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This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
With its blond wood floors, Lucite chairs and Beyonce soundtrack, Belle Femme Hair & Nail Lounge could be mistaken for a salon in Beverly Hills, but instead sits in Dubai’s downtown Business Bay, across from the 2.4 million-square-foot Mall of the Emirates and in view of the Burj Khalifa, the Earth’s tallest skyscraper at 2,717 feet. On a humid fall day, Hollywood colorist Tracey Cunningham — who tints the tresses of Emma Stone and Lily Aldridge — is in the midst of a four-day residency at the salon, where she — with hairstylist Jen Atkin (who works with Jessica Alba and the Kardashian clan) — will color more than 20 heads a day, some traveling from Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for their magic touch.
It’s a trend that finds Hollywood’s elite beauty pros — from brow queen Anastasia Soare to Jose Eber (not to mention cosmetic surgeons Raj Kanodia and Jason Diamond) — putting their red-carpet prowess to use on female investment bankers, entrepreneurs and local royalty — and walking away with a six-figure payout for a few days’ work. “I don’t understand it, but I’m flattered by it,” says Atkin. “The demand is real,” with a schedule that books a solid three months in advance and a waiting list 50 clients deep.
Belle Femme Hair & Nail Lounge on Jumeirah Road in Dubai displays a hair-inspiration board with images of LilyAldridge, Khloe Kardashian, Emma Stone and Dakota Johnson.
Dubai is a fascinating mix of wealth — it contributes to UAE’s standing as the seventh-richest nation — and relatively liberal Islamism, especially when compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia. In Dubai, women technically can be arrested for publicly hugging a man who is not their husband, but floor-length abayas are optional and they can drive — as is clear from clients pulling into the Belle Femme parking area in Range Rovers, Lexus SUVs and Mercedes sedans.
The practice of importing Hollywood beauty talent to the desert began in 2010 when JetSet, another luxury Dubai salon, brought Sally Hershberger and her then-star colorist, Negin Zand (who has worked with clients including Jennifer Aniston and Cate Blanchett), out for a weekend. Shortly after, Belle Femme owner Bodour Al Hilali noticed how clients constantly cited Hollywood stars as their hair inspiration, so she invited New York colorist Marie Robinson (who works on Naomi Watts) to work out of her shop.
But the grueling pace isn’t for everyone (Hershberger stopped going when “some queen or princess wanted to see me ‘right now.’ I’m not used to being bossed around like that,” she says), and a game of beauty musical chairs ensued. Robinson, whose stateside schedule no longer allowed for the 12-hour flight, subbed in Cunningham after introducing her to Al Hilali, who also began calling upon colorist George Papanikolas, Mila Kunis‘ mane man. These days, Atkin, Cunningham and their L.A.-based staffs visit Belle Femme four times a year for four days (a cut with Atkin begins at $450, while color with Cunningham tops out at $1,000).
The salon is ladies only. When colorist George Papanikolas is in town, he works in a different Belle Femme location and only on clients comfortable with removing their hijab head coverings in front of a man.
During Cunningham’s and Atkin’s latest visit, patrons donning hijab head coverings and custom abayas that allowed their Hermes and Prada lizard-skin flat sandals to peek through filed into Belle Femme with photos of Aldridge and Khloe Kardashian in tow. (Men who deliver kale salads from the cafe next door must wait until someone from the women’s- only salon comes outside to retrieve the order.)
“When I walked in, I looked like a cave woman. I haven’t gotten my hair colored in months,” says Mouza Alghafli, a 27-year-old political researcher who drove 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi with her sister, cousin and four friends, who each made appointments, too. She initially discovered Atkin through Khloe Kardashian’s Instagram account. “In July, I found out they were coming and booked immediately.”
Alghafli, who wore a black chiffon abaya with Topshop jeans, a Zara T-shirt, Louboutin flats and a current-season maroon Celine bag, asked for “Lily Aldridge ombre,” which Cunningham says is the most requested celebrity look in Dubai. Azza El-Farouki, a 34-year-old Palestinian-Egyptian Georgetown graduate who worked on her startup as Cunningham painted her hair, says: “It’s been J.Lo every time, but this time it’s Jessica Alba.” El-Farouki chooses not to wear an abaya unless she’s visiting family in Saudi Arabia or picking up her three kids from school in Pilates spandex or something “a bit revealing.” But, she’s quick to point out, “My hair is shown at all times.” Handa, a 23-year-old who works at an investment firm in Abu Dhabi and declined to give her last name, will cover her head even after Cunningham adds an ashen hue. “In my case, I don’t show my body or my hair,” she says. “But maintaining our hair — even our body hair — it’s a bitch.”
Atkin also partners with salon owner Al Hilali on seminars teaching local colorists and stylists hair and makeup techniques.
Repeat client Lamees Hamden, a doctor and luxury organic skincare entrepreneur who splits her time between homes in Dubai and Bel Air, says Hollywood’s current influx of diverse stars has offered Arab women relatable beauty icons. “Julianne Moore is beautiful, but no one here says, ‘I want to do my hair and makeup like her,’ ” says Hamden, whose Shiffa line is carried at Sephora in the Middle East and has appeared on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram. “Jessica Alba, Salma Hayek, Shakira, yes.” Adds Cunningham while pointing to an Emirati client busy texting on her iPhone, “Her sister wants Dakota Johnson. People are very realistic; no one’s asking for platinum hair.”
In addition to her work at Belle Femme, Atkin also has partnered with Al Hilali on seminars that bring Kardashian-favored artists (face-contouring master Mario Dedivanovic included) in front of an audience of fellow pros and fans who pay up to $1,000-plus to learn tricks of the trade. “[Local artists] want to learn so they can make their clients happy,” says Al Hilali. In May, Khloe Kardashian joined Atkin at her sold-out seminar. “Four-hundred people came,” says Al Hilali. “The most expensive tickets got you in the front row on sofas, an amazing goody bag and a meet-and-greet with the artists and Khloe.”
A view of Dubai’s downtown district. The salon sits one floor above a concrete parking structure on a construction site that currently features glimmering reflecting pools and a slew of anonymous offices.
Soare (who shapes the brows of Madonna and Penelope Cruz) opened a branch of her studio in downtown Dubai in early 2014. In October, Eber, the longtime Beverly Hills-based beauty behemoth who served as Elizabeth Taylor’s hairstylist, licensed his name to Emirati businesswomen Reem Abou Samra and Lubana Sakkal for a namesake salon — his first outside the United States — in the Emirates Hills section of town. “Dubai is the ultimate in what you want and desire,” he says about being approached to open the opulent, Fendi-furnished space. Later this winter, Hershberger also will return to the city (and Abu Dhabi) after a nearly five-year hiatus to launch her 24K line of hair products. She says the experience will be different than her first time around, with fewer clients: “The situation I’m going into now is very sophisticated. I’m really looking forward.” Atkin also has plans for expanding her Gulf-region business. “I have a bunch of girlfriends — Jennifer Yepez in New York, who does Bella and Gigi Hadid, and Kylee Heath, who does Sofia Vergara — I’m talking to those girls and a couple of brands to create something in Bahrain and Qatar. There’s so much here; I think there’s enough to go around.”
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