February 2, 2011 / 4:21 PM / 8 years ago

Swanky Paris salon spruces up down-at-heel women

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - In her exclusive salon in an off-street courtyard in Paris’ upmarket St Germain district, hairdresser Lucia Iraci spends her days coiffing the city’s glitterati, including actors, models and musicians.

Yet once a month she opens her doors to a more downtrodden clientele, offering free pampering and a dash of glamour to women from poor districts who are often long-term unemployed or victims of abuse and even slavery.

Some come in from sheltered accommodation, others from shabby subsidized housing in crime-ridden suburbs, but they all go home feeling like a million dollars.

“I’m really happy my social worker told me to come here, to make me beautiful and everything. I feel good,” said Hamida, a 27-year-old Algerian woman, perched on the edge of a plush velvet sofa as she waited her turn with a stylist.

Hamida’s first encounter with Paris was less glamorous.

Lured away from her family in Algeria at the age of 19 by a wealthy Algerian couple who promised her a better life, she found herself a kept slave, forced to cook, clean, shop and launder for them for no pay, until she escaped four years later.

Already turning her life around with support groups, and about to marry the father of her two children, Hamida arrived in girl-like wavy plaits and left with a sharp-edged modern cut.

“I like to think I bring something out in them, give them support, comfort and perhaps the pointers they need to go out and face the world,” Iraci told Reuters.

Nearby, a top make-up artist gave one of the women tips on eye shadow and blusher, while another woman lazed in a leather salon chair waiting for her highlights to take effect.

Born into a modest Sicilian family and placed in an orphanage at a young age, Iraci is no stranger to hardship.

After running away to Paris penniless at the age of 15, dreaming of romance and glamour, she found a job in a hairdressing salon and gradually fought her way to the top.

She then decided she wanted to give something back.

After starting her once-a-month days for women in distress, she is about to open a permanent salon, with help from the Paris Town Hall, offering haircuts for just a few euros in a poor northern district of Paris known as “Little Africa” because of its high immigrant population and high poverty levels.

Iraci knows she’s only providing temporary relief to women struggling with situations she admits can be terrifying.

But watching her clients step out of the salon onto the affluent streets of St Germain, the transformation is clear.

“I feel like I’m walking on air,” said Anne-Marie, 49, an unemployed mother of two battling to find employment.

Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato

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