Salon Horror Stories: “My boss was grooming me for prostitution.”


To protect this subscriber’s identity, several key details have been changed. Unfortunately, this is the third incident of human trafficking/prostitution grooming that I have heard of in the last 3 years. I have included a few details from those other two events to help further obscure the identity of this subscriber.

Human trafficking is a HUGE problem that taints our industry and this gradual grooming DOES happen. If you suspect a salon in your area may be abusing women through forced prostitution (or facilitating voluntary prostitution), contact the FBI’s Human Trafficking division immediately.

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In 2011, I moved to LA to pursue my modeling career. For months, I struggled, working two or three crappy jobs at a time to pay the obscene rent on the small, one bedroom apartment I shared with another aspiring model.

One day, she showed me an online ad she found for a massage therapist position at an “upscale, exclusive spa.” The ad offered $800 per day and was only accepting inquiries by email.

Of course, I shot off a message requesting more information at once. I received a reply with an application attached. The application didn’t list a business name or contact number, but seemed legitimate enough. My roommate thought their request for recent head shots was a little weird, but being a model in LA, I didn’t find it that strange. (I had heard of coffee shops requesting headshots from barista applicants. LA can be a weird place.) The application also asked for “family references,” contact information and addresses for my parents and siblings…another thing I didn’t find strange, although looking back, I should have.

Two days later, I received a call back and an appointment was set for an interview.

I had never given a career in massage therapy any consideration. Being from a small town in Nebraska, I had never even visited a massage spa in my life, so I had no idea what to expect. I pulled up to the building–a squat little shopping complex in a questionable part of town. The stores in the complex all had signs except for one. The windows on the suite were blacked out also, but I knew I had the right suite number.

The door was locked, so I rang a buzzer on the wall. That was when I noticed the security camera above the door.

The speaker above the buzzer crackled and a female voice with a thick Russian accent said, “Come on in, Tammy, we’ve been expecting you.” I pulled the door open and stepped inside and walked down a short hallway into the reception area. It took time for my eyes to adjust. Heavy blackout drapes covered the front windows and the only lighting in the room came from a few dim wall sconces.

When I could finally see, the room took my breath away. It was gorgeous. One wall was made up of blue mosaic stones. A smooth sheet of water ran over it, like a trickling waterfall. In the middle of the room stood a bronze statue of a woman wrapped in a sheet. The reception desk was behind plexiglass, like at those check cashing places, but the counter was made of beige marble granite. Soft music played over hidden speakers.

The receptionist could have been a model herself–tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes and cheekbones to die for. She buzzed me through a second door and led me down a hallway to an office in the back.

The spa didn’t open until 2pm, so the place was empty. Open doors lined either side of the hallway. Each room looked identical, with large massage beds covered in linens. (I later discovered that these “massage beds” were not actually massage beds.) One room looked different than the others. It was double the size of the other rooms and had a hot tub, in addition to a massage bed. (The owner told me this Jacuzzi was a “hydrotherapy” tub–another lie I learned after the fact.)

The owner, another gorgeous Russian woman in her mid-40’s, asked me a few polite questions. How long had I been in LA? Was I married? Did I have children? We hit it off right away. She said she had “connections” to help launch my modeling career.

“We’re a very private, discreet business. You must understand this,” she said to me. “We cater to very wealthy men that value their privacy: celebrities, millionaires, diplomats, politicians. You do not ask questions of them, not even their name.” When I told her I didn’t have any experience in massage, she smiled and said, “That’s fine. We provide all the training you need.”

I felt at ease with her, so I had no problem signing employment contracts that included confidentiality agreements. I didn’t even really read them, but the owner made sure I understood that the documents specifically said that I couldn’t disclose my place of employment to anyone for any reason, nor could I discuss the clients or the work I did.

The owner told me I would start the next day, but she needed me to come in early for “marketing photographs.” She said that “for safety reasons,” a driver would be picking me up and dropping me off for work. As a naive 18 year old, I was enamored with the atmosphere and the special treatment, not to mention the money.

