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Welcome to the Golden Age of Pimple-Popping, Hangnail-Clipping, Gross-Out TV

From ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’ to ‘The Toe Bro’ to ‘Shark Tank,’ medical yuck is going mainstream. Call it cringecore.

A&E/Ringer illustration

Hello. This is a warning. You have clicked on an article about gross bodily functions and medical procedures, and buddy, it is only going to get grosser from here. There will be videos. There will be the word “flesh.” If you identify as a normie—or, especially, if you do not even know what the word “normie” means—this is your opportunity to escape.

The tool that Jonathan Tomines loves the most is the one he calls “the nail ripper.”

It does, well, precisely what it sounds like, and there are a lot of eye-watering verbs I might deploy here to describe its function, but I will leave it at “yank.” But Tomines is not in the business of medieval torture reenactments. Far from it: He—as “the Toe Bro,” an identity that has earned him legions of adoring fans on YouTube—is dedicated to the cause of satisfaction. Specifically, to two kinds: physical, to the relative handful (sorry) who trot into his Toronto-area podiatry practice, and spiritual, to the hundreds of thousands of followers who tune in to the ripping and yanking from afar.

The Toe Bro can now be found on The Toe Bro—an extended-cut, multicam version of his YouTube fodder now midway through its first season on A&E. The episodes follow a familiar reality TV formula: We meet the patient du jour and learn about his or her toe-related plight, then move on to Tomines’s office, where he—a cherubic 31, who beams as his quarries dolefully loosen shoelaces—assesses the ailment. Tomines then does a lot of things that will make you yelp in horrified empathy and, treatment administered, wraps the offending toe in a tidy white gauze. Finally, we cut to a couple of months later, when our previously afflicted subject can be found frolicking and/or wearing sandals.

Tomines is a man of, let’s say, unusual passions. He took over his practice from his father seven years ago, and he now practices in his own right as a foot specialist; about two years ago, he began, with his patients’ consent, taping while he worked and putting the results online. The nail ripper (a less sophisticated observer might simply call it “nightmare pliers”) tops his list of preferred implements because it helps dispatch ingrown nails—one of the most satisfying procedures, he says, for his patients. But all things being equal, he’d prefer a wart, which I regret to relay that he generally addresses with a tool he describes as a “little ice cream scooper.” “Most people don’t know how deep warts are,” he told me warmly this month, “and it’s so cool to see that thing just pop out.”

“The grosser the better,” he says. “People love it. They want more pus. They want more oozing.” He dwells on this last word almost lovingly.

The Toe Bro is not alone. Spurred on by social media and YouTube, a panoply of minor medical ailments and their solutions lie a few keystrokes away, a visceral menagerie of human yuck. The allure is twofold: Most of the videos first repulse and then, after some deft poking and prodding by a gloved hand, give way, leaving newly yuck-free skin behind them—the bodily equivalent of the glitzy, all-white reveal at the end of an episode of Fixer Upper. But footage of hangnails and pus is no longer the stuff of bizarro niches—it has oozed, little by little, into the mainstream, from subreddits to blue check marks to, perhaps, your own living room.

Welcome to the golden age of gross.

At The Ringer, we have a Slack channel specifically devoted to cringe. Recent posts in #terror include a nest of rattlesnakes, myriad Australian nightmares, and botfly larva buried in an entomologist’s flesh. (Do not Google this.) Let the algorithm guide you long enough down the back alleys of YouTube and you might find yourself watching chiropractors elicit frightening cracks from the spines of patients, or stumble across the work of the self-described “Wax Whisperer,” whose videos of ear wax extraction routinely draw millions of views.

Call it cringecore: the polar opposite of ASMR, stuff that’s so mortifying and yet strangely satisfying that you can’t quite tear yourself away from your screen.

The patron saint of cringecore is Dr. Pimple Popper. In 2015, Sandra Lee, a Southern California–based dermatologist, began regularly filming her work and uploading it to YouTube. Her videos took off, to put it mildly: She’s amassed 3 million followers on Instagram and 5 million subscribers on YouTube, where her obliterations of blackheads and lipomas routinely reach seven-figure views. In 2018, she got her own eponymous show on TLC; this past Super Bowl Sunday featured a six-hour Dr. Pimple Popper marathon. You can now purchase a variety of Lee-sanctioned pimple-popping swag, including a “Popaholics Anonymous” T-shirt, official Dr. Pimple Popper blackhead tweezers, and a board game called “Pimple Pete.” (You begin each round by “loading” the “squishy pimples”; “If you pull any pimple too hard,” the rules caution, “you risk setting off the Mega-Zit on his nose—and the pimple juice will spray your way.”)

