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The ripper

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published June 16, 2005

TAMPA - Tina, the receptionist, used to work in pest control. Fumigation, testosterone, that sort of thing.

"So this," she says, searching for a delicate adjective, "is really girly for me."

From her desk in the snug, citrus-colored South Tampa salon, Tina controls access to Pia Trujillo and her apprentices. Judging from the messages on her answering machine, Tina holds tremendous power.

"Please, please, please," the callers will say, especially in summer, right about now. "Please before Saturday." Please I'm going to the beach. Please I'm getting married. Please.

If you call Tina this morning, you can see Pia sometime in July. If you call Tina this afternoon, after the publicity and whatnot, well. Some of Pia's regular clients are already peeved about the potential backlog.

All this for a service Tina Sanchez, 19, does not fully understand. Pia is master of the Brazilian bikini wax.

The salon, Pia Esthetics, offers other services. But just about everyone who will walk through the door today seeks something that Tina must use great anatomical detail to describe. It is, in terms vague enough for a family newspaper, a procedure far more invasive than a standard bikini wax in which Pia and her implements venture into intimate crevices and clients assume positions associated with bedroom activity and yoga class. It is something Tina desperately hopes never to experience.

"Pia keeps telling me she's going to drag me in there and wax me. She's like, "I'm gonna tie you down.' I'm like, "Noooooooooooo.' "She did my eyebrows. I said, "No, you're not rippin' anything else, unh uh.' "

Pia hasn't arrived yet, so she cannot roll her eyes at Tina. Tina goes on.

"I've heard people in there screaming 'cause, you have to understand, everything echoes in here. I hear rriiiipppp and then I hear, "Oh, crap!' "

A client listens from the waiting room. She has an appointment with Pia's apprentice, Nayla Desalvo. Nayla endured the procedure as part of her training. She yelped and flailed so much that Pia climbed halfway onto the table and pinned her down with her leg.

Nevertheless, Nayla offers this advice to Tina now: "You'd better do it if you want to get married," she says. "To get the guy to marry you."

Nayla turns to her customer. "You ready for some torture?"

"Sure," she says. "I took some Advil."

***

Pia is 28, smiley and petite, like most of her clients. She wears a white coat. She doesn't look like she would inflict pain. In a room accented with candles and plastic daisies, she puts on a pair of reading glasses and peers at the panty line of a 32-year-old woman named Laurie.

Laurie explains that she'd thought her appointment was yesterday, so she had driven frantically to get here in time - if you're lucky enough to get an appointment with Pia, you don't want to miss it - only to return home devastated and stubbly.

"I was sitting at the pool yesterday, and it was just terrible," she says. "I was like this, plucking, and my ex-boyfriend is like, "What are you doing?' And I said, "I thought I was going to see Pia today.' "

The ex-boyfriend, like so many boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, knows who Pia is, although they have never met. Sometimes Pia calls to confirm an appointment and a male voice greets her like an old friend. Sometimes she meets a client's husband in the mall, and he says, "Thank you, Pia, thank you."

Few males venture into the salon, which is about as deep into the girl inner sanctum as you can get. It's as friendly as a hairdresser and as intimate as a gynecologist, which makes sense, since Pia is basically a gynecological hairdresser. Women strip down to a thong, put their feet up in the air and discuss the sacred and the mundane, in 30-minute, $40 increments.

Laurie leans back on a pale yellow pillow and talks about her trips to Chicago. She is dusted with baby powder and smeared with warm melted wax. When Pia rubs cloth into the hot wax and yanks it off, Laurie barely flinches. She says, "Ouch."

Some women get so used to the waxing they doze off, Pia says. Some tremble and sweat. Almost all return faithfully every three to four weeks.

"You love your Pia once you get her," Laurie says.

***

Pia got the first request five years ago working in another salon. She didn't know what a Brazilian wax was, but her business sense told her to oblige. She began waxing places concealed by even the tiniest bikinis.

"I was never afraid," she said.

Word got around. She opened the tiny salon on Bay-to-Bay Boulevard a year ago, and almost immediately the answering machine filled up and the wait list overflowed.

She brought in Nayla Desalvo and trained her: Pia waxed Nayla, then Nayla waxed Pia until Pia was satisfied that she had a "good rip."

Now Nayla is just as busy as Pia, and Pia is training a second apprentice and looking for a larger building.

"It was a need in Tampa," she said. Women bring pages torn from Playboy, requesting topiarylike shapes: teardrop, heart, butterfly. Sometimes the heart ends up looking like Mickey Mouse and they laugh and rip it off. There are five classic patterns: from the basic bikini wax that removes whatever sticks out of a bathing suit bottom, to the Brazilian, which leaves a narrow "landing strip," to the "Sphynx," which gets its name from the mythical Egyptian hairless cat.

About half the girls go for the Sphynx, said Pia, who Sphynxes herself because she feels guilty asking Nayla to do it. Some think the look is too porn star, or too preadolescent. Some save it for special occasions.

When Laurie broke up with a boyfriend and started dating someone new, she reverted to a conservative pattern. Pia has learned to judge the status of some relationships by the amount of wax required.

***

They don't call it the Brazilian in Brazil. They do it there, mainly in the big cities, but they apparently don't have a name for it. Pia's nail tech is from Brazil. She had never heard of a Brazilian wax until she came to the United States.

Seven Brazilian sisters (Jocely, Jonice, Joyce, Janea, Juracy, Jussara and Judseia Padilha), introduced the idea to New York in 1994, and then Gwyneth Paltrow said it had changed her life, and then Carrie got one on Sex and the City, and . . .

Now there's a 55-year old woman named Kathy in Pia's waiting room.

"I'm from Miami," she says. "Everyone gets them down there. Even old ladies like me."

Her daughters talked her into it. She decided what the heck. Now she's hooked. No more bathing suit issues, she says. Okay, men like it too.

Kathy was talking to her sister not long ago, when her sister leaned in and whispered something shocking and scandalous about her 20-something daughter.

"Emily has a Brazilian bikini wax!" her sister said.

Kathy just grinned. "So do I."

***

In Room Two, Nayla tells herself this is just like waxing eyebrows. When Pia taught her, she gave this advice: Pay attention to your facial expression. Keep smiling. Be the boss. The clients are like babies, they will put their legs where you tell them. Most important is a good rip: Be quick, secure. Don't hesitate. Be brave.

When she finishes, she pretends her memory has been erased by one of those flashy things in Men in Black.

Stretched out on the table is Kelly, 23, here for the second time. Nayla promises it won't hurt as much this time. They talk about Latin night at a Tampa club. Rip! They talk about softball. Rip!

Nayla points to a small tattoo just inside Kelly's hip bone.

"What's that mean?"

"Oh, it's a nautical star. To me it symbolizes inner strength. My old boyfriend slept with someone else the entire time we were together. We stayed friends, and he never told me about it. You can't see it unless I show you. Or you're waxing me."

Nayla leans over Kelly with a pair of tweezers. Pluck. Pluck. Pluck. Pluck. "So, what did you do for Memorial Day?"

Here comes the part that makes the Brazilian the Brazilian:

"Now," Nayla says, "put your legs like you're having a baby. All the way up."

Kelly lifts her feet toward the ceiling. Crosses her ankles. Wiggles her toes.

"No babies," she says. "Oh my god, I saw Madagascar. I thought I was going to have a panic attack because there were so many children in there."

Riiip.

Kelly lets out a long breath. That one kind of hurt.

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