What makes a good facialist or masseur is an altogether mysterious business. It would be handy if it were amenable to logical analysis, but if there is a method to telling the wonderful from the good and the indifferent, then I have yet to come upon it. Apart from anything else, the language surrounding the matter of facials and massage is so limited. Once one has expounded on the skill of the “hands”, the glow of the skin and the deliciousness of the lotions and potions, there’s not much vocabulary left. To some, the elusive, faintly otherworldly aura that surrounds the world of facials and what we’ve come to call “pampering” treatments is a potent part of its charm. Cynics, on the other hand, are maddened by the lack of precision and suspect that it’s all a con.
But speak to those who have had facials in far-flung places, who have dipped into some of the most luxurious spas and aesthetic centres in the world, ask them why they favour X or Y, and although you won’t get the sort of answer that would satisfy anybody from the Richard Dawkins school of scientific analysis, it is amazing how often the same names come up. These names, however, often aren’t known to one and all. They get passed around among the cognoscenti like treasured heirlooms. They become so sought-after that they have no need to advertise and, no matter where they set up shop or how often they move, their fans always track them down.
Take Anastasia Achilleos. I first came upon her in a divinely smelling little jewel of a salon in the basement of the San Domenico Hotel, close to London’s Sloane Square. There, like some medieval alchemist, she brewed up bespoke treatments for the faces and bodies of her devoted band of clients who, so far as I could discover (for, like all the best therapists, getting names out of her is harder than getting Gordon Brown to talk about spending cuts), came from as far afield as the Middle East and New York, and no doubt much further. There she gave me the kind of massage and facial that left me babbling on, much like all her fans, about her “hands”, her products and the delicious glow that carried me all through that day and night. Then I lost track of her until she re-emerged over the summer with a new and splendid spa, the Anastasia Achilleos Method Spa inside the private members’ club Home House on London’s Portman Square. There she has a fully fledged spa offering a range of treatments from massages to facials – which sounds ordinary enough, until I tell you that her legion of followers have already tracked her down and are booking her up fast.
So just what is it that makes Achilleos so special? To look at she’s a slip of a girl, a dark-eyed beauty who looks far too young to be a mother but who is in fact 34 and has just come back to run the spa after having her first baby. In spite of the exotic-sounding name, she’s an Essex girl (she was at school with David Beckham) who discovered by sheer chance that “touch” was not just what she loved but also what she was good at. “When I left school I didn’t want to go to university – I’d had enough of studying – but to keep my parents quiet I said I’d do a City & Guilds beauty therapy course at Enfield College. I thought it would be a nice, light course. To my astonishment, it turned out to be very serious – chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology were in the syllabus – and I found I really enjoyed it.”
She also discovered a love of giving massages and facials; she must have had a gift for it because it wasn’t long before one of Nicky Kinnaird’s scouts came by for a facial and immediately recruited her to do nothing but facials at the first Space NK spa in Westbourne Grove. “I went,” says Achilleos, “because I was excited by the idea of their training.”
It was at Space NK that she came across her true talent: “I could feel movement in the sinus part of the face and in the soft tissues at the back of the head when I was doing facials.” Eve Lom, one of the UK’s best-loved facialists with an ardent following of her own, knew at once what this meant – that she was feeling the craniosacral rhythms of the body. She became extremely excited and told Achilleos that she should go and study craniosacral therapy at the Upledger Institute in Edinburgh. While studying there – craniosacral therapy, reiki and energy lines, among other therapies – she began to believe that she really did have something special and that she could actually make a difference.
“Craniosacral therapy realigns your central nervous system. The soft tissues in the front of the face, at the back of the head and all the way down on either side of the spine become stiff and twisted if they are out of balance. We store thought processes and emotional stress in our bodies, and craniosacral therapy can help release this trapped negative energy. The solar plexus is a huge source of trapped emotions – I can feel if it holds stress or sorrow or anger. I discovered that I could manipulate the tissues very gently and so rebalance the structures. Then I also discovered that I couldn’t make anybody beautiful until I’d unlocked their stiffened, unbalanced tissues.
“It was only when my clients started telling me what my treatments did for them that I began to realise what results I was getting. They kept coming back: they would try out other people but then they’d always seek me out, saying that there was something special about my hands. Then I really began to believe in what I did.
