Cynthia Chua Opens Up About Body Positivity, Past Struggles, and How To Build a Lifestyle Empire
Cynthia Chua is a heavyweight in Singapore’s lifestyle and F&B industry. This self-made entrepreneur is the founder and managing director of the Spa Esprit Group, and with 15 brands under her belt, finding precious time for herself has been a constant juggling act. Yet, in these 22 years, Cynthia is aware that the key to business longevity and sustainability lies in self-care. And making an effort to carve out little pockets of “me time” like getting massages, practising yoga, or devoting time to music and the arts, could very well be her secret to staying on top of her game.
A strong advocate of female empowerment and the body-positivity movement, Cynthia made waves in 2002 when she introduced Brazilian waxes to the conservative Singaporean market with STRIP, which has since groomed more than three and a half million lady gardens in 10 countries worldwide. The road to success hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Cynthia, who had to pay her dues by distributing her own flyers to get customers through the door during the early days. While Brazilian waxing has become commonplace today, and no one bats an eye, Cynthia is once again pushing new frontiers—with a line of luxury skincare dedicated to the vulva called TWO L(I)PS.
The vulva is one of the most primordial features of life. As infants, passage through this tunnel is our induction into life on earth, and as we grow older, the vulva remains an important fixture that can give either pleasure or pain. Somehow we slather product after product onto our faces, but very often neglect to give our lady bits some love. To address this, the TWO L(I)PS Blackout Mask infused with a rich cocktail of organic botanical ingredients such as White Licorice, Cornflower, Elderberry, Chamomile, Ylang-Ylang, and Aloe Vera, promises to detox, soothe, brighten, and hydrate your nether regions.
Never one to shy away from controversy, it may just be a matter of time before vulva masks become an indispensable part of every woman’s routine. In this wide-ranging interview, we speak to Cynthia about her past struggles, lifestyle trends, and the inspiration behind her new skincare line.
HNW: You’re known to be one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in Singapore. What’s your origin story?
Cynthia Chua: I opened my first lifestyle outlet, SPA ESPRIT, in 1996 in Holland Village. From the start, I was very clear that I didn’t want SPA ESPRIT to be a run-of-the-mill spa. To me, the difference between a good spa that gives you a great treatment and a great spa is the element of surprise and unexpectedness. So we created an atmosphere which breaks the stereotypical mould of what a typical Spa is like, by coming up with creative treatments and designing a non-conventional interior that was eclectic, modern and fun. I also combined my love for modern and vintage fashion, my aromatherapy training in Beaumont college in the UK and my hot stone massage training in Brooklyn into the spa menu. We incorporated both eastern and western therapies into quirky treatments like ‘Scrub A Dub Dub’ body scrub, and we were one of the first to introduce hot stone massage to Singapore. Over the years, I developed a range of 16 signature aromatherapy blends, and if I had my life all over again, I think I’d be a perfume maker. One thing led to another and to date, we have 15 different brands—each one is unique and bridges the gap I see in the market.
Running a multi-million dollar conglomerate is no mean feat. What gets you out of bed every day? Walk us through a typical day in your life.
I want to be continuously inspired and curious about what life can offer. I surround myself with good energy and like-minded people to create a positive environment for me to thrive and learn. I have at least 7 to 8 hours of good sleep, wake up to birds chirping and have a nice breakfast. I meditate for 20 minutes a day to consolidate my thoughts… get in touch with my team for updates on exciting projects… devote time to myself: whether it is a massage, essential oil blending, listening to music, reading a book, practising yoga, playing my Tibetan singing bowl or sweating it out. And most importantly, I like meeting exciting people every day and spending time with the people I love and care for.
You’re a strong advocate for local businesses and products. Given the gender wage gap problem and the under-representation of women in business and higher management in Singapore, what advice would you give to an aspiring female entrepreneur?
It is never easy to pioneer a new concept; nothing works perfectly from the get-go, it’s always simpler to let go and do what everyone else is doing, but where is the fun in that? Our journey of innovation and invention is never-ending, and our mindset and culture must reflect this—if we want to continue to break new ground. At the end of the day, to overcome any challenges, you must have a vision of what you want to achieve and believe in it even when nobody else believes in you. Have the passion to work on it, the tenacity to keep going no matter how difficult it gets, and the creativity to tweak and resolve issues.
Tell me about the roadblocks you’ve faced in your career. How did you overcome them, and what advice would you give to somebody in a similar position?
