Sienna Miller and Laura Bailey love Coleraine expert's beauty products
Una Brennan's high street skincare range have stars looking fab
A Northern Ireland woman who works from a salon set up in the living room of her apartment has become the toast of the beauty scene in London. Celebrities like Sienna Miller and model Laura Bailey entrust Una Brennan with their looks, beauty editors are beating a path to her door and her own product range, Super Facialist, which is on sale in Boots, is receiving rave reviews.
It's quite a journey for someone whose parents insisted she stay on at school to get her qualifications, even though she wanted to leave at 16 to train in beauty.
But in a marketplace driven by multi-million pound marketing campaigns often fronted by A-list celebrities, Una, who is from Coleraine, has built her name through good old-fashioned word of mouth reputation.
When she first opened her salon in her west London home 10 years ago she began with one client called Maia, an American girl who booked every four weeks and had no idea she was Una's only client for many months.
Slowly but surely, Maia told a friend, who told a friend and Una's business grew to such an extent that she had to close her waiting list as there were just too many new clients to fit in.
It's a lovely story of how through hard work and simply letting her knowledge of her subject speak for itself, Una has become a star in an industry dominated by international giants.
What's rather pleasing, too, is that after 13 years in London she hasn't lost her Northern Ireland accent and is extremely laid-back about the buzz her product range and bespoke facials have created.
When I suggest that being described by Vogue magazine as "the most exciting addition to the pack of high-profile facialists in the city of London" has to be among the highest accolade she could hope for, Una bursts into life with a story unrelated to her business.
"To be honest, it meant more to me when they carried a piece on my magazines. Oh my God, my Vogue magazines! They took a picture of my Vogue collection and put it in," she enthuses.
"I remember buying my first one when I was 15 and I collected all the Eighties editions and all the London ones since I've been here and they are scattered all over my apartment, so I was so thrilled when they ran a feature about that."
Still, the tributes pouring in from influential London beauty editors on Una's skincare prowess are impressive.
The online hub for all that is happening in the exclusive part of the city where Una lives - WestLondonLiving.co.uk - summed up just how much she has achieved: "There's not a beauty editor (or west London celeb) who hasn't sang the praises of facialist Una Brennan. She's been reviving people's faces with glowing results and reviews for years and finally it was my turn to try one of her unique facials, which are a product of over 10 years in the trade. It turns out, this facial is like no other."
Una fell in love with health and beauty as a child, though she still has no idea why she was so interested in both topics - her mum Margaret is a schoolteacher and her dad Kevin a solicitor, so one might reasonably have assumed she'd have considered a career in either of those professions.
Yet Una, who also has a twin sister, an older sister and a younger brother, can't remember a time when she wasn't fascinated by the science of how the skin was affected on the outside by what was inside.
"I still don't know where my interest in beauty came from, but I just always wanted to work in that area. In fact, I wanted to leave school after my GCSEs and study beauty, but my parents encouraged me to do my A-levels and go to university," she says.
A former pupil of Loreto College in Coleraine, where her mum teaches, she started a degree in hospitality and tourism at Queen Margaret's College in Scotland.
But after a year and a half she left and enrolled in Belfast Institute of Further Education to study for an HND in beauty therapy. In 1999, she moved to Surrey to work in a spa opened by Space NK, the famous brand developed by Belfast woman Nicky Kinnaird.
Space NK started out as a single store in Covent Garden, showcasing Nicky's personal selection of beauty essentials. Today, the luxe retailer has grown into the go-to beauty destination with 62 stores in the UK and 23 in the US.
Una found the move to London daunting, but Nicky proved a real comfort as she settled into her new life. "I was terrified, but working at Space NK was brilliant; they made me feel at home," she recalls. "I loved Nicky. She was so great and I learnt so much while I was there. Thanks to her and the team I settled in no time. It's awesome what Nicky has achieved. Even today if I run into her, she is really friendly."
After a couple of years at Space NK, Una made the move to a new American Bliss Spa, also in London. In 2003, she got a flat in a posh area of west London and 11 years ago converted her living room into a salon specialising in her own bespoke facials.
