"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My interest in the male Brazilian wax began when my girlfriend’s Russian wax technician told her not to buy me boots for Christmas. “You buy a man boots, he will walk away from you,” Irena said, while applying hot pine wax to Anna’s bikini line. This is apparently a well-known Russian proverb, and Russian women will not buy their men boots on its account. “But if you insist on buying him the boots,” Irena continued, “ask him for some money in return, even one penny, so it is not a gift, but a trade.”
Anna takes Irena’s advice seriously. “She’s like my therapist,” she says. My brother wound up buying me the boots.
Curious to meet Irena, I tagged along to Anna’s next wax appointment. Irena had once told Anna to break up with me if I didn’t propose to her “within two months,” but she greeted me like an old friend, holding my hand and staring deep into my eyes. “You must come see me sometime,” she said, meaning for a wax. I said it sounded pretty painful. “It’s not so bad,” she said. “Here, I show you.” She whisked me into the treatment room and asked that I remove my pants. And like that, she waxed an iPod-sized patch of hair off my inner thigh while Anna looked on, wincing. The pain was sharp but tolerable. “Men come to me all the time,” Irena said nonchalantly. “At first it was the gays, then the straights, for the chest and the back. But now, many straight men come to me for the full Brazilian.”
To discuss male Brazilian waxing today feels like a throwback to the luxurious pre-recession days, when Newsweek claimed to have pounced on the burgeoning trend (not long after, Rebecca Traister wrote a response piece for Salon). The following year — and one week after Steve Carell’s chest-waxing scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” hit theaters — USA Today announced: “The male resistance to waxing is melting away.” Then, in the November 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens offered the coup de grâce, a personal essay about receiving a Brazilian as part of a self-improvement series. It seemed to imply that the straight male version had officially gone mainstream, and that men had become subject to the same exacting beauty standards as women.
But recently, when I asked my male friends if they’d ever gotten a Brazilian, they were, in a word, appalled. They became almost angry at my suggestion that it had ever been a trend. Casual manscaping they understood, but why would any sane bro undergo a “Brozilian”?
I didn’t understand it either. So shortly after meeting Irena, I stopped by the J Sisters salon in midtown Manhattan. The J Sisters are famous for bringing the Brazilian — the removal of hair from the pubic and buttock regions, via the strip wax method — to the United States in 1992. They are also, allegedly, the first to give a Brazilian wax to a man. “One of my clients asked if I could wax her husband,” Janea Padilha, 55, the inventor of the Brazilian and co-author of the recently released book “Brazilian Sexy: Secrets to Living a Gorgeous and Confident Life,” recalled. The man had some kind of bacterial infection that needed to be addressed. “At the time we had an all-female clientele. But the guy had a lot of hair down there.” Janea leaned in confidentially. “So we sneaked him through the back.”
The man was cured. Word spread. Suddenly, Janea’s clients reported an interest on behalf of their husbands and boyfriends. In response, the sisters went co-ed. They trained two men — a cousin, Jonas Padilha, and a friend, both of them licensed aestheticians — to do male waxing. These men had never actually waxed other men, though. Let alone their genitals. So they recruited another cousin — John Padilha, a receptionist at J Sisters — to act as a test subject.
“They waxed my whole body,” John, a handsome 29-year-old with an easy smile and perfectly sculpted chin hair, told me. “Each guy took a different leg and arm. It was brutal. But when they got to this area,” he said, pointing at his zipper, “they did it too slow or something, and the skin stretched out. I screamed. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
The men performed the wax on male clients for several months. Soon, however, Janea took over again. “The boys had no finesse,” said Jonice, the youngest of the seven J-named sisters at 48, and the most business-minded. “They also overcharged for hairy clients. And it’s funny, but women were not comfortable with their husbands and boyfriends getting waxed by other men.”
Since then, Jane Padilha, yet another cousin, who goes by J.P. to avoid confusion with Janea, has taken over some of the male waxing load. “My girlfriends say, ‘Don’t you feel anything, for the men?’” J.P. said, standing in front of a voluptuous mannequin draped in a Brazilian flag near the reception desk. “But I don’t get embarrassed. I’m very professional, like a gynecologist for guys.” Indeed, J.P. gives her cousin John his Brazilian every four weeks. “I have to grab him by the hair sometimes, just to get him into the room!”
As the J Sisters dissolved in laughter, I reflected on the improbability of American men ever receiving Brazilians from their female cousins.
Getting a Brazilian wax is, after all, an intimidating experience — especially for men worried they’ll become aroused. A reassuring, motherly presence is advised. As Eugenya Freylikhman, a 55-year-old Ukrainian aesthetician at Chelsea’s Skintology spa, told me, “We hire only older women for the waxing, like your grandmother. We don’t hire the model drop-dead gorgeous girl. Otherwise men become uncomfortable and afraid.”
Of course it’s not just for the male client’s protection that young female waxers are rarely used. Despite the medicalized aura most salons adopt, waxing is a cosmetic procedure. With a clientele of naked straight guys, sex hopelessly intrudes.
“Guys think that since they’re naked, you’re gonna give them head,” Jane Pham, the 35-year-old proprietor of Ted D. Bare Salon in San Jose, Calif., frankly admitted in a phone interview. Pham serves mainly heterosexual men, and specializes in what she calls the “Manzilian.” The day she signed on, the head aesthetician quit, fed up with the obscene proposals. Pham, however, now in her tenth year at Ted D. Bare, has learned how to keep guys in line. Brandishing a can of scalding cream wax, she tells newcomers, “She who holds the wax holds the power!” Once, she was forced to taze a guy who wouldn’t stop misbehaving. “He got really aggressive and kept insisting that I perform certain favors on him,” she said. “So I tazed him in the thigh. He fell right off the table.
