Given the reams written about the beauty industry globally, its commercial boom, its links with sexism, ageism and glamour issues, its scientific advancements, even its underbelly and ugly sides, it is surprising how little is documented about those who work in it. Especially the junior brigade, the foot soldiers of the salons—the hotbeds of the beauty industry—who use the very products that make news and create trends.

They are the day-to-day handlers of hair colours, skin pigments, creams, lotions and bleaches, nail paints, face packs, whiteners, derma abrasion products, body wax and oils. Fashion magazines across the world, and certainly in India, often feature top hair stylists, make-up wizards or beauty advisers of luxury beauty brands, but nobody focuses on the aspiring minions of the glamour world who come to learn and earn, but begin to yearn for a fatter reward from the beauty cult. They come from the guts of the Indian middle class and find themselves surrounded by unconventional ambitions.

An ongoing curiosity in male beauty salon workers resurged in my thoughts last week, given the physical transformation I noticed in a young pedicurist at a parlour. His skin tight T-shirt, the yellow-blonde hair colour that made him look sick, his repeated urge to stroke his non-existent beard. Pedicure, manicure and head massages are essential to the core business of beauty parlours, but are not at par with hair stylists who are treated as superior in the internal hierarchies. Most salons in India hire men, rather young boys, as pedicurists. Female beauticians mostly do manicures and in select parlours where they do offer pedicure as a service it is only for women. Whereas men, considered more efficient and stronger with scrubbing and effective foot and leg massage, take male and female clients seeking such treatments.

Over the years, I have observed the unspoken intimacies male pedicurists seek in the way they massage the legs of their clients, the foot care tips they slip in during conversations as negotiations of familiarity, the way they sell “special" treatments—which usually means a new cream or salt added to the regular package. Hindi films, Salman Khan, clients who tip well and well-known people or half celebrities who visit their salons (it may include the sister-in-law of a barely known TV actor) are more or less the kind of topics pedicurists talk about. They are seriously star-struck. I remember being at a Noida salon when Hindi film actor Nimrat Kaur walked in with her mother and other family members. Everyone from the receptionist to the man who shampooed her hair looked like they had been offered free trips to Switzerland.

I often find myself surprised at the poor general knowledge most beauty salon workers possess—girls or boys. The name of the Prime Minster is a good question, but don’t bother asking them who the President is. Many of them belong to partially educated working-class families with little education and zero social privileges, having attended school till the 10th or 12th standard with often no college education. A majority are school drop-outs in fact. A salon I used to frequent for a decade was owned by a Nepali businesswoman. Eighty percent of the staff she hired were Nepali girls and boys who had migrated from Nepal for employment. As greenhorns, they would look nervous and dazed—hired initially for odd jobs like showing nail paints to clients, holding hair dryers to assist a senior stylist, cleaning pedicure tubs and such till training workshops taught them to bleach and wax.

While most learn to speak English and everyone has a smartphone and is on WhatsApp, the way the boys change physically is something to watch. Boys sometimes go berserk with beauty tools—especially hair colour. Many treatments are free for staff and they get to experiment on the house.

They turn into odd peacocks—gelled spiky hair coloured in strange shades of blond, jeans so tight they look like churidars and pointy shoes in funny colours. Some tweeze their eyebrows; get patterned hair-cuts and tattoos. The Salman Khan fan, an ubiquitous Indian species, lives of course in Mumbai’s high-rise buildings as well as in the bylanes of Old Delhi but he certainly thrives among beauty parlour boys. So in patent “Bhai style," these guys often acquire a beefed-up body and sport silver metal bracelets. Far from the measured mentoring of personal trainers and alert dieticians, they start looking odd if toned.

Girls at salons who come from similar working-class families fashion up, too, their multiple ear piercings and ombre hair colours the giveaways of their personal transitions, but boys acquire strangely hybrid personas. They want to work for fashion shows, go to “Bombay" and show a persistent interest in reality contests on TV. They start posturing and preening. Even when they don’t speak, they tell us what we may miss by omission.

Some transitions are beautiful, some are not—exactly like the two sides of the beauty industry.

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