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A Stranger’s Touch


Kang, who is currently writing a book about manicure work, has observed the way new immigrants adjust to the power dynamic within months. “There are women who find it very degrading, particularly washing women’s feet. They’d tell me, ‘If I knew I was going to be doing this, I’d never have come to the U.S.’ But what starts out being shocking or surprising, when you do it on a daily basis, you can’t keep up that level of emotional sensitivity. When I speak to them a few months later, they’re totally acclimated.”

This is not, she adds, that they don’t “pay a high price for that adaption. Everything from the exposure to toxic chemicals to carpal tunnel syndrome to learning always to put others’ needs first.” This is true for customers as well, she adds. “The first time you get a massage, hire a nanny, have someone clean your house—all of these things, they’re right at this intersection of the intimate and the economic.”

When Janna Radevich came to New York at 26, in 1990, she spoke no English and had no friends. “You do whatever you can to make you survive here,” she says, shrugging, as we sit together in her salon in the West Village. “Babysitting; any store, wherever they hire you; working in the kitchen, doing dishes.” I ask where she lived that year, and she pauses. “It was a very hard time. You know, sleep on a building, on the steps? It was kind of tough. But slowly, one by one, you settle up, and here we are now.”

A music teacher in Belarus, Radevich eventually began doing skin treatments, and she purchased her own day spa eight years ago. Over the years, she’s built a family here: She has three children and is married to a Syrian who owns a falafel shop on Hudson Street. When I run into her, she’s in the midst of fasting for Ramadan.

“When you don’t speak English and you want a profession, you realize a nanny, a maid, that’s not a profession. But being an aesthetician is very happy job, because you do beauty, and it gives you good feeling—it’s emotional.” There are other benefits, she tells me. “You learn good English; you talk to people. You don’t talk, but they talk: very intimate, things they won’t tell to anybody. I have one girl, I think she’s in big trouble, with drugs. She feels very comfortable, I’m like a therapist to her. Some of it’s personality, yes, but it’s also that we’re not related to them—your world, your circle of friends, your family? I’m out of it.”

“Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?”

Like Francesca Kim, she’s astonished by the exponential growth of the spa industry—not to mention the leap in women’s comfort level with the most intimate treatments, like Brazilian waxes. “Now, women don’t care; they take it off on the way in, right away. Back then, they’d take the underwear and move it to the side, a little bit in the back, just a little bit, oh, oh, oh—it takes struggle to get off the underwear! Now even for a regular bikini, they’re naked. It’s crazy.” Early on, she adds, her customers saw waxing as centered on sexuality, but “now they see it’s about being clean.”

Whereas Radevich enjoys the voyeuristic insight into her clients’ lives, salon workers often find these experiences draining. Jennifer Fried-Uman, 37, grew up as an earthy-crunchy girl in Southern California, and in her twenties she fled the corporate world to do spa treatments. “I was in the music industry. Oh, it was great and so glamorous! Not even.”

For Fried-Uman, salon work is less a job than a calling. She takes pride in her ability to empathize, even with her most demanding clients. “I have a client I’ve been seeing for so long, and no matter what, she cries. There’s always something: She’s overworked or overwhelmed with family problems. And she has all the money in the world! But there’s all sorts of stresses. The company is doing badly—or the company is doing so well, they don’t know how to handle it. The most famous celebrities come in and are just so vulnerable.”

Making that leap of empathy—which in her description sounds at once genuine and calculated—is a source of pride. “If you’re really sincere, they’re in! They’re your best friend for life. It’s all about them. It has nothing to do with you. I know workers who come in and they’d tell a client, ‘I got kicked out of my apartment.’” Fried-Uman tries never to share these details. “Do they know I’m from California? Or what my parents are like? They don’t really ask. It’s about professionalism and at the same time making them feel you are their sole confidante and they’re in the best hands they can possibly be in. It’s cerebral, something you’re conscious of—and then there’s the physical part, where you’re working very hard to be appropriate, to do a chest massage, but not the breasts, to walk them through it gingerly and softly, make them feel like they’re safe, like you’re not doing anything weird and creepy.” She is, she cheerfully acknowledges, “a little hippie about it. To make this person feel like they’re worth a million bucks, to be attentive to their every need!”

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