Invasion of the beauty therapists

From north Wales to Solihull, the glamour industry is booming. Hester Lacey investigates salon culture
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF YOU have wrinkles, if your thighs are lumpy, your nails are bitten or your legs are hairy, you should be ashamed. There is absolutely no excuse for sloppiness. The beauty business is booming - even if you live in Nowheresville, Back-of-Beyond, you are within easy reach of deep-cleansing galvanic facials and nail-sculpting.

Clarins alone has 49 flagship salons nationwide that have been designated "gold salons" and turn over around £4m a year between them; its top salon, called Skin Deep, is in a town called Rhuddlan, near Clwyd in north Wales. Proprietress Suzanne Newberry and her staff perform nearly 100 facials a week, at £18.50 a go. She has "a couple of thousand" clients on her books, and thinks a weekly visit to a salon is "becoming accepted, like a weekly visit to the hairdresser".

Who are these radiantly smooth-skinned clients who are prepared to invest so much time and money? Ladies who lunch, socialites, Joan Collins or the Princess of Wales? "Oh, no. Ordinary ladies; professionals - all ages, everyone really."

This is a national phenomenon. From smart salons franchised by cosmetics companies to one-person enterprises run from the hairdresser's back room, beauty therapists everywhere are staging a spirited takeover of the high street. "There's no question that the industry is growing - in the past five years, the money taken has probably doubled," says Marion Mathews, editor of Health and Beauty Salon.

"Business is absolutely booming," agrees Sue Harmsworth of Espa, a company with nearly 200 centres nationwide. "What we are doing in spas and salons has reached the high street, and this move has become much more defined over the last two or three years. People are also moving away from the department stores - because they are fed up with girls doing a hard sell without much technical knowledge - to smaller salons with qualified therapists who get to know their clients."

Call Espa, and wherever you are, it will put you in touch with a local salon or a freelance therapist who will visit your home: the magic beauty number is 01483 454444.

Independent salons are also doing very nicely, thank you. "When we started up nine months ago, the bank didn't want to know. I bet they wish they'd backed us now. We're packed out," says Kim Fallon, co-director of VIPs of Streetly, a suburb of Birmingham.

Driving out through sprawling council estates to Streetly, one passes a cluster of near-derelict shops crouching at the foot of a tower block development. The newsagent, butcher, grocer are all boarded up. Virtually the only unit showing signs of life is the one with a huge poster saying: "Health, Beauty and Fitness Salon! Yes! We're open!"

A few miles further on, VIPs is perched above a pharmacy on the busy main shopping street in Streetly. The salon opened nine months ago, and inside, all is spanking new and freshly decorated, in soothing shades of blue and yellow. On the wall in reception, Kim Fallon and her partner, Annalee Leung, have 19 carefully framed certificates, ranging from City and Guilds qualifications to diplomas in the complexities of Nailtiques manicure. "Greensleeves" plays discreetly in the background, and the curtains are elegantly looped up in complicated drapes.

"It was so scruffy when we found it - it used to be the old bank," says Kim, proudly. Now the phone rings constantly, and a steady stream of local women comes in for aromatherapy, reflexology, facials and waxing.

According to Kim, the old Joan Collins style of red talons and false eyelashes is terribly pass. She wears clinical white puff-sleeved overalls trimmed with jaunty yellow - lightly made up, with a neat red bob (but glowing skin) and her approach is distinctly unfrivolous. "People used to think beauty therapists were very glamorous, and only for wealthy ladies - some still think we just stick a bit of nail varnish on and that's it. Now they're starting to see us as people who know their stuff. And we do: bones, hormones, blood supply, psychology. And electrical science - amps, ohms, wave patterns, all that." The amps and ohms are for the beauty treatments that rely on (careful) application of (small) electrical currents.

Policewoman Janice Doyle, waiting in reception, is a loyal client. "I've been coming since day one. I feel great when I leave. I've been through all the treatments on the card. I've got a busy, stressful job, and I owe it to myself to look after myself. I'm worth it - I'm definitely worth it."

"Oooh, I do so agree with you," says a client booking in for a facial. "Of course you're worth it - and if you don't do it for yourself, nobody else will."

Kim puts the beauty boom down to increased stress. "People are working so hard that they are burning out in their thirties. They don't want to go to their doctor for tablets so they come to us, and we can offer massage, aromatherapy, relaxation." And what about looking lovely? "People want to look good, but in a more natural way. I probably do one make-up in a fortnight, but dozens of facials."

Half an hour's drive away in Knowle, a part of Solihull that manages to maintain the genteel air of a country village, the success story is the same. At the Electrolysis, Health and Beauty Clinic, there is more calming blue dcor, draped curtaining (white with gold stars this time), prominent certificates, quiet background music - though here, the overalls are trimmed with pink. Again, the reception through-traffic is constant, as clients slip discreetly into the treatment rooms. Sheila Godfrey, the proprietress, is a former beauty therapy teacher and examiner, and author of a leading textbook on electrolysis, The Principles and Practice of Electrical Epilation. (This 170-page epic, with sections on anatomy, oscillators, diathermy and galvanic current, is packed with alarming diagrams of skin structure and circuit patterns.)

