I first interviewed Cynthia about 15 years ago. Back then, she had one Spa Esprit outlet at Holland Village, and a vintage clothing store named Potion. Brazilian waxing salons? Zero. F&B outlets? Zero. Fast forward a decade-and-a-half, and she’s now one of the most powerful women in the local beauty industry, as well as in F&B. Strip now has a whopping 48 outlets in 11 cities (including 15 in Singapore) and has pruned over three and a half million bushes. That is a lot of hair. The Spa Esprit Group, Cynthia’s company, also runs more than 30 Browhaus outlets worldwide, among other beauty and grooming concepts, and 14 F&B outlets, including House, Tiong Bahru Bakery, Common Man Coffee, Tippling Club and Open Farm Community. It’s mighty impressive, and the 45-year-old is nowhere near done. Her energy today is the same as it was 15 years ago — child-like, girlish, infectious and brimming over. She now divides her time between Singapore, London, New York and Paris, where she dreams up even more outrageous ideas, like perfume for your nether regions (this one is actually happening, by the way). I caught up with her when she was back in town recently to celebrate 15 years of Strip.
8 DAYS: You’ve had some crazy ideas over the years. Some have come to fruition, but there must be many which haven’t materialised.
CYNTHIA CHUA: I have had a lot of crazy ideas! (Laughs) Long ago, I wanted to do a Bed & Breakfast. I had this idea of a health retreat at Beauty Emporium [in Dempsey] where you can spa, stay overnight and then go running in the morning at Botanic Gardens. The idea was to do health and beauty, then have a party! (Laughs) I’m not a purist. It’s about life. I want to live well and eat well, but I also want to party. Maybe if an idea doesn’t happen now, it’ll happen later. You need the right energy, timing and opportunities. My dream now is to have a piece of land where I can marry the beauty crops [she has a beauty line, Farm to Beauty, which uses plants grown on Singapore rooftops], the food, the cocktails, the spa treatments, the café, and the farmers. You know, I talked about the bakery [Tiong Bahru Bakery] ages ago and it didn’t happen till 10 years later.
A hotel does seem like a natural progression.
I want to do a Chicken Hotel in Paris! I’ve not seen anyone who has successfully exported our chicken rice. How can I perfect that and do a Chicken Hotel? I’ll have a chicken farm and serve chicken rice. It’s funny, right? (Laughs) I’ve been eyeballing this piece of real estate in Paris.
What are some of the crazy ideas you dreamed up that actually happened?
When I said I wanted to do a coochie perfume [which launches later this year, stay tuned], people were like, “What??” Because I am crazy about the subject [of grooming for the Brazilian area], I’m crazy enough to think about it differently from other people. We’ve perfected the Brazilian wax, so what’s next? I’m crazy about fragrance. You have deodorant for your underarms, so I don’t think [perfume for the crotch area] is that crazy — in a way it’s quite logical. And you Google and realise so many people have problems with confidence about their coochie areas, like, “I’ve got that smell down there…” It’s such a taboo subject, but how do you make it beautiful? At first, it was a bush, but how do you idealise it and make it ‘my precious’? It’s about celebrating the spirit and the confidence of women. It’s about elevating grooming for that area, not just to make it clean, but make it sexy too. The more taboo the subject is, the more I feel like there’s an issue and the more we can work on it.
You may have influenced the bedroom experience for a generation of Singaporeans.
I’m used to [people saying that]. I had guy friends who were posted to China and they were like, “Please, Cynthia, help! [Btw Strip now has six outlets in China]. Everyone is so educated by Strip in Singapore. I go to any yoga studio now, and it’s an occupational hazard, but I can see [in the locker rooms] that, “Woah, [the women’s Brazilian areas are] clean. I still see bushes in London and New York. It’s like if you see a bush right now, your eyes are not used to it anymore. You get guys sending their girlfriends to wax, and it’s like, “If she doesn’t know Strip, don’t date her.” And the guys, they should wax too.
