Dr Shawana Vali is shattered. It’s the end of a busy day tending to patients who see her at her invitation-only clinics, where she uses cutting-edge medicine to help an A-list roster of clients look and feel their very best. And right now, that includes prescribing a significant number of them the no-longer-so-secret weight-loss weapon of the rich and famous: semaglutide.
Elon Musk last month told his 116 million Twitter followers that the drug — sold under a number of brand names including Ozempic and Wegovy — was behind his recent slim-down. After a fan wondered “What’s your secret… lifting weights? Eating healthy?” he responded with an honesty this is maybe uncharacteristic of celebrity. His two-word answer: “Fasting” and “Wegovy”.
Not for him the usual platitudes about starting the morning with a hot water and lemon or “running around after the kids”. But when the world’s wealthiest man unabashedly reveals his new drug of choice, you can bet your bottom dollar the rest of the upper echelons are on it, even if they’re a tad more discreet about the topic.
There are stage whispers from all corners that a stream of A-listers have the same prescription to thank for their new figures, and now the appetite-suppressing injection has hit British shores.
“I’ve seen it used in my clients, [who are] at the top five per cent of the world, for the last 18 months,” says Dr Vali. She calls her method “biohacking”, using a combination of treatments to give her patients the edge — contouring their bodies inside as well as out. Her techniques are so in demand that she’s just opened an outpost at Selfridges. “My clients are top CEOs, members of royal families, people in the public eye, people under a lot of pressure,” she says.
They come to Dr Vali for the jab because it really does work — “I’ve used Ozempic myself,” she shares — but also because she monitors her clients so carefully. When it is not carefully monitored, people can fall foul of the potential side effects, which (as the manufacturers warn) include extreme nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and exhaustion. With the possibility of complications like these, Dr Vali is horrified that the drug is so easily available online — a quick Google search will turn up results for online pharmacies where a few fibs later you can come away with a prescription for a month’s supply for less than £150, and there are plenty of young woman doing just that.
It is being sold to people who will have no idea how to use it safely and have no way of monitoring how it’s affecting them. In her clinic she saw one woman who had ended up in hospital with extreme vomiting and severe dehydration having taken a version of the drug she’d got in Mexico at the wrong dosage.
“If you’re looking to hack your metabolism, you have to do it medically, with someone holding your hand and someone weaning you off, and ensuring at the end, nothing [untoward] has happened to your genetic or your biological makeup,” insists Dr Vali.
This, perhaps, is where the price difference comes in — celebrities in the US are said to be spending upwards of $1,000 a month on their semaglutide supply, and prices for Dr Vali’s patients at her Selfridges outpost are starting at £995.
So how does the drug work?
Semaglutide was originally intended for use in patients with Type 2 diabetes, and is a synthetic form of a hormone known as GLP-1. This hormone is released by the body when we eat, stimulating insulin and preventing the release of another hormone called glucagon, thereby regulating blood sugar levels.
One dealer was offering to sell 5mg vials of semaglutide for £80. He appears to get his supply from Thailand
The simulated GLP-1 also slows down the passage of food from the stomach and suppresses appetite, leading, inevitably, to weight loss. The medication comes in the form of a “pen”, self-injected into the skin of the stomach once a week.
Earlier versions of the drug have existed for nearly 20 years, though it is only recently that semaglutide has been licensed in the US and UK and really begun to catch on. Those taking the jab can find their hunger reduces to a point where they can barely stomach one meal a day. Dr Vali says she could go for days without eating when she was on Ozempic, just drinking Coke Zero. It’s the weight loss that results from this lack of interest in food that’s sent demand for the jabs soaring among those who don’t have diabetes — and who, to you or I, might not look as if they need lose any weight at all.
TV presenter Ellie Phillips is a super-slim size 6 to 8, but has struggled with her weight in the past. She found herself offered a very similar drug known as liraglutide a couple of years ago, via her Instagram — where, due to her role in the public eye, she is often contacted by brands and companies offering her treatments in exchange for exposure.
“They said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this, we can send you a free supply? Just do some before and afters for us.’ I was really interested because I’ve always struggled with binge eating disorder,” says Phillips, 35. “It would really kick in when I’d be hungry, and I’d gorge… I liked the thought that it’s going to suppress my appetite, so I won’t get to the point where I suddenly get uncontrollably hungry and I want to binge.”
The only thing that put her off was a phobia of self-injecting — and the prospect of jabbing herself in the stomach once a week meant she ultimately didn’t take up the clinic’s offer.
But she’s not surprised that the jab could be behind so many seemingly unattainable celebrity bodies. “I do a lot of red carpets. Honestly, I’m not a big person, and my jaw drops sometimes at how thin some of these celebrities are. Some of them look absolutely emaciated.
“Look at actors who’ve had to massively lose weight for a role — they put it down to strict diet and exercise but it wouldn’t shock me if some of them also mix in an appetite suppressant like that. Real A-listers have to really manipulate their bodies to suit a role.”
But if the drug is meant — according to official guidelines — only for those with Type 2 diabetes or for those who are very seriously overweight, how are people with just a few pounds to shed being prescribed it?
It’s not as simple as looking at your BMI, say doctors like Vali and New York endocrinologist Dr Rocio Salas. “What I’ve learned in my clinical experience is that it’s very hard to eyeball who needs this drug or not,” says Dr Salas, who has been seeing patients in her Manhattan weight-loss clinic for decades. “I go beyond BMI. There are other measurements that help me determine who will benefit from this medication. You can have somebody with a completely normal BMI and they may have high percentage body fat or high visceral fat, they may be pre-diabetic. So I don’t think we should assume who needs it and who doesn’t.”
What is key, however, is that the drug is prescribed by a professional and taken under proper supervision. While Ozempic started out available only to those with a severe medical need, it soon became accessible to the elite who simply wanted to optimise their bodies — and where they go, millions inevitably follow. Semaglutide use has since trickled (or perhaps more like flooded) down to thousands of attention-seeking suburban Tik-Tokkers in the US who are openly sharing their weight-loss-jab-journeys on social media for likes and views. And just as haute couture is out of reach for most of us while there are fake Chanel handbags available on the market for a fiver, the boom in this drug’s popularity means there are budget and black market versions of the jab out there, too. Ordered illicitly and taken without medical oversight, social media and even beauty salons in the UK are rife with ways to access semaglutide — or substances claiming to be semaglutide — under the table.
Girls are going online and lying about their BMI to get it — they’ll jab themselves in the stomach with it weekly
During my research for this piece I attracted followers on my own Instagram who are touting the drug on their pages. One dealer was offering to sell 5mg vials of semaglutide for £80, or 10mg for £115. He appears to get his supply from Thailand, and showcases the effect taking it has had on his own ripped physique.
One 29-year-old Londoner I spoke to said it was the talk of her local nail bar even before Musk’s big reveal: “Girls were telling me they’d go online and lie about their BMI to get it. They’d jab themselves in the stomach with it once a week and the weight was just falling off.”
With such a spike in demand and a black market so rife with salesmen, it’s perhaps no wonder that there is now a worldwide shortage of the drug — which could be the only thing to curb its otherwise unstoppable popularity.