 30 dou­ble their chances of mis­car­ry­ing. Over 35, and the sta­tis­tics are even worse. Over 40, it’s hor­ri­fy­ing”. She thinks that as a work­ing mother of two who takes care of her­self, she’s more likely to be lis­tened to than a doc­tor who’s clearly put their ap­pear­ance at the bot­tom of their pri­or­i­ties. I can buy that, al­though I can see it could also cut the other way. But what re­ally strikes me is that she doesn’t ever seem to have wor­ried that not sup­press­ing such an un­abashed en­joy­ment of clothes would make it harder to be taken se­ri­ously.

Even as a med­i­cal stu­dent at St Thomas’ Hos­pi­tal she was rum­mag­ing around the bar­gain bins at Bruce Old­field, scor­ing gold Jimmy Choos and get­ting her jeans hand-painted in Thai­land. “The view that you can’t have style and sub­stance is so out­dated,” she says. “I know some women still feel that if they draw at­ten­tion to them­selves by dress­ing well they’ll be seen as friv­o­lous, but if what comes out of your mouth is se­ri­ous then in the end, peo­ple take you se­ri­ously.”

Since Dr Biswas was re­cently ap­pointed lead ob­ste­tri­cian of five NHS hos­pi­tals in north Lon­don I think we must ac­cept that she’s some­thing of an ex­pert at be­ing taken se­ri­ously.

Then again, you can’t ques­tion her com­mit­ment. Two days be­fore she took me on a tour of her wardrobe(s) she worked a 15-hour shift on the ward. And any minute now she’s head­ing off to Kenya to school mid­wives and doc­tors in new ways of recog­nis­ing and deal­ing with natal haem­or­rhages, a ma­jor cause of ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity in child­birth.

This comes 15 months af­ter she com­pleted a suc­cess­ful course of chemo and ra­dio­ther­apy. In Septem­ber 2011, she was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. Two years ear­lier she split up from her hus­band. Her fa­ther, who re­cently died and to whom she was so close that he and her mother live in a flat in her house, also had can­cer. It wasn’t the hap­pi­est of pe­ri­ods.

The plus points, she says – and I don’t think she’s de­ploy­ing gal­lows hu­mour – was that she lost 5kg in the fort­night af­ter her hus­band left, “and thanks to the chemo my skin was amaz­ing – translu­cent”. Her hair fell out, but she bought her­self a topqual­ity wig and some tat­tooed eye­brows, wore thick eye­liner to com­pen­sate for los­ing her lashes and on days when she felt too tired and sick even to read, went shop­ping on Net-a-porter.com. On good days she was work­ing out with Matt Roberts.

I don’t think I’ve ever met any­one so un­en­cum­bered by An­glo-Saxon pu­ri­tanism as Dr Biswas. She’s not say­ing that clothes are a re­place­ment for friend­ship or love. In fact, she knows that she’s hap­pier now than she has been for years be­cause she’s put on weight and cut back on her shop­ping. But she has no qualms about re­sort­ing to re­tail ther­apy.

Per­haps her con­fi­dence to wear Stella un­der her scrubs (no white coats, how­ever; they’ve been banned as they were thought to con­trib­ute to the spread of MRSA) stems from al­ways know­ing she was clever. She de­nies this, but she went to Chel­tenham Ladies Col­lege: “Hor­ri­ble uni­form, with a cloak”. Her daugh­ter Lola now boards there: uni­form, ac­cord­ing to her mother, “like Ver­sace com­pared with the hideous baggy skirts we had to wear”. For sixth form, Biswas at­tended West­min­ster where fa­mously, the boys award the new in­take of fe­males marks out of 10 for “hot­ness” within ev­ery­one’s earshot.

Are we start­ing to build a pro­file here? Then, there was her mother, who taught her to sew all her own clothes and even make pat­terns out of old news­pa­pers.

By her early thir­ties, home sew­ing was a thing of the past. By then, her first hus­band, a banker, had, as she some­what un­der­states, “be­gun to do quite well at work”. They would both go to Matches, the de­signer bou­tique in Not­ting Hill and spend thou­sands on clothes.

“The funny thing is, I think it ac­tu­ally sti­fled my style. You end up buy­ing just for the sake of it. I ac­quired lots of things that weren’t quite right. Then I started to dress re­ally cor­po­rately in black trouser suits.” McQueen black trouser suits, mind.

She’s much more thought­ful in the way she buys now, she says. “I have to be. I’m back to liv­ing on a doc­tor’s salary.” She also knows ex­actly what suits her shape – and since her mar­riage ended she’s also dis­cov­ered her own in­ter­ests again – art, indie mu­sic and go­ing to watch Arse­nal, a pas­sion she shares with her new part­ner, a mu­sic PR whose clients have in­cluded David Bowie and Led Zep­pelin.

This new life shapes the way she dresses now. “Con­ser­va­tive but with a rocky, eth­nic edge,” she de­cides, be­fore show­ing me a cape with a col­lar made from zips that she stum­bled across in New York (tell me that’s not a re­vis­i­ta­tion of her school uni­form) and her (many) colour­ful dresses.

She’s mov­ing soon, from her large Hamp­stead house to one in Bel­size Park. If she ever has a yard sale, it should be a goodie.

My uni­form At week­ends, it’s jeans, leather jack­ets and (not too) short skirts. Dur­ing the week at hos­pi­tal I ramp it up. It’s ei­ther that or scrubs.

Most prized cloth­ing An em­broi­dered eth­ni­clook­ing McQueen jacket from 2002. I paid £5,000 – a ridicu­lous amount. But I’m still wear­ing it.

Heels or flats? Myfeet are a weird shape. I can’t go higher than 9cm (3in) heels. I like Acne an­kle boots for com­fort and Ru­pert San­der­son shoes be­cause they’re high but not too nar­row.

Hot date? Blue leop­ard-print play suit or some­thing by McQueen. I like to showmylegs – or at least from the knee down.

In­spi­ra­tions? I’m still a sucker for a rock star. In­mytwen­ties, I’d wait out­side stage doors for them. The most hor­ri­ble was Lou Reed who told us to get lost, but in more forth­right lan­guage. I still love

his mu­sic and style.

Best fash­ion ad­vice Dress to suit your shape. I’m short-waisted. I now get ev­ery­thing al­tered to fit meat De­signer Al­ter­ations (de­sign­er­at­er­a­tions.co.uk). It doesn’t mat­ter how much you spend. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t look good.

Di­a­monds or pearls? Both. My­hus­band gaveme lots of re­ally good jew­ellery, but I don’t of­ten wear it. I like eth­nic stones that I buy in Jaipur. The emer­alds and di­a­monds aren’t nec­es­sar­ily top grade but they look cooler and you get a lot of stone for your money.

Hide and seek: Chan­drima Biswas, right, on a Mies van der Rohe chair, in a Jonathan Saun­ders dress. Above: Lou Reed rock­ing the An­drog­y­nous Pier­rot look in 1973. Be­low: Nada pumps, £375, from Ru­pert San­der­son; ru­pert­sander­son. com

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