It’s precisely three years since we launched our column Chronicles of a Spa Junkie on Howtospendit.com. At the time, we explained that our writer would remain anonymous, but was a serial entrepreneur in her mid-thirties who’d built and sold several businesses spanning international branding and product development within the worlds of entertainment, hospitality, contemporary art and philanthropy. We said she worked hard and played hard, and the combination wreaked havoc with her health and her looks.
And so, when professional commitments allowed, she checked into a spa. Importantly, we explained that she was not a professional journalist who trialled free treatments, but a private client who paid her own way, including accommodation and travel to far‑flung destination spas. She had just one agenda: to seek out the best therapies and report her experiences, good, bad or indifferent.
Three years on, Spa Junkie has visited 57 spas, sweated through 32 types of fitness class, experimented with 25 anti-ageing treatments and endured 15 detoxes. But now is the time to reveal her identity. Not because we plan to end her column (more on that later), but because she has channelled all this expensive and time-consuming research into a unique concept of her own – FaceGym – which launched in London’s Selfridges on May 1 as part of the store’s Beauty Project, a six-week exploration and celebration of the body beautiful.
I meet Inge Theron (for that is her name) as she is finalising plans for the launch. “For the past few years, I’ve travelled around the world trying procedures from the holistic to the high-tech,” she begins. “I did an audit on what really worked, and they were treatments such as facial massage with Joëlle Ciocco in Paris – which uses no technology, just manual manipulation – and the face ‘gymnastics’ of my go-to facialist in London, Sarah Chapman.” She goes on to describe their vigorous muscle-stimulation methods, including, most interestingly, the Buccal technique, a specialist massage practised by Ciocco that involves putting her fingers inside a client’s mouth and working the muscles from within. What struck Theron was that “although rigorous muscle massage has been around for centuries, in more recent times we have only really applied it to the body. We have over 600 muscles in the body and around 50 in the face – yet few people actually work out their face.”
Next up is Theron’s conviction that high-intensity interval training is the most effective body workout (she’s particularly impressed with Barry’s Bootcamp and Skinny Bitch Collective). ”When I go to these classes I can literally see my body tighten, tone and lift – and my skin texture improve.”
These two components are the basis for her new face workout. ”When you go to the gym, a unique set of interval-training exercises can make your muscles lengthen and your body change. I am applying that same logic to the face, creating a micro-contouring, muscle-stimulating cardio, strength and interval-training routine.”
But what of the more invasive therapies Theron has tried over the past three years? Surely she was tempted to include some of these in her FaceGym concept? Interestingly not. ”We’re living longer and I’m not convinced that injectables are the best way to preserve our looks.” Her concerns were reinforced last year when she had several distressing therapies, crowned by a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) treatment that involved injecting blood from her arm into her face, which caused it to become bloated and blue, and a botched thread lift, which left her with visible blue polypropylene threads running up through each cheek, while the skin around the bottom of her cheeks puckered. “Ultimately, this was the reason I developed the FaceGym concept, which goes back to basics: working the muscles.”
In the course of drawing up her FaceGym protocol, Theron was inspired by fitness trainer James Duigan and the Skinny Bitch Collective’s Russell Bateman; consulted with experts such as über-facialists Sarah Chapman and Alexandra Soveral and acupuncturist Robert Klein (the author of The Empress’s Secret, the bible of “natural facelifts”); and worked with spa consultant Lisa Knowles to create an original protocol.
So, what exactly is FaceGym? Firstly, it is not described as a facial but a workout. “The word facial is banned. It’s all about sets, reps and packs,” says Theron. The signature four-step workout (£35, 30 minutes) begins with a warm-up involving knuckle kneading, moving through cardio, then on to strength interval-training and finishing with a cool-down spritz. For those who want a more intense lifting facial-muscle workout, the in-mouth Buccal-inspired massage (Mouth Work) takes an additional 20 minutes (£65, 50 minutes).
But Theron has not rejected all technology. Again, drawing on her vast experience, she has cherry-picked her favourite treatments and offers these as advanced adds-on to her signature workout. They include advanced-technology microcurrent stimulation (£125, 60 minutes in total) that delivers tiny electric pulses to strengthen and tone muscles and reduce fine lines; and Clear and Brilliant, one of the gentler anti-ageing laser treatments, with just a day’s downtime (£200, 60 minutes; a course of six is recommended).
Two weeks before launch, I am trialling the signature workout, plus the advanced Mouth Work technique.
