Usha Gupta is holding a piece of white cotton thread with her mouth. She twists the other end between both of her index fingers, forming something like an infinity symbol. Wearing a black cardigan sweater and slacks, she leans over a woman who’s sitting in a reclining salon chair with her head back. Gupta’s glasses slide toward the edge of her nose as she gazes at the woman’s eyebrows and then begins rolling the thread onto the skin. With what looks like a roll-and-tug motion, she steadily removes each undesired hair and arches the eyebrows into a beautiful shape.
Usha Gupta is the owner of Usha Salon and Day Spa, in Towson, near Towson Town Center Mall on East Joppa Road. The salon provides numerous cosmetic services including hair coloring, cutting, styling, facials, manicures, massages, pedicures, and waxing. But Gupta’s salon is most popular for her eyebrow threading, an art that Gupta has been performing for more than 40 years.
Threading is an ancient form of hair removal, which originated thousands of years ago in India or the Middle East. It is when a thin piece of thread is twisted between the fingers and manipulated along the skin, removing the hair. The technique is popularly used to remove hair from the eyebrows, lip, or chin.
Gupta was born and raised in Nagpur, India. Married at 15, she had three children by the time she was 21. After a couple of years staying home with the kids, she discussed going to cosmetology school with her husband Shashi. “I wanted to do something with my life, and raise the kids as well,” Gupta recalls. “He was there every step of the way.”
Gupta finished school within a year and when she was 28 she opened a full-service salon, called Usha’s, in India. Over the next 20 years, the salon became very popular for its services, including haircuts, updos, bridal makeup, and threading.
In 1982, Usha and Shashi traveled from India to America to visit her brother Bharat and his wife Carol, who were living in Baltimore. During her three-month visit she became fascinated with America and knew she wanted to move here one day. “I told my brother I really want to come back,” she says. “It took 11 years to come, but we did it. My brother and sister-in-law sponsored us to come here.”
In 1993 Usha and Shashi moved to Baltimore, when she was 48 years old, leaving behind her flourishing salon. “My parents asked why would you want to leave this life and go to a strange country, where you don’t know many people,” she recalls.
Gupta registered for classes at a local cosmetology school in Parkville, and worked as a shampoo assistant for a few months at Public Image Salon in Timonium. “Donna, the owner, helped me a lot,” Gupta says. “I learned a lot from her and she [was] supportive of me.”
Usha Gupta threads eyebrows (Video by Gabe Dinsmoor)
A year later, when Gupta had earned her cosmetology license, Carol discovered a salon on Harford Road that was closing and looking for new management. Her brother and sister-in-law helped with the down payment. “After that I didn’t look back,” says Gupta, who once again named her salon Usha’s.
Gupta built her customer-base by speaking to women everywhere she went. “I would go to the bank, the mall, and shops and always carry my thread in my purse,” she says.
In the early 1990s, threading was largely unknown. Gupta claims that Usha’s was the first salon to provide threading in Baltimore. “I began introducing the threading to my customers,” Gupta says. “I would ask people, do you know what threading is? And if they said no, I would show them. I didn’t want money, just wanted people to see the magic of the thread, and if they loved it, I knew they would tell friends to come.”
In early 2000s, as threading grew in popularity, local reporters from Fox 45 and Baltimore Sun did short segments on the art. “Once those segments were released people were really interested in how threading was performed and wanted to try it,” Gupta says.
Eventually, threading became so popular at Usha’s that Gupta didn’t have time for other services.
“Customers got hooked to threading because it’s more precise,” Gupta says. “It’s more neat, it lasts longer, and it is more hygienic—it doesn’t burn skin like wax. Once the thread is used we throw it away. We have more control over thread, even if you want to remove one hair, to make the arch with thread you can.”
After 12 years on Harford Road, Gupta moved the salon to Towson, where it has been for the last nine years. Now her daughter-in-law runs this location and another one near Locust Point in Federal Hill.
Still, at 68, Gupta has no plans to retire. She loves what she does. “It is my passion, I crave it,” she says. “When I see eyebrows I just want to shape them. It is an art. You have to shape the brows to complement the face.”