I Flew To Brazil For Victoria's Secret Hair — & Found Something Better
4,000 miles away from the runway show in New York City, in a fire ceremony by the light of a full moon, Gisele waves are born.
“What if they burn off all my hair and I’m bald for our wedding?” I cried to my fiancé as our Uber driver jostled over a busy cobblestone street on our way to Laces And Hair Salon in São Paulo, Brazil. Four thousand miles from New York City, I was finally visiting the hair mecca Victoria’s Secret models Candice Swanepoel, Barbara Fialho, and Alessandra Ambrosio have gushed about for years. The salon’s main draw? Velaterapia, otherwise known as candle cutting.
“Then we’ll get you a really nice wig,” he replied, pushing me out of the backseat and into the three-story shopping centre where I was meeting with Cris Dios, the salon’s CEO. Since taking over the business from her mother in 1987, Dios has expanded Laces to five locations in São Paulo (with plans to launch in even more cities throughout Brazil, and eventually in the U.S.), and still visits each one to perform the hair-burning procedure herself.
“My mom learned this technique from my grandfather who came to Brazil in 1920 from Spain,” Dios explains to me, mimicking the way she twists one-inch sections of hair so the split ends stick out, then effectively cauterises them with a candle flame. The process, which aims to get rid of dry, dead ends without losing any length, remains largely under-researched, and many experts have come out against it based on the risk factor alone. But that hasn’t stopped Brazilian women from doing it. “Alessandra does it. Candice does it," Dios says. "But it’s a dangerous technique. It’s fire! You have to do it with a professional who has experience, not alone.”
That’s the reason supermodels fly from all over the world, sometimes up to four times a year, to receive the treatment directly from Dios — and it’s the reason I’m here, 10 months before my wedding, to see if it’ll give me the long, lush Victoria’s Secret waves I’ve always dreamed of having on that day. For the models, many of whom arrive straight from the airport with their carry-on bag, Laces represents more than a salon: It’s a total hair retreat from a life of constant photoshoots and styling.
In person, Laces (a Portuguese word that Dios says translates to "connection" in English) is a sprawling natural spa, with exposed wood, oversized leather couches, trickling fountains, and 1,200 lush green plants hanging from the ceiling. Stylists roam about the space, offering hot tea, herbal foot soaks, and shoulder massages as Brazilian samba music pulses quietly overhead. When there is a full moon, a day many Brazilians believe is superior for your hair’s growth cycle based on astrology, they roll back the ceiling in some locations and cut clients’ hair under the stars. There’s no loud whirring of blowdryers, no pungent odours from bleach or chemical dyes, and no frantic rushing you find in most overbooked city salons. If there is a hair heaven, this is it.
“All of our stores have this climate, this mood — it’s important for us because we believe that wellness and silence and being introspective is good for the health of hair and skin and your body,” Dios explains, hoisting my feet onto a stool as I nestle into a massive leather chair. “We try to follow the natural rituals and the full moon is a special day to do this kind of treatment. When you do this, you make the hair grow.”
I take a sip of herbal tea, trying to settle my nerves as Dios arranges her tray next to me; on it are two short candles, a pair of sharp scissors, and a black hand towel. She waves over another stylist, who begins twisting my waist-length hair into one-inch sections all over my head. “You ready?” she asks, striking a long match. I nod slowly and watch from the corner of my eye as she brings the candle to my head, slowly passing it from the ends up to my ears, the sound of sizzling hair following in its wake. I let out a long exhale. While I can definitely sense the faint smell of burning hair around me, my strands don’t go up in flames like I’ve seen in some velaterapia videos. None of the other customers even glance in my direction. “We do it in a gentle way,” Dios reassures me, working her way slowly around my head until she’s treated all the sections.
