December 12, 2005 12:00 PM

Cornelia Zicu knows faces well—she runs a day spa and spends a lot of time examining skin. Names, however, can be a different matter. “One day my receptionist said, ‘Jewel requested you for a facial,'” Zicu recalls. “I took her in the room and said, ‘Are you a student?’ She said, ‘I’m a musician,’ and I said, ‘That’s okay—good luck with it! Do you play an instrument? Are you good?’ Poor Jewel was so nice. I’ve treated a lot of celebrities, but I never knew who they were.”

A fair number of them know who Zicu is. Clients like Meg Ryan, Lindsay Lohan and Clint Eastwood—yes, you read that right—are drawn to the natural treatments that Zicu learned in her native Romania and that she now offers at her Cornelia Day Resort in New York City (where even celebs book appointments months in advance). Among the tempting treatments: honey-and-milk baths, mud extract wraps and underwater Watsu massages (Whatsat? See box). “No matter the problem,” says model Emme, “Cornelia can take care of it.” Adds Jessica Alba: “[The spa] is a full pampering experience.”

The spa—which has 500-thread-count sheets on the treatment tables and serves champagne in the cafe—is a far cry from how Zicu, 44, grew up. Born into the Communist rule of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, she lived in a house with no running water and only two hours of electricity a day. “I used to boil water in my washing machine and wash myself,” she says. “We had nothing.”

One of the family’s few indulgences was a weekly Saturday beauty ritual that found Zicu’s grandmother Maria whipping up concoctions for the hair and skin. “She mixed oatmeal, honey, salt, milk and oils to make body scrubs,” Zicu says. “Oil, eggs and leftover fruit were mashed together for masks, and walnuts and leaves were brewed into tonics for the hair,”

In 1984, shortly after Cornelia wed Alexandru Zicu, her older brother was arrested by the government for alleged political agitation. “It was devastating,” says Zicu, who spent months trying to keep her brother out of jail. “The dictatorship wanted to destroy us. There was no freedom.” In 1989 Cornelia, Alexandru and their then-4-year-old son Hani sold their belongings and arranged to be smuggled out of the country.

The Zicus spent three years living in an Austrian refugee center, at first in a room with 80 people and no showers. “It was like jail,” Zicu says. But taking after Grandma, she found beauty in grim surroundings. “She tried [facials] with eggs and yogurt and treated the other ladies,” says Alexandru, 45, who now is director of operations at Cornelia’s spa. “She was like the camp beautician.”

When the Zicus were granted U.S. green cards in 1992, they moved to New Jersey with only $200 in their pockets. Cornelia scrubbed floors and studied English, eventually enrolling in beauty school, where she became a certified esthetician.

She soon landed a position at the Peninsula Hotel’s spa and quickly became the go-to beautician before leaving to open her own spa last February. Even with her newfound success, Zicu remains true to her Romanian roots. “I try to give [clients] comfort, knowledge and love,” she says, “like Grandma did for me.”

Marisa Wong. Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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