Nowhere else does the business of beauty quite like New York. Paris can lay claim to being the beauty world's spiritual home, but the industry action is Stateside. Here, in the centre of the advertising universe, brands vie for attention and appearance-obsessed consumers clamour for the latest product or service.
A walk up Fifth Avenue takes you past the famous Red Door of Elizabeth Arden's day spa. A trip into Bergdorf's reveals the real-life inspiration for the fictional Bergdorf Blonde in action shopping up a storm. Any department store visit is an exercise in side-stepping professional perfume sprayers.
On the side streets, nail bars and hair salons advertise deals so cheap it is no wonder they are often full. A gel nail paint can cost you less than the price of a discount polish job in New Zealand. Blowdries are priced so that many women choose not to bother washing their hair at home, instead booking weekly for a "blow out". (With salon visits it is usual to tip your stylist or therapist, typically around 15-20 per cent on top of the advertised price.)
For those with the discretionary money to do it, heading to the spa has become a social outing and a regular trip to the dermatologist is much more common than here.
Among this plethora of Big Apple pampering, certain names stand out; names that have a cult cachet. We went calling to find out why the fuss.
THE FACIAL AT MARIO BADESCU
Martha Stewart visits weekly. Her daughter and her mother are also regulars and so is Naomi Campbell when she's in town. The volatile supermodel always insists on the same facialist, but so far, so happy. That's a testament to the Mario Badescu way and there's plenty of other endorsements around the mid-town spa, although some of the celebrity photographs on the wall are looking a bit faded.
The salon looks like it has seen better days also, although I'm told the reception area will soon be in for a facelift to its Grecian-columned desk and linoleum floor. There's no mistaking that business is humming along nicely, however, even if outwardly little seems to have changed since Badescu first set up shop in this ground-floor space in 1967.
The Romanian-immigrant chemist and skin care expert, was ahead of his time developing a botanically based skincare range underpinned by science. He was early to use moisturising hyaluronic acid in his formulas and to insist on no-frills packaging to keep prices reasonable. Although there have been some updates in keeping with his original philosophy, many original products remain, including his renowned Drying Lotion to nix spots.
For years he and his family lived upstairs in this quiet residential building, and though the business has now been sold (and Badescu himself died in 1983) therapists trained to his exacting standards remain.
They bustle about in white coats as I am led across the lobby to a standard-looking apartment door. It turns out to be an extension of the business and was indeed once an apartment until converted into a series of small rooms fanning off a narrow corridor. They're functional, not fancy; this place is about performance, not pampering.
In all there are 23 consultation rooms and the salon dispenses around 200 facials a day, with other treatments on top of that.
Mine is administered by Maria, a mature Romanian woman who tells me proudly of a recent visit to her home country to finally introduce Badescu to that market.
Under a search light she did not need to see it, Maria took one look at a large hormonal spot on my chin and said "what happened there"? Although surprised I could hardly blame her for saying "you can go to the doctor and get shots". By the end of the session, my virtual boil was looking considerably less nasty. A combination of massage and mask had reduced the inflammation and I'd also been rid of more whiteheads than I had any idea I possessed.
Maria sizes up my skin "the type is combination, the condition is dry" and moves through the cleansing steps with speedy efficiency before applying a custom-mixed alginate mask and leaving me to rest under it for a while.
The hour-long facial was one of the most thorough I have experienced and the skin advice spot on. It cost US$65 (just under $80). Bookings are best made by phone, I was told, and though late nights and weekends are usually booked well in advance, weekday appointments are easier to obtain.
I'd be booking if in the neighbourhood again.
* Mario Badescu at 320 East 52nd St (between First and Second Avenue), ph 001 (212) 7581065.
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion is an old-school solution for individual spots that isn't glamorous, but it works. A blend of calamine lotion and salicylic acid will help clear unsightly white-head blemishes. The lotion dries white so is best used overnight and by day you can apply a more concealing cover. It's a handy stand-by in the bathroom cupboard.
* Mario Badescu products are available exclusively in New Zealand at Glamorpuss, Newmarket.
(Drying Lotion costs $55 there.)
THE MANICURE AT ESSIE
I feel like a spy into the social mores of the Upper East side as I sit in the Essie salon listening to ladies who lunch chatter about their holiday weekend plans. There's an appearance-enhanced matron with a loud voice and a lot of gold jewellery and a casually chic mother and daughter with a lapdog (four-legged) in tow.
