April 18 2002 12:00 AM ET
At laser spa, beauty is skin deep
The Reniu laser day spa
The Advocate arts editor sets out on a lesbian beauty quest at Reniu Laser Day Spa, Southern California’s first medical beauty spa. Part 1 of a series
I’ve always loved the way gay men take charge of their looks. If they’re feeling a little droopy, you won’t catch them sitting around and moaning, “Everybody has to get old sometime.” Please. They will stay fabulous, and they’ll deploy whatever weaponry it takes to get them there.
We lesbians, on the other hand, sometimes don’t give beauty the importance it deserves. The world is falling apart, people are starving. If we’re starting to look like Walter Matthau, so what?
So I’ve jumped ship, that’s what. At 40-something, I get it: Life is short, and looking good is fun. I’m unleashing my inner gay boy, because the time to be stunning is now.
That’s how I found myself on assignment for Advocate Travel at Reniu Laser Day Spa—a new kind of health-beauty establishment in seaside Dana Point, Calif.—waiting for my first laser facial.
The reception desk at Reniu
I don’t mean “facial” as in Maggie Smith with cucumber slices over her eyes. No, this is a series of medical procedures involving thousands of bucks’ worth of technology and a degreed practitioner. A set of three to six Versa Facial laser treatments, I’m told, should make the skin look five to 10 years younger, but without the damage and risk involved in a face-lift—or in laser resurfacing, the more invasive procedure we’ve heard about.
Mind you, I’d never heard of such a thing as a Versa Facial. To me, laser has always meant doctor’s office, and curious as I might have been about cosmetic surgery, I wasn’t going there.
I had stopped into the spa during a laid-back stay at a neighboring hotel not for a facial but because I wanted a massage. Handsomely laid out, with waterfall sculptures running floor to ceiling, Reniu cast such a pleasant spell that I hated to leave. That’s how I got to chatting with Reniu’s owner and founder, Bob Oosdyke. (That’s pronounced OHS-dyke, if you’re interested.)
Reniu’s owner and founder, Bob Oosdyke
An entrepreneur with a health care background, Oosdyke turns out to be a man with a big idea. His brainchild offers all the services you get in a spa plus the cosmetic procedures you’d have sought at a doctor’s office. In other words, we’re talking massages, pedicures, saunas, body wraps, waxing—and Botox, collagen, electrotherapy, microdermabrasion, and laser treatments for everything from age spots on hands and face to tattoo removal.
“To my knowledge, we’re the first in the country to offer the range of services we do,” Bob told me. Moreover, he said, “I want to make it very clear that we’re very interested in serving the gay and lesbian clientele.” To prove his point, he proposed an experiment: I’d undergo a series of Versa Facial treatments and file step-by-step reports on Advocate.com, complete with before-and-after photographs.
What follows, then, is my skin-deep diary. I’m feeling younger already.
OK, I’m scared. Driving down the California coast on Saturday afternoon, I’m arguing with myself: “You’re going to let somebody take a laser to your face—and not even in a doctor’s office?” In my mind I keep seeing that porcelain half-mask from The Phantom of the Opera.
At the spa, I sink into a comfy chair and fret. Then in walks William Lee, the certified P.A. (physician associate) who’s scheduled to do my treatment and who, I’ve already been told, has done thousands of laser procedures. Whatever I was picturing, Bill’s not it. A solid, handsome, black-haired guy in suit and tie, he’s all business as he sits down to brief me on laser technology. It’s weird. He’s so un-gushy. He’s almost…military.
The capable Bill Lee
I ask where he started his training.
“The Army,” he says. “I served in the Gulf War.”
Then, as I mention The Advocate, Bill smiles. “I know the magazine,” he says. “I’m gay.”
I have to laugh. I failed to read him totally.
“I guess I’m a bad gay man,” Bill jokes, getting a kick out of my surprise. “I hate Barbra Streisand. I listen to Led Zeppelin.”
Between joules and nanomeres and pulses, Bill’s explanations remind me why I never got past high school physics. But what I can decipher is reassuring. For one thing, he’s obviously more than capable. For another, it’s clear that I’m not endangering my health. I’m about to get hit with a 532-frequency laser, which is attracted to the color red (like the broken blood vessels and little splotches that signal aging). The beam will be delivered at a slow pulse, which doesn’t harm the skin’s surface (as opposed to a quick burst of power, which obliterates the top layer of skin and comes in handy if you want to get rid of a tattoo). That combination, Bill notes, causes a “controlled thermal injury under the surface of the skin.” Gradually, over the next several weeks, the body’s defenses mobilize to step up collagen production and repair the damage. Consequently the skin becomes fresher, more taut, less blotchy. Younger.
I go through my wish list. “Will my laser facial tighten up those Susan B. Anthony frown lines at the corners of my mouth?”
“No,” Bill answers. “But the skin will appear to be fuller.”
What about that scar across my chin where an auto wreck threw me into the windshield?
No again. The scar’s too deep for the process we’re doing. (A hot-point laser would do the trick, Bill observes. But more about that later.)
OK, the real issue: “Will it hurt?”
“I’d call it irritating, but not really painful,” Bill answers. “Shall we get started?”
We wind down a corridor to a room just steps from a back door, which leads to the parking lot (the better to let clients slip discreetly in and out if they prefer). Inside, we’re surrounded by massive outcroppings of laser machinery. Donning a pair of safety goggles, Bill shows me how he dials in the exact laser frequency on the machine’s computer display. A handheld attachment delivers the signal, triggered by a foot pedal.
Laser therapy in action
I lie down on a medical exam table; Bill places little cup-shades over my eyes and covers my face and neck with a gel that’s cold enough to make me squirm. Believe me, though, I stay still as the laser whirs into noisy life. Bill scans my face, moving in straight lines back and forth, starting with my forehead and working down. Painwise, I feel almost nothing; I get the vague image of myself as a can of beans being scanned at the grocery checkout counter. Then round 1 is over and Bill comes back to deliver concentrated second bursts to blood vessels, enlarged pores, and tiny scars. Now I do feel the rays like tiny needle pricks—irritating but not really painful, just as Bill promised.
And just like that, it’s over. At least Bill’s part. Over the next couple of days, the responsibility shifts to me. I have to apply a thin layer of Vaseline at regular intervals, and—big drum roll—I must keep out of the sun. Screwing up at this point, Bill warns me, is the only way I could sustain damage. If I injure my skin further, my brain is liable to ditch the nice collagen idea and rush into producing scar tissue.
Driving home, I watched the sun sinking over the Pacific. This is it, I thought. I guess now you’re one of those Californians who’s had work done. Your friends will probably think you’re an airhead. Maybe you should keep this to yourself.
That’s when my inner gay boy reappeared to save me. I’ve had closets enough in my life, thanks. I gunned my car, grabbed my cell phone, and called my oldest buddy in New York. “Hey, girl!” I yelled. “Guess what I did?”