The tiny bride-to-be sitting in Rashida Balogun's high-backed chair is in trouble and she knows it. She waits with her eyes shut, hands folded tightly in her lap, one kitten heel tapping against the chair leg. Rashida frowns into her upturned face and then, obviously irritated, turns to wipe rubbing alcohol over her tweezers and scissors.
The young woman started coming to Rashida's salon, a one-woman operation on the top floor of a Wicker Park loft building, every few weeks when it opened in the spring to get her brows in shape before her wedding. She'd heard that the B Spot was the only salon in Chicago that specialized in brows and lashes, which tickled her bride-to-be sensibilities. She was late this Saturday morning, and Saturday is Rashida's tightest day, with back-to-back appointments from eight to noon. Luckily the 10:40 showed up early, so the two appointments were simply swapped. Rashida could've forgiven and forgotten, but she noticed something else: the bride-to-be had been at her brows.
"You went in. I can tell," Rashida says sternly, her tweezers poised in the air above the woman's temple. She uses instruments by a Swiss company called Rubis that's been around since 1922, when it designed tweezers for watchmakers who needed to manipulate minuscule jewels and gears.
A set of thin brushes stands in a vase on the corner of her table, next to a hand mirror and some tubes that look like oil paints. Conspicuously missing are a pot of wax bubbling on a burner and thin strips of muslin. Rashida refuses to use wax. This is like going in for a checkup and the doctor telling you he doesn't believe in stethoscopes. Waxing is de rigueur: you go somewhere to get your brows waxed because you can't trust yourself to do it right. Rashida only tweezes--and what's more, she charges $45 to do it. That's triple what most places charge for any method. I'm watching her work today to find out what she does that the 50 or so other women (and two men) who have waxed, plucked, threaded, and trimmed my own eyebrows in the past didn't.
Over the course of the morning she'll repeat her mantra, "Waxing is evil," seven times. "All the beauty magazines say the skin around the eye is the most delicate on the body--don't pull at it, pat moisturizer on with your little finger," she says. "Turn the page and they're telling you to put burning hot wax there and rrrip it off! Keep waxing long enough and the eyelid loses its structure and droops.
"You want precision, a subtle arch, not the same generic shape on every face walking down the street," she continues. "How are you gonna get a precise line with a blob of wax?"
The clients like to hear the philosophy behind Rashida's unorthodox method. Some of them tell me they ended up in her care after years of nomadic wandering from one salon to another. They have stories about going home from a bad waxing experience with burn marks around their eyelids or crying in the rearview mirror at an overly dramatic arch when all they asked for was a simple cleanup job. "The 'angry woman' arch," Rashida says with a nod.
As Rashida tweezes, incense burns in one corner and low bass-heavy music drifts from another. The salon is huge--it takes up the entire third floor at 1471 N. Milwaukee. Wide windows run all the way up the chocolate-colored walls. It's a mostly empty room; there are two overstuffed brown suede settees, a low dark-wood cabinet stocked with wine, Rashida's worktable and chair, and then foot after foot of dark, glossy hardwood. A little crate by one of the settees holds a stack of beauty magazines and a coffee-table book called The Eyebrow, which includes a photographic history of Bette Davis's eyebrows. They start out lively and relatively thick but end up anemic and wispy after decades of overgrooming. Joan Crawford goes the opposite way--she flaunts her signature boxy, tightly controlled brows into her 50s and then neglects them, allowing them to grow every which way.
Rashida rented the space after doing brows for a year at Sole Nail Lounge & Salon, a storefront across the street. She hated the loud music, and that anyone walking their dog outside could look in the window and see who was getting what done. The B Spot doesn't even have a sign on the door that leads up from the street. Among her more than 200 regulars she says she counts beauty editors, restaurateurs, fashion designers, and 25 men who particularly appreciate the discreet location.
Rashida got her own brows done for the first time in high school, the day of senior prom. She was getting a manicure in a downtown Chicago salon when a lady walked in with striking, bold, arched brows--the "perfect diva arch," she says. A hairdresser asked where the lady went for her brows, and Rashida leaned in for the answer. "I headed straight to the same place after my haircut, to this cute little Polish woman named Margaret at Joseph Michael's--who waxed, but she knew what she was doing," she says. She thought the grooming made her face brighter and more open. Her friends noticed, and Rashida figured out how to do their brows just like hers. After a long detour as an accountant for an insurance company, she enrolled in a makeup artistry program at Columbia College. ("My parents are from Nigeria," she explains. "Nigerian parents don't want you to go to beauty school. They want you to get a degree in something real, like finance.") She learned how to fix everything from split ends to broken nails, but knew she'd do only eyebrows once she got her certification.
"You can't change any other part of your face so easily, or so dramatically," she says. "I think it's like mathematics. Lines and angles. Take a woman that no one ever noticed and do her brows right, suddenly you can't help it--you're looking at her eyes, you're looking at her lips. But most women never pay any attention to their own brows."
The bride-to-be sinks into the chair under Rashida's exacting gaze. She didn't touch anything important, she protests, just a couple hairs closer to the eye that were bothering her between appointments. Rashida laughs sharply. She runs a fingertip along the bottom of the right eyebrow. "You touched them right here. This one is too thin." I see what she means. The bottom edge is ragged and the brows look asymmetrical, making the whole face seem off somehow. "Little bitty features need a stronger brow, you know I always say this," Rashida admonishes softly.
The young woman leans forward to squint into the big gilt-edged mirror on the wall. Her eyes widen in panic. I ask how long it will take for the hairs to grow back. Rashida says that when a new client comes to her after a bad experience elsewhere she often sends them away with instructions to not touch anything and an appointment for four or five weeks down the road. For the brow to return to its virgin shape would take a full year, she says, unless the follicles have been harassed to the point where they won't bother to grow.
The bride-to-be wilts. Her wedding is in two weeks. "I tell them not to touch anything if they don't know what they're doing," Rashida says with a shrug. Her tweezers start to flash around the woman's eyes. She starts with the flat-edged set to take out the baby-fine hairs along the top ridge and between the brows, then picks up a long-nosed, pointed set and removes a few thicker hairs from the brow proper. She spends more time along the ragged bottom edge of the right brow, and finally uses a dark brown powder to subtly shore up the line.
The young woman hops down and writes a check, still making excuses: surprise visit by the future in-laws, couldn't go to dinner with brows looking like that. Rashida tells her to make a late-night emergency appointment next time instead of touching them herself. I forget to ask exactly how much such an appointment would cost--I'm distracted by the young woman's face. She has small ruby lips, a delicate nose, and a clear, wide forehead that I had overlooked. Rashida and I watch her march across the hardwood floor and out the door, her little purse clutched at her waist, and the sun from the high windows falling on her hair and shoulders. I think we're thinking the same thing: she looks like a bride.
1471 N. Milwaukee
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.