The newspaper article was about a successful lumber company owner who decided to dress like a woman. When he did, he was unprepared for the consequences – including the loss of his business, wealth and family, recalled Maria DeNicola, owner of Senza Pelo Med Spa.
This was more than 30 years ago, around the time electrologist DeNicola opened her Phoenix spa in 1982, providing hair-removal services. Her family was involved in gay and lesbian organizations, so DeNicola was ahead of the curve when it came to understanding the transgender community.
“They weren’t prepared for people to know they were transitioning. Back then, you were considered crazy,” DeNicola said. “Twenty-five years ago, transgenders couldn’t go out in public. It’s a lot different now.”
Her father, a successful business owner, urged DeNicola to seek out the subject of the article. The person needed help, but DeNicola’s father also saw it was an opportunity for his daughter to grow her young business by reaching out to this demographic. After much searching, DeNicola received a call from the subject, who had driven by a telephone poll with a wooden sign affixed to it with DeNicola’s number and note about “permanent hair removal” painted on it. This was only form of advertising DeNicola used at the time.
With that call, DeNicola had her first of hundreds of transgender clients, and Senza Pelo would become a go-to spot for transgender people needing permanent hair removal. Her compassion and empathy provided them emotional support as well. Soon, she had clients who drove in from Flagstaff and flew in from New York.
“When that happens, you feel like they’re coming to you for a reason,” DeNicola said. “I became the person that always made sure they had a safe place to come to. There was always an open door.”
In February, the Human Rights Campaign awarded DeNicola its Independent Equality Award for her efforts.
DeNicola “has become legendary as one of the strongest allies to a community that all too often is marginalized in society. She has come to know, respect and love the transgender community and is a tireless soldier in the battle for equality,” the organization said in a written statement.
Today, DeNicola has grown her med spa’s client base and expanded services to include skin rejuvenation, Botox, fillers and permanent makeup. A salon offers hair services.
In Senza’s early years, DeNicola saw six to eight clients a day, she said. Currently, she and her staff see an average of more than 50 a day.
“It’s not just me. It’s the other girls in this office. They are all amazing,” DeNicola said.
DeNicola runs the business with daughter Stephanie Shields, the office manager and vice president of Senza. DeNicola owns the med spa with her husband of 22 years, Angelo.
DeNicola is part of a new surge in the medical aesthetics industry that specializes in non-invasive procedures. From 1997 to 2013, the number of non-surgical cosmetic procedures performed in the United States increased more than 500 percent, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. In 2015, the medical aesthetics industry increased by $1.5 billion, according to the National Laser Institute.
The first steps taken by transgender women may be putting on their mothers’ clothing or applying lipstick when she’s not home. Once a transgender person makes the decision to outwardly transition, permanent facial hair removal is usually the initial rung up the full transformation ladder, DeNicola explained.
DeNicola’s connections and relationships over the decades have made her a comprehensive resource beyond hair removal. She can recommend psychologists, therapists, where to get hormone therapy, whom to consult for gender reassignment surgery or voice modification, and support groups.
When Donna Rose met DeNicola in 1998, she had never met another trans person, and she felt alone. DeNicola was “known as the electrologist who trans people went to,” Rose said.
In addition to 250 hours of hair removal, DeNicola provided a shoulder to lean on and connected Rose with another patient who was further along in the process for guidance.
“The support and general comfort was much more valuable to me at that point than the electrolysis. She provided that overall feeling that things were going to be OK,” said Rose, a Phoenix-based author, public speaker and educator on transsexual and transgender issues.
When Rose began transitioning, her then-14-year-old son refused to speak to her. To cope, DeNicola suggested Rose collect a box of things her son would want, like a Kobe Bryant rookie card. After six months of gathering, Rose persuaded her son to meet.
“That idea of hers was the main driver in helping my son and I get re-established. Now, we are so strong,” Rose said.
DeNicola connects Rose with newer patients who are just starting the process. Diana Fronterhouse, who started seeing DeNicola nearly a year ago, is one of them. Fronterhouse said, “I took it for granted that Maria was the one to go to.”
Fronterhouse, a Phoenix audio producer, described DeNicola’s warmth as “legendary,” and talked about how everyone gets a hug and sometimes she’ll sing to patients during a session. Fronterhouse appreciates the keen interest DeNicola has in her marriage and the counsel she gives from her experience with other patients.
“She’s an oracle of experience. You know from the instant you meet her, she gets it,” said Fronterhouse, who is staying with her wife. “It’s so refreshing to go to somebody that’s accepting without fear of judgment. When it comes to Senza Pelo, this is a spot that is just universally regarded as a sacred place.”
As a girl in Florida, DeNicola attributed the mustache that appeared on her upper lip when she was 12 to a combination of puberty and Italian heritage. Kids at school were picking on her, so her mother took her to an electrologist. She loved the results that helped her survive the awkward years and mean classmates.
“By the time I was in the ninth grade, I knew what I wanted to do,” said DeNicola, who moved to Arizona when she was 16.
Senza Pelo Med Spa has established an international reputation for the highest quality professional treatment with a “personal touch”. A leader in the electrolysis community, Senza Pelo Med Spa (formerly Arizona Laser, Electrolysis, & Skin Care) is dedicated to providing a compassionate service for our clients in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
Location: 5702 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix
Interesting stat: Laser hair removal procedures in the United States have increased 52 percent since 2000, with 1.1 million procedures in 2015, according to the National Laser Institute
Contact: 602-246-1966, senzapelo.com