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Pressing the Flesh

Faster than therapy, safer than sex, easier than working out, massage (at home, at the office, in a spa, or on the street) is the indulgence of choice for the stressed-out.

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It’s 1:30 on a Friday afternoon and Paris Gordon is having a massage, her third this week. The mid-thirtyish designer usually has one daily (in times of off-the-charts angst and aches she’ll have a double session or recruit two therapists to work on her in stereo), but she was out of town on business for a couple of days. Gordon, who often spends more than $400 a week on rubdowns, typically holds off until after work. But what with the arrival of a raft of dresses with the labels off-center, the jackets that showed up with stones absent from the buttons, and the marketing and P.R. people yipping at her, and what with last night’s big awards affair, where she kind of overdid it in the drink and dance departments, Paris is yearning. “Ooh,” she gasps, “that foot is so tight.”

“I noticed at the beach that my girlfriends have cellulite,” she reports to ponytailed masseur Gino Khalis, of the midtown “holistic and relaxation center” Healing Hands. “And I don’t have it. And I really believe it’s because of massage.”

There are 7 million complaints in the naked city. Half of them are about aching backs. And now massage, for years the perquisite of the privileged, of pro athletes and prima ballerinas, has been co-opted by working stiffs seeking to banish soreness, stress, and -- okay, why not? -- cellulite.

“I get shoulder and neck problems, and massage is very beneficial,” says Abby Cohen, 56, an editor at the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. “I’ve gone many times when I could barely move and I leave and I’m pain-free. At first it sounded like an extravagance, but to me this is a necessary expense.”

“My clients used to be type A’s, high-strung professionals,” says masseuse Carrie DeMers. “Now the people I see are often self-employed, or your average word processor or office assistant, or people who are just considerate of themselves. But,” she adds, “of course I still have type A’s.”

These days, the massage therapists at Elizabeth Arden, who for years rubbed the shoulders of the idle and well-fixed, are working over “professional women,” says Kelly Weber, senior marketing vice-president for Elizabeth Arden Salons, Inc. “It’s no longer someone coming in to be pampered.”

As demand has increased, so has the number of suppliers. In the past, those who wanted a massage often had to make an appointment days or weeks in advance; that problem has been solved by the Great American Back Rub walk-in chain and by Healing Hands, which promises a massage therapist at your door within an hour.

“Our business plan originally just took in baby-boomers,” says Bill Zanker, founder of the Great American Back Rub. But in a classic case of tickle-down economics, “we’re getting everybody,” he says. “It really cuts across all lines. I get people who come in limos, and I get people who look as if they don’t have the money to pay.”

Even the massage boutiques that traditionally catered to an upscale clientele are now kneading middle-class muscles. “Fourteen years ago, I would see high-profile people, celebrities who would have massages regularly,” says Robin Ehrlich-Bragdon, owner of the Eastside Massage Therapy Center. “Those people still get massages, but now I see corporate executives, people in advertising, marketing, sales, people who have a lot of stress. And on Friday nights, we get a lot of doctors, surgeons who are on call for the weekend and need to gear up, and a lot of psychiatrists. I see executive assistants, payroll workers, and administrative assistants.”

If you’re lucky, you don’t even need to leave the office: A number of companies -- G.E., Goldman Sachs, Young & Rubicam, and American Airlines among them -- are inviting massage therapists on-site as an employee perk and as a means of reducing stress and absenteeism.

“Companies are looking for more creative rewards for folks, and massage is a nice little reward for relatively little money,” says Teri Lukin, manager of health services for Time Inc., which has a masseuse on call two days a week for deployment anywhere around the company. When Landon Y. Jones took over as editor of People in 1991, morale was low and stress high. Bringing in a massage therapist on the magazine’s weekly closing night “was kind of a way to help people hang in there, and it became a great success,” says Jones, now Time Inc.’s vice-president of strategic planning. “It was very democratic. If a copy person signed up before an assistant managing editor, he had the spot.”


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