Most of the time, Pham says, guys behave. And yet they make a lot of bizarre requests. “Men tend to want the oddest pubic hair shaping,” she said. “One guy asked me for a blue whale design. Another wanted me to shave the words ‘Campbell Soup’ into his pubes, because his girlfriend liked Campbell Soup. I was like, ‘No way, dude!’” She continued, “Then there are the guys who come for the pain. The sadists. I mean, to each his own, but the problem is, their hair gradually thins out and they become desensitized, so it starts to hurt less, and they need more.”
Pham has been able to go on because, like most aestheticians, she bonds with her clients. Due to the intimacy of the act, personal confessions abound. “It’s unfortunate,” Pham says, “but I know when a guy is going to leave his wife before she knows. When they’re naked in front of you, guys tell you everything.” She also enjoys shepherding men though a cosmetic procedure formerly reserved for women. “Most dudes are not OK with getting it at first. But it’s like a tattoo: Once they wax one body part, they inevitably wax another. Every guy I see winds up getting the Manzilian. Every single guy.”
There are many theories as to why straight men get Brazilians. Dr. William Granzig, head of the clinical sexology program at Maimonides University in Miami, suggests they do it to emulate bodybuilders and pro wrestlers, who go hairless to emphasize muscle definition. “Hair removal has become something macho men do,” Granzig says. “It gives guys masculine permission to get waxed.”
Gloria Brame, a sex therapist and the author of “Come Hither: A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex,” points to the ubiquity of hairless male porn stars online. “Stuff like that just drifts from the Web into the general population,” she says. “How else would everyone know about anal bleaching, for example?”
Rebecca Herzig, a professor of women’s studies at Bates College and author of the forthcoming “Pluck,” a history of hair removal, says that the original market for the Brazilian wax (women between 20 and 40) is maturing. “Investors and service providers need to find new markets,” she explains. “They’ve begun to target teenagers and older women with high incomes. But, perhaps most importantly, they’ve begun to target men.”
Female empowerment may even have something to do with it. If men expect young women to get Brazilians, as some recent articles suggest, some women expect the same in return. Martha Frankel, a journalist and Janea’s co-author for “Brazilian Sexy,” interviewed dozens of men at J Sisters as they waited for Brazilians. “The majority of them were there because their wives and girlfriends demanded it,” she said, before adding, “A lot of these guys were pretty hairy.”
Celebrity advocacy has probably helped, too. In 2008, London’s Daily Mail reported that P. Diddy gets regular Brazilians, and likes to relax beforehand by drinking lemonade and vodka cocktails and listening to James Brown. Afterward, he sprays his own fragrance, Unforgivable Black, on the newly depilated area. “In everything I do,” he told reporters, “I visualize myself either putting clothes on or taking them off.”
Waxing specialists want you to think the same way. And so they make it almost impossible to ask questions about the Brazilian without receiving one gratis.
I was eventually waxed while researching this story, after declining several offers. It took place at J Sisters, where I’d returned for some follow-up questions, but also because it was so much fun being there, surrounded by a gorgeous extended family of laughing, clapping Brazilians doing one another’s hair and nails as they awaited their next celebrity client. (“You can almost hear the waves lapping in that place,” Martha Frankel told me. “I used go there just to relax.”) This time, Janea saw me coming and immediately summoned me into the waxing room. When she joined me a few minutes later, I was still fully clothed, hunched over my notebook like an avid high school reporter.
“What is this?” she said, blinking in confusion.
“I thought I might ask a few questions first, if you don’t — “
“Strip!” she cried, and flung a small white hand towel onto the bed. She smiled. “Don’t worry. I will take care of you.”
Spa professionals had assured me that waxing isn’t that painful. But men’s hair is coarser and thicker than women’s, and the follicles deeper, which accounts for the spa legend that men make more noise than women when waxed. What got me, though, was the contrast between Janea’s dainty, tender application of the wax and the brute force with which she ripped it off. She threw my leg over her little shoulder, like a sports therapist, and began raining baby powder down on the target areas. The pain was almost unbearable. “Why am I doing this?” I thought, staring at the elaborate, cherub-accented ceiling. Meanwhile, Janea modestly described the emboldening effects her Brazilians and personal advice have had on clients like Vanessa Williams, Naomi Campbell and Gwyneth Paltrow, but also on men like sometime actor and former pro ball player Rick Fox and, yes, Christopher Hitchens.
“What was Christopher Hitchens like?” I asked, trying to distract myself from the pain.
She thought for a moment. “He was … flexible.”
“Yes, that, but more mental. He is a big, handsome guy, but he has an open mind. When I have his legs in the air, we laugh about it. We talked about sensation. He made a lot of good questions. When he left, I said, ‘Janea’s waiting for you coming back!’”
At the time, Janea was completing her book “Brazilian Sexy.” I asked her what it was all about.
“I don’t want to reveal too much,” she said, “but it is about how beauty comes from inside, from under the skin.” She stirred the wax with her wooden applicator, like a painter mixing colors. “Say you are ugly. Say … you are like the singer Seal. He has an ugly face, with a scar. But he has the passion!” She threw her arms out dramatically, like Seal in the video for “Kiss From a Rose.” “And because of this passion, he is beautiful. And you see who is his wife.”
“Did you ever give Seal a Brazilian?”
“No,” she said. “He lives in Los Angeles. But I hear he gets them.”
Afterward, I took a long walk down Lexington Avenue, clutching the small glass jar of Tranquility Soothing Waxing Cream that Janea had pressed into my hand. I felt shaky and emotional, but invigorated, as if I’d just walked away from a car accident unscathed. Somewhere in the East 70s, I saw an Absolut Vodka billboard that read: “In an Absolut World, the smoother the better.”
Maybe that’s right, I thought.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)