Once, says Mrs Godfrey, she was the only beautician in Knowle. Ten years on, the high street has more than you could shake a stick at. "Now there are four clinics, plus two who work from hairdressing salons." She too believes there has been a shift in the industry's image. "We used to be seen as slapping on a few face-creams - and it used to be like that, but now it's much more. Clients are far more discerning than they used to be, and they ask about your qualifications, or come in for a manicure or a leg wax just to suss the clinic out."

A facial at Mrs Godfrey's clinic costs upwards of £22; how do people afford to keep coming? "If you average out the costs over a year, it's not that expensive," says Mrs Godfrey firmly. "It's the cost of a meal out - and that's gone straight away."

Cavilling at the cost of keeping the years at bay is apparently a particularly British trait. "In France, women go every week and it's not considered a luxury at all," says Mrs Godfrey. "No self-respecting Parisienne would be without her facial treatments. In America they're very on the ball as well - our American clients want all the latest treatments." She believes beauty therapy is far from being a trivial calling. "Once it's in your blood, you can't give it up."

Her receptionist and assistant, Correna, pipes up. "My skin used to be that inflamed, it itched - I thought I'd got an allergy; oh it was awful, and I just didn't know what to do," she chirrups, proffering a Technicolor photograph of an alarmingly scarlet chin. "Now I don't even need to wear foundation any more. Look, I'm not wearing any today, and before, I'd never have gone out without it!" She proudly exhibits a smooth cheek.

Women in their twenties, like Correna, are often prepared to spend a lot on regular treatments. "I go every week for half an hour on the sunbed and to get my nails done, and I have a facial every six weeks or so. I also have my eyelashes tinted every six weeks," says Sasha Duncan, 24, a clerical assistant from Brighton who earns £12,000 a year. "I suppose it totals up at between £70 and £100 a month. But I still live at home with my mum and I can afford it.

"You owe it to yourself to start looking after yourself early on. What's the point of going when you're so wrinkly there's nothing that can be done? I spend as much on beauty as I do on clothes. Clothes change, but I'm stuck with this face and body."

But older women are regulars too. "I've been having a facial every month or so for the past two years and a body massage with skin-firming oils," says Meryl Davies, 52, who runs a boutique in south London. "I need to look groomed. It's no good looking as if I've been dragged through a hedge backwards when I'm trying to sell an outfit. The beauty therapist rents a room at my hairdresser's salon, which is very convenient. It costs me about £60 a month, but that doesn't seem exorbitant."

It appears the beauty business may be unstoppable. It seems to be immune to the ups and downs of the economy. Even the recession, says Penny Turvey, chairwoman of the British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology (Babtac), did not put customers off. Giving up the new car or cancelling the holiday is one thing; having snaggly nails or sprouting calves is quite another. "A lot of clients said, 'To hell with it, I'm still having my treatments'," she explains. "And of course the recession led to an increase in the stress levels people were suffering at work, and many beauty therapies also combat stress. Some salons even found they did better in the recession, when you would have expected them to lose clients."

Baljeet Souri, principal of one of Britain's longest-established beauty schools, the Ray Cochrane Beauty School in Baker Street, London, suggests the stress of recession is responsible for the current surge - "The psychological benefits of a treatment far outweigh going for a meal or to the pub for drinks, and at the same sort of price."

There is scope for further expansion. There are plenty more potential clients to be enticed into the salon. Marion Mathews of Health and Beauty Salon says: "It's still a very small base of the population that regularly visits a salon - only 8 per cent, tiny compared with the European industry." So we still have a way to go to catch up with the chic Europeans or the healthy Americans. Where will it all end?

The top 10 treatments at VIPs, Streetly

1 Aromatherapy for stress, relaxation and rebalancing. Oils most often used: orange and lavender. £25.

2 Self-tanning treatments, especially popular as summer approaches. £35 (includes product to take away for home top-ups).

3 Hydrotherm massage. The client lies on bags of hot water, "like a water bed. It's the only back massage pregnant ladies can have right up to full term, because they can lie on their tummies for it." £27.50 for full body, £18.50 just for the back.

4 Glycolic facial peeling; removes fine lines and wrinkles. £40 (recommended, a course of six for £200).

5 Universal Contour Clay Wrap, for inch

loss and detoxification. Clients are

wrapped in bandages that have been soaked in sea clay. £45 (£110 for three treatments).

6 Manicures. Natural nail care is in, and 90 per cent of treatments are demure French manicures. £10-£15, depending on state of nails.

7 Darphin facial using aromatherapy oils. "Clients are moving away from electrical facials to hands-on ones like this." £22.

8 Cellulite treatment: G5 vibromassager used with oils of ivy, clematis, and meadowsweet. £40-£75 for a course of about six sessions "depending on how bad it is".

9 Waxing. Most clients have "the whole lot" - legs, bikini line and under arms. £24.

10 Collagen and plastic surgery consultations. Mirage, the largest supplier of collagen in the UK, visits the salon at least once a month to give free advice.