The next day, a van pulled up at noon and brought me to work. He dropped me off at the back door. The owner buzzed me in and brought me into a back room I hadn’t seen during the interview–it looked like a small photo studio. She quickly took my measurements. A photographer and a makeup artist ushered me into a folding chair. As a model, I was accustomed to this procedure.

When the makeup artist finished her work, the owner handed me my uniform–a black sports bra and a pair of black boyshorts. “The rooms get very warm for the clients to be comfortable, so this will keep you cool while you work,” she said. Because I had nothing to compare to, I had no idea this wasn’t normal. The outfit didn’t look much different than what girls wear out jogging.

The photographer took some pictures under the direction of the owner. They gave me another outfit to wear–a black teddy with red ribbons, stockings, and heels. “Men come here from all over the world to get massaged by our beautiful women,” the owner said. “You will be a star here.”

The photographer promised to post-edit the photos and give me a disk for my portfolio, which I thought generous of him. He offered to circulate the pictures to agencies he worked with also. He offered to take a few more pictures–some “catalog” shots (in normal clothing) and some implied nudes (where the model is naked, but covering exposed areas). I happily agreed. When you’re a model, it’s really important to have an extensive, regularly updated portfolio. You literally can’t have enough pictures and you just don’t turn down free shots.

I had no idea that these photos would be used to “sell” me to the “spa’s” customer base through shady internet forums.

I was starting to get a clearer picture of the nature of the massage spa, and didn’t really have a problem with it. I thought it was like one of those restaurants with the skanky waitresses, but classier. I had been to bikini bars and lingerie bars where “companions” or “hostesses” would hang out with the male customers for tips. I didn’t think this massage spa would be any different than places like that. I mentioned this to the owner.

“You only do what you’re comfortable doing and you wear what you’re comfortable wearing,” she responded. “Our patrons tip generously, so the happier they are, the more money you make.” Flirting was encouraged, but not once did she outright mention sexual activity.

She told me to get into my uniform and wait in my assigned room until a bell sounded. As I walked back, my stiletto heels clicking on the tile floor, the van arrived with a load of girls–my coworkers. All were beautiful in different ways. There was a very tall, skinny Haitian or African woman, two Asian girls with black hair that fell to their very tiny waists, a punky Hispanic girl with curly brown hair and pink streaks, and another, curvier girl that I think was from Hawaii or something.

I went into my room and waited. The plum colored sheets on the bed were obviously very high quality. They were cool and soft, like liquid almost. I smoothed them out with my hand and waited, my heart pounding. Nobody trained me in anything yet. What would I do when the bell rang?

About thirty minutes after I entered the room, a bell chimed. I jumped off the bed and walked to the reception area. The Russian receptionist said, “This man is a loyal customer. He will be your first.” The tall, bearded man had a nice smile and seemed friendly.

I took him back to my room.  One of the Asian girls waited outside the door in blue lingerie. I felt overdressed and super unsexy next to her in my plain black uniform. She looked glamorous, like she had stepped directly out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. I looked like a gym rat. The three of us walked inside the room and she closed the door behind us.

“You watch, okay?” she said in broken English. I nodded. She undressed the man methodically until he stood completely nude and then directed him to the bed. I watched as she pumped some oil into her hands and rubbed it into his back. She motioned at me, so I did the same. All in all, the job didn’t seem difficult. That first day went by uneventfully. After the third client, I was doing massages on my own.

The next day, the owner pulled me aside and said, “We have a special client for you today. He is a big spender but can be demanding. Do what he says, okay?” I nodded. The man had already arrived, so I brought him to my room and began the service.

He was an older man, and a talker. He said he was thrilled that “someone finally hired an American girl,” and asked me a bunch of questions. He seemed nice enough. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?” he asked. “Is it obvious?” I asked, embarrassed. I thought I had been performing so well. I even spent my evenings watching Youtube videos on massage techniques to try and get better. I wanted to do well at this job. I couldn’t afford to lose it.