So you think guys now expect all the girls to be waxed?
The girls in Singapore are very strong. People say, “Do you feel like you’re pressurising people to wax off every single hair?” But I think Singaporeans are very independent. If I don’t feel like there’s any benefit, I won’t do it, even if a guy asks me to do it. For me, I like smooth skin. If I don’t wax, I feel itchy. It’s part of my grooming regimen and I don’t need a guy to tell me to wax. I don’t think the girls are pressurised by the guys to do it, but I think the guys are so spoilt by smooth skin that they might go, “Oh, maybe it’s time for you to have a wax.” It’s just a bonus.
Your next gambit is to level up the grooming regiment for the Brazilian area. But do I need a vajayjay facial? Do I really need to target fine lines and pigmentation down there?
I’m not interested in your hair anymore, ’cos there’s no more hair there. Now, we want your skin. It’s a second face down there. It’s about feeling sexy, and it’s sensory and intimate for you and your partner. It’s about looking after yourself and having a fantastic face and second face! (Laughs) It’s your bedroom face, and if you take care of it, maybe the guys will look at your other face! (Laughs) Now you have no more hair there, the skin is even more exposed. It’s dry; there are dead cells! It’s not acceptable! (Guffaws)
What do you feel when you see bushy, um, undergrowth?
Once, I was driving and I saw this truck with 10 men on it. They were all putting their arms up and I could see their bushes, and I seriously like had a blackout. (Laughs) I’m not used to seeing hair like that!
Your work and travel schedule must be nuts — do you have tips for staying relaxed in a hectic world?
Yoga. A lot of people think it’s just on the mat, but to me, it’s a way of life. It’s about the breath, and the breath is always with me, even when I talk to you. I’ve been practising yoga for 15 years and it was only in the last one-and-a-half years that I grasped the breath, the awareness, and the movement and rhythm. That was life-changing for me. I can cope with a lot more stress ’cos that’s become part of my life. Also, I can’t live without essential oils. There was a difficult part of my life where I was struggling with a lot of emotions, and neroli really helped me. It’s a very spiritual oil. I always have lavender or neroli with me. The flower energy is always around. It teaches me about the life force, about nature. It changes the frequency of things. I also have at least one massage a week. It’s become part of my regimen.
Any beauty tips?
I’m into daily exfoliation that doesn’t harm the skin. It’s about maintaining that glow. I mask at least twice a week. And I can’t live without moisturiser. Even in this climate, I slather on the moisturiser. Not an inch of my body is spared. If I don’t put on moisturiser, I feel itchy and dry. So when I travel, my toiletries already weigh 10kg. I don’t bother with the travel-sized stuff — that would last me like a day! (Laughs)
You’ve been at it for so many years. What’s your secret for staying inspired and coming up with great — albeit sometimes crazy — ideas all the time?
I think everyone is inspired, but humans can work in a way that you block yourself, with self-doubt. I think I have a very child-like nature. When I see things, I’m like “Ahhh!!!” I’m curious. I don’t have a jaded spirit, I’m always like “Wow!” Since I was a little girl, I’ve liked to dream. I block off bad energy and I like to surround myself with a garden, so the crops I pick are always beautiful. I don’t see ugly things, and I don’t like conflict and bad energy. I am able to get like-minded people to follow me. It’s always about having fun. It’s the energy, the belief, and the positivity. Steve Jobs said you will win if you always behave like a child and you are open-minded. People say my world is very idealistic, but I’ve lived like this till this age, so I think I can make things real in my own world. And I’m not just a dreamer. I can execute. The reward comes from seeing things come to life, and not just talking about it. I talk about things and I’m excited, but I get more excited when I see it coming to fruition. I’m too used to people telling me something won’t work, but when it works, they say, “You’re a genius!” (Laughs) I just have to believe in myself.
Photos: Mark Lee