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Face to Face

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Hello, darling,” says Sonya Dakar, as she walks into one of four treatment rooms in her West Hollywood skin-care clinic. She flips on a bright light and studies her client’s face through a huge magnifying glass. What she sees does not make her happy. “You went to a party last night, didn’t you?”

Her client looks sheepish.

“And you drank alcohol,” says Dakar. “And smoked, didn’t you?”

The woman says nothing.

“Tell me, honey,” Dakar coaxes.

“Yes,” the client whispers.

Dakar sighs. “We’ll take care of you,” she says. “But no drinking! No smoking! And only one cup of coffee per day.”

Welcome to the Sonya Dakar Skin Clinic, once a Hollywood secret, now one of the hottest face places in town. While Dakar, 53, doesn’t bark like a drill sergeant, she doesn’t exactly coddle her clients either. If they want to be pampered, she tells them, “Go get a body massage.” Instead she offers a customized, frill-free “boot camp” for the skin. Customers get a demanding—often complicated—regimen for such problems as scarring, discoloration, acne, irritation and aging, and woe to the client who doesn’t follow her instructions to the letter. “They are wasting their time and my time,” she says. “They can have their dream a week after the first treatment. But commitment is a necessity.”

Too tough? Not judging by her appointment book. Names like Kirsten Dunst, Brooke Shields, LeAnn Rimes, Britney Spears and Angela Bassett have her booked solid for the next two months. Even Robert Downey Jr. and Luke Wilson are regulars. “I was hesitant to try the diamond peel,” says actress Denise Richards of the procedure that uses crushed diamonds to resurface the skin. “However, since my first treatment, my skin has never looked better. I am addicted.”

One key to her success, Dakar says, is that she uses only natural products—products designed by her chemist husband, Israel, 56. “I didn’t want to use anything from animals,” she says. “I wanted to use Mother Earth.” Today the company, with sales of $3 million annually, has over 100 plant-based creams, gels, cleansers, mists, masks and potions for sale (prices range from $20 to $150) at her clinic, in about 20 high-end spas nationwide and online.

Dakar, the third of four children of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel, grew up in Tel Aviv. Her late father, Naji Shany, was a jeweler. But she attributes her interest in skin care to her mother, Flourine Halab Shany, a homemaker. “She had radiant skin,” recalls Dakar. “She had a regime in the morning and in the evening. She wasn’t about makeup or covering up.”

By the time she was 14, Dakar was saving her babysitting money to pay for visits to a local medical doctor who was also a practicing aesthetician. “Within two years she was her assistant. At about that time Dakar met a soldier at a party who introduced himself by pouring what appeared to be iodine on her dress. “I scream, my eyes fill with tears. I tell him, ‘You ruined my dress!’ ” recalls Dakar, in her distinctive Israeli accent. “The soldier said, ‘You talk to me and if the stain isn’t gone, I’ll buy you a new dress.’ ” Turns out the “iodine” was disappearing ink, the soldier Israel Dakar. “He was like that,” she says with a laugh. “Always making jokes.”

The couple married in 1967. Four years later Dakar opened her first skin-care clinic in Tel Aviv. Israel helped develop the products. “We were in the kitchen with the stainless-steel pots and pans mixing and mixing,” says Dakar, who tested her concoctions on herself, a practice she continues. “First on my hand, then my neck, then my face,” she says. “I’m my own guinea pig.”

In 1977 the couple immigrated to L.A. with their three children (Yigal, now 32, Nate, 29, and Mimi, 26), and a year later they had a fourth (Donna, 23). In 1984 Dakar opened the salon in West Hollywood. At first she was the darling of makeup artists and stylists who bought her products for their own clients. But 10 years ago she started picking up a celebrity clientele of her own. She has two hard rules about celebs. First, she won’t share their secrets. Second, she doesn’t make house calls. This is, after all, a boot camp. “This is not a luxury that feels good,” she says. “This is meant to get your skin in shape, just like going to the gym does for your body.”

Veronica Byrd

N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles