Miracle therapy, or just hot air?

Acid peel? So last year. Plastic surgery? No one's doing that any more. Mud? Please. Get me oxygen.
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The Independent Culture
In New York you know you've arrived when you can get an appointment for an oxygen facial at Bliss Spa. The Triple Oxygen Treatment, to give it its "technical" name, is the most fashionable facial at New York's trendiest day spa. It includes several oxygen wraps and peels, and then to finish, a blast of pure O2.

Blasting air on to your face may sound like a pointless waste of time, but since Uma Thurman revealed that her dewy complexion is maintained by fresh O2, people are waiting as long as three months for the Triple Oxygen Treatment.

Of course, there are other spas which offer the facial, but the place to have the treatment is still Bliss, situated on Broadway. After all, this is the spa where Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Donatella Versace and Julianne Moore are regulars. Recently, Queen Noor was spotted lining up for one of their many luxurious offerings, perhaps opting for a "carrot and sesame total body buff" or an "affinoderm detoxing seaweed wrap".

On the day of my appointment, there are no celebrities in sight. However, there are several beautiful, starved and perfectly groomed young women "checking in" and "checking out" in the entrance hall. It is a sticky hot day outside and the air is heavy with traffic grime, but Bliss is cool and calm. The walls are blue, the theme is nautical, and on the ceiling is a fresco of a cherub smiling blissfully while he receives a pedicure. I am handed a white robe, a pair of plastic sandals, and directed to the locker room.

Once I am changed, I go to the "robe zone" waiting lounge, where I can choose from brownies cut into guilt-free, bite-size chunks, Swiss cheese and crackers, fresh fruit and - since it is after 4pm - white or red wine.

As I munch self-indulgently on a brownie, I begin to understand why day spas are booming. In 1987 there were just 30 day spas in the United States, by 1997 the number had ballooned to 600, according to Spa Finders, the largest spa and resort travel company in the world. Women use spas to relax, and many fashionable New Yorkers now visit a spa as often as a therapist or gym.

The founder of Bliss, 30-year-old Marcia Kilgore, got involved in the beauty business after taking a skin course to get rid of her own acne. Soon she was giving facials to friends in her living room and, by July 1996, Bliss was born. The salon's luxurious mix of facials, pedicures, manicures and massages was an instant success.

"It is a fresh way to look at a spa environment," explains Kilgore. "Some spas are snobbish and have an attitude problem, others are New Age-y and will try and get you to find your inner child. We are not trying to be hip. We don't take ourselves too seriously although we do provide excellent treatments. Really it is about relaxing and getting away from your daily grind." Now, Bliss is expanding and, by 2000, there will be a Bliss London.

After a few minutes in the lounge, my "esthetician" comes to collect me. I am taken to a dimly lit room, where I climb into a comfortable bed and lie on my back. Barbara, from Poland, first cleanses and exfoliates my skin. "I zee you have zome dry patches. Do you moisturise?" she demands disapprovingly with an accent strong enough to exfoliate paint off a wall.

I explain that I use a moisturiser with factor 15 sunscreen. "Two productz together are never as good as one," she scolds.

Next, Barbara analyses my skin to ascertain whether the oxygen treatment is appropriate. Training a spotlight on my face to make sure nothing escapes, she mutters: "Acchhh, bumpz, blackheadz, whiteheadz and sunburn! Yes, oxygen treatment is perfect for you as it will kill zee bacteria that causes zee spots and stop you from breaking out after zee facial."

She then vigorously applies an oxygen cream made by the cult Canadian range Remede, massaging it into my face and then covering me with clingfilm and hot towels. The cream is left on for a few minutes while Barbara gives my neck, shoulders and arms a relaxing massage.

"Now comz zee fun part," says Barbara just as I am beginning to fall asleep, "for me and zee bad part for you." Using her fingers and nails, she starts to painfully eradicate blackheads. "Think of zee results: vee must suffer to be beautiful," she says.

Finally Barbara is finished, pronouncing me "all red and clean like a baby". Several more nutrients and moisturisers later, it is time for the O2 blast. I hear a hissing to my left as Barbara turns on the tank, and then a jet of oxygen is applied to my face. It feels nice and cool on my sore skin. "Zee oxygen helps your skin to absorb these nutrients and it vill keep your skin younger," pronounces Barbara.

After an hour and a half, the treatment is finished and I closely examine my face. Certainly my skin is glowing and my pores are clean, but only time will tell if the oxygen will keep my skin looking young (and as good as Uma's).

No matter. All this pampering has left me feeling totally relaxed and resolved to come back. The Triple Oxygen Treatment costs $135 (pounds 85), so I decide to book a basic facial for $80 (pounds 50) on my way out.

"So sorry, we are booked up for weeks," says the receptionist ominously, clicking at his computer. "But wait, you are in luck, here's a cancellation. I can get you in on the 8 September."

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