CHAMPAIGN — While trying to leave communist Romania in the 1980s, Angelica Jelesco figured she needed to go back to school.
She realized that if she ended up in the United States, school would be more difficult for her. And she needed something different to support herself: She had been teaching mechanical engineering at a technical school in Bucharest but had never really liked it.
She was more interested in fashion, skin care and beauty, and those interests only grew after she met Dan Jelesco, who worked in Romanian television and would become her husband.
So for two years in Romania, Angelica studied skin care, learning about European-style facials and body treatments as well as how to apply makeup, something she also studied in Paris for a short time.
"It was a good choice," she says now. "I love what I do. I love it because if you're in a communist country it's very hard to go from one field to another."
After finally gaining permission to leave Romania in 1983, six years before the communist regime would fall, the Jelescos landed in Detroit, where relatives had sponsored their emigration.
After less than a year they moved to Chicago, where Angelica, who now lives and works in Champaign, struggled to establish herself.
Her first job was at Saks Fifth Avenue, selling a cosmetics line from Europe. Eventually she rented a space on Michigan Avenue for her own skin-care salon.
To get her name out, she gave free facials for a while. She never advertised, believing word of mouth was more powerful.
Over the years, she built a clientele that appreciated her European approach to skin care. And soon WBBM, the CBS television affiliate in Chicago, called to offer her a part-time job doing makeup.
For the next 10 years, she split her time between her salon and the TV studio, where she applied makeup to local and visiting stars, among them Gene Siskel, Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka, Bill Curtis, Elaine Rivkin, Robert Redford and politicians such as Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton and Jim Edgar. She even worked on Paul Simon, the popular bow-tied Illinoisan who was a U.S. senator from 1985 to '97.
He and Angelica talked about Romania.
"Any time you have suggestions about what the U.S. should be doing in that area of the world, I would welcome your suggestions," Simon later wrote to Angelica in April 1989.
A few months later, Romania became the last Iron Curtain country to fall, with Nicolae Ceausescu being the only Warsaw Pact dictator to be tried and executed.
Angelica, 68, said she knows many stories and could write a book. But she maintains a discreet silence about her former and current clients, saying only good things about a few of them.
Like Redford, Clinton and former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. She called all of them down-to-earth and easy to talk to.
She met Redford when he was in Chicago promoting the movie "A River Runs Through It." While Angelica worked on his makeup, he of course noticed her accent; the two struck up a conversation about her homeland.
The two times Angelica worked on Clinton, he was running for president. Angelica overheard his adviser, George Stephanopoulos, telling the candidate what to say. "He would say, 'Do I have to say that? Do I have to say that?'" she related.
Angelica enjoyed her life in Chicago. But in the late '90s she lost the lease on her salon at 520 N. Michigan Ave. after corporations bought the building in which it was located and later demolished it, keeping the facade and building a Nordstrom store behind it.
"And then we looked for spaces and it was crazy," she remembers.
Rents were in the thousands of dollars.
She didn't want to pay an exorbitant rent and was tired of the pressures of city life. She and her husband moved to Champaign, mainly because an old friend from Romania was living here.
In 1999, the couple bought and then rehabbed a house on West Green Street. They still live there.
"Little by little, I started to do my thing," she said.
After first giving facials at a fitness center and then renting a space, Angelica had her own European-style spa built in her backyard.
She did all the mosaics, tiles and decorations inside the building and also came up with the design. Angelica's European Holistic Spa contains two rooms for facials and body treatments, and a bathroom with a shower for clients.
The reception area is small yet spacious; it's dominated by an antique pharmacist's cabinet that looks old-world but came from a building on the north side of Chicago. On the wall above it a sign reads "Beauty begins with healthy skin."
Angelica is on a mission to bring back European-style facials; she opposes invasive treatments that have become popular in recent years like surgical face-lifts, Botox and chemical peels.
"Every time the skin experiences trauma — severe peeling, burning, cutting, injections — collagen and elastin become a little tangled, dermal layers become thin and weakened, precious antioxidant and energy supplies dwindle, and skin becomes more vulnerable to premature aging," she said.
"Are the results dramatic? Yes, of course. Do they last? Of course not."
She takes a holistic approach toward skin — the largest organ of the human body. She believes the body's own healing mechanisms can restore natural beauty. With her gentle and expert hands, she helps those mechanisms along, practicing techniques such as deep-pore cleansing, the use of steam to soften the skin so that she can remove blackheads and whiteheads, exfoliating masks, compression, massage and micro-current, infrared and LED light therapy.
Besides deep-cleansing the pores, the techniques help the skin eliminate excess waste and toxins, she said. She also believes regular facials and scalp massages keep the facial muscles strong to help fight the breakdown of elastin — as well as the pull of gravity.
Like a good body massage, facials reduce stress, which can negatively affect digestion, sleep, hormonal balance and other functions, she says.
"When these functions take a hit, our skin pays the price," she says. "Poorly digested food leads to lack of nutrients and a buildup of toxins and waste. This can lead to skin breakouts, dark circles, puffiness and more."
While she hews to European-style skin care, Angelica does not oppose newer techniques — as long as they are noninvasive.
One that she uses is Bioptron photo light, which works on a cellular level in the body, particularly on the cell membrane.
According to the website Advanced Light Therapy, when the Bioptron device is held over the skin, energy from the emitted light penetrates the underlying tissues. This results in photo-biostimulation, which initiates certain biologically regulative changes in the cell.
Angelica also uses micro-currents, which she calls the hottest noninvasive treatment in skin care. Micro-current stimulation helps produce more collagen and elasticity in the skin, while restoring the body's own electrical current, according to Angelica.
Besides working on adults, Angelica enjoys helping youths who have acne feel better about themselves. As she does with older clients, she tells them healthy skin requires healthful eating, regular exercise, good skin care at home, regular facials, and the elimination of negative thoughts.
The Romanian-born Angelica would rather talk about skin care but when pressed will talk about her earlier life.
Her mother was a homemaker. Her father was a talented tailor who worked in a co-operative. He could have had his own shop but that was not allowed in a communist system, she said.
She believes she inherited her creative spirit from her father. They differed, though, in one regard: He was a member of the communist party, but Angelica, one of two daughters, never joined. Neither did her husband. That held them back in their careers.
They had traveled freely, but in the early '80s the communist regime seized their passports. As a result, Angelica felt like a person without a country.
For four years, she and her husband worked toward gaining political asylum, with Angelica, who describes herself as a fighter, making no secret of their desire. As a result, agents watched them, tapped their telephone and followed Angelica.
"I wasn't in a prison, but they took me so many times from the street," she said. "I was manifesting that I wanted to get out, writing letters to the president, the party secretary."
While detained she was never tortured. But she felt frightened.
"They knew everything," she said.
Finally the Jelescos were allowed to emigrate to the United States. After the revolution of 1989 in Romania, they were given back their citizenship. The two also became U.S. citizens 20 or so years ago.
Angelica never had children of her own but raised her nephew after his mother, Angelica's older sister, died of lupus at age 28. Angelica loves children — with all her hearts, she says — and once worked to bring back International Children's Day, petitioning city, state and national governments. She also gives to charities, particularly those that help children.
In Champaign, the Jelescos lead a quiet life. Dan Jelesco writes music every day and sends his compositions to a cousin who is a musician in Italy.
And though Angelica believes communism in Romania held them back, she appreciated that the system gave everyone free education and health care.
"Why not take good parts from one system and add them to another one here?" she asked. "This would be ideal, but it probably won't happen in my lifetime."