By Dan Jewel
Updated September 22, 1997 12:00 PM

ON ANY GIVEN DAY AT NEW YORK City’s hip Bliss spa, one might overhear Oprah Winfrey calling for an appointment, spot a post-facial Courtney Love dodging the paparazzi, or see Julia Roberts looking as limp as spaghetti after a muscle-soothing massage. But for owner Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-uh) Kilgore, the steady stream of celebs can lead to serious confusion. Recently, she says, “I spent a whole facial with Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] asking her what she did. I had no idea!”

No matter. For faces both famous and not, Bliss, since opening last year, has become the in place to indulge. Operating under the premise that pampering needn’t be pretentious, Kilgore, 28, plays videos of King Kong and An American Werewolf in London in the electrolysis room, runs contests asking clients to name the top 10 men they’d like to see get a leg wax (singer Joan Osborne entered her nominations but lost out to a nonceleb client), and offers Macho Mondays, when the steam room and lounge are open to men only. “[At other spas] European ladies with harsh accents are looking through their magnifying glasses trying to embarrass you,” Kilgore says. “We keep a handle on the fact that it’s just a facial.”

That Gen X-meets-Georgette Klinger emphasis has, in turn, created up to yearlong waiting lists for everything from a carrot-and-sesame body buff ($130) to a combination herbal wrap and oxygen facial ($205). “It’s so popular, it’s tough to get an appointment,” says Roberts, who comes in every few months. “But when I can get in, it’s a wonderful place to be.” Adds model Bernice Dodd: “They make you feel more comfortable. Even on the first visit, it’s like visiting a hairdresser that you’ve known for three years.”

The daughter of Monty, a real estate salesman (he died of brain cancer when she was 11), and Lorene, a clerical worker, Kilgore was so bored growing up in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, that she took up bodybuilding and had developed muscles “like a ballet dancer” by the time she graduated from high school in 1986. Her oldest sister Jodi, a model, soon persuaded her to join her in New York City, where Kilgore began working as a personal trainer. “I had $300 plus pocket change, and no return ticket,” she says. But thanks to her sister’s connections in the fashion world, Kilgore, then 18, was soon helping models and celebs—including Carrie Fisher and Paul Simon—shed pounds. “She was great,” says Fisher, who curtailed her sessions after she began spending more time in L.A. “I wish I’d stayed with her.”

In 1990, frustrated with the severe acne she had had since she was 11, Kilgore decided to take a skin-care course at Christine Valmy in Manhattan. Before long, in addition to personal training, she was giving facials on her carpeted floor and kitchen table. “My apartment was packed with friends and models,” she says. Encouraged by their response, she enrolled in a crash course in cosmetic chemistry at UCLA. Soon after, in 1993, she spent all of her savings to open Let’s Face It, a small skin care center in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo. Informed by word of mouth, clients including Demi Moore, Uma Thurman and Cindy Crawford began showing up. Last year, when the spa outgrew its tiny borders, Kilgore opened the 5,600-square-foot Bliss.

Nowadays, Kilgore may be the only one at Bliss who isn’t relaxing. Rarely at home in the one-bedroom East Village walk-up she shares with her cats Bonsai and Jeremy, Kilgore, who is single, toils at the spa from 9 a.m. until at least 10 p.m. most nights. “[My social life] is pretty much nonexistent,” says Kilgore, who adds that developing her personal life is “my goal for 1998.”

Admittedly driven to work hard by the death of her father (“I learned to worry about what can be taken away without warning”), she’s currently creating her own line of toiletries and spa accessories and scouting out possible locations for additional Bliss branches in Los Angeles and London. And though she wants to become big in beauty, she has no delusions about becoming as huge a celeb as some of her clients. “The glamor is gone,” she says, “once you’ve made them sweat.”


JENNIFER FREY in New York City