Vodka on Your Skin? Beauty Secrets From a Russian Skin-Care Expert

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Photo: Anne Tomlin

Julia Lemigova is the founder of the Russian skin-care line Russie Blanche, a former model, partner to Martina Navratilova, and the last Miss USSR. She spoke to the Cut about her country's beauty routines — from the benefits of rolling in the snow and slapping yourself with wet tree branches to whether vodka is actually good for your skin. Read on to hear Lemigova in her own words.

I was born in Moscow. Back then, Russia was a very closed country. Under the Communist regime, women did not have any access to fashion or beauty whatsoever. There was one shop to buy milk, one type of shoes (and, if you’re lucky, they would have two different sizes), and one type of soap for your hair and body. We used only homemade remedies from fruits and vegetables. The biggest element in Russian beauty is something called the banya, a steam bathhouse. It’s a way to beautify yourself, protect your immune system, make it stronger, and prepare yourself for winter.

The banyas have different rooms. First, you go to the hot room. When your pores open and you are hot and sweaty, you take a cold shower in another room and repeat the process. Then, you put yogurt on your face to make it smoother and add honey. You walk around naked! Or you can stay in your little corner and wait for the honey to penetrate. Women who are more conscious of weight or cellulite can also add coffee grounds to the body. Now when I go to Russia, I cannot leave without going to a banya.

The banyas are beautification mixed with a health element. Following those beauty treatments, you lie down and a specialist spanks and taps you (yes, really) all over your body with wet branches, which can be birch, eucalyptus, oak, maple, or birch. It makes your body all wet and hot and steamy. When the branches touch your skin, it has detoxifying properties.

If you want to lose weight, you can keep sweating. You also have to drink a special tea that is for losing weight and additional detoxifying. This removes water weight, and you repeat the process and then follow each round by rolling in the snow. Then sometimes, you take a shot of vodka (women often take tea). The cold closes the pores and helps with toning.

I’m not sure if vodka has any beauty benefits. It’s not something I personally believe in. I was surprised once by the spa manager of a hotel who was using my line, Russie Blanche. They explained they do a scrub and then afterward put vodka on the skin. I asked, “Why?” And they said because of Russians and vodka and blah, blah. But personally, why would you put alcohol on the skin? It would dry out your skin! Shots (not topical) are okay, though.

I eventually left Russia by being the last Miss USSR. Winning that opened the door to leave a very closed country. I was only 17 and became the runner-up for Miss Universe. Then I emerged into the fashion and beauty world through modeling, which I did for 15 years. I started my own skin-care line through a modeling mix-up, which led me to a trip to Thailand. While I was there, I would get all these beauty treatments and saw specialists hand-mixing homemade ingredients together. It totally gave me the flashback to Russia and I thought, This is it! I decided to say good-bye to modeling before it said good-bye to me. I turned the page and went to Paris and opened a spa. We just started mixing things as we did in Moscow.

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

We created all the formulas and brought traditional Russian heritage products, and showed it first to the Parisian women. It was the early 2000s; the word massage was not very well-viewed there. They had only beauty salons who were performing waxing or face treatments. It was a mix of Russian beauty secrets with French elegance and know-how.

Russian chic is very different from French chic. French chic is more understated and about hidden luxury. In Russia, everyone is made up. You have to show what you have. When you walk on the metro, you think you are in a beauty pageant. They all think they are in that particular moment; they are dressed in the best thing they have in their wardrobe. High heels are everywhere; you almost never see a girl in flat shoes, whether she is on the street or metro. A typical Russian girl kind of has a baby-doll face, with good skin and full lips that might be enhanced by a little gloss to make it sensual. Maybe older or middle-aged women would do red lipstick, but otherwise not.

I would say Kim Kardashian is very known. But I wouldn’t say she is a reference or inspiration, as much as, say, Angelina Jolie. In conversation, of course, everyone would know who she is. She’s not really a beauty icon, and as a fashion icon, absolutely not.