March 6th, 2013

A Casual Sitdown with Michelle Obama’s Esthetician-unedited

JoElle Lee is on fire! As a master esthetician with a new husband, new work location, and signature product line she is hot! By the way did I mention that she is also the caretaker of Michelle Obama’s skin?

I met with Joelle at Citrine, a very upscale salon and spa in downtown Bethesda, where she has her practice. The first thing that strikes you about her is her smile the warmth of which reflects in her eyes. The second thing is her skin which is virtually perfect and glowing as though she just returned from a weekend jaunt in the Bahamas. Joelle is a hugger and extremely gracious; she makes you feel as though you are meeting a new first cousin at a family reunion.

After offering me tea and something fattening to eat we got down to the business of the interview.

So Joelle, why skin and not hair?

I was always into beauty even in high school. I would go to the drug store and buy the masques, the cleansers, the body products and my Mom used to comment “what are all these things you’re buying?” I always felt that people looked at nothing more than my face when they were talking to me. You know, I knew how to do my hair and my makeup but I knew that I looked at people’s faces when I talked to them and I never understood why skin wasn’t a priority.  I didn’t grow up in a family where the women got facials or spa treatments. But I would watch my Mom putting on her makeup she would always say “Never go outside without your face on”. She made doing her face a ritual and I used to sit there and watch all her steps. My grandmother was big on that too, so “getting ready” was my first introduction to beauty.

What was your first introduction to spa?

I’m originally from Ohio and when I moved to Chicago I lived in the Gold Coast area. The first week I was there I walked into a salon on Rush Street and the esthetician who came out to greet me was a woman of color, the only one on the Gold Coast at that time. She said I’d love to give you a facial. So she introduced me to treatments and I started getting facials regularly. At one point she recommended that I get my brows waxed too, so I said okay and I hated it. Of course a few weeks later when they started to grow out they were looking crazy. I went to a brow specialist/esthetician who was a Latina. So at the beginning my introduction to esthetics was all coming from women of color.

(Laughing)I never encountered any other Black women in the industry so your experience was very different from mine.

Yes. In the beginning everyone that I was exposed to was of color and had been in esthetics for about 10 years. One of my first mentors owned Bettye O Spa, my instructor in school was African-American, CIDESCO trained, and the surgeon who came to our school to teach and whom I later worked with was Black. The whole timing of my arrival in Chicago aligned me with experts who were people of color. And even my classroom situation was predominantly Black. So I’m thinking that esthetics is a Black thing. It wasn’t until I left Chicago and attended my first esthetics conference that I discovered differently.

How did you end up in esthetic school?

At the time I was attending Columbia University and waiting tables. The esthetician who gave me my facials had the most awesome place. She had two or three treatment rooms and the place was beautiful, I loved her spirit and would talk about beauty with her constantly. Finally I asked her to tell me what I needed to do to become an esthetician.  And she said you know you should attend Dudley Cosmetology School. I thought really because it was such a hair school, but she said that the state had just made esthetics a separate course from cosmetology; Dudley had one of the best programs in Chicago so it was a perfect time to get a skin care license. And you know the director of that school attended my wedding, she’s one of my mentors and has been a huge influence in my life.

What’s her name?

Betty Clawson. And you know everyone who has come to work for the First Lady is a graduate of the Dudley School, including the makeup artist who now works for Oprah.

Did you feel as though ethnic skin issues were addressed in the curriculum?

Well the thing was, we didn’t have any white clients. The way I started to look at skin care was this; it’s the human body, the physiological makeup is the same but different ethnic groups are susceptible to different things. For example if you’re African American you may be more prone to hyper-pigmentation or if you are Anglo Saxon you may be prone to higher degrees of sun damage and skin cancer. It doesn’t mean that someone who’s not of color can’t get hyperpigmentation or that someone of African descent can’t get sun damage. I look at the current condition of the skin and I do my treatment and service based on that.

Yes, I think that’s a very healthy holistic way to handle skin but the problem is that issues which  commonly impact women of color like  hyperpigmentation are so often not addressed in the schools.

Well yes, most skin care is only marketed to white people anyway, not even Asians, Hispanics, and darker Europeans. I was fortunate that I was exposed to both Milady’s curriculum and the medical end so I was a rarity. I didn’t discover until later that skin care education was geared to white skin and it’s still not considered to be a prestigious career here in the U.S. as the beauty advisers are in Europe.

Tell me about your career path.

It began with the surgeon who came in to teach at our school. Physiology and anatomy was a six week course; the physician who taught it had actually specialized in ethnic skin in his schooling. I was around twenty two or twenty three years old.  I hadn’t yet graduated but I wanted to make my next training with this surgeon because I was so impressed with his knowledge.  He was doing new things like microdermabrasion, chemical peels and he was the first doctor who said you must detox and cleanse your colon or you’re going to break out. I thought he was great.