When she’s finished, she combs through my hair and the tiny burned pieces fall to the floor like snow. Once everything is brushed smooth, she holds her scissors horizontally to trim off any other stubborn pieces — a process they call “bordado,” or “embroidery,” at Laces, but is commonly referred to as “dusting” in the United States. When she’s done, she blows out the candle and scoops out the warm wax with her fingers before smoothing it all over my hair, explaining that it’s made of moisturising tree nut oil to rehydrate my strands.
At this point, I assumed Dios would rinse out the oil, and start my blowout — but, it turns out, the velaterapia (which typically costs around US$150) was only the beginning of my day at Laces. Over the course of the next five and a half hours, a flurry of stylists stopped by my chair for one indulgent treatment after the next. One swept a vitamin-rich mask across my hairline with a brush, while another prodded my head with an electrical suction device meant to “stimulate the follicles” but really just felt like an intensive scalp massage. Moments later, a woman came by to knead my tired shoulders, while another soaked my feet in an herbal bath before asking if she could paint my toenails a rich shade of red. I looked around the salon, and everyone else was leaning back in their chairs enjoying the same thing. Unlike most salons I’ve visited, this wasn’t a place to get your hair done and get out so the next person can take your spot — it was a ritual to be enjoyed.
“Hair is one of our more important and looked-after features,” Paula Merlo, editor-in-chief of Vogue Brazil, and a Laces regular, tells me. “High class ladies will go to the salon at least once a week for a blowout, manicure, or hair treatments.” In a country that places a high value on aesthetics (Brazil accounts for 10 percent of the world’s cosmetic plastic surgeries), hair is an especially important marker of beauty — and women are willing to spend a lot, regardless of income, to maintain a specific ideal. “Brazil is a poor country,” says Dios. “We don’t have much money to do many things, but [beauty] is important. You might have a small salary, but you buy the shampoo, conditioner, and mask, you do the treatment, you do the nails.”
According to research by Pantene, which holds the number one spot in the country’s hair market, Brazilian women colour their hair 20% more, use flatirons 60% more and chemically straighten their hair 300% more than women in the U.S. Because of that, hair treatments, like the ones Laces is known for, have become increasingly popular.
“Healthy hair is a must, so women are constantly looking for ways to maintain their hair’s beauty, despite everything they put it through,” says Rodrigo Finotti, Pantene’s marketing director who was born in Brazil and launched Rescue Shots — the country's number one conditioning treatment since 2010 — as a direct response to the trend. (The ampoules will finally be sold at U.S. drugstores this January.) “As the Brazilian economy improved, more women were able to go to the salon and explore new treatments,” Finotti adds.
In the past year, as the natural hair movement has gone global, more Brazilian women are putting down the flatirons and easing up on the blowouts — and products and procedures to undo the damage are surging. “Currently, women searching for how to go back to natural curls online is outpacing their search for how to straighten their curls by 2x,” Finotti says. “This shift can be attributed to women embracing their individual look. Gone are the days where there is just one style that is considered beautiful.”
For Laces, a place that proselytizes a natural, health-based approach to hair, this makes them a popular destination for people looking to rehab their curls, coils, and waves. “The care, attention, and affection they had with my curls was what really won me over,” says Ana Leal, a Brazilian model and TV presenter who regularly visits Laces for scalp and multivitamin hair treatments. “I feel that my relationship with my hair nowadays is the best possible.”
And despite the salon having a reputation for “Victoria’s Secret hair,” that ideal is shifting within its own walls, too — especially as the lingerie brand comes under fire for promoting an unrealistic, and non-inclusive, view of beauty. “I think times are changing and this ‘Victoria's Secret’ ideal is dying here when we talk about hair and when we talk about body types,” says Isabella Scherer, a Brazilian actress who has frequented the salon since 2013. Adds Merlo, “The ideal hair is the one that respects your roots. We don’t want to be slaves of hair that isn’t culturally yours, or expensive, or time consuming.”
