BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - The woman known as China's answer to Michael Jackson for her love of plastic surgery believes she's been under the knife 40 or 50 times since 1985 -- it's been so often, that she doesn't really remember.
Shi Sanba, 55 and herself a plastic surgeon, has had operations to smooth wrinkles, fold her eyelids, raise her nose, shape her chin, firm her chest, flatten her belly -- and more.
"I liked being pretty from childhood," Shi told Reuters.
She eagerly pointed out the improvements to her appearance in before and after photos from a pink gator-skin album, and offered to show suitcases more from home.
But Shi has faced the knife for more than physical perfection. The chain-smoking former Chinese opera performer has earned a fortune -- and renown -- running her own cosmetic surgery clinic in Beijing, with nearly 80 doctors and nurses.
"Since I am in this business, I have to continue to try different, new materials for plastic surgery so I can tell my clients first-hand information, such as how I feel when I have them inside my body," Shi said.
About 1 million people get cosmetic operations each year in China, most commonly eye and nose modifications, according to Chinese media. Official figures estimate the industry's value at $2.4 billion annually, and it's growing.
Thousands of plastic surgery clinics have mushroomed across China with the rise of an urban middle class on the back of booming economic growth, but Shi's profile and charisma has shot hers to the front.
Shi Sanba grew up in poor and landlocked central Henan province under Mao Zedong's austere and often dreary Communist rule, when plastic surgery was a unimaginable concept and feminine beauty frowned upon.
But "as the standard of living has risen, so has the definition of success," she said, adding competition for jobs has made good looks more important.
After getting divorced in 1984, Shi resolved to mend the facial flaws she said had hindered her and launched a new career.
She became a cosmetic surgeon herself for more than 10 years before opening her clinic in Beijing about a decade ago.
The clean white lobby at the clinic breathes narcissism. It is decorated with long mirrors, explanatory diagrams, flawless post-surgery portraits and a wax sculpture of Shi and two clients.
Its prolific advertising draws women of all ages searching for boosts to their confidence, love lives or job prospects.
"There's a saying that puts it well, which is that beauty is competitive power," said Shi Jing, an 18-year-old waiting in the clinic for nose surgery.
Looking good could make it easier to stand out in a country of 1.3 billion, she said. "In an interview, how is it possible for them to discover things about you in a three, short minutes."
This competition for everything, and the belief that good looks give an edge, has helped Shi secure a home in Beijing's expensive and fashionable business district and send her son to study in the United States.
Shi says she has no regrets, though the comparison to Michael Jackson irks her.
"The key difference between me and Michael Jackson is that he violated the laws of nature, while I am following them," Shi said. "How can you change yourself from black to white?"
Writing by Beijing newsroom, editing by Miral Fahmy