Beauty Independent’s First Subscriber Stephanie King Is The Most Interesting Hair Removal Professional In The World
Stephanie King is a hair removal rebel. She started sugaring, a natural alternative to waxing, in the Midwest more than a decade ago when she was the only spa professional to practice it within hundreds of miles. Now, King faces an uphill battle spreading sugaring throughout the United Kingdom at the helm of London Sugaring Company, which trains beauty therapists on the method that remains rare in the country, and as a distributor for the product line Tamara’s Sugar. More broadly, the hair removal industry is challenged by growing body hair acceptance, and King is attempting to change the conversation in the industry to make sure it appeals to consumers with varying views on personal grooming. “There are people that feel they don’t fit anywhere in beauty, spas and treatments,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to create a space where people feel they can get their questions answered and get the treatments they want regardless of their age, gender or size.” As we cross into our third year in business, Beauty Independent reached out to King, our first subscriber and an example of our wide-ranging beauty industry audience, to chat about body hair shaming in the professional hair removal community, Brexit preparations, the problem with the way waxing and sugaring is promoted on social media, and her advice to spas and salons looking to build their businesses.
How did you become a sugaring professional?
I worked in hospitality for a long time in hotel management. Then, I worked as a college recruiter, which I was terrible at. I took a strong interest in natural skincare when I learned about Dr. Hauschka. Dr. Hauschka was my gateway drug. I decided to go to aesthetics school thinking I was going to do organic facials and teach yoga. I was trying to get out of my desk job that I wasn’t loving. This was 2007, and I was 28. I’m 40 now. At aesthetics school, we started learning waxing, and I loved it. It was so fun. I thought, “Wow, removing hair is really satisfying.” I caught myself off-guard because I thought I’d be in a steamy room listening to spa music and giving people organic facials, not ripping hair out.
At the time, my main specialty, sugaring, wasn’t big in the States. Nobody really knew what it was. It was the only thing I could find that was remotely natural. I’m picky about ingredients and allergic to synthetic fragrances. Once I learned to sugar, I abandoned everything else. As soon as I finished aesthetics school, I opened up a tiny skincare studio inside a yoga studio in Bloomington, Ill. I was one of maybe two people in the seven surrounding states that was sugaring. Literally, when I told people, they were like, “What are you talking about?” And I had no idea what I was doing with the skincare studio. I didn’t know how to run a business or get clients. I blew a lot of money on the business.
Then, I closed that business and moved to Portland, Ore. That was when I started The Sugarista. I started in a closet-sized room with a massage table, but Portland was so much more receptive to my wacky idea about natural hair removal, and people were more apt to try a small business. I was able to grow that business quickly and had a nice little shop with a team of four. We were just sugaring like crazy seven days a week. I was also teaching for Tamara’s. I have been with her since 2010. I built a big community of sugarers in Portland, where sugaring is quite mainstream. Then, I met an Italian man. He started to put a bug in my ear about moving closer to his family. I had been in the treatment room for so long. I was sugaring 15 to 20 people a day, and I was excited about the notion of a change. Eventually, we landed on this idea of moving to London.
I didn’t sell my business. There was a transition with my business. A woman that worked there took over the space. I decided to keep the name and the brand that I built because I knew I was going to continue in sugaring and teaching. I moved to England in January 2016, but I didn’t make it to London. My husband ended up getting a great job in Nottingham. I was like, “Notting Hill as in the movie,” and he said, “No, not even close.” So, we moved to Nottingham, and I launched my business, London Sugaring Company. I called it London Sugaring Company because I always thought I would live in London, but I still don’t live in London. Now, I live in Brighton.
What is London Sugaring Company?
First and foremost, we are a training company. We work with beauty professionals and offer accredited training in body sugaring. Beauty therapists, aestheticians and people aspiring to own beauty businesses can take our training to offer professional sugaring on paid clientele. What that looks like is me on a train every day going all over England. I cover the United Kingdom and also Ireland. I distribute Tamara’s in the U.K. and Ireland, too, and work with European co-distributors as well.
Sugaring is not common here. People either don’t know what it is or, if they’ve heard of it, they may have a bad perception of it because, 20 years ago, people used to sugar, but the products and the training weren’t great. It’s been an uphill battle to prove that this is a new way that’s effective. It ticks all the boxes that people are looking for in clean beauty treatments. It’s safer than a lot of waxing treatments, and the product is gentler. I’m scaling right now because the awareness is growing, and people are starting to seek it out more. Right now, I have five trainers, and I’m onboarding 12 more for next year. My business here has doubled every year. There’s a huge vegan community in the U.K., and that helps because a lot of people are looking for vegan alternatives.
