Last Friday afternoon, aesthetician Becky Gencer was double checking that everything in her immaculate home beauty salon was scrubbed to within an inch of its life and ready to welcome her first clients the next morning.
While hairdressers have been allowed to work since July 4, and manicurists were given the go-ahead on July 13, any treatments on the face were still off-limits, so for five months Becky, who offers procedures such as lip fillers and semi-permanent brow tattooing through her business, Beautopia North, had been unable to work.
Ineligible for any of the financial assistance offered by the Government, she was delighted finally to get back to earning.
‘I’d spent the last of my savings — £1,600 — on stock,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t really afford it, but knew I had people booked in so it didn’t feel like a risk.’
Beauticians from across the UK revealed how they’ve been impacted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement postponing the reopening of the remaining parts of the beauty industry. Pictured: Becky Gencer
Then, after a rise in Covid-19 infections in parts of the country, and with less than 24 hours’ notice, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he was back-pedalling on his plan to allow a number of businesses, including the remaining parts of the beauty industry, to reopen on August 1.
‘I’m devastated,’ says Becky, 38, a single mother of two from Leeds. ‘I’ve been living off my savings but I’m now £400 in arrears with my rent and probably at risk of eviction.
‘I’ve never been in debt before, and for the first time in my life I’ve had to go to food banks.
It’s horrendous, but I’ve got an 11-year-old and a five-year-old. How else am I going to put food on the table?
‘All I’ve got is tax credits. I’ve borrowed from friends and family, and applied for a Bounce Back Loan, but that could take up to six weeks. I need help now, not in six weeks’ time.
‘Because people hadn’t been able to see me for five months, I was going to be far busier than usual. The bookings I had for this week alone would have brought in around £5,000.
‘That would have put us back on an even keel, but now I don’t know what we’re going to do.’
Becky is far from alone. According to Millie Kendall, CEO of the British Beauty Council, an estimated 130,000 beauty therapists have been unable to work, and have missed out on the handouts that the Chancellor promised would leave no one behind.
Dija Ayodele (pictured) who opened West Room Aesthetics in West London, at the end of January, said her business is £100,000 down because of closure during the pandemic
Thousands in the beauty industry have been left behind, and largely because an estimated 90 per cent of those in the services part of the industry are female.
That’s despite the fact that as a whole, beauty contributes nearly £30 billion to the UK’s annual GDP, with about a third of that coming directly from salons and treatments.
That sum is not only greater than that contributed by the £23billion pub industry, but equivalent to the entire economic output of Manchester.
‘For too long, beauty has been dismissed as just “doing nails or facials” when it’s actually full of entrepreneurial women empowering themselves by creating a business that keeps their family clothed and fed, and gives them economic self-sufficiency,’ says facialist Dija Ayodele.
She opened her clinic, West Room Aesthetics in West London, at the end of January and was forced to close six weeks later. Five months on, her business is £100,000 down.
In Becky Gencer’s case, her earnings were never at that level — she estimates her turnover last year was around £20,000.
Last year she reinvested all of the profits back into the business — ‘training courses, equipment, renting rooms in salons’ — meaning her tax return showed a loss. Because of this she couldn’t get Self-Employment Income Support (SEIS) and, as Universal Credit is also based on earnings, she was unable to claim that either.
Lauren Phelan, 33, (pictured) who has been a self-employed make-up artist for the past eight years, hasn’t been eligible for financial help from the Government
To her dismay, make-up artist, Lauren Phelan, 33, has found herself in a similar fix. Self-employed for the past eight years, until lockdown Lauren, from Farnham in Surrey, worked on commercial and editorial shoots for big-name make-up brands, such as Lancome, CYO and Sleek.
‘Before expenses I was making between £3,000 and £4,000 a month,’ she says. ‘And my income has been pretty consistent apart from a few years ago when I had a bit of a rough year financially and was forced to take a temporary admin job to keep my business afloat.’
It was that temporary job that meant that Lauren wasn’t eligible for financial help from the Government.
To qualify for SEIS, you have to have earned more than 50 per cent of your earnings from self-employment for the past three years.
‘That one year, I’d earned £3,000 more from the admin job than I had from working as a make-up artist and so I got nothing at all,’ says Lauren. ‘When I got the letter telling me I’d get nothing, I appealed, I thought there must have been a mistake. But they turned down my appeal — it was such a kick in the teeth. I’d only taken that admin job to make ends meet, and now it feels like I’m being penalised for it.’
Lauren (pictured) and her partner David, moved into her parents to save for a deposit for a house a year ago, meaning they aren’t entitled to Universal Credit
Lauren admits she’s lucky not to have to worry about keeping a roof over her head. ‘A year ago, my partner, David, and I moved in with my parents to save for a deposit for a house. Most of that’s now gone because although he’s kept his job as a space planner for a High Street retailer, our rent and bills relied on us both bringing money in. My living situation means I’m not entitled to Universal Credit either, so all I get is £65-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance.’
Millie Kendall, who has been lobbying the Government to help the struggling industry, isn’t surprised by these stories. Every day she receives hundreds of emails begging for support from people in dire straits.
‘One beauty therapist told me she could only wash her hair once a week as she couldn’t afford shampoo. She was only having one meal a day and going to bed hungry because she wanted to make sure there was enough food for her kids to eat. “I feel dirty, low, tired, depressed, small, insignificant,” she wrote.