There will be many ups and downs in the journey. With creating new concepts or leading the way in opening up the market, the beginning can seem daunting. You will have many voices telling you that this is not going to work. How do you stay strong and rise above it all and continue to push forward, is the strength we need to harness to be a trendsetter. When we started STRIP, Brazilian waxing for the intimate area, it was difficult to tell people what it is or whether there is a need for it. It’s going to be the same for TWO L(IP)S. I know I am taking on a taboo subject, but I want to make it fun and accessible.
I had to be very creative to bridge those gaps. During the first 6 months when STRIP opened, it was really tough. I remember distributing flyers to promote 15 dollar manicures outside Cold Storage in Holland Village just to get people into the door, as a way of educating consumers about Brazilian waxing.
When the business picked up after a year, I faced labour issues on how to recruit staff for intimate waxing especially in an Asian city where it is not seen as a conventional job. I had to travel to different parts of Malaysia to do my recruitment. We are always trying to find enough staff to come on board and the challenge is where to find them.
I think I have enough fun in the job and I am able to work with a group of people who believe in the vision, and collectively we support each other to achieve our goals. So, have fun and be a hands-on leader, if you lead by example, you will have followers and people would love working with you.
How about a time when you experienced failure, and what did you learn from it?
I remember I had to close POTION; a fashion store that reworked vintage pieces. I loved the history in each piece but we created too many brands then and I couldn’t dedicate enough time to run POTION well. I learned that resources are finite, having a great concept is not good enough to make a business work, and you need to have a strong team. Having one shop where you can do everything yourself is different from opening the 100th store and still wanting to do everything yourself. It’s just not possible.
I was inspired to create TWO L(I)PS as I saw a potential in the market, and I knew there was already a need for it. Customers were already asking: “I’ve done the waxing, what’s next? I have this dryness problem, so what can I do about it?” I didn’t create this need—it was already there, waiting to be addressed. I wanted to give women the tools to make their own choices—if you want to give your vulva some care, here’s what we have for you. We know there are social taboos and embarrassment regarding this topic, but I feel it is important to bring it up. We need more women, men, everyone to speak up about this. The vulva is beautiful and every single one is different. As women, we all have it, but we don’t and can’t talk openly about it… like it has to be hidden away, or it’s shameful. Perhaps it’s cultural or patriarchal conditioning that is hard to break. But it’s 2018, we shouldn’t shy away, and be quiet anymore. We hope to change this outdated mindset with TWO L(I)PS and do away with this social and cultural stigma.
As women, our upbringing and behavioural conditioning have us focusing on our face and general body parts. But women are not paying enough attention to the vulva. Already, we are now more aware with a heightened consciousness. It’s about self-love, self-care, creating a positive body culture—and finding a more holistic way of looking after ourselves. TWO L(I)PS is for women to make the choice to look after their vulva better. We need to reclaim this intimate part of the female body, as it is an asset that needs to be cared for with the same love and attention we give to the rest of our body.
We’ve worked on TWO L(I)PS for about 5 years. We already knew women had problems with dryness. I wanted to create specific skincare for the vulva that was helpful, safe, luxurious, and also convenient. It should be simple enough to be part of a woman’s maintenance regime, with efficient formulas that actually work and complement their lifestyles. Let women create their own self-care rituals at their own pace, in their own space.
You’ve spoken extensively about your desire to help women love and celebrate their bodies. Why do you think topics like the body-positivity movement and feminine care have been so slow to reach Singapore’s shores?
Many people find it very difficult to talk about these topics. But when there is a collective effort and enough momentum, people will start to realise that there is nothing wrong to speak up about such things. As with every cultural wave, you need to find thought leaders to spearhead the movement. Round up the early adopters who share the same beliefs and build a community and dialogue from there. When this community grows, the support grows.
I’ve always found humour and wit to be the best way to tackle difficult subjects. Make the topic non-intimidating, interesting and even tongue-in-cheek. It’s harder to take offense to a taboo subject when you’re laughing. More importantly, it makes everyone think and engage with it in a positive manner. We can have a lot of fun with TWO L(I)PS. We sent out giant fortune cookies as event invitations to our official launch party. People thought it was hilarious! Suddenly, everyone was talking about vulvas and Two L(I)PS. In this manner, we are changing things. We kick-started the conversation by providing a friendly product that people can get curious about, and ultimately, it’s something that they can benefit from.
Even to this day, the topic of female genitalia is still very hush-hush in Singapore. Why do you think Singaporeans still perceive a natural part of our anatomy to be so taboo? And how do you wish to see the conversation change in years to come?
As Asians, we have a rather conservative culture, and we have problems talking about issues that are perceived to be controversial or embarrassing. For instance, sex education is still a very contended subject despite its importance to help people to learn to be comfortable with their body. Women’s sexuality isn’t spoken about enough, and with that, the female genitalia. The best outcome of tackling taboo subjects is when the conversation has grown so much that it’s not even an issue anymore. I hope people will be able to talk about the vulva and its care without embarrassment, negativity or any social and cultural stigma.
A common strain of criticism against Brazilian waxing is that the trend of going bare down there is a product of the desire to emulate what is seen in pornography. What do you have to say to sceptics who think that getting a Brazilian is anti-feminist?
We believe that different strokes work for different folks and the same wisdom applies to the vulva. Every vulva is different, beautiful and should be celebrated—the idea of a perfect vulva aesthetic is false. We don’t believe in vulva discrimination—only its liberation and gratification. Getting a Brazilian wax or even putting a vulva mask on is your personal choice. It’s your body and up to you to do what you want with it, and how you want it to look like. That, to me is empowering. If you want to devote time to yourself, and give your vulva the care that it deserves, we offer you the tools to create your own luxurious and pampering ritual. It’s about providing women with the freedom and choice of pampering themselves. We will never tell you to conform.
With so many brands under your belt, you’ve earned your reputation as Singapore’s lifestyle maverick. Can you tell us about the emerging trends and challenges of the lifestyle industry and how you see it evolving over the next decade?
The intimate care industry has ballooned into a big industry worldwide. There is empowerment in looking after yourself, and giving yourself the freedom and choice to do what works for you. Vulva skin care, for now as a product category is in the infant stages. TWO L(I)PS is the first of its kind in Singapore. As a sheet mask for the vulva, Blackout Mask is possibly a world’s first. Globally, the number of intimate care range dedicated to the vulva is still niche, but its growth and women’s interest in this is undeniable.
The idea of fitness, wellness, living well and eating well is what I see happening now. There are so many new restaurants popping up all the time. I see that people will be more interested in the origin of food and honest food like good produce and food cooked well—a plate of good roasted vegetables or a grandma’s secret recipe that will be lost.
Tackling urban farming in Singapore, promoting the growing of our own food, and changing the mindset to support local and regional produce will always be a challenge and an ongoing battle. These are all concepts and movements that have already gained traction for a while. We know that they’re no longer just fleeting trends as they are still around, and have become more concrete. They all contribute to a bigger idea: that of awareness and mindful consciousness.
How do you integrate your multiple dining concepts into one group while preventing them from encroaching on each other’s space?
All the concepts that we have created are varied and fill a gap. From quality bakery like Tiong Bahru Bakery to great breakfast and brunch at Common Man Coffee Roasters to the best cocktail restaurant and fine dining restaurant, Tippling Club to the gluten-free neighbourhood bistro, The Butcher’s Wife… we also have modern southeast Asian food like Ding Dong and Bochinche, a modern Argentinian cuisine… each of the concepts offers diversity and choices to consumers.
The lifestyle industry is becoming more saturated every day. How does the Spa Esprit Group continue to innovate and stay relevant?
I still see many gaps in the market to fill! Travelling and getting inspiration and staying curious to challenge the norm and push boundaries, help us stay relevant and innovate constantly. Life is fluid and real life is lived when tiny changes occur.
Given your extensive portfolio, your schedule must be extremely tight. How do you maintain a work-life balance and still leave some time for yourself?
Finding great talent and understanding that my best value to the company is being a visionary who comes up with creative ideas. I find the right people to fill up the operational roles and build a great infrastructure that supports the growth and sustainability of the company.
What is one quality that a leader must possess?
Always lead by example.
If you could have dinner with any individual living or dead, who would it be and why?
It will have to be Rainer Maria Rilke as he has so much wisdom. He wrote that he has a long way to go even when he was at a very old age. I think he must have so much wisdom to say that. I feel that I have a lot to learn from him.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I am patiently waiting for what’s next for me. There are energy and thoughts gathering, perhaps I’ll create a platform that can inspire women collectively, to do things differently. I feel that it will come, I just don’t want to rush into it, and life will offer itself…