I’M lying under a panel of blinding infra-red lights with my eyes scrunched shut while the doyenne of Hollywood skincare grinds four prongs of searing hot metal across the tenderest parts of my face.
Sonya Dakar has already smeared natural acid and synthetic snake venom all over my cheeks and forehead, pinched and kneaded my nose till my toes waggled then “resurfaced” my face with a wand tipped with crushed diamonds to give me a glimpse of what Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Gwyneth Paltrow apparently submit to in the run-up to the Oscars.
This is not a relaxing day at the spa. It is Beauty Bootcamp™ and Dakar’s legion of celebrity clients don’t mind if it hurts a bit (or even a lot) because it delivers results and sends them off to the red carpet with confidence.
Or so she promises when I arrive at her five-storey Beverly Hills clinic, looming like an ocean liner above the traffic by the Beverly Hilton hotel.
Entry to the building is by intercom only and eight security cameras ensure that the paparazzi are kept at arm’s length.
Buzzed in, I ascend to the airy third-floor reception, wondering what a facial actually involves and if it can possibly make any difference to the layers of bags under my eyes and the deep folds in my cheeks that I have spent an uncomfortable few minutes studying before setting out.
Dakar bustles over.
A grandmother of 12, she is petite and dressed from head to toe in black: ankle-length biker boots, tight black trousers and a fitted black sweater under her black cloth apron, all the better to set off her barely marked olive skin, striking mane of golden hair, chunky gold earrings, gold necklace and gold bracelets.
Although it’s 38 years since she moved to the United States from Israel she still speaks in a fabulously thick, vaguely eastern European accent peppered with unexpected expressions and laced with warmth, humour and a steady stream of gossip.
“Are you the veeektim?” she asks by way of introduction, before going on to tell me in short order where she lives, where she used to live in west Los Angeles when she arrived here, what house prices are like there now (very high), how her master’s degree in chemistry gave her a unique approach to the beauty business and how she started out making skincare oils with a $199 mixer on her kitchen table. It is difficult to get a word in edgeways.
“I’m gonna treat you today just like my client,” she says.
Which turns out to mean that she will be scathingly blunt about my appearance, inflict various jaw-droppingly expensive indignities on me then pamper me so enjoyably that if I could ever afford to come back I would.
“She becomes everyone’s Jewish mother,” says her daughter Mimi, one of three (out of four) offspring involved in the family business.
“She becomes their therapist. She sets her clients up on dates. She invites them round for dinner. That’s how it is.”
Our $2,330 session begins with Dakar taking close-up pictures of my face on her iPhone so she can prove the transformation she will have effected when it’s all over.
“It’s gonna be HUGE of a difference, by the way, before and after,” she explains.
We’re sitting in the small private room she uses for her celebrity clients.
It has its own shower and toilet cubicle so the stars don’t have to wander the stone-floored corridor and risk encountering civilians with their face masks on.
Soothing music plays in the background.
Arranged against the walls are various contraptions including a surgical-style light and magnifying glass and an oxygen machine.
There’s a single central bed, covered with sheets in a shade of green that matches the Sonya Dakar product range’s colour scheme, then a taupe eiderdown and a gold-flecked cable-knit blanket to lie on.
On it there’s a plush dark grey dressing gown.
I’m only having a facial but Dakar suggests I get undressed anyway because it feels more relaxing than keeping your trousers on, “even though my treatment is not all that relaxing”.
She takes her pictures, zooming in mercilessly.
“You have expression lines and the bags under your eyes, a little bit dark circle, a bit large pores and the red nose came from drinking. The line here, the puffiness of the eyes, even your broken capillaries shows.”
Some of this is genetic but alcohol, sun and “excessive coffee” make it worse, she suspects, as does the way I sleep in bed.
She screws up a sheet as if it’s my face to show how pillows eventually create wrinkles.
“You need to iron it,” she explains.
Dakar was born in Moscow and moved to Israel as a very young girl.
She became a mother at 19 and arrived in America a few years later.
By the time she completed her chemistry master’s in Los Angeles she had four children and had already begun her kitchen-table beauty experiments.
This palace of pampering opened in 2003. Last month, Dakar’s product range went on sale for the first time in the UK through the website Cult Beauty.
It was the beginning of a global roll-out of her brand.