When he finished the course at my school, I went to his office to try and apprentice with him and his nurses would tell me I didn’t have an appointment and the Dr. has an esthetician already so go away. I went back the next day, and the next. And I kept going back. Finally I went early in the morning and he saw me.  Of course he remembered me from school and invited me into his office. We talked and when he asked me what my ultimate goal was I told him it was to have him work for me. He was so impressed that he hired me and trained me for four years. I worked in the burn unit with him at the hospital and performed in office procedures as well.  I ended up as director of his skin care department where I developed my first skin care line for him.

Tell me where you’ve had your best facial ever?

I haven’t. I’ve never had a facial that blew me away where I’m like “Girl, I have to go back to her!”

But isn’t that the “Catch 22” of developing such a level of expertise? You’re like “If I can’t get a facial as good as the one I give why bother?”

Absolutely. A lot of estheticians come to me for facials. Some come to learn new techniques; some come because they really want the treatment. I don’t make it a point to visit estheticians in the same way; to be honest I feel nervous about what they’re going to do.  I’ve dealt with so many people who have had facials and something has gone wrong. And I would hate as an esthetician to have something terrible happen to my face.

Our face is our billboard for what we do.

Exactly. There are three people I trust to give me a facial and all three live in Chicago. I did have some facials here in DC and it was like having a facial at the esthetic school.

Yes, I’m sure. I only have one person that I go to. Did you tell them what you do?

No of course not. Sometimes it comes up afterward.

Yes, in Philly I always use a fictitious name; the spa community is so small. I‘ve visited several “Best Of” winners and have often been disappointed. I find the level of knowledge with Black skin is low. 

Yes, I understand. I recently had a facial with a “Best Of “winner as well and I had to give feedback. My problems stemmed from her being 45 minutes late, to my treatment being so bottom of the barrel, to her constantly telling me how great she was. I let her know from start to finish how unprofessional she appeared to be.

You did her a favor.

Well, I don’t know if I did or not but I couldn’t let her continue in the same way.

So what would your advice be to young estheticians currently in school?

It upsets me that so many states don’t offer continuing education so they must take advanced classes. It will separate them from the rest. It’s similar to being a hair stylist; they have to take classes to become good. Training doesn’t end after you get your license. You can never stop learning about the field of skincare be it ingredients, products, services, skin types, all of that.

What responsibility do you think the esthetics industry has to educate on a wider range of ethnicities?

Well, first of all in major cities is where you’ll find the bulk of people of color having and delivering services. Let’s begin with the cosmetology boards in those cities. They need to increase the hours for esthetic training. I did an initial 750 hours, another 1000 hours to get a teacher’s license and felt as though I could have easily used another 1000 in foundational education.

(Jokingly)So you don’t think the 300 hours required in certain states is sufficient?

Well, I don’t know what they could learn in that time. Maybe working at a corporate spa it’s different because it’s more about what you sell not so much the service.

But the estheticians at hotel spas are not taught sales skills or engagement either. They’re taught product knowledge. It’s not the same.

I think the hotel is saying, look, our customers are transient. They’re in and out; they probably have their facialist at home. And here’s the other issue; most estheticians go somewhere to work and there’s a manual. And they read if the client’s skin is a certain type then they should do this facial. And if it’s another type then they should do that facial. I call them cookie cutter estheticians. And the five star hotels and signature brand spas are like factories.

I think it is necessary to teach the estheticians to do a quick accurate skin analysis so that the client leaves feeling educated and buying products based upon knowledge not just someone selling.

But honestly I’ve taught many students and I find that a relatively small percentage of girls are really doing what they want to do anyway.

Really? Why do you say that?

Many girls are taking esthetics for two reasons. Someone has said that they can make money after taking the class for a short time or their parents have said “you’re not going to college so find a trade to support yourself.” But it’s not their passion. Every now and then I’ll meet a passionate esthetician. And I’ll know because she has been learning her craft!

Wow, this is interesting.

Listen, everyone who is passionate has a story about how they got to a certain point. You knew what you wanted to do, no second guessing. When I was teaching I graduated about ten girls. Only one is still involved in esthetics. One! Because here’s what they find out “OMG, I’m going to have to do something to get clients?” And then “OMG, I’ve got to do something to keep them?

Yes the level of service seems to be an issue. I have six African American attorneys who moved to DC when the President was elected and still come back to Philly to me for their facials. I didn’t understand because DC has major five star hotels and it’s such a diverse town. 

Look, I have so many clients who had been around DC everywhere looking for good service.  And Chicago was very different. The esthetician’s were toe to toe. It’s very competitive there and the quality of service reflects that.