The flagship salon for Essie Weingarten's quality nail brand opened this year within Samuel Shriqui, a hair salon for the well-heeled. The side-room is a gleaming white space, with leather chairs upholstered brightly to match Essie's favourite shades. Wall art comes in the form of tidy shelves bedecked with 300-plus bottles.
I um and ah about my selection, and rather wish my manicurist was the star turn, Josephine, who is more decisive than the kind girl who indulges my dithering.
When the gold-jewellery wearer says she wants a red polish on the toenails she insists need bleaching, Josephine rattles off a couple of options by their cutesy names before ruling that an orange-red is what would best suit the client's skin-tone.
Top-sellers over the last New York summer have been blue shades, even among mature clients. Brights are perennially popular for toes, and taupe is a favourite for fingernails, but soft greens are the newest craze and purple is predicted for winter.
I end up going for a very un-me bright pink, but on short rounded nails and with more precise and delicate cuticle work than I've experienced before I loved the look.
While I lingered at the Essie drying bar for more eavesdropping, the curious stretched-face golden one struck up a conversation about "the things we women do". I smiled, while thinking "in some cases overdo".
The thickly applied polish proved money well spent, my US$32 manicure lasted five days, including through the return flights to Auckland.
* Essie Salon (at Samuel Shriqui), 35 East 65th St. Ph (212) 472 6805.
Essie's pale green creamy colour called Navigate Her is an on-trend shade from the spring collection. Essie polishes have been available for some time in a handful of New Zealand nail salons. The company was bought several years ago by L'Oreal and the local distributors have widened its reach. As well as fashion shades, Essie does nice neutrals and pastels, making it a good option for weddings.
* Essie polishes are available from Farmers and selected pharmacies and nail salons and cost $24.50.
THE BLOWDRY AT FREDERIC FEKKAI
"I'm gonna give you the best blowdry you've ever had," says stylist Marilyn. Normally I'd run a mile at this sort of braggadocio, but it's America, where under-statement is not part of anyone's vocabulary and I'm trusting that at a top salon I'm in capable hands.
Turns out I am. My stylist usually works on the American version of What Not to Wear so she's a dab hand at dealing with makeovers.
I turn up early, but not so bright. The American filter coffee they serve doesn't help much, but Marilyn's sunny personality wins me over.
The Frederic Fekkai salon is on the top level of the exclusive Henri Bendl department store on Fifth Avenue. When I arrive for my 9am appointment the store isn't open, but there's a doorman who points me towards the lift. The blowdry bar is open from 7.30am to 11.30am so they're used to a trickle of clients coming in for blowdries before work and accommodate them in a separate white-tiled blowdry bar with barber-shop style chairs.
This looks over Bendl's atrium so you can take in the famous Lalique windows.
French-born Fekkai moved to New York as an ambitious 21-year-old back in 1979. After making his name with editorial work he began opening salons, of which this is the flagship. A product line followed. He splits his time between New York and Paris, tending a celebrity clientele.
His blowdries menu reflects this with five looks on offer: The New Yorker (straight and sleek), Hollywood Glam (loose curls), Dallas Chic (volume plus), Palm Beach Polish (sleek with a bit of volume) and St Barths Sexy (beachy hair), although basically they'll follow your direction.
I let Marilyn do her thing - using Fekkai products, of course - and ended up with a swishy style that saw me through several days.
The barber's chair was inspired. Because it reclined over the basin and could then swivel round in front of the mirror there was no need to move from place to place. I especially liked that when I tried to lift my head from the basin lip after the wash Marilyn said "no, lean back, let me do the work" and then she supported my neck as I sat up. So simple, but rarely encountered. Most basin set-ups still involve a degree of neck strain which good design and attentive service can ease.
The blowdry cost $50, twice the walk-in price I could have paid at any number of decent-looking salons, but it was convenient to book in advance at a central location. If it wasn't for the friendly Australian receptionist at the adjoining salon proper pointing me round the corner to the blowdry, my Fekkai experience would have a three-figure one, so I was happy enough.
* Fekkai Blow Out Bar, Henri Bendel, 712 Fifth Avenue. Ph (212) 753 9500.
Frederic Fekkai Luscious Curls Cream ($51) is a styling cream that defines curl while taming frizz. It is suitable for naturally curly, wavy or permed hair and contains conditioning honey nectar and ginseng extracts. (Frederic Fekkai products were available from Mecca Cosmetica, but have just been withdrawn from New Zealand, although they are available online.)