What’s the hair removal business like there?
It’s big business here and waxing is a mainstay of women’s beauty routines. We consider salons for hair in the U.S., but, in salons here, therapists tend to do a lot of different services. They are waxers, they do nails, and they might do massage as well. Facial treatments are an important part of the beauty business here, but the main things are waxing, nails, the new microblading services and brows. Brows are huge. People are obsessed with their brows here. Waxing is what’s been taught and, wherever you go in the world, it’s the main thing everybody does. It’s an easier treatment to learn how to do, and waxing products are super affordable.
Who’s looking for alternatives to waxing?
People will try sugaring who have never tried waxing. For whatever reason, they aren’t interested in getting waxed. People say sugaring hurts less than waxing. That’s why they’re more apt to give it a try if they haven’t had any professional hair removal done before. People make the switch to sugaring from waxing if they have really sensitive skin and are getting ingrown hairs or they’ve been burned. Wax is very hot and contains resins that can grip the skin deeply. It does an amazing job pulling out hair because it’s really strong, but, for some people, the heat, stickiness and depth at which it grips can be really uncomfortable. Without caring whether it’s natural or not, people might consider sugaring because they’ve had a bad waxing experience.
There’s another group of people who want their products to be clean and vegan. In waxing, there are pre- and post-products that can have synthetic ingredients and things that are potentially irritating. The other thing that’s coming up a lot with sugaring is that there is virtually no consumable waste, and clients and therapists are looking for that a lot more. When you get waxed, the therapist uses a new stick every time she applies the wax and, if there’s a strip, that strip needs to be thrown away. In sugaring, we use biodegradable gloves, and our product is water-soluble and compostable. When we work with clients, we put our gloves on, and we sugar them. Then, we take our gloves off, and that’s it. We don’t use sticks or strips.
Why should spas consider sugaring?
More than ever, clients are looking for cleaner, greener alternatives. I work with a lot of salons who bring in sugaring in addition to waxing. You can offer a cleaner, greener, vegan alternative and, because sugaring is still up-and-coming, salons and spas here have the opportunity to be the first to bring it into their area, which is really important from a marketing perspective. Clients are really interested in new treatments here. From a financial perspective, sugaring is a really economical treatment because it needs a very small setup, and a little product goes a long way, so it’s highly profitable. Hair removal services in general are highly profitable. We can use the same piece of sugar paste to sugar multiple areas on the body, so that makes it a highly profitable treatment. What often ends up happening is businesses start to offer sugaring, and clients will naturally transition. It leaves the skin in better condition, and it reduces ingrown hairs. When people see the results, they are happy to stay with it.
What could salons and spas do to improve their businesses?
There are really high-end spas doing interesting stuff or there are the really small independent therapists doing interesting stuff, but the mid-sized places latch on to the same treatments. If I were to go and look at 10 places here in Brighton to see what they are offering, most likely they would be offering the exact same thing. It’s challenging to find a good variety in the types of treatments. You would find the big brands at most of the places, and they’d be doing the signature treatment of that brand. So, if you want to find something unique or natural, you probably have to seek out an independent therapist. They often work from home. A lot of the therapists I work with, their clients come to their home studio.
One of the objections I get to sugaring is, “I’m not going to put anything on my treatment menu that people aren’t asking me for.” I get that, but you need to bring it on and educate people on what it is. That’s the only way they are going to know about it. It’s a new treatment to this market, so there is fear around the risk. In general, with sugaring, the people who get it and really specialize in it are the early adopters. They become strangely obsessed with it like me.
Britain and the European Union agreed on a Brexit deal Thursday that will be taken up by the Parliament. Up until this point, how has uncertainty over Brexit affected you?
It impacts my stress level on a daily basis. It’s hard to know where it’s going to land on Oct. 31. I’ve started to consider contingency plans and whether or not I’m going to need a second hub in Europe. That really depends on what trade looks like going forward. I work with a lot of sugarers across Europe, and my accounts in Europe are e-mailing about it. I get a Brexit e-mail at least once a day. They ask, “Should I order a bunch now just in case?” I tell them not to stress about it. Order what they need unless they really want to stockpile. If I needed to, we could set up a second home for London Sugaring Company in Ireland, and I could serve all of the sugarers in Europe from there with product from the U.S. Tamara’s has quite a big distributor in Sweden who covers the Nordic countries. We could have at least emergency coverage, but everybody is holding their breath and thinking, “Please, let this go away.”