There were gross-out medical videos before Dr. Pimple Popper, but it was Lee who mastered the form, offsetting the close-ups of bulging cysts with her well-lit office, immaculate scrubs, and eerily soothing bedside manner. You’re not just watching something gross—you’re watching something gross resolve. Lee’s success has inspired legions of faithful to try their hand at yuck. Tomines says he’s a big fan and that her videos’ popularity was the genesis of his decision to start recording his own gnarly foot treatments: “It’s gross and people love it,” he explains, “and I see a lot of gross stuff.” Most patients, he says, have been happy to allow him to set up a tripod as he works—as long as he doesn’t film anything above the ankle. “No one wants to associate their face with their feet,” he says.

He’s not the only person to have gazed upon a blackhead and seen potential.

“I just love gross stuff,” says Summer Pierce of Monroe, Michigan. “Billy and me, we’ll watch videos with pimples—oh my goodness, you name it, we watch it.”

In 2015, she and her husband, Bill Pierce, had an idea: What if they could find a way for people to pop gruesome zits and blackheads like the ones they found so satisfying on Dr. Pimple Popper—but without involving any actual skin? The result was the Pop It Pal, a silicone rectangle about the size of a bar of soap. Fill its tiny holes with thick yellow goo (it’s included—you can buy bottles of refill pus), give it a squeeze, and, with a sickening squish, the toy pore gives way in a geyser of fake pus. It’s revolting. It’s delightful. It’s bubble wrap for the YouTube-addled.

Along with Kayla Roof, Bill’s cousin, they took the Pop It Pal to Shark Tank last year, where the result was, says Pierce, roughly in line with what they’ve found in selling it: “It’s either you love it or you hate it,” she says. In this case, multiple judges were disgusted (quoth guest investor Bethenny Frankel, not completely unfairly: “You just have a demented obsession with popping pimples”); after all, the Shark Tank producer who had originally encouraged the Pierces to apply to be on the show, says Pierce, had cautioned from the start that he didn’t know “if they will approve it for television.”

But approve it they did, and it is now a Shark Tank success story: Roof and the Pierces walked away with a deal with Kevin O’Leary and a competing offer from Mark Cuban. Pierce says they did $614,000 in sales in 2018, and they’ve gone so far as to expand their selection. The Pop It Pal has branched out to marginally less repulsive colors than the original beige and brown: You can now purchase a clear disk that comes with pink-and-blue glitter pus. Who said gross couldn’t be a little bit cute?

“For the most part,” says John Jones, “we went for it on the gore factor. It’s what the people are paying for.”

Jones is vice president of production and development at Half Yard Productions, the production company that makes The Toe Bro, of which he is also an executive producer. Half Yard’s COO, Rossana O’Hop, is an avid YouTuber, says Jones, and was the first to suggest there might be something to Tomines’s videos. “We looked at it and were both mortified and fascinated at the same time,” he says. Half Yard dispatched its casting director to Toronto, got some tape, showed it to A&E, and voilà—the Toe Bro, TV edition.

And, indeed, The Toe Bro has gore: a swimmer whose foot appears to have an advanced case of Greyscale, an alleged mafioso who bids farewell to one nail, and an episode titled “The Nail-Eating Toe.” “I’m not exactly sure what the draw is sometimes,” Jones concedes with a laugh.

It might, perhaps, have something to do with the unvarnished reality of anything that might require the dreaded nail ripper. “Audiences are tired of things feeling contrived. I think the days of the soft-scripted reality [show] are over—there’s a fatigue with something that feels produced.”

Asked if there are any cases that are too gross to film—Tomines says he treats most anything foot-related that does not involve bone—the Toe Bro insists that there is no limit, for him, at least. But he concedes that there is, perhaps, a line in the sand for the viewer at home.

“This is the big thing: Everyone’s pretty lucky there’s no Smell-O-Vision,” he says. “Because if people could smell the stuff I’m working on, it would be a different story. There would be no one watching. Or smelling.”