From Korea to America

Features / June 25, 2018

Beautician Kelly finds home in the Spa City

Soona Kelly, beauty salon owner, entrepreneur and poly-linguist, has seen it all when it comes to the ever-changing beauty trends and standards throughout her two decades in the permanent cosmetic industry.

Kelly, owner of Forest Lakes Spa & Salon in Hot Springs, also known as Permanent Cosmetics by Soona, first stepped foot on Arkansas soil in the spring of 2008, motivated to become not only an American citizen but determined to develop a clientele for her permanent cosmetics salon.

Originally from Korea, where she was a certified beautician, Kelly spoke little English upon arrival but was motivated by her intention to cultivate relationships once she moved here. After two years of practice through private tutors and joining a literacy council, Kelly was fluent enough to begin her business in 2010.

“I’m inspired knowing that I’m able to make people happier in my work,” she said. “Clients now text or call me and say, ‘This is the best choice I’ve ever made.’”

Kelly takes pride in developing her own technique of eyebrow enhancement. Similar to micro-blading, it is a cosmetic procedure that leaves a semi-permanent eyebrow tattoo. Kelly coined her technique “hair stroke,” which leaves little to no scar tissue and appears more natural on the skin.

“I can’t believe that micro-blading just came to the states; I have been doing it for over 10 years in Korea,” she said, laughing.

Many of her clients are recovering cancer patients who have experienced hair loss and take advantage of this dignity-restoring service.

Kelly saves before and after photos of her clients and said the biggest personal reward in her work is witnessing her clients’ transformations.

One of the most memorable transformations was helping camouflage scar tissue for a woman who suffered a serious facial injury due to a dog attack in her childhood.

“Her scar covered from her forehead, to eyebrows, all the way to her lips,” Kelly said. “She had lived with this scar for over 40 years and she had no idea someone could fix it like I could. She was so grateful.”

Kelly previously operated a salon in Daegu, South Korea, the third largest South Korean metropolitan city, for over four years with her sister. After eight years of running her

The inside of Soona Kelley’s spa at the Forrest Lakes subdivision

salon in Hot Springs, she has serviced women ages 20 to 99 for permanent lip color or enhancement, eyebrow enhancement or permanent eyeliner.

“It’s interesting with the work I do. I will see a client, and then again for the touch-up a month later, but then I don’t need to visit them again for three to six years,” she said. “I am always confident that they leave my spa feeling better about themselves.”

While Kim Kardashian is the typical beauty icon in the states, Kelly said she admires famous Korean icon Go So-young, who took pride in a beauty mark on her nose, similar to Marilyn Monroe, demonstrating how women should be confident in their differences.

For Kelly, originally being from a rural hometown called Young-Yang, adjusting to the landscape, culture and atmosphere of Hot Springs proved little contrast between her two worlds.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, there’s so much empty space and nature.’ Instead of the buildings shooting upwards, everything is more spread out and relaxed,” she said.

While she had no intention of living in America, fate had other plans, as she fell in love with her blue-eyed Arkansan husband, Brian, at first sight.

“It was like you could feel the electricity in the air between us. I just remember he looked so sharp. He said he had the same feeling,” Kelly said.

She laughed as she noted the uniqueness of their relationship, as they celebrate three marriage anniversaries due to visa requirements and two wedding ceremonies in their respective countries.

Together, the couple have traveled to 15 countries in 15 years. They also lived in Central America where Kelly learned her third language, Spanish. In the end, the couple decided to settle in a condo on the banks of Lake Hamilton.

Having earned her citizenship in 2014, Kelly said the freedom and overwhelming feeling of acceptance she’s experienced in America is the most noticeable difference between her homes that are oceans apart.

“Becoming an American citizen was bittersweet. I had to give up my nationality because Korea doesn’t offer dual citizenship,” Kelly said, adding that before transitioning to America her only preconceived notions about American life were scenes from the television show “Jerry Springer.”

“It’s funny because my husband explained that ‘Jerry Springer’ was nothing like how Americans typically acted. I have found that to be true,” she said.

Initially nervous how Arkansans would perceive Koreans, Kelly said, “It’s been fine and I love the people here.”

Kelly joined a belly dancing troupe, called Steam Town Gypsies, in Hot Springs. She says her gracious in-laws, friends and clientele she has grown have all helped her adjust to life in the American South.

“The freedom I feel in the U.S. is the open-mindedness of everyone. Nobody cares what you like to do or what you wear. In Korea, people will say something if you’re doing something out of the normal. No stranger would walk up to you in America and ask you why you are wearing something unique. There’s just less judgment,” she said, reflecting on her 10 years in Hot Springs.

Kelly said she is beyond grateful to have found a home in Arkansas and to have transformed many lives through her work at her permanent cosmetics salon nested in the suburban style houses of Forest Lakes.

For more details or for a free consultation with Permanent Cosmetics by Soona Kelly visit

Story and photography by Rebekah Hedges | Additional photography by Grace Brown

Lindsey Wells

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