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Elaine Sterling teaches the next generation of estheticians

STORY: H.M. Cauley
Photo: Sara Hanna

Beauty expert Elaine Sterling left a lot behind when she moved from South Africa to Atlanta, but two things have stayed with her. First, she still has the remnant of an accent, and second, she’s still a devotee of skincare, beauty and spa treatments, and of teaching the next generation of estheticians.

The ongoing passion for perfect nails, pores, muscles and more culminated in the Brookhaven resident’s recent unveiling of the bigger, better equipped version of The Elaine Sterling Institute at Lenox Square. The 25,000-plus-square-foot space houses classrooms and treatment areas where 220 students hone their skills on clients who pay significantly reduced prices for services.

“My mission is combining European standards of beauty and spa treatments with American technology,” says Sterling. “It’s that classic, healing touch and professionalism married with a lot of machines. Esthetics and spas are thousands of years old, but now we can use physiology and chemistry in the treatment room.”

When Sterling moved here with her then-husband 23 years ago, she found only a handful of spas that were largely patronized by the wealthy or those with gift certificates. “The needs of the community have changed, and now I hear of people spending $300 a month on their skin,” she says. “The spa has become part of our lifestyle.”

For years, Sterling trained the 400-person staff of the Spa Sydell chain. Then she went off on her own as a consultant and learned about the state regulations required to open a school. In 2008, after a bout with cancer and a divorce, she opened her own spot with a few dozen students. “I didn’t have a business degree or any money, but I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen after being hooked up to chemo drugs?’” she says. “And then the recession hit. It was a very bad year, and people had no money to spend on continuing education.”

Rather than scrapping the idea, though, the mother of two went all in, getting a license to teach and earning the school’s accreditation as an undergraduate program eligible for financial aid. The new venture launched with 60 students and soon mushroomed into three locations that had her running between them. Last year, she started searching for one location close to MARTA and the interstates and with enough parking for students and clients. The answer was the former movie theater at Lenox Square. “This is a multi billion dollar industry, and I wanted to give it a serious space,” she says. “We’ve created a university-type curriculum with sections and levels in a dynamic learning space as well as online.”

Along with promoting beauty, Sterling is devoted to transforming students’ lives. “This is an energetic, creative industry that’s very rewarding and where you can make a difference,” she says. “I’ve seen my students go from cleaning houses to owning houses, from sleeping in their cars to having a roof over their heads. This is an industry that creates women entrepreneurs.” It’s also an industry that can’t be relegated to online status. “We’ve become such a touchless society. We don’t want to shake hands, do any gestures, get too close to people,” she says. “But we find people are so disconnected that they’re looking for experiences, and spa and beauty offer a way to have that. And if you feel and look good, you can tackle the world.”

3393 Peachtree Rd. N.E.
Atlanta 30325


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