Fried-Uman works at Soho Sanctuary, one of the high-end salons that occupy a special niche in the industry, dominated by workers like her who identify with their companies’ philosophies of natural healing. When I got a massage at the spa, I was struck by its cunning layout: You are led through quiet chambers, into a private tent decorated with bowls of polished stones, wooden benches, and that same omnipresent tinkling music. It feels a bit like entering one of the virtual caves in Myst. Then your therapist appears, seemingly out of nowhere—only to disappear as soon as the treatment is over: As with the women at the mani-pedi parlors, she’s an invisible messenger in a neutral uniform. But there is a back room, Fried-Uman says, where she and her co-workers “purge,” venting about their most difficult clients.
The work is also physically grinding. At the end of the day, “you’re fried, exhausted. Your hands are fucked, are screwed. My lower back hurts from leaning over.” She has her own natural remedies: “Ice cream is good! I always try to run cold water over my hands, it pulls out energy. I try to just put myself together a little bit. Take a deep breath. Get on the train and get some chocolate. Reality TV helps.”
Like Kim, Fried-Uman tells me initially that she does work from the neck up. Then later, as we talk, she acknowledges that she does waxing as well, including bikini waxes—it’s a big part of the industry, though many workers find it unsettling, a game of Twister with undercurrents of anxiety. “It’s very clinical,” she says. “It’s very, ‘Oh my God, I have a naked lady on my bed’—I’m not going to just rip the towel off.” She imitates her calm manner as she guides a client through the process: “‘Now we’re going to move the leg over there.’ Do I want to do waxing the rest of my life? It’s not my favorite thing. So many women, they feel like, I’m the hairiest person in the world. I try to make them feel fun or light. It’s your job to pull the sexuality out of it.”
There is, it’s true, a direct analog to some of the contradictions of this profession: prostitution. It’s a parallel that is maddening to many in the industry, who have to cope with the shadow version of the spa, the quasi-legal massage parlors where male clients get “happy endings.”
These services are generally not available for women, though I’ve heard rumors. But even in standard beauty spas, workers have to learn to deal with an unspoken erotic dynamic—it’s one reason for the medicalized atmosphere, which keeps touch in the realm of healing rather than kink. Yet part of the reason women seek out these treatments is, perhaps, the anonymity, the freedom to ask for exactly what you want, to feel vulnerable but never to see the person touching you again, unless you want to—to be touched without owing anything.
There are other parallels to the sex trade. Like sex workers, new immigrants often adopt “salon names”—Susan, Linda, Jenny—all-American labels that obscure their foreignness for customers. They draw on private hierarchies about what is intimate, and what is too intimate (nearly everyone I interviewed began the conversation by saying she did just nails, or work “from the neck up,” only acknowledging she’d done waxing when I brought it up myself). And they make choices about how to deal with moments when it becomes impossible to ignore the sexual undercurrent of a spa treatment.
Kim has had several absurd experiences with male customers who mistook the spa for a bordello, including one in which an old man tried to feign a leg cramp in order to induce a sexual massage. But she also described a subtler dynamic during facials or massages, when a client is “kind of … enjoying it. So even though I’m providing the service, I feel kind of weird and awkward. In those situations, it’s really hard to keep the neutral feeling and try not to bother them, and finish my work.” She doesn’t want to shame her clients, she says. “Not to intimidate whatever personal feelings they have. I’m trying to be calm and finish my job, because this is the thing I have to do, this is what my license stands for. But in the end, I have a little bit of the bad feeling—the hangover, the leftover feeling.”
For spa workers, finding the right balance can be elusive: to be neither so jaded that work becomes a grind of mechanical falseness, nor so invested in each client’s needs that they soak into you like manicure fluid. But for the rare person—the woman for whom the economic and emotional stars slide into place—it’s possible. Like Radevich, Maria Kachkoff is from Eastern Europe. A Russian Jew who migrated in 1975, she has nostalgia for the Manhattan spas of the seventies, filled with celebrities (she waxed Cheryl Tiegs’s legs) and a party atmosphere. “They were falling off the seats,” she recalls fondly of her clients.