Step one: Warm up, five minutes
I put on a headband and lie back. The initial move pushes my shoulder away from my head to lengthen and stretch the muscles in my neck, followed by pressing down on my chest beneath the clavicle for lymphatic drainage. My therapist Sarah kneads into the pressure points at the base of my skull and tugs my hair around the scalp line. It’s a none-too-gentle start that she says is a purposeful move away from traditional soothing facials. Using Alexandra Soveral’s natural-formulation cleanser, knuckle twists are performed around my eyes, cheeks and jawline to get the blood flowing. A hard dry-skin brush is used in sweeping strokes down my neck and a softer one in circles on my face. It’s a vigorous start that gees up my muscles. A hot towel, slightly abrasive rather than smooth, is used to wipe off my make-up (but she leaves on my mascara). I feel the heat rise.
Step two: Cardio, five minutes
Immediately, the pace changes: finger tips play a central role, running, flicking, whipping and pinching my face in super-fast rhythms (one lift-and-flick move is called “animal fingers”, as it feels like a stampede). It’s not exactly relaxing, and it’s not meant to be, says Sarah – it’s a workout. She first focuses on my nasalis muscles (my problem area; I have lines running from my nose around my mouth), zygomatic muscles (near the cheekbones) and the buccal muscles (located by the mouth and used, like the zygomatic, in smiling). She works fast and I can feel the blood rising to the surface. Most curious is a move that lifts my cheek skin up and away from the muscle towards my ear, and another that raises my eyebrows up and out. It’s to work on fine lines and wrinkles, says Sarah. “Muscles on your face can get stuck together,” she continues. “It’s important to separate them so that the lines receive more blood supply.” She keeps an eye on any areas that turn pink, so as not to overstimulate. She also works on the muscles in my neck and jawline, kneading fast and hard.
Step three: Strength, 15 minutes
Here the principles of high-intensity interval training come into play. The initial movements are much deeper and slower, first working around my lips and jawline in circles and pulsating waves. These are then interspersed with faster, lighter moves from the cardio section. The switches are constant and vary in length. At one point in the deep section, Sarah seems to hook her fingers under my cheekbones and pull up – it’s the start of a series of moves that lift and sculpt. It’s almost painful, but is timed so that just when I begin to think “ow”, she moves on. Her motions start at the centre of my face and work up and out, towards my ears, where there are lymphatic nodes to drain the toxins. Around my eyes, she massages lightly to lift and reduce the dark circles. She works on the sternocleidomastoid muscle in my neck (involved in turning the head), using long, lean strokes; employed elsewhere on my face, these moves sometimes involve the flat of the forearm and the palms. These lifting and sculpting techniques are called micro-contouring. My muscles feel pushed and pulled – like unknotting a stressed back. To finish, she runs a steel derma roller with raised bumps over my face (a procedure that Theron describes as weight training) to further increase blood flow.
Step four: Mouth Work, 20 minutes
My therapist puts on gloves and places the fingers of one hand inside my mouth. She puts her thumb on the roof of my mouth, and the palm of her other hand on the top of my head, to feel my stress points. She presses hard to relieve tension and widen the palate. The sensation is both stretching and decompressing. Her movements are slow and controlled. She turns my head to the side and repeats the action with her forefinger, working to lift my masseter and zygomatic muscles away from the bone at the back of my jaw – first on one side of my mouth, then the other. She explains that the technique relaxes the “fascia”, the tissues that surround the muscles and can become stuck together. Apparently, my masseter muscles are tight and my temporal muscles really stuck. As she moves them away from the bone, it is mildly painful (I whimper a few times), but I can feel the separation. When she takes her fingers out of my mouth, my jaw movements are less tight and more fluid and I can sense the extra space created.
Step five: Cool down, five minutes
The smooth end of a jade roller is then used all over my face (which have since been upgraded to lollipop-like marble rollers kept on ice), which is soothing. It’s a relief to have something calm, cool and gentle gliding over my skin. My face is lightly massaged to relax me, with gentle moves towards my lymphatic glands, behind the ears. It’s definitely the most relaxing part of the workout. A final spritz of toner to refresh, and I am done.
I look in the mirror, and my face is flushed and glowing. But I could absolutely swan from here into a meeting or out for dinner. A careful examination and, while the changes are not huge, I can see that my skin is less puffy, and I look slightly more sculpted; my cheekbones have a touch more definition and my jawline looks smoother.
Having taken my face for a workout, the logic makes total sense: I felt my muscles working in ways they haven’t before – exactly like going to a new gym class. So I can see how regular workouts would tone and lift. My skin and muscles were pushed, pulled, pumped and flicked – seriously hardcore stimulation that was like squats, lunges and burpees for the face. There was nothing relaxing or pampering about the experience.
Ever the entrepreneur, Theron hopes to roll out the FaceGym concept worldwide, starting with independent spaces in New York and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, she will continue to be our very own Spa Junkie, reporting from the four corners of the world and paying her own way as she goes – but no longer undercover. She will now channel her experiences into the future development of FaceGym as well as her column.