PARIS -- The Josephine beauty parlor in northern Paris is celebrating its first birthday Thursday and the success of a simple idea: When life is ugly, make women feel beautiful.
Some 1,200 disadvantaged women – abuse victims, former convicts or addicts, disabled women, single unemployed mothers – have come for a professional haircut and makeup, or to borrow clothes for a job interview, since it opened on International Women's Day a year ago.
Thanks to volunteer workers and private sponsors, it's just euro3 ($3.95) for a haircut including color or highlights, less than the cost of a cafe au lait in a Parisian bistro. But the salon's real attraction is the boost to morale, confidence and even job prospects that it provides.
In a city synonymous with women's beauty and fashion, this salon is the first to reach out to the disenfranchised, at a time when France is struggling to lower jobless rates and shrink a growing gap between the rich and poor. Similar projects have sprouted up in the United States and elsewhere.
"It's better than for Hollywood stars. Over there, there are only lights. Here, there is something more," says Souad, a 39 year-old mother of three, just before undergoing the first facial of her life.
"Without getting into our personal lives, they know how to comfort us," she says of the volunteers working at the parlor. She, like many women who come to the salon, asked that her last name not be published because they didn't want to be identified as destitute or otherwise troubled.
Some of the women are referred to the parlor by charitable associations, others come of their own initiative, in which case they need to show documents proving they are in a difficult situation.
Hairdresser Lucia Iraci, who created the Josephine salon, started volunteering several years before that. First she went to rundown housing projects, liaising with local charities and setting up makeshift hair studios in kitchens or dining halls.
Then she welcomed poor women in her own hair salon, in the chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood on Paris' Left Bank, on Mondays, when the shop was closed to other customers.
That was until she met another woman, Maya Wendling, a development director at a charity, who helped her find sponsors for the full-scale solidarity beauty parlor that had been on her mind for a long time.
Her idea was simple. "When things are going bad, you hide in your bed and you stop taking care of yourself," she said in an interview. "I thought that through beauty one could give back this self-esteem that you lose when you're not well."
"They welcome us with smiles and laughs," said customer Ouarda, who has taken off her headscarf for the appointment. "It's time for me," she said of this respite in her busy mother schedule, adding that she simply feels "like a woman, free."
One customer came with her 4-year-old daughter, who stayed busy with a coloring book of princesses.
The visitors seem to like the salon's design, too: clean lines with a touch of fuchsia on one wall, a comfortable sofa to wait in, bunches of flowers on the coffee table and by the mirrors. Nothing, in other words, that looks like a place for the poor and disenfranchised.
"It's not about turning them into bimbos," says founder Iraci, who used to work with fashion designers and photographers. "We're leading them towards natural elegance."
If women want more than the haircut/makeup package, for instance some nail polish, they must pay euro1 extra. "I want to leave them the pride of being customers, of not owing anything to anybody," explains the Josephine founder.
Women can also borrow clothes – a stylist comes regularly to offer them some clothing advice – but they need to give them back after their job interview. "We don't give just to give," Iraci says. "Rehabilitation is also about respect."
Iraci has had the satisfaction of seeing some concrete results: "A few women have found a job; another one for the first time filed a complaint for rape."
"The hardest moment is when I need to set my empathy aside, to stop pitying them, to go on speaking normally and to make things evolve," she says. Her biggest satisfaction, she says, is to see women "move forward."
Mehdi Glaoua Gonzalez, a hair stylist who volunteers at Josephine, says his biggest reward is when "women feel beaming when leaving the place." He also explains that most volunteers come from the fashion world because their freelance work leaves them free days to do so.
Among similar initiatives is Dress for Success, an international NGO that aims at getting disadvantaged women in the work force by giving them a suit for a job interview and other clothes if they find work. According to their website, the group serves some 50,000 women every year in countries including the United States, Mexico, Australia, the Netherlands and Poland.
Some hairdressers in the United States offer free or discounted haircuts one day a week for the unemployed or other women in difficulty. The Josephine salon is a full-time operation focused on these women, who rarely get the chance to be the focus of anything positive.
With an annual budget of euro250,000, the Josephine salon has only three paid employees; all the other workers, including Iraci, are volunteers. The project was supported by the municipality but most of the funding comes from corporate donors who give money or donations such as hair products, beauty products, clothes and shoes.
The association now hopes to open a similar beauty parlor by the end of the year in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. And it is working on two more projects in central and northern France.
The philosophy will remain unchanged: "kind feminism," as Iraci calls it. The principles will stay the same also: "We don't ask women their life story.
"Although, of course, they often chat because, well, we're still at the hairdresser's!"