What’s the attitude toward hair removal where you are?
People are definitely easygoing about hair removal. They are certainly getting Brazilians, Hollywoods, and full legs and brows. That’s really common, but Brighton reminds me a lot of Portland in that people are more relaxed. Millennials and gen Z are much more likely to have underarm hair and maybe leg hair, but they may get their bikini line sugared. I naturally notice hair, and I see women walking around with a lot more hair now than I did a few years ago. I’m not somebody who subscribes to the notion that hair is gross. I don’t care whether you keep it or remove it. If you don’t want hair and your skin doesn’t tolerate shaving or you don’t want to deal with it, sugaring is a nice gentle option. But, if you want to rock it, rock it.
Our industry of hair removal professionals can sometimes be critical about hair. I’m in a big Facebook Group, for example, of hair removal professionals, and someone posted in there, “Would anybody be willing to talk about this trend of millennials not wanting to remove their hair as much as older generations?” I said, “I’d be happy to talk about it because I’ve definitely seen it as a trend,” but the comments about it were so critical. They said, “It’s disgusting. Who would want a bush?” I’m not saying that’s everybody, but, in this day and age, I think that’s a really old-school mentality that needs to be let go of. With Instagram and the body positivity movement, I think hair removal professionals are going to have to shift whether they like it or not.
What are the implications of the embrace of body hair for the hair removal industry?
For hair removal professionals, the big fear is that, if the trend continues, we are not going to be that relevant, and I think that’s where the negativity and body hair shaming is happening. They say, “I would never walk around looking like a guerilla.” I mean, come on. Hair removal is not going anywhere, but the way we present ourselves and talk to people should become more inclusive. If the younger generations are going to let their legs, underarms and bikini lines grow out, and that pulls back business for sugaring and hair removal professionals, we have to offer our services to a wider range of clientele. Hair removal has traditionally been promoted for women, but the men’s market is really huge. There are sugaring studios now that are communicating that they inclusive to the LGBTQ community. Sugaring Brooklyn is the perfect example of a sugaring studio that has an inclusive menu for all human beings. The owner Natalie Venus De Hull is very interested in working with the transgender community, and she’s all about glorifying fat bodies. If you’re fat, she wants to sugar you. We need to start thinking about, “Who else can I open my treatment menu up to?”
Is discrimination against fat customers frequent in the spa segment?
There have been incidents that have gone viral of someone going in to get a wax or airbrush tan, and they are charged more because of supposedly needing more product. I think the way we market our businesses says a lot about who we are interested in working with and, in hair removal, we always struggle with how to promote our businesses on social media. People only want to see before-and-afters of armpits so often. A lot of the old waxing imagery is bodies with no heads. They are somebody’s bikini area in little panties. You don’t see anybody outside the realm of twigs and Kardashian-looking people in thongs. So, if you don’t fit that body type, you might be nervous going into a place where the Instagram is filled with women who look like models. It’s an intimate service. You remove all your clothing and lay on a bed. Some people are not modest, but, for a lot of people, it takes a lot of courage to have something done where they don’t know if they are going to be hurt, and they don’t know if you are going to be nice.
Tamara’s Sugar recently underwent a redesign. Why?
Tamara’s had the original design forever and, now, she’s expanding. She has a big presence in Europe, and the brand just launched in Asia. She’s growing really quickly, and there are new, younger sugaring manufacturers on the scene doing cool stuff with packaging. I work really closely with Tamara [Anderson] and helped facilitate the rebrand. We needed to stay current. Tamara’s brand had bright colors, and we went with softer, more pastel tones. It was a pretty big change, but you can still tell it’s her brand. The people that are most excited are the ones that have been with Tamara’s for so long. They are happy to have something more Instagrammable.
What aspirations do you have for London Sugaring Company?
Sugar domination! No, really, first and foremost, my biggest aspiration is for sugaring to become somewhat mainstream in the U.K. I’m getting closer to that goal, and I would love to see it head in Europe where it’s headed in the States. In the U.S., in five to 10 years, it will be on par with waxing. In some cities, it’s already there.