He laughed and said, “Oh no, the massage feels great, but that’s not really what I come for.” I didn’t understand what he meant…then he asked me to take off my top.

I stopped and said, “Is that normal?” He said, “Well, yes. We come here to spend time with beautiful women. Some of the girls do more than others, but all of them do nude massages.”

The idea of being a private stripper didn’t thrill me, but the man promised to leave a huge tip. My boss told me to do what he said. I needed the money and didn’t want to get fired. So, I found a way to justify it. I had done nude modeling before and at least there wouldn’t be any evidence of this encounter circulating around…or so I thought. What was the harm in showing a lonely old man a little skin? It’s not like I was having sex with him or letting him touch me.

Afterwards, the owner asked me how the service went and I told her about the man’s request that I work naked. She asked if I would be comfortable doing nude massages when requested and promised me additional bonus pay if I agreed. She swore it was completely normal for the girls to work nude. After I saw the bonus she proposed (and the tip the man left me), I agreed.

The following week, the owner told me I needed to be trained in “full release” massage. She claimed it was “healthy for the prostate,” and “balanced male energies.” Again, the Asian girl trained me–and by “trained me,” I mean that I watched her “manually stimulate” a client to orgasm. I was intensely uncomfortable, but she acted like it was a normal, routine part of her day. Again, the owner promised me more cash if I “expanded my menu” to include “full release” massages.

At this point, the money had me hooked. My savings account had several thousand dollars in it. My bills were paid. I was making progress on paying off my credit card debt. I was even shopping for a new car and had treated myself to a new designer handbag–something I never could have afforded before. Every day, we were given our choice of expensive lingerie to wear. The glamour of it grew on me. I didn’t want to walk away from that.

After a few weeks of performing “full release” services, nude, the owner said I was ready to be trained in “erotic massage.” My stomach twisted and dropped. I asked her if I would be expected to have sex with the customers. She went wide-eyed and said, “No! Of course not!” She told me, “Erotic massage is an ancient technique that enhances the benefits of full release service.” I was promised a massive bonus for adding this service to my menu. This time, the Haitian girl trained me.

I won’t get into detail here, but for those of you that aren’t aware, “erotic massage” involves covering yourself and the client in oil and sliding all over them…nude. Front and back.

Yes. I did it.

Each time a new service was introduced, it became easier to make these little sacrifices. The bonuses kept getting bigger, as did my gratuities. That’s how these predators groom you.

I was the frog in the pot. At first, the water was cool and everything seemed fine. I didn’t realize the gradual escalation until I was boiling alive and by that point, it was almost too late.

Things began to change in the spa. One day, half the girls were replaced with an entirely new group. The punky Hispanic girl was gone, so was the Haitian and one of the Asians. The new girls were also beautiful, but one of them looked extremely young. The owner told me she was a Pacific Islander and “all of them look like children.” I didn’t believe her. When I asked her what happened to my other coworkers, she told me that they were “entertaining royalty overseas.” She told me that if I performed well, I could go on the next trip. “We get requests from famous diplomats all the time,” she said. “The girls go to yacht parties with Mediterranean elite, visit palaces and mansions. They are given gifts and treated like queens. It is a great honor.”

Our relationship became strained as I entered my third month of employment. Tax time was approaching and I had concerns about filing on my own for the first time. When I told my father the spa owner paid me “under the table” and that I was considered an “independent contractor,” he became alarmed and advised me to ask the owner for my 1099 forms.

I had no idea what the hell a 1099 form was. When I asked the owner for one, she became defensive and dismissive.

I couldn’t tell my father what I had been doing. He disapproved of my decision to leave home and pursue a career in modeling to begin with, if he knew about how I made my money, he would have freaked out.

Despite the confidentiality agreement (and my humiliation), I finally confided in my roommate. She had been suspicious of the money I was spending and had a feeling something was “off.” She urged me to contact someone about the arrangement. I stumbled across Tina’s blog and sent her a message, asking her if my situation (being paid under the table, being considered “independent,” and not being given a 1099) was legitimate. She responded that it wasn’t and supplied some links to the IRS so I could file for misclassification.