As my stylist finally washed my hair out in the sink, using the chilled mineral water they treat to a perfect pH of 7 (they really don’t miss a detail), I had almost forgotten that four hours earlier, I had elected to light my hair on fire. The stylist started to blowdry my hair, inviting me to touch one side when it was dry. The second I ran my fingers through my strands, I noticed that something felt… different. Softer, definitely, and way less scraggly on the ends, but with a slightly altered texture that I can only compare to the way my hair feels after getting a fresh dye job. They finished the blowout and turned me around to face the mirror, and there they were: lush, full, Victoria’s Secret waves. I was thrilled.
Over the next few weeks, everyone — from my fiancé to my best friend who took me wedding dress shopping — commented on how healthy and sexy my hair looked. When I blow dried it, my hair was smooth and sleek, with less frizz. It air dried faster, my loose wave pattern was as defined as ever, and even the colour looked brighter. There were still some issues leftover from before I had the treatment (breakage from ponytails, tangling), but overall, the results were pretty great.
But as a skeptic, and as someone who has read warnings about velaterapia gone wrong, I was still worried about the underlying health of my hair. So I went to Liz Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Institute in New York City, for a consultation. Without telling her that I had undergone candle cutting just two weeks prior, I asked her to analyse the health of my strands.
“In general, you have a really nice head of hair,” she told me, after three different assessments (including inspecting my hair with a dermascope). “The density of the hair is fantastic, and the quality overall is good. But being utopian, we could put a little more elasticity, sheen, and moisture to the last 12 inches or so.”
I asked her if there appeared to be any significant heat damage to that section, and she explained that there wasn’t anything that stood out to her beyond normal wear-and-tear based on my length and past bleach jobs. When I fessed up to the velaterapia, she nodded and reiterated that while there was no significant damage done, that had a lot to do with the strength of my hair follicle and the fact that I only did it once.
“I don’t look at this and say, Whoa, this is an absolute critical point, something went on here,” she says, adding that burned hair is “very marked” in appearance. “But the cuticle isn’t laying as smoothly as we’d like, the scales want to curl up, and so the hair looks drier than it might be. Processing, highlighting, that would also be part of it. It’s cumulative.”
While there isn’t a ton of research on velaterapia, Philips reiterates that it should only be done under the care of an expert – someone who can assess whether your hair can handle it. And while some salons market it as “healthy” for the hair, Philips says the benefits are purely cosmetic — and should be treated as such. “We’re looking to get the hair to behave, to eliminate the potential for humidity and frizz, to present better,” she explains. “But it’s resurfacing the hair and compressing it; if you can imagine the fibre being steamrolled. One of my biggest areas of concern is with the repeated processing.”
For those looking for a way to effectively eliminate dry, dead ends without losing length, Philips recommends a dusting with a sharp pair of scissors, and a moisturising mask — a practice that Brazilian hairstylists João Bosco and Fernanda Lacerda have already started adopting, and one that’s also offered as a standalone at Laces. “These days, I like the dusting technique more than the velaterapia; it’s a little bit more low maintenance and it does the same [thing],” says Lacerda, who owns Maria Bonita, a Brazilian salon in New York City. “I feel like people are less scared, so we started going toward dusting with a beautiful deep conditioning afterward.”
In the end, would I skip the fire portion the second time around and just go for a dusting? Maybe. But do I regret flying 4,000 miles to South America for it? Not for a second. Because my biggest takeaway from my 10-day trip to Brazil wasn’t a deep conditioning treatment or shedding a few dead ends — it was changing the way I feel about my hair entirely. As I walked along the beaches of Rio or whipped my head around in an underground Samba club, I found myself carrying myself and my hair differently — with the kind of confident sexuality Brazilians have basically patented. “For Brazilian woman, the hair is powerful,” Helena Augusta, a publicist in São Paulo, told me over caipirinhas one night. In fact, there’s even a phrase for it in Portuguese: bate cabelo. “It’s part of our culture. When you flip it around and shake it, you are saying your hair is natural, you are powerful, and you are sexy.” And for Brazilians, that’s the real secret.
Travel and accommodations were provided to the author by Pantene.