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Passport to Beauty

Five local women, each with roots in a different culture, share the best beauty secrets learned from their mothers and grandmothers.

Photographs by Erik Ueke.

Around the time of my bat mitzvah, my mother indoctrinated me into the world of wrinkle prevention with a small aluminum tube of eye cream that her aesthetician—and I use that term loosely—had prepared for her.

The newly emigrated Russian women I grew up emulating, such as my mother, juggled the stresses of a new culture, a new (financially strapped) lifestyle, and a new language by indulging in regular facials, manicures, and waxing appointments—usually performed for free by friends who had honed their skills in the old country.

Being a woman, my mother said, was not something that changed with your citizenship.

Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in Washington, where on any given day you may encounter women from different cultures. From the seemingly poreless and age-defying porcelain complexions of Asian women to the impeccably arched, full eyebrows of Iranians, it seems that every exotic beauty is equipped with age-old rituals unique to her homeland.

We talked to five Washington women whose beauty routines and philosophies are as varied as their native cultures. They shared the tips, tricks, and secrets of women from their parts of the world.


Charissa Benjamin, 31
Regional Restaurant Director of public relations, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
Country of origin: Antigua

“The one thing that’s a constant when you live on a small island where everyone knows one another is gossip, which is a great impetus for looking your best,” says Charissa Benjamin, a born-and-bred Antiguan who has called Washington home since 1998. “Whether you’re grocery-shopping or going to the beach, in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I might run into someone—let me look presentable.’ We’ll make sure that our hair isn’t too messy and there’s at least some gloss on our lips.”

Her beauty philosophy: Stay as close to Mother Nature as possible. “Most of the products I use are organic and paraben- and detergent-free.”

Her dirty secret for healthy hair: “Most people find this gross, but I wash my hair once a week. When I moved here, I was shocked that most American women wash their hair every day. I have really curly, dry hair, and if I washed that frequently, it would look and feel like Brillo. My grandmother had the same texture, and throughout her 99 years she’d only shampoo once a week. I rely on leave-in conditioner when it’s wet and just reactivate it daily with moisture-rich pomade when dry.”

How she beats breakouts: “One thing I indulge in whenever I go home is a mud bath. Half Moon Bay is a secluded beach in Antigua, and at the end of it is a big puddle of mineral-rich, clay-like mud. My sisters, girlfriends, and I would go every Sunday to cover our bodies and faces in it and let it sit for about 20 minutes before scrubbing it off with sand. My skin felt amazing afterwards, and I didn’t have as many blackheads or breakouts.”

Favorite skin remedy: “At home, aloe grows on the beach and in our yards. We cut open the leaves and use the gel-like substance inside to treat sunburns, rashes, and eczema. It’s nothing like the packaged goop you find in drugstores here. I tried growing an aloe plant in my DC apartment, but it needs a lot of sun.”

How she keeps her hands and lips from looking their age: “My sister is 12 years older, but we’re often asked which one of us is younger. She taught me to use hand cream and lip balm every night before bed. I’m devoted to Aveda Lip Saver because it stays on my lips all night and keeps them moisturized.”

Yuki Kotani, 28
President, Harboring Hearts
Country of heritage: Japan

Born in the United States to Japanese parents, Yuki Kotani adopted her mother’s anti-aging creed: Be proactive and start early.

“I started moisturizing in middle school and was using anti-aging night cream by the time I was in college,” Kotani says. “Culturally, Japanese women are obsessed with looking youthful and having a flawless complexion. When the beauty ideal is fair, smooth skin, every product is about making sure our skin doesn’t age and gets no exposure to the sun.”

How she protects her skin: “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t wear sunscreen. We’re raised knowing that we want to avoid age spots and preserve the skin of our youth. Even now, if I get darker than I want in the summer or while on vacation, I feel guilty. I use Shiseido SPF 25 on my face and neck every day and moisturize my body with sesame oil, which is said to protect against UV rays.”