"I really wanted to work on people myself in my own environment. It started slowly because I never advertised. I just thought that if I do a good job then people will tell someone else and that's what happened," she says.
In 2009, she was asked by L'Oreal to become an ambassador for a new range, which she did for two years. That built up her confidence in her knowledge of the beauty industry and gave her an insight into what makes it tick as well as introducing her to beauty journalists.
Then, a few years ago, Una decided to develop a range of her own brand products. She was helped by a couple of friends.
Through trial and error working with cosmetic scientists she came up with her acclaimed Superfacialist range, which was launched in Boots in July 2012.
"The lovely thing about the products is that they give people access to great skincare. The ingredients are the best - we didn't skimp on anything. There are currently about 12 products and we are working on two new ones which we hope to launch later this year," she says.
"People seem to love them and the feedback has been really positive. As far as we can, we have used natural ingredients with a bit of science in there as well.
"I love that you can mix and match all the products and tailor them to your own skincare so there is something for everyone."
Una believes that good cleansing is fundamental to good skin and advocates a double cleanse which she has become famous for and which she describes in our panel.
"If you get cleansing right then everything else follows," she says. "Otherwise you are just moving dirt around your face and not cleaning the skin. If you do it every night you are halfway there to good skin.
"You do need, however, to cleanse your face without stripping it, which is why I promote the double cleanse.
"With the oil you get all the benefits of using oil with none of the negative drawbacks, and then using the normal cleanser leaves you with super clean skin that is not stripped, so the rest of your products work well when they are applied."
Una has a star-studded clientele, but she has clearly become used to working with celebrities over the past few years.
Sienna Miller is one of many regulars and Una believes that, as well as the bespoke luxury facial, it is the privacy she offers with her home salon setting which is a big part of the draw for the famous.
She says: "People like it here because it is so private and they are not sitting in a waiting room with other people. Besides, I always arrange appointments to make sure no client sees another.
"The second person in the door was a celebrity and it was really quite mad. I was thinking "How did you know I was here?" and I still don't know how she knows, but she still comes regularly.
"When someone is lying on the couch and you are concentrating on them and their skin they are all just the same to me. I would probably be more star-struck if I was to see them on the street."
It delights her that her facials are so well thought of and every single client will receive a different facial depending on what the needs of their skin are when they come in.
Una believes this is the secret of her success: "I think they are so popular because they are tailored to the skin and not a protocol facial, they are organic from the start.
"Whatever issue a client is having with her skin on the day she comes in we can deal with, and facials last around an hour and a half, or longer if needed. I never rush them.
"When I look at beauty menus I always think I would like a bit of this and a bit of that and when I was working in the spas I would have taken bits from different facials on the menus.
"I got into a bit of trouble because I had people coming in asking if they could get the Una special and no one knew what they were talking about."
Una loves her life in the famous Notting Hill district and outside of work enjoys the simple pleasures of walking in her local park and relaxing in one of the many trendy cafes and restaurants in the area.
She has a long-term boyfriend, who also works in the beauty industry, specialising in new products with some of the big perfume companies, and she has friends from her hometown of Coleraine who also live nearby.
She flies back to Northern Ireland once a month. "I love London but I also love going home, just to keep in touch there. It is such a great place and it's good to have some greenery around me again and see family."
Secret of Una’s double cleanse...
Una has made the double cleanse easy with her specially developed Vitamin C + Brighten Skin Renew Cleansing Oil and her range of cream cleansers.
“At the end of the day spend a couple of minutes massaging the oil into the face,” she says. “It really is important to do this every night, and your skin will thank you for it. The oil acts like a magnet to other oils and all the dirt that throughout the day has settled in the sebum.
“Massaging gives the tissue of the skin new life and helps get rid of the stresses of the day, which might sound minor but is major.
Tension in the jaw or forehead subtly contours our face and we don’t look as fresh as we would like.
“After removing the oil with a flannel or cloth follow with a cleansing cream.
“This leaves the skin super clean and fresh and gives your moisturising products the chance to really do their work.”
Una’s aim is to attain plump, vibrant, glowing, healthy skin at any age and for every skin type, from the inside and out.
She adds: “Skin is magnificently clever but at a very basic level it needs water in the cells and to be able to breathe.”