‘Another, a man who owns a brow bar, told me his financial problems were so severe that he was contemplating suicide. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.’
While not everyone feels that low, many in the industry are struggling with mental health issues.
‘Not knowing when you might be able to work again is tough,’ says Lauren Phelan. ‘For so many self-employed people there’s an inextricable link between your self-worth and your job. And when that’s taken away from you, who are you? That puts a lot of pressure on you and your personal relationships.’
Becky (pictured) PPE and used medical- grade disinfectant to ensure everything was sanitised before and after each client, even before the pandemic
So why is the beauty industry being so hard hit? It’s something of a perfect storm. It is one of the few sectors that has been closed entirely since the Prime Minister announced the countrywide lockdown on March 23.
And while they’re not the only ones still not permitted to work, the other businesses affected — bowling alleys, indoor skating rinks, casinos, nightclubs, soft-play areas — are the types of business that operate from premises, meaning they were eligible for grants and business rates relief, and could furlough employees.
For most working in the beauty industry, that’s just not the case.
‘While there are some salon owners out there, and some employees, it’s quite common to rent a room or a chair in a salon, or to work from home or as a mobile therapist. This means that more than 50 per cent of those still not allowed to go back to work are self-employed,’ explains Millie Kendall. And, as evidenced by Becky Gencer and Lauren Phelan, it’s easy for many to miss out on the SEIS scheme — especially when many of those in the industry are women.
‘If you’ve taken maternity leave in the past three years and so haven’t been earning, that can mean you’re not eligible for SEIS either,’ explains Millie Kendall.
For many it feels like the Government’s neglect of this female-dominated industry — which generated almost £1.2 billion in tax revenues for the Exchequer in 2018 — is simple misogyny.
This impression was reinforced when William Wragg MP and Boris Johnson chortled when the plight of the sector was raised in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Becky (pictured) said the Government should look at where infections are coming from, rather than punishing an industry in full PPE
And, on the evidence, many say it’s hard to believe it’s not sexism. Male-dominated arenas, such as pubs, betting shops, barbers, cricket grounds and golf courses are open, but beauty salons are not.
A man can get his beard, nasal hair and moustache trimmed, while not wearing a mask, but a woman can’t have a brow or lash treatment while wearing one. The most galling thing about it all is that, in many ways, the beauty industry is far safer, and more Covid-secure than many of the businesses that the Government has allowed to reopen.
‘We’re trained to treat people as if they have an infectious disease,’ says Becky Gencer. ‘Even before coronavirus I wore PPE and used medical- grade disinfectant to ensure everything was sanitised before and after each client.
‘I, and the premises that I use, have been inspected by the council to get a licence that proves I’m hygienic.
‘So for the Government to say I’m not Covid-secure is a massive insult. I’ve got masks, visors, disposable aprons, scrubs and a thermometer, I work on a one-to-one basis with my clients, and I still can’t work — but the pubs are open and full of people who aren’t wearing PPE and aren’t social distancing.
Becky adds: ‘I understand that if infection rates are rising the Government has to take action, but maybe look at where those infections have come from, rather than punishing an industry that, despite being in full PPE, hasn’t been given a chance to get back on its feet.’
Dija Ayodele agrees.
Dija Ayodele (pictured) said the ‘Eat out to help out’ campaign is incentivising people to spend more time in the very places responsible for the rise in infections
‘Infections aren’t up because of the beauty industry,’ she says. ‘Infections are up because the Government focused on opening businesses that, by their very nature, encourage mass gatherings. This week their “Eat out to help out” campaign is actually incentivising people to spend more time in the very places responsible for the rise in infections. If they were clamping down on pubs and travel while telling me I can’t open my clinic, I’d feel less aggrieved.’
Millie Kendall believes that a large part of the problem is a ‘systemic lack of understanding of the sector — not just in terms of how regulated and hygienic certain parts of it already are, but also in terms of its economic contribution to the country, and the value that it brings from a cultural and mental- health perspective’.
She adds: ‘This isn’t just about having a facial to cheer yourself up. This is also about women who have lost their eyebrows from chemotherapy not being able to have the semi-permanent make-up that will give them their brows back, and about teenagers whose acne has made them virtually agoraphobic not being able to get the treatments they need.’
Dija wants ministers to come and see the beauty businesses that they’re driving into the ground with what she sees as ‘outdated beliefs that aren’t founded in reality’.
‘Come and tour a clinic, like you tour factories and pubs, come and speak to us and see the way that treatments are carried out,’ she says. ‘I think if they did that, they’d be singing a different tune.’
Millie Kendall fears that without swift government action, the industry will see job losses of 30 per cent, which, given that one in every 60 jobs in the UK is in hair and beauty, will plunge thousands of families into poverty.
She wants to see the VAT reduction that’s been applied to the hospitality sector extended to the beauty industry, and insists that money must be found to support those who are struggling.
Becky Gencer eloquently sums up how so many are feeling: ‘I’m ready to work, I want to work, but if the Government won’t let me work, they have to compensate us somehow. It’s just not fair leaving us with nothing.’
In the meantime, she and many like her, are hoping that they might be able to get financial support from Beauty Backed (beautybacked.com).
The newly launched campaign is highlighting the plight of this once-thriving industry and raising funds to help people whose livelihoods have been ruined by the Government’s rules — whether through ignorance, misogyny or carelessness.