Can you imagine telling an Oscar-winning actress that her face was sagging? It sounds like the stuff of a peculiar dream.
But that’s precisely what London-based facialist Su-Man Hsu did. And the actress? None other than Juliette Binoche, star of films such as Chocolat, The English Patient and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Su-Man describes the French actress’s arrival for her appointment for a facial treatment like this: “She came… and I said, ‘What’s happened to you? Stagnating body, sagging, sagging.'”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Ms Binoche didn’t speak to Su-Man for the whole of the session. “I thought, ‘OK then, it’s got to be something I said, I’ll just move on and forget about it,'” Su-Man recalls.
But the story doesn’t end there. A year later her phone rang and on the other end was Juliette Binoche, in London for work, asking Su-Man to come and see her.
Su-Man recalls that Ms Binoche reminded her of what she’d said and quite how badly it had gone down.
“I said, ‘Why did you call me then?’ She said because she tried it in France, she tried everywhere and no-one [was] like me. And from then on we became best friends, we’re still in contact with each other and I became her facialist.”
It was a turning point for Su-Man. She says that on the strength of Ms Binoche’s recommendations her business took off. Other celebrity fans include the actresses Anne Hathaway and Freida Pinto.
It’s a good story to dine out on, but actually it’s just one stop on a journey where, in Su-Man’s words, “everything’s just emerged. A beautiful accident.”
Su-Man was born in Taiwan and lived in a tiny village until she was 14, in what she describes as a mud hut. “Outside’s raining, inside’s raining, and you need to put all the pots and pans [out], otherwise you’d just slip away. And in the summer you sometimes see little baby mice fall from the ceiling,” she says.
They had four neighbours and after that there was nothing between them and the next village except rice fields. The family had no car but would use a cart drawn by oxen to get around.
Su-Man was the youngest of 10 siblings and her illiterate parents struggled to support the family. On days when there was no rice to eat, everyone – including the animals – would eat porridge.
Or, she says, they would shoot the swallows living in the roof with a slingshot, and then barbecue them.
Su-Man’s route away from her parents’ smallholding was to become a dancer – despite her mother and father’s opposition to it as a career. She worked in Germany, where she met her British-Pakistani husband, and then in Brussels.
When the couple came to live in the UK, Su-Man performed her final dance in the King and I at the London Palladium, and then embarked on her second career looking after people’s faces.
She didn’t, however, say farewell to dancing completely. One of the highlights was still to come – she was rehearsal director for dancer Akram Khan’s ensemble at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.
Find out more
- Listen to Su-Man Hsu in this edition of Outlook on the BBC World Service
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Su-Man was already well-versed in Shiatsu massage techniques, having used them to help her recuperate after an accident at the age of 20. So when she came to set up Su-Man Skincare she developed treatments that combined massage with her own serums and toning products. To start with she made those in her kitchen and tried them out on herself and her clients.
When clients began to ask her whether they could buy the products, she took the plunge and ordered 5,000 jars (the minimum order) to sell them in.
Su-Man explains that her technique combines nature and science and is a mix of Eastern skincare, based on prevention of problems, and Western science, which corrects them.
If you spend just five minutes extra on your face, she promises, it will repay you by looking younger and happier.
With this belief in natural methods for skincare, she has no time for customers who go down the artificial route offered by Botox. Her message to those who are tempted is unequivocal: “You go there, don’t come back to me.”
And with a dancer’s view of the world, she adds: “The body is designed to be moved, it’s not designed to sit there like a wall. If you can’t see your expression when you speak, it’s almost like you wipe out your history.
“You don’t want people to know who you are, what’s your future, where you come from. That saddens me.”
Although Su-Man’s business includes Hollywood stars amongst its clientele, she is keen to stress her belief in not forgetting how and where you started. Her products, she says, are rooted in her background. She takes her cue from the way her mother looked after them as children, using whatever was to hand.
“We used rice water on our face, and used flour mixed with egg, things like that, as a mask, or even hair shampoo. We would collect roots from the mountain and we would chop it and put it in the water to wash our body.
“We used the leftover green tea to splash on our face to soothe it because we were exposed to such intense sun, and discarded water melon, rubbing our face, exfoliating, all that stuff.”
And just to make sure that she keeps all that in mind, almost every day while she meditates Su-Man listens to a track which plays her the sounds of her village at night.