Business Briefing: SF electrologist caters to trans clients

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 12, 2022
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Hearten Electrolysis owner Melanie Ampon shows off her salon near Polk Gulch. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Hearten Electrolysis owner Melanie Ampon shows off her salon near Polk Gulch. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The demand for electrologists who offer transgender-affirming care in San Francisco is such that within months of Melanie Ampon opening Hearten Electrolysis in June, she had compiled a waiting list of more than 40 prospective clients. She advises people seeking the hair removal treatment that the soonest she can see them is in four to eight months.

Ampon, 38, who formerly served on the city's Human Rights Commission, is the first transgender owner of an electrolysis practice in the city. Having undergone the procedure herself for two years to remove her facial hair — it is the only FDA-approved permanent hair removal treatment — Ampon decided to enroll in electrology school and go into business on her own.

"I worked for a few practices to gain experience and gain knowledge," said Ampon, who in the summer of 2020 attended the American Institute of Education in Southern California. "I learned some amazing techniques and how their businesses are run."

She graduated from the training program on September 11 — "It has a whole new meaning for me," said Ampon — and set a course for opening her own practice. She lucked out in finding a 300 square foot retail space at 1528 1/2 California Street off of Polk Street within blocks of where she lives with her husband, whom she married earlier this year.

"It is all I need for me," she said of the small storefront that has enough room for her equipment and a surgical chair to work on clients, as well as a sofa and cabinets.

She purposefully named her business Hearten, which is defined as "to make more cheerful or confident," due to the effect electrolysis has on her clients. The vast majority, 98%, are trans individuals with many needing their genital hair removed before they can undergo bottom surgery.

"I love it. It is what I aim to do," Ampon said when asked about the name of her business.

She officially opened on June 3, though she had hoped to welcome her first clients the month prior. While a COVID infection delayed those plans, turning on the lights to her practice during Pride Month "was awesome," she said.

"Things happen in mysterious ways and things happen when they are meant to happen," said Ampon.

Because she uses a probe to individually kill each hair follicle, Ampon said electrolysis is a time-consuming procedure requiring 100 to 500 total hours to complete. Most clients are looking at weekly sessions for upward of 18 months to two years.

"It is a permanent procedure, though some clients will need touch ups years later," she said.

Showing off her practice to the Bay Area Reporter in late September, Ampon wouldn't divulge what she charges clients, as she doesn't advertise her pricing. She will do a consultation with new clients and discuss with them what the duration and cost of the procedure they need will be.

For most trans individuals, their health insurance should cover electrolysis as part of their gender-affirming care. Before opening her doors, Ampon made sure she could be reimbursed by various insurance providers.

"What is amazing in California is trans-affirming care is covered by health insurance," said Ampon, so most of her clients' out-of-pocket expenses are their co-pays. "I know firsthand about having unwanted hair and needing permanent hair removal with my gender-affirming care as a trans woman and the importance of it."

Since opening, Ampon has hired on one of her patients, Jade Tumazi, as a part-time assistant. A part-time lecturer in communication studies at San Francisco State University, Tumazi wanted to supplement her income so she could afford to continue living in the city.

Tumazi, 33, is also a trans woman and had befriended Ampon on social media after seeing her in the TV show "Transcendence" that ran from 2018 to 2020. She became a client last year in order to prep for her bottom surgery.

"She let me know she wanted to start pursuing a career in electrolysis, and I told her feel free to practice on me," recalled Tumazi, noting that she has a hairy body due to being Middle Eastern.

As a client of Ampon's, Tumazi said she feels more confident in pursuing her own career goals. She also praised her "bedside manner" as a practitioner.

"I would say in my years of interacting with different health care providers for gender-affirming care that she has always prioritized my comfort, and made me feel safe and heard," said Tumazi.

Due to the demand for her services, Ampon is already looking to expand by bringing on an additional electrologist and possibly opening a second location. She has supported one client, Tessa Delsener, entering into the field and discussed hiring her on when she becomes licensed by the state.

"It is a wonderful career and one of the few that not only pays well but pays really well for the area. It is a living wage," said Delsener, 52, a trans woman who is poly and pansexual.

She began seeing Ampon 18 months ago to remove her facial hair and the hairs in her genital area in preparation of having bottom surgery, likely next summer. The San Francisco resident is a public school teacher but needed a second job in order to make ends meet living in the city.

"Melanie told me how much she enjoyed what she was doing and thought I would be a good fit," said Delsener, whose partner is also Ampon's client. "Basically, she kind of is mentoring me. She would discuss what she was doing when working on me."

Having graduated last month from the same school that Ampon attended, Delsener is now waiting to take her state licensing exam. She told the B.A.R. she is still determining if she will work part-time for Ampon or at another practice, or perhaps open her own.

"I have no hard plan of any of that. I do know Melanie wants to add a scholarship to bring more trans people into the field," said Delsener. "She definitely is encouraging me to become an entrepreneur as well."

It can cost upward of $13,000 to attend electrolysis school, noted Ampon, so she wants to launch a scholarship program to help other trans individuals pursue it as a career. She received a $10,000 grant from the city's Transgender District via its entrepreneurship accelerator program to help her open her practice.

"There are 1,500 licensed electrologists in the whole state of California. I don't know how many are in San Francisco, but I don't believe there are more than 15 or 20," said Ampon, who has clients who drive into the city from Tahoe and the Central Valley in order to receive treatment from a trans provider.

With few providers of electrolysis in the city, Delsener said she isn't surprised that so many people are on Ampon's waiting list to be seen. Plus, Ampon is fairly well known within the city's trans community, she noted.

In addition to her work as a human rights commissioner, Ampon for two decades has worked as a cocktail server at the supper club AsiaSF that employs many trans women who perform lip sync numbers in addition to waiting on tables. She helped to open its second location in Palm Springs right before COVID hit.

"It is nice to have services provided by somebody who understands what is going on and what your needs are," said Delsener. "Melanie is just a wonderful soul."

For more information about Hearten Electrolysis, visit its website.

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