In my next message, I told her I had no experience as a massage therapist before this and had some questions. I asked her if it was legal to perform nude massages in California. She responded that it was entirely normal for clients to be nude during massage, but expressed concern that I wasn’t schooled or licensed, which California requires.

When I replied to her, I clarified that I was the one being asked to work in the nude.

At this time, the owner told me that my presence was requested in Dubai, by a prince. She told me (she didn’t ask–she told me) that I would be leaving in two days and that the trip needed to be kept confidential. I couldn’t tell any family or friends about it. I told her I wasn’t comfortable traveling so far on such short notice. “You will go,” she said. “This is not a discussion. If you don’t go, there will be consequences.”

I thought she meant that I would lose my job, so I told her to go ahead and fire me. She smiled and said, “I am not firing you. I will send videos to your family and to websites. I will shame you.”

“What videos are you talking about?” I asked.

She told me that every room was under video surveillance. She recorded every client encounter I had ever had.

“If you don’t go, I will send them to your family. I will also have a man visit your sister’s home,” she said. “You don’t want my friend to visit her. Trust me.”

I remembered the “family references,” the personal questions she asked during my interview, and I realized that this woman owned me. I had become a slave to a Russian madam. She had the resources to destroy me and to hurt my family. I was terrified and had no idea what to do, so I nodded at her and said, “I understand. I’ll pack my bags.”

As soon as I returned home, I emailed Tina and told her what happened. She sent me the number to a contact at California’s human trafficking task force. She urged me to contact my family and tell them everything. “Your safety and the safety of your family takes precedent over your pride and reputation at this point,” she said. “Pack your things and leave LA right now. Put your family up in a hotel until the task force can make arrests.”

Telling my family the truth was hard, but necessary. The task force arrested the owner and charged her with pimping, facilitating prostitution, and human trafficking…among other things. (I’m afraid I can’t give many more details here because I don’t want to be tied to this post.)

Throughout all of this, I have been told that I was extremely lucky. Other victims are imprisoned and abused. Many of them are foreign and helpless because they have no money, no family, and can’t speak English. These criminals target young, naive girls–usually immigrants and runaways. They force these girls to work for them by threatening to harm their families. American girls that get tied up into these arrangements often end up shipped out to foreign countries and sold into sexual slavery–which I came dangerously close to being a victim of.

I’ve since moved back home and am currently enrolled in community college. I still look over my shoulder. I worry about men coming to get me. I struggle with guilt and shame and have contemplated suicide. I attend therapy regularly to work through the psychological issues that this experience caused and the root issues that made me an easy target for this exploitative pimp.

This ruined my life and changed me forever. I want nothing more than to leave this behind, but moving forward hasn’t been easy. I wish I had the courage to speak to others about my experience, but I’m just not there yet and I’m not sure I ever will be. The best I can do is relay my experience through Tina’s blog and hope that this will help others avoid becoming a victim like I did.

One of the many things I’ve learned from this experience is that the world is an incredibly dangerous place. I used to believe in the goodness of people. I gave trust freely and willingly. I have since become cynical and guarded to an extreme. (I also doubt I’ll ever leave my hometown again.) This experience will likely haunt me for the rest of my life, but there is not a single day that I don’t feel grateful for having escaped before it was too late.

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Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of the book The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and the blog This Ugly Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.


  1. I have two salon horror stories that I would like to share but I don’t know how to contact the blog author. I find this website very difficult to use, maybe it’s just my computer. I will leave my email in the contact form and maybe you can contact me.

  2. Hi I believe I was being groomed for the sex trade in my work place but managed to escape. Is there anyone I can talk to about this confidentially?

    • Absolutely. You can email me at [email protected]. In the last few years, I’ve heard even more of these stories from professionals who read this article. It’s terrifying, and definitely something everyone needs to be aware of.


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