Christine Valmy leans back in her chair, smooths her black hair with her perfectly manicured, diamond and emerald-laden fingers, fondles her pearls, rolls her eyes toward the ceiling and shudders.
Christine Valmy is thinking about the condition of the skins of American women.
Her own perfect complexion glows against the black sequins of her Chanel suit.
"If a woman in Europe has $10," she says in her husky Rumanian accent, "she knows where to put it. On her face. Here in America a woman pays $1,800 for an evening gown and walks into the party with blackheads."
When Christine Valmy says the word blackheads a tiny wrinkle of disgust appears between her eyebrows and the bridge of her nose.
"If I have $1,800 I will use the money for my skin and walk around in a $10 cotton dress."
She needn't worry about having to walk around in a cotton dress. Because in the last 18 years since she came to America, broke, from Rumania she has built up a chain of 1,400 facial salons. "We don't call them facials; we call them face treatments," she says. 'Facials' are what other people give." She has started a school for aestheticians, has founded and is president of the American Association of Esthetics, has been selected as New Jersey's Businessperson of the Year, has signed on Serge Obolensky to do her public relations and has made a whole lot of money.
By convincing American women - and men ("men have skins too, you know") - that unhappiness was only skin deep. And by expounding on her phitosophy of life to the uninitiated American woman about beauty:
"I don't think," Christine Valmy says prophetically, "that it benefits anybody to walk around with pimples or wrinkles or bags under the eyes."
So she has traveled around America like a dermatological Johny Appleseed, sowing the belief that American women, too, can have beautiful complexions. But it has not been an easy job indoctrinating the great unwashed Americans.
"The women here in America are not aware we can do something," she says in an interview in her new salon in Bethesda. "And they think they can hide their skins with makeup. It's an ostrich type attitude. But when I am speaking at women's clubs around the country I'm striking a big blow at the beginning of my talks.
"I tell the ladies to take from their pockets a mirror and look at one square inch of their faces. Do you realize they do not know that they have these large open pores?
They are shocked to see it. They have these pimples and wrinkles and they don't want to see it. It's a kind of brainwashing.
"When I first came from Europe I thought I would be dealing with older women who had wrinkles. But they were so brainwashed they thought you could buy a jar and make yourself beautiful or hide the problem."
Valmy thinks part of this attitude comes from the cosmetic industry, which tried to appeal by advertising instant beauty, by cosmetics sales-women, who sometimes know nothing about skin care, and by the notion that proper skin care is too time-consuming for fast-paced Americans.
"Americans," she says, "have discovered the instant frozen meal. But I believe that to have a really good meal you must take the time to cook it. That's the way it is with a good skin."
For Christine Valmy growing up in Rumania, beauty and skin care were as automatic as brushing teeth is for Americans. "When I was a child," she says, "I remember going with my mother to beauty institutes. I loved it with all the creams and lotions and things. In Eastern Europe before the Communists took over, women were very sophisticated.We had the most elegant women in the world. They pampered themselves. Every woman in her right mind had to have a face treatment once a month. When the public is exigent and demanding, you have to have good services. That is why there were so many good beauty institutes in Eastern Europe."
Valmy, like many anticommunist Eastern European refugees, is very conservative and passionately opposed to current Eastern European regimes. However notes that even in Russia, skin care "is a branch of medicine which they are studying very seriously - skin care, peeling, rejuvenation, much more so, than in civilized countries. In Russia now," she claims, "they are growing this kind of elite leader who lives like kings and emperors with the whole country working for them as their slaves. So they have the means to keep themselves younger."
Interestingly, Valmy says that Eastern European men are by and large unconcerned about their looks while American men, she finds, are almost more concerned than American women.
In Rumania," she says, "we have a saying that a man needs only to be a little better-looking than the devil. We didn't care how they looked as long as they had money. American men are much more conscious of their looks than European men."
She should know. She has a special salon in New York for men only and gets a lot of men customers in her other salons as well.
"Men like the treatment more than women," she says. "Because they are so grateful that somebody likes to do something for them. Men have very oily skin. And it begins to look bad around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. A man looks tired and not clean. His skin begins to look yellowish. They need the treatment. And now they are coming. American men are much more progressive about change."