“I always start by thinking, ‘What can I do in this hour and a half that I have with a client? What do I need to unblock, what oils and lotions will help them?’ – and since every person is different, each treatment is different.” Some spas and therapists tie themselves to one cosmetic brand but Achilleos refuses to, maintaining that there is no one product that is right for everybody: “I take my favourites from a range of brands that I really think work, everything from Olay to Crème de la Mer. I have to mix and match to get the best results.” Many of her products are based on natural essences – for instance, Yon-ka, which is famous for using five essential oils: lavender, rosemary, geranium, thyme and cyprus. And then there is Ole Henriksen, who formulates everything himself. Achilleos’s clients love his famous 90 Minutes Oscars’ Facial (£120) which involves exfoliation, steam therapy, facial and lymphatic drainage, massage, sound wave treatments with muscle firming benefits and custom-blended masks.
She loves Como Shambhala Purity Holistic Facial (90 minutes, £100), which uses only botanicals and natural ingredients to detoxify and stimulate the skin, but she also believes that there are times when natural oils and essences aren’t enough and the skin needs products with new, highly technical advances, such as peptides and hyaluronic acid, to do serious work in helping to reduce wrinkles. The Environ products developed by the South African Dr Des Fernandes are the best she knows for dealing with pigmentation, and she believes that the levels of vitamin A he puts into them really make a difference, not just to age or sun spots, but also to wrinkles and blemishes. One of her great signature treatments is the one she calls the International Institute of Anti-Ageing, which lasts 90 minutes (£125) and combines the expertise of the Environ products (an Environ Ionzyme Vitamin Facial uses electrical frequencies to push the vitamin A into the skin), Patrick Holdford’s Advanced Nutrition programme and Jane Iredale’s mineral make-up.
Achilleos travelled the world trying out spas and treatments until she was able to whittle down the products, ranges and therapies that she thinks really deliver results. She believes that her procedures deliver on two fronts – what she calls a “holistic emotional experience” as well as really effective skin and massage treatments. She is particularly keen on Dibi, an Italian skincare range, and Environ, both of which, as she puts it, “marry nature and science – they’re not afraid to mix things up and combine lots of natural ingredients with others that are high tech and really work”. Nor is she only addicted to expensive ranges: having been brand ambassador for Olay since 2003, helping to formulate the products, she’ll as easily recommend Olay’s Total Effects hydrating masks at £18.99 for five masks (“They’re brilliant”) as KuuSh’s 24 Carat Gold Facial (£150).
KuuSh is an Australian brand, much loved by Middle-Eastern beauties as it is the world’s only certified halal and organic carbon-free skincare range. Besides the gold (which, says Achilleos, “has powerful purifying and nourishing qualities that help rebuild collagen” – its 24 Carat Gold Moisturiser at £650 a pop is a hot seller), it uses natural ingredients such as cranberries and black cohosh, a herb high in natural oestrogen. Some of Anastasia’s customers are so enamoured of the line that they want nothing but KuuSh treatments.
Most of her clients come to her because they’re serious about skincare. They understand its importance. The first time a client comes to see her, she asks them to bring a bag of their usual make-up and lotions and potions with them. Then she goes through it, sorting the things that she thinks are right for them and what are not. “It’s like a masterclass in skincare.” Some come to her just once or twice a year to get their skincare regimes updated (“it needs re-evaluating all the time because skin changes”), while others come every month.
Her signature treatments, the ones that her customers love most, are the Anastasia Achilleos Bespoke Method Facial (£345 for 90 minutes) in which she assesses the skin and chooses the best products from the nine different ranges she’s picked as being the best in the world. The next most sought-after is the Dibi Nausicca Face and Body Ritual (£120 for 90 minutes), which involves a complete body exfoliation, skin detoxifying and nourishing, plus a facial, all with Dibi products.
There’s no getting away from the fact that her treatments are expensive, but they are carefully tailored and use the finest products sourced from all over the world. The real testament is this: her customers come back again and again.
Her best bit of free advice? Massage your creams well into your face – it’s all about touch, and massage stimulates the skin. And – of course – drink lots of water.