“England for me is the number one country to open for Europe. It’s kind of almost sister to the US,” she says.
Drew Barrymore was her first famous client, back in the 1990s, and celebrities now make up about “20 per cent” of her clientele.
“A lot of celebrities come here and they feel like babies,” she coos, beginning to apply some sort of face wash that smells strongly of lemons.
“They have fear, just like anybody else, or even more. Suddenly all the Oscar winners, the Grammy winners, they become like puppies: ‘What should I do?’ ‘Sonya, I’m very concerned.’ They are human being just like us, even more sensitive. Their career — it really is about their face.”
Does she feel like a therapist?
“I don’t wanna be therapist. I give a piece of my philosophy but without getting into their personal life but sometimes you go out of your element and in the moment if you have an opinion, that doesn’t hurt.
"Chris told me one time, ‘You should write a book of words of wisdom.’ I said that would have to be a book only for my clients.”
“Chris” is Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who is “so cute, like a son to me,” she ays.
“Sometimes I see him once a week, sometimes once a month. Celebrities never set appointments.
"It was because of Chris I got Jennifer Lawrence when he dated her. Can you believe it?
"Celebrities send celebrities. She is so humble and nice. I told her, ‘Stay the way you are because people will love you all the more if you are humble.’
“She’s from the south. She isn’t born like some celebrity with top school in east Manhattan, you know like Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s different, learning as you go what the real glamorous, wealthy world is.”
Some people born without those advantages go through a personality change when they become famous, she says.
“Some of them stay humble until the end of their careers. We hope she gonna do this way.”
Dakar is also close to Martin’s ex-wife, Paltrow, with whom she collaborated two years ago on a line of hoya flower skin oils. Dakar even does facials for Martin and Paltrow’s daughter, Apple, 11.
“She loves it. She said, ‘Mummy, you have to go only to Sonya.’ She’s so into health, oh boy.”
There is “no difference” between her male and female clients’ appearance anxiety levels, she says.
“I find my male customers just as concerned. Men cannot even have make-up to cover up any flaw. They go with naked skin.”
What bothers them?
“You know: ‘I don’t like my fine line around my eyes.’”
Or the generic things: “‘I don’t like my discolouration,’ or, ‘I don’t like my wrinkle here,’ or, ‘I don’t like my puffy eyes,’ which is a lot of men.”
She “never, never” goes to clients’ houses, she stresses, as she starts to apply the Flash Facial, one of her two bestselling products.
It’s partly because of “image” — she wants to stay in control — and partly because she has “$6 million of equipment here; I wanna do so many treatments. Even for Tom Cruise I said no. I treated him here, on this bed.”
How far down it did his feet reach? Dakar changes the subject.
“Leonardo DiCaprio is six two. Honestly, Leo doesn’t look like super tall but when you see him in life he’s really tall. I told him this and he said: ‘I know, but the image people have of me is not the way I am.’”
She adds later: “People think about Leo like he’s still 15, 16 years old, like when he did Titanic.”
This month he’s tipped to finally win an Oscar for The Revenant, for which he grew a wild, straggly beard and roughed it for months on location in sub-zero temperatures.
“You know what? He treated himself [with her products] all the way through, but definitely when they come from heavy production, we treat them in depthness,” Dakar says.
“We use a lot of equipment to plump the skin.”
DiCaprio is an “actor in his soul” so is willing to take on parts where he looks like an “ugly old man” if it’s an “amazing role, but in real life, when you take all the masking and costume and the cameras off, he wanna look younger and beautiful, of course.
He’s no different to a young lawyer or anybody else. He’s a man with a lot of younger women around him all the time.”
By now she’s firing hot steam with ozone into my face and applying her unique stem-cell “nanotechnology” mask, which penetrates down to the “third or even fourth layers” of skin.
Then she starts attacking the area around my nostrils.
“Don’t worry: we never broke anybody’s nose. You’re not going to be the first one, Ben.
“The treatment is a little bit uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when you never had it — it’s like tough love,” she says.
“But when you take all the schmutz, the dirt, out of your pores, the skin is going to be much more younger looking. Sacrifice a little bit — it’s worth it.”
The older generation of stars who are “too macho” to bother with skincare get short shrift.
She likes the way that younger men go to hair stylists, not barbers, have facials and manicures and do not think it is “fouffy” to take the same pride in their appearance that a woman might.