What she learned from her mother: “Exfoliating your skin is a must. I grew up washing my face with a brush to take off dead skin cells. My mom still regularly gives my sister and me akasuri (“body massage”) towels, which are widely used in Japan. They have a rough texture that sloughs off the top layers of skin.”

Her favorite anti-aging ingredients, inside and out: “Many Japanese dishes include rice vinegar, which is believed to help slow the aging process and maintain good heart health. It’s also great applied to the skin because it soothes breakouts and clears pores—just dilute it with water and apply like a toner. Be forewarned: It doesn’t have the most pleasant smell. Wakame, a type of seaweed, is eaten to make your hair shiny and strong, but you can also get it in cream form to prevent fine lines and protect the skin from sun damage. And I drink green tea every night before bed. It helps maintain a body’s youthfulness and boosts your metabolism.”

The Japanese import she can’t live without: “Aburatori, or facial-oil blotter sheets. They’re made from washi, a paper made with a special tree fiber, and are incredible at absorbing excess oil and shine. They’re a great way to freshen your look in the middle of the day without applying more makeup or powder, and I’ve been seeing them in many US beauty stores over the past few years.”


Patricia Vercelli, 48
General counsel, UATP
Countries of origin: Italy and Argentina

Following in the stilettoed footsteps of her mother and grandmother, Patricia Vercelli hasn’t caved in to her adopted city’s low-maintenance, conservative sensibility—even after 30 years and numerous high-level positions at some of Washington’s most buttoned-up corporations and a law firm.

“In both Italy, where I was born, and Argentina, where I grew up, there’s a pride in embracing your femininity,” she says. “In the US, if you’re attractive or focus on making yourself attractive, you’re often not taken seriously. But my culture believes that beauty and brains go together.”

You’ll never see Vercelli leave the house without mascara, lipstick, or hair that’s been set with rollers. Or in anything other than tailored clothes: “I have an Italian woman’s figure, and I don’t hide it.”

Why her hairdresser is the second-most important man in her life: “For Argentine women, a hairstylist takes on a unique adviser role. Unlike your husband, he must be brutally honest about what looks good or bad. He keeps you in line, and he never holds back. There’s a real trust that goes into that relationship, so it’s not something that can be quickly developed. Once you find it, you’re loyal. I’ve been with my stylist, Manuel, at Manuel Hair Salon in Georgetown for six years and see him every single month. Even if I’m out of the country, I won’t allow anyone else to touch my hair because I’d feel like I’m cheating on him.”

What she learned from her grandmother: “Up until her last days, she would never even go to the corner market without a nice dress, a little makeup, and heels. My mother, who is in her seventies, is the same way and always pointed out that a heel enhances a woman’s legs and figure. I wear four-inch heels daily—including on flights, since I travel often with my job. I’m five-foot-two, so slipping on a pair of heels gives me a different stature and a different sense of confidence.”

How she keep wrinkles at bay: “At 15, I started using moisturizer—morning and night—and eye cream. I use cream-based cleansers and makeup remover instead of soap. And I don’t go to bed without removing makeup, no matter how tired I am, even if I’m on an airplane.”

Mona Assemi, 32
Accessory designer, Mona Assemi Jewelry
Country of origin: Iran

The devil is in the details—especially when it comes to the old-world beauty rituals passed down by Persian women.

“All the Persian women I know are very put together. Their eyebrows are always perfect, and you’ll never see a chipped nail,” says Mona Assemi, who was two months old when her family left Iran, settling in Northern Virginia and then Maryland. “I don’t necessarily follow all these rules and regimens, but I try, if for no other reason than out of fear of my beloved mother, who taught me all these things since I was a little girl.”

No brow beating: “Eyebrows are very important in our culture. We’re not allowed to have them done at a young age, because doing so means we’ve reached womanhood. To groom them, we opt for threading instead of waxing because it’s precise and doesn’t involve the stretching and pulling you endure with waxing, which causes wrinkles over time. After threading, we apply cold yogurt to prevent irritation. I’ve also been told that putting castor oil on any bald spots on your brows will help hair to grow fuller.”

Kitchen confidential: “I save the fruits and vegetables I use in cooking to apply at night. Mashing strawberries and using them as a scrub or mask is a good way to absorb excess facial oil. Using olive oil instead of body lotion leaves skin soft and dewy. Soaking cotton swabs with Earl Grey tea and dripping it into the eyes helps clear up redness. For fuller hair, blend chickpeas and egg yolk, apply it to the scalp as a mask for 30 minutes, and then shampoo. When rinsing, use vinegar to reduce split ends.”

What she stocks up on at the Persian grocery store: “There are a few stores, like Yekta in Rockville and Assal in Vienna, where you can find popular Persian beauty products. A favorite is sefidab. My parents tell me that in Iran they’d go to bathhouses and have it scrubbed into their skin from head to toe to reveal younger, rejuvenated skin. It comes in a ball form, and you break off a piece and apply it to damp skin. As it rolls, it removes the top layers of dead skin.”

Sleeping beauty: “Many Persian women don’t use a pillow at night, to keep from squishing the skin on the face and neck and causing wrinkles. Though I don’t do this, it’s common to sleep in bras so that the breasts don’t sag. Some women wear a girdle to bed so the fat won’t jiggle as they age.”


Pilar Mendiola-Fernández, 40
Senior vice president, the Washington Center
Country of origin: Mexico

“Mexican women have a word that we use constantly—arreglarnos. It means grooming ourselves or making ourselves look better,” says Pilar Mendiola-Fernández, who left the city of Puebla after a walk over the Key Bridge led her to fall in love with Washington, the place she’s called home since 1995. “As soon as we learn to walk, we learn to groom ourselves, to highlight our features in the best way, regardless of age or size. That’s the mantra whether you’re 7 or 85.”

Her three pillars of beauty: Hair, nails, and makeup. Before moving to the States, she had her hair styled at 7 am—the standard opening time for many Mexican salons catering to women on their way to work—at least every other day. For 14 years, she has rarely strayed from her biweekly manicures with Julie Nguyen at Pentagon City’s Modern Nails. She’s been seeing the same hairstylist, Manuel Solorzano of Manuel Hair Salon, for five years. “For me, it’s not about what other women in DC are doing or what magazines or the beauty industry dictate,” she says. “It’s a discipline with myself, a relationship and respect for myself.”

Why she doesn’t need an eyelash curler: “A spoon is all you need for creating beautiful, natural curl. Hold the spoon horizontally so it’s touching your lid—the rim should touch the line of your upper lash line. Using the thumb of the same hand, softly press your eyelashes up against the back of the spoon. Then gradually push the edge up in the direction of the ends of your lashes. Repeat until your eyelashes are curled, and apply mascara.”

What she stocks up on when she goes to Mexico: “Mamey bone mascara, a natural mascara made from hueso de mamey, a Mexican fruit. It not only blackens your eyelashes but also protects them. I also use Talika Eyelash Conditioning Cream, for strengthening and growing lashes. My mom used it when she was young, and I’ve been using it since I was a teenager. Also for eyes is Miguett’s Ampolletas de Petalos de Rosas. These individual packets of rose-petal infusion help with dark circles and wrinkles. For my lips, I get pure glycerin, which I apply at bedtime. When I wake up in the morning, my lips have absolutely no wrinkles.”

Her favorite natural remedies: “Mixing brown sugar with avocado oil is a great way to exfoliate dry skin. I use it in the shower, and it especially keeps skin hydrated in the winter. While my skin is still damp, I apply almond oil, then pat it dry. I apply the same oil to dry hair and put on a shower cap, leave it on for an hour, then wash it out with shampoo. My hair feels stronger and looks instantly shinier.”

How she controls cellulite: “Mexican women believe that a mixture of camphor and red seaweed has a purifying effect on the skin. We apply it anywhere we have cellulite—like the thighs and hips—to prevent dimpling and keep skin smooth. It works just as well as a pore-refining tonic anywhere you have breakouts or clogged pores.”

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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