The New York Times
By BEE-SHYUAN CHANG
Published: July 25, 2012
Photo credit: Joshua Bright for The New York Times
WALK into any drugstore and youll find a bounty of summer beauty products: pore strips, cucumber masks, acid peels and those intimidating, lance-like steel blackhead extractors.
You can buy everything now, said Joanna Vargas, a Manhattan facialist who has tended the complexions of Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Sofia Coppola. Youve read about 50 different masks that are supposedly good for pores. You dont know which one to buy, so maybe you buy all 50 and gadgets, too. At the end of the day, people still dont know what to do with all of this stuff.
Perhaps this is why Ms. Vargass clients, many of whom she calls her friends, pay $400 for a 60-minute facial. In fact, despite providing a service that in this world of lasers and Botox can seem old-fashioned, Ms. Vargass three-room spa, which is on Fifth Avenue across from the main branch of the New York Public Library, is thriving. Over nearly six years, the business, which employs four aestheticians, has survived the recession and is expanding a year-old house organic skin care line with a new moisturizer in August ($75) and an eye cream ($85) this fall.
Her treatments are very relaxing, Ms. Weisz wrote in an e-mail about Ms. Vargas, whom she has been seeing for four years. I tend to fall into a deep sleep as soon as she starts the facial.
Last week, Ms. Vargas, 42 and apparently poreless herself, was in a treatment room despite delivering a baby girl eight weeks before. Ms. Coppola was so thoughtful to send a baby gift, said Ms. Vargas, who also tends to Holli Rogers, Net-a-Porter.coms fashion director, and Zac Posen.
Rather than wear a white lab coat, Ms. Vargas is in a sweeping black gown, Pamela Love necklace and platform heels. Indeed, Ms. Love is also a client. I went a lot before my wedding in May, the jeweler said later.
Though skeptical at first, Ms. Love eventually was pleased with the results of the spas LED light bed and Triple Crown Facial, which involves microcurrents and exfoliation customized to each patients skin type. She also went back partly for Ms. Vargass warm bedside manner, a characteristic that Jane Larkworthy, the beauty director of W magazine, suggested is crucial for succeeding in the field these days.
More and more of the top tier facialists are somebody you can relate to, Ms. Larkworthy said. It used to be when you go to a facialist, it was like some 70-year-old Eastern European woman at Georgette Klinger who would insult you. Joannas more like a peer. She can talk about anything.
Today, though, Ms. Vargas said she was running slow, afflicted by baby brain. Ive been up since 4:30 this morning and then Dr. Frank Lipman came in for a facial, she said, referring to the diet guru, over a lunch of tofu and one of several green juices she recommends to clients who dont eat properly (which affects their skin, she said).
For actresses working on movies filmed outside their customary climate, Ms. Vargas will coordinate with the films makeup department to pack appropriate skin care; if its a domestic locale, she might whip up a mask with ingredients from her kitchen.
She can heal and cure any skin problem and keeps everything very simple and unfussy, Ms. Weisz said.
Ms. Vargas said her drive came from her grandparents, immigrants from Mexico on her mothers side and Ireland on her fathers. There was a certain amount of you have to work hard and be successful, she said.
But she took an erudite and rambling path into cosmetology, majoring in womens studies and photography at the University of Chicago and writing a senior thesis about beauty empowering women. My argument was that a woman seeks to be beautiful for herself and not because society tells her, Ms. Vargas said. I didnt know Id wind up being a facialist, but there you go.
After pursuing photography for several years and dabbling as a makeup artist, she enrolled in the Christine Valmy beauty school in Midtown Manhattan, where she found a calling in facials, later putting in time at Dr. Brad Katchens SkinCareLab and Oasis Day Spa.
I didnt tell my parents for a while, Ms. Vargas said. Especially at that time, it was viewed as a failure. My older brother, hes a lawyer, kept asking when I was going to stop messing around and go to law school.
Instead of torts and briefs, she has learned about facials using puffs of oxygen; LEDs (which can be effective on acne), which she now administers in a bed she designed herself; and microcurrents. These currents are all the rage with the movie stars who come into my office for Botox, said Dr. Debra Jaliman, the author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist and an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. They keep saying theres a difference, so maybe theres some gradual effect.
Its also not uncommon to see a professional athlete like the National Basketball Association guard Steve Nash (Ms. Vargas said he booked a treatment before shooting a Nike commercial) in the offices waiting area.
Tim Morehouse, an American fencer who was a silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics, had his first facial with Ms. Vargas. I had to do a photo shoot and somebody suggested I get one, said Mr. Morehouse, calling from London where he is to compete in the Games. You almost dont want to talk about it with guys. Theres a stigma associated with it. But I wear a mask and Im sweating all day. When I take a picture, its often representing my sport and country. I want to look my best. Mr. Morehouse has been back a few times. It definitely brightened my face, he said.
Though Dr. Jaliman said she is leery about oxygen treatments, which she said would require a high-pressure chamber to penetrate the skin, she added: Im all in favor of facials. Many people, especially in the summer, have clogged pores that need steaming and extracting. Its good to go to a professional. It seems easy to do at home, but I cant tell you the kinds of messes people get themselves in when they try to extract on their own.
Moreover, Ms. Vargas backs up a dermatologist recommendation by instructing clients to wear sunscreen.
But perhaps most important, she knows the value of having a discreet ear for their confidences and opinions.
Im a really good listener, she said.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 26, 2012, on page E3 of the New York edition with the headline: The High-Profile Facialist.
Joanna Vargas has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal.