To some, Yarra Fong may be a gifted medical tattoo artist, beautician and entrepreneur. To many of the women she has worked on, she is a hero. Selfless, daring, brave–Fong has pushed boundaries in the beauty industry to boost the confidence of women with skin conditions and defects; including cancer patients and women who aspire to be successful in the field of beauty. Her passion, however, may have almost cost her her life.
At 28, Fong's people-centred approach has taken her from dressing women and doing make-up to establishing herself as a savvy medical and cosmetic tattoo artist and the proud owner and director of Soigné (pronounced Swanyay and means elegantly dressed and well-groomed in French) Beauty Aesthetics Academy. She also controls the Caribbean franchise of the French brand, Yumi Beauty which consists of Yumi Lashes, Yumi Skin and Yumi Feet.
In her eight-year presence on the local and international beauty landscape, she has learned from leading experts in beauty and founded her Academy in San Fernando which offers various beauty services and provides training to women interested in becoming beauty technicians. She recently opened another branch in Woodbrook.
Of her many roles, being the mother of an energetic four-year-old, Ava and a medical and cosmetic tattooist are Fong's dearest.
“I truly believe that this is what I was meant to do. I love to talk to people. I love to teach; explain what I do and how I do it and help other women do it too. I enjoy having women come in from all walks of life. They say that my room is a safe space and I've developed so many friendships,” she shared with Sunday Guardian on Tuesday.
“(With clients who are cancer survivors) you hear stories of husbands leaving wives, women becoming depressed, alienated from their friends. They stop talking to everyone. And these are things that women live with on a daily basis,” she said.
Her ability to identify and empathise with the struggles of women led the beautician to extend her services to medical tattooing over three years ago.
Fong works every day of the week, applying permanent make-up to help clients deal with skin conditions by disguising the appearance of discolourations or deformities. Her experience spans areola restoration tattooing on breast cancer survivors, tattooing for vitiligo (skin disorder where white patches develop all over the body) on clients referred by a dermatologist, burns and light scars. Soon, she hopes to introduce tattooing of radiation markers on cancer patients (tiny dots used so that the correct area would be treated every time the patient needs radiation).
For her permanent make-up procedures on the cosmetic end, Fong sees clients with stretch marks and does various eyebrow techniques, as well as, Dark Lip Neutralisation for women who wish to address discoloured or uneven lips. She has also had exposure to scalp restoration (tattooing tiny dots which make the scalp appear to be regenerating hair), a procedure which in T&T, mostly applies to men.
While traditional tattooing uses bold pigment to create decorative or symbolic images, Fong's work entails inserting a special pigment beneath the inner layer of the skin (dermis) to match or coordinate with the client's skin tone. She has tailored her techniques to suit the diverse skin tones of Caribbean women and completes most procedures in two to three sessions. Procedures are regarded as permanent however, some fading over time occurs depending on the client's skin condition, skin type and daily routine.
Permanent make-up and cosmetic tattoos have been around since the days of Cleopatra in ancient Egypt. Fong noted that despite global advancements in cosmetic and medical tattooing over the years, it was unfortunate that little focus was placed on their use and aesthetics in general in medical surgeries like mastectomies in the Caribbean.
“In Western Europe, North America, South America, in Brazil particularly, this is something they offer together with the mastectomy. We don't really think about the after effects on these women and how they are going to continue to live their lives.
“I discovered this in 2017 and I said what do you mean some breast cancer survivors don't have nipples? Breast cancer is quite common throughout Trinidad and the Caribbean, but we don't have anything in place to assist the affected women and when I found out back then I was: no, you already take so much from a person (with treatment, mastectomies), you should be able to give something back,” she said.
In many cases after undergoing a mastectomy or breast reconstruction surgery, cancer survivors struggle to come to terms with what they see in the mirror, often battling with depression and low self-esteem. For Fong, giving back has meant doing areola restoration tattoos on over 60 breast cancer survivors, providing her services free of charge through her “Pay with a Smile” campaign launched in October 2017.
Areola restoration tattooing seeks to promote mental healing. It is done on the breast area to redefine the appearance of the nipple and/or areola (the dark skin surrounding the nipples), making them appear more natural. In some cases where the patient's nipples/areolas were removed, entire cosmetic areolas are tattooed onto the skin with details to make the appearance realistic.
Fong said she is happy to give these clients options in terms of size and shape and some have even requested heart shapes.
With her line of work come moral and ethical issues which the beauty boss said she is careful to balance. She said some women have come to her desperate for a boost after enduring surgery or a tragedy. She has had to turn away some cases.
Then some people insist such procedures contradict religious or spiritual beliefs. Apart from medical tattoos, Fong felt that many procedures like eyebrow tattooing to treat women with alopecia, for instance, could be completely justified as they improve the mental well being of clients.
Fong said she aims to maintain a natural aesthetic and does not seek to drastically change the appearance of her clients. Instead, she gives them an “enhanced version of themselves” in an everyday look.
Tracing her appreciation for beauty back to her early years, Fong recalled participating in Easter pageants, the Shiv Shakti Dance Group and admiring her “super-pretty” mother's consistent regimen of self-care and spa days. Her entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured also in her growing years as her grandfather encouraged her to be a part of their family business as soon as she could reach the store counter to serve customers.
“Learning everything about anything in which she participates” is a philosophy that has driven the career of the former boutique owner and St Joseph's Convent, San Fernando student. She earned qualification after qualification in the USA, Canada and France, including Yumi Lashes certification, a City and Guilds award in Education and Training, certification in Magic Ink Medical Tattooing by Brazilian Master, Fernanda Jaffre, and in early 2020 headed to France to become the youngest master trainer in the world for Yumi Beauty.
Fong's breakthroughs, however, did not come without challenges. She has struggled with endometriosis since her teens. Diagnosed with epilepsy in 2019 as a result, when COVID-19 hit T&T last March, Fong was also hit with an epileptic seizure which left her in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor. She regained consciousness with a large gash on her head and had to crawl to seek her mother for help.
“All I could think about was not letting my daughter see me.”
Having suffered two concussions, she was advised by her doctors that she had been overworked and needed rest. Lying on a hospital bed and saddled with fears of never using her hands and mind to work again, Fong said she resolved that her voice still worked and she could still teach. She was determined to be back on her feet and built up her faith. About five weeks later, she was making trips to her Academy and trying out her motor skills by tattooing her own eyebrows.
Today, despite reduced business operations due to COVID, Fong keeps the empowerment of women foremost on her agenda. Having partnered with a few medical practitioners, she plans to heighten her efforts to promote medical tattooing as an option for women who are suffering in silence. Over 26 local technicians she has mentored continue to earn $1,000 to $6,000 extra per month from the medical-grade callus remover technology, “Yumi Feet” she brought to T&T only last year.
“I have technicians who were housewives and even make more than their husbands now,” she laughed. “I also see my customers confident and that makes me happy...and that is why I'm here. I have a purpose that is much greater than me.”
A confidence booster
“It's really a confidence booster at the end of the day. You look in the mirror and it's not that you see somebody different; you just see the potential that you had all along. The small changes can be really impactful. Maybe it's something that only I noticed, but I did it for me. It made me happy and it made me feel better.”
Seandra, a Santa Cruz resident, made no apologies for her decision to undergo two cosmetic procedures at Soigné Beauty Aesthetics Academy as she spoke with Sunday Guardian recently.
She discovered Soigné Beauty, owned and managed by a beautician and medical tattoo artist, Yarra Fong, on her sister's Instagram feed last December, and since then has done two sessions of microshading where pin-like dots of pigment are used to fill in the eyebrows with a tool, and two sessions of Dark Lip Neutralisation which sorts out lip colour and symmetry.
Currently in her 40s, she believes that women should be free to make slight enhancements to their appearance, especially as they age, without backlash from society.
She felt while some would say semi-permanent/permanent make-up procedures are about vanity and buying-in to superficial social media culture, her aim was to gain a softer look from well-groomed eyebrows that frame the face and enhance her lip colour, thus creating a more youthful appearance.
She said such procedures reduced the morning routine, allowing working professionals who still had to participate in Zoom meetings during COVID, for example, to look “camera-ready” and refreshed.
Besides, the cost-effectiveness of permanent make-up which can last up to two years was also a plus, Seandra added.
Hailing Fong as “caring,” “dedicated” and “easy to talk to,” she said the work of the medical and cosmetic tattooist was “detail-oriented” and “impeccable”. She also had high praise for Fong's areola restoration work with cancer patients which the master beauty trainer and artist offers for free.
“I know she does a lot of restoration work and that is something else to be commended. She's really doing tremendous service. I'm not sure if there's anyone on this island who is doing a similar service.
“The time, research, effort, care and love she puts into that process...and not many people...and I have had family members with mastectomies, but not many people know that is a service available in Trinidad.”
Seandra said next on her beauty shopping list is a lash lift that curls the eyelashes and gives the effect of wearing mascara.
“These things put a little pep in your step. It's all a part of doing something good for yourself,” she said.