In our April issue, writer Amy Saunders chronicled Dr. Toby Meltzer's transformation of Scottsdale into a worldwide destination for gender reassignment surgery. In February, Meltzer and his frequent collaborator Senza Pelo MedSpa owner Maria DeNicola won the Independent Equality Award from the Human Rights Council for their work on behalf of the transgender community. While Meltzer has focused on the surgical side of transitions, DeNicola has tended to the rest, providing permanent hair removal and other services for more than 33 years.
As a companion to the print piece, we asked DeNicola some questions about her time working with the transgender community, the Valley's changing political climate and what she's learned over the years.
When you first started your medical spa, did you think you'd end up being a destination for people undertaking a gender transition?
When I first started Senza Pelo, it was just an electrology practice and I was by myself. I was speaking to my father, who even as a straight white male had always had a very progressive mind when it came to business and acceptance of other people that weren't mainstream; he taught compassion. He had found an article in the Arizona newspaper at the time – mind you, this is the early 1980s – and it was about a woman who had been exposed at her work for being transgender, and he said to me that if I would be able to find her or people like her I would be able to expand my practice to include the transgender community. But, like I said, this is 1980 – there is no Internet. It was almost impossible to research local transgender groups because they didn't exist, so I set out and put [an] advertisement with the phone number I have to this day on telephone poles all throughout the Valley. Lo and behold, out of any person that could've walked through my door, the woman from the article showed up for treatment. It took me a couple treatments to drum up the courage to ask her if she knew of anyone else that I could help, and of course that was not possible – she had been exposed by the job, she was just trying to live a life. But if she would show up at my door who’s to say that I didn't have the drive to continue looking for members of the community – all I had to do was to keep the leg work moving forward, finding people in the community [so] that I can help them transition and grow my practice. So that is just what I've done.
How has your practice grown over the years?
Our practice [has grown] pretty exponentially in the last 15 years. We brought on nurses and staff that could administer lidocaine injections so that patients that were having to do large-volume electrolysis are able to do so pain-free or nearly pain-free. My staff and I are also are very accepting of the community – one is my daughter Stephanie (who manages our practice and practices electrolysis) and the other is Venessa (when I met Venessa she was only doing aesthetics and saw what our office was doing for the community and wanted to learn, and anyone that can help someone transition is welcome). They are my senior electrologists and they are phenomenal when it comes to working with community. They have helped me bring on two junior electrologists that are now learning the craft.
I think the reason for our successes is that everyone on my staff believes in helping people for the sake of helping them. There's no correct gender, there's no pronouns missed, because we're not looking at how someone was born – we're asking who they are. My staff really takes someone through the steps that they need for transition with compassion.
How have things changed – both in the Valley and nationally – for transgender people and issues?
Absolutely things have changed on both a Valley level and an international level when it comes to gender. We are no longer looking at black and white; especially in this last year, the fact that people are recognizing that equality needs to happen for all has been huge.
Looking back, are there any turning points you can identify?
When I saw this question...it almost made me laugh because the words are so simple: the Internet changed it all. Information is out there for the community now, and it is accessible from anywhere. You can type in on your phone now keywords – it will help someone identify who they are. They are able to now find people to help them with their transition, whether it be people like Senza Pelo getting rid of hair problems, it could be therapists or gender doctors. It is everywhere, it is online and it's been a huge help [for] the community.
When did you decide to become an advocate/activist in addition to providing your services?
I don't think I ever set out to to advocate/ activist. I set out to help people remove hair and get their outward appearance [to] match their inside – to survive life the best way possible. My biggest dream for any person out there is quality of life – and if you come in to see us, you're going to be treated equally to any person that walks in our door. It's not a matter of activism, it's what is right and how all should be treated.
I understand you've won recognition and awards for your efforts. Can you describe your advocacy and what it felt like to be recognized?
It has been the biggest honor I could have ever received. Every day I look at the award since the HRC ceremony has been just a surreal moment. Looking back on the early 1980s, I would've never thought that this straight female would be recognized for an HRC award helping the community of people who are just trying to be themselves and be treated equally. What an outstanding honor.
What kinds of services do you provide? Which are the most in demand?
Our office provides now more than electrolysis. We also offer laser hair removal, laser skin rejuvenation, Botox & Juvéderm, skin care (chemical peels, microdermabrasion, facials etc). We have a full-service salon. We also carry at-home products that we keep on hand to aid our patients in receiving the best skin care possible.
What is it like working with Dr. Meltzer? How do you relate to each other as "business partners" of sorts?
Fabulous! He really wants the best for his patients and makes sure to communicate that to the providers that are also helping his patients. I think that we work together for our patients. We know that our work is not for us – it's for the patient. We both attend conferences to talk to patients and practitioners about methodology. What have you learned from each other? I think the biggest thing we have learned from each other is why we need our treatment plans to go the way they do.
What are your hopes for the future of transgender issues? What do you want the average person to know about this topic?
I want to see equality; I want my clients/friends to walk into any place outside of home without prosecution of their body appearance. People are going to be different than you, and that's alright. In fact, you need to embrace what is different and celebrate it.
Anything else you want to add?
Love who you are, and if you are different, find people that will nurture it. Senza Pelo MedSpa isn't just a LGBTQ hotspot in the Valley; it is a place for everyone in the Valley of the Sun to get the best in beauty. Our work with the transgender community makes us a go-to place for the most difficult hair problems and skin issues. It gives all of our clients an added edge of knowledge in dealing with hormonal hair growth. Dealing with skin that has been neglected for years – that's our specialty. We have been in business helping people see possible in the seemingly impossible since 1982.
Get your daily dose of culture with our curated picks of the best events and experiences in the Valley, from art and music to sports and the outdoors. Culture vultures can sign up for our Things to Do and VIP List newsletters for even more hip happenings.