Christine Valmy has thought a lot about the subject of men. She, like most European women of a certain age (she is 52), is very conscious of her femininity, formal in her dress, aware of the importance of men in her life.
She is candid and gossipy and when she is speaking to another woman, it is as if she is speaking a secret language only the two of them understand.
I'm not the flirt type," she says, "so I don't know how it happened that I am three times married.
"I will tell you a wonderful romantic love story," she says animatedly. "Is is the story of my now-husband and me. When I first me him I loved him a lot. He said he loved me too but he said he wouldn't marry me. I tried to get him married but he didn't want to be tied down. So I told him I would leave Rumania. I left. He stayed there."
Twelve years after she left Rumania, she says, she got a letter from her former lover who told her he was married (so was she) and that he was living Germany, and would like to see her. "Can you believe it?" she says. "I took the next plane out. Three days later he told me that a smart person is allowed a mistake but not the same mistake twice." They each got divorced and were married. But his business, making surgical bandages, was in Frankfurt and for the first five years of their marriage they commuted back and forth to Frankfurt on weekends about once a month.Finally he sold his business, came to New York and is now running the business end of her company.
When Valmy first came to this country from Rumania, she had left her own clinic and belongings behind. She had, she says, $15 in her pocket ("my husband tells me not to tell that story anymore") and her daughter and her parents in tow.
The day after she arrived in New York she landed a job as an esthetician in a beauty salon and 10 months later borrowed $3,000 from a friend and opened her own salon. It bombed.
She was forced to go back to the menial work she had done before, this time at the salon at the Waldorf Hotel. After a few years and a few interviews with "very leery fashion editors from Vogue who would sit on the edges of their chair and refuse treatments" she developed enough of a reputation to found her own company in 1965 with $6,000 in contributions from 15 friends.
It took off immediately, thanks to the Vogue publicity. The next year she started what she calls the first school for skin care in America.
Valmy sells franchises to graduates of the skin school who wish to operate her salons throughout the country. But Valmy personaly directs details of each salon down to the decorating. They are all done in green and white, "fresh and clean and not too feminine to scare the men away." She says she periodically visits the salons to make sure the standards have not slipped. All her own products are sold at each salon, for which she gets a percentage. At the Bethesda salon, which is owned by Miriam Pessim, the face treatments, which last more than an hour, start at $25.
Naturally Christine Valmy thinks her own products, which are not cheap, are the best. Just ask her about another famous Rumanian cosmetician, Erno Lazio, and her face takes on a deeply pained expression, one that you might say causes wrinkles.
She shakes her head. "Well, it went with the rich ladies. It was very popular, the Lazlo treatment. Erno hated oily skins so all his products are drying. In fact," she says, raising a perfectly plucked eyebrow, "his soap is outrageously drying."
"If you remove the oil completely the skin suffers, you will have," and she searches for the most terrible thing she can think of, "you will have . . . broken capillaries."
She insists there is no personal animosity toward the late Lazio. "I never knew him. But I will tell you one thing," she says, "the Babe Paleys and the rich women went to him because his products were the most expensive. If it smells nice and the price is high enough then the product must be good. No" she smiles sweetly.
There is, however, one thing Christine Valmy cannot do for her clients, which is to prevent old age. Which is why she advocates face lifts.
"It's smart to have it done when you don't need it," she says, "when you just take a tuck here and there. I have very beautiful skin. But before the surgery every time I heard a compliment I didn't believe it. Then after surgery every time I heard a compliment I did believe it. I can't understand why people are afraid to admit why she actually had her own face lifted three years ago.
"I had luncheons at 21 telling everyone about it. You have 24 inches of skin on the face. I can make it look beautiful. But when it starts to hang I can't do anything about it."
She is not a woman to admit often that she can't do something about something. She likes to take hold of her life and the events surrounding her. And one gets the impression that she may just be getting a bit bored with cosmetics, esthetics, faces, beauty . . . that she may be aspiring to something grander.
"Well," she admits, "I do love politics. I'm very involved. I'm a very strong Republican and I'm a member of the Heritage group. I was very active in the Ford and Nixon campaigns. I really wanted to go into politics myself. I think I could get the nomination for the House. But my husband says no. He thinks I will be away too much. He says it's silly." She pauses, then shrugs. "I have to obey him but I tell him he is ruining my inspirations.