I believe it. You have a very ethnically diverse clientele, what impact has that made in your career?

It really helped me to develop my products, being exposed to everybody. Skin, the physiological makeup of it is the same but different ethnic backgrounds are susceptible to different conditions and I have to design treatments around what will fit all their needs. Right now I’m designing a treatment that helps with acne, hyperpigmentation and fine lines but every skin type can use these steps with these products to make it easier.

Yes, let’s talk about your skin care line, the conception, where did this come from and how long ago.

Well the conception started four years ago because I really started studying chemicals and harmful ingredients being used in skin care so I got all caught up in what we really put on our skin.  I was using Skinceuticals and a lot of the medical grades products.

What was the impetus for this?

I never felt totally confident in what I was recommending to clients or what I’d used on me.  I needed to develop something that I was totally committed to. So when I tell you to use it I know what’s in it, I believe in it, and I like using it on you. So I started researching.

I got very excited when I started reading about your ingredients and saw all of the alpha hydroxys.

Yes and what’s nice about my line is that I didn’t use any fillers, parabens or sulfates or preservatives. They’re loaded with peptides too. I wanted to create something so that when we put the ingredients in the bottle in their most powerful state there would be nothing to dilute the potency.  This was important to me.

And these products work fast. People see a difference sometimes in two days. My products are made in a French lab in Canada. And they’re made to order in small batches.

Are they skin type specific?

No, I don’t skin type on my products.

I tell my clients that we’ll talk about the current condition of their skin because it can change throughout the entire year depending upon if they’re going to be traveling, or their hormones change, or they change products.  When my customers saw my products the first thing they said was “JoElle your product doesn’t have a type.”  I would tell them to simply read what the product was for.

Where can the products be purchased?

Here at Citrine and at another spa in Chicago. I launched the brand two years ago very quietly because I wanted the opportunity to tweak it. But people are reordering it and I’m getting overseas orders. People are buying it for their friends.

Word of mouth is the best PR.  

I want to shift gears here for a moment JoElle. A few weeks ago I attended a skin care class where I met a young African American esthetician and I told her about my upcoming interview with you. She asked me if you were Black and when I told her yes she started to cry. How does that make you feel?

Well, I’ve had people cry when they visit me because I do Michelle Obama. I’ve had people, Black and White cry because I touch her and now I’m touching them. But women of color in the industry are so happy that there’s a Black woman in the room tending to her, it’s emotional.

JoElle, you’re living in history.

But you know of all the estheticians in the world this happened to me. When I left Ohio that day, I just knew that I didn’t want to live in Ohio anymore. I knew nothing about esthetics. And then things started to happen, one right after the other. So sometimes I think that people are chosen; like President Obama, I think that he was chosen, that he was preordained for his task.

Yes, outside forces sometimes come together, but if you’re not paying attention it still doesn’t work. You were receptive. What’s in your future?

I’m ready to go beyond esthetics, into health and wellness. I really want to start a training program for estheticians to educate other estheticians using my skin care line; using The JoElle Method.  When I used to go to Vegas and trained on platform I loved it.

I’d also like to do a show called Living Well with Joelle, a lifestyle program. And another set of products would be created for that.

I can see you doing that, thank you for your time.

 Linda Harding Bond is an international spa consultant and president of Moontide Consulting. She specializes in skin and retail sales training from a global perspective. www.lindatheskindiva.com

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11 Comments to “A Casual Sitdown with Michelle Obama’s Esthetician-unedited”

  1. March 16th, 2013

    Leticia Dean Says :

    I am a new esthetician fresh out of school looking to specialize in ethnic skin. I am african american and DONOT WANT TO BE A COOKIE CUTTER esthetician as this article puts it. I read how she got her specialized training. Are there any specialized training out there for ethnic skin?

  2. July 24th, 2013

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  10. February 12th, 2014

    Crystal Hudson-Jones Says :

    The article on JoElle Lee was outstanding! I was so proud of her accomplishments, and excited about her future. I was one of her Instructors at Dudley Beauty College. Even then she was hungry for knowledge. She had a great way of sharing the information that she had attained. I am still teaching, Cosmetology, & Aesthetics for the University of Aesthetics in Chicago. JoElle would be proud to know that my focus is not only on proper analysis and treatment, but on product knowledge…know what the ingredients do, and then select the products to treat it! I can’t find the word to say how proud I am of JoElle, and if there is ever any education or endorsement that I can do to assist her in her mission; I am glad to be at her service.Sincerely, Ms.Crystal Hudson-Jones

  11. February 24th, 2014

    moontide0001 Says :

    I’m very happy that you enjoyed the article. JoElle was a pleasure to interview.

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