The Lipstick Project: An interview with Leigh Boyle

When my father was in the last stages of his life, in the midst of all the awfulness that comes with aggressive terminal cancer, one of the things that struck me was how much he wanted to be touched. Not overly demonstrative by nature, while he was sick he relished every opportunity to be close to others – whether cuddling with my mom, gently holding hands with me and my brother, or just being physically close to the many friends and family members that visited. Touch had a calming and comforting effect on my dad, and gave us all some small, loving moments to cherish in the middle of all the stress, uncertainty and grief that engulfed us. It was a simple thing that made an enormous difference.

Leigh Boyle is someone who knows the power of human touch firsthand. In 2011, Leigh had a life-changing experience in Ethiopia: simply by giving manicures to local women who were dealing with a serious health issue, she personally witnessed the solacing benefits of caring touch. So after returning home to Canada, Leigh decided to start a charity called The Lipstick Project Foundation. Based in Vancouver, the volunteer-run organization provides free, professional spa services to patients who are in recovery or approaching the end of their lives.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Leigh about The Lipstick Project, as well as the importance of compassionate gentle touch to people in the last stages of their lives.

Leigh, can you tell us a little about The Lipstick Project and how it works?

LB: The Lipstick Project is a 100% volunteer-run organization that provides free, professional spa services for people in our community that are facing significant health challenges. We partner with amazing organizations like Ronald McDonald House of BC, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and the North Shore Hospice and visit their residents on a regular basis to bring comfort, relaxation and dignity through manicures, pedicures, hair services and massage.

A patient receiving a haircut from one of the professional stylists volunteering with The Lipstick Project
A patient receiving a haircut from one of the professional stylists volunteering with The Lipstick Project


What compelled you to start TLP?  Was there a particular “light bulb moment” that motivated you to take action? 

LB: I was working in Northern Ethiopia in 2011 and while the work I was doing was fascinating, I was terribly lonely. I had read about a hospital in the area that works with women who have a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula. More or less eradicated from the western world, obstetric fistula is prevalent in places like rural Ethiopia where there is a lack of medical care and women often give birth at home without the attention of a midwife or doctor. The injury is the result of an obstructed labour that leaves a gaping hole in the woman’s birth canal, often causing her to leak waste uncontrollably. The loss of her baby coupled with this persistent trickle of waste, is traumatic on many levels – physically, psychologically, and emotionally. This particular hospital works with these women to help rehabilitate them and ultimately cure them as over 90% of obstetric fistulas are surgically repairable.

While touring the hospital I was deeply moved and felt compelled to volunteer. I wanted to help take care of the women and do what I could to support the amazing efforts of the staff. The doctors said they didn’t need any volunteers in the kitchen or doing the laundry, but they did offer up Sunday afternoons and said that if I wanted to do something during that time that would simply make the women happy, I was more than welcome to do that.

But for real, what was I going to do? We don’t speak the same language or come from the same culture. What could I possibly do to make them happy while also bridging that gap? At a loss, I emailed some of my girlfriends back home and it became clear very quickly that simple manicures would be a great way to connect, have fun and relax.

So, there I was the next Sunday – a few bottles of nail polish, some hand lotion and a nail file. To say that it wasn’t awkward would be a lie, but as we got used to each other and as more Sundays passed, our Sunday Spas became an event we all seemed to look forward to. It seemed to help break down some of the walls the ladies had put up through their years of isolated suffering. It also seemed to fuel my soul to be around such wonderful, gentle women every week who, for as much as I cared for them, they also took care of me.

I called it the Sunday Spas, The Lipstick Project and that was that (or so I thought).

Until one day, a friend from Vancouver got in touch. A family member had passed away at the North Shore Hospice and interestingly enough, she had wanted her hair and her nails done as a last request. It was ultimately, quite challenging to fulfill and so, after she had passed, he got in touch with me and mentioned that there might be space for something like TLP back here at home. He didn’t say much, just that I should keep it in mind and consider the possibilities when I got back.

So here we are, almost four years later with a strong team, great program and hundreds of clients. There was no true “light bulb moment.” Just a small series of fortunate events that slowly peeled back the layers about what it means to be connected as humans, and what it means to take care of the people around us in a practical, loving way.

That’s truly a poignant and inspiring story, Leigh. From your experience, what is it about human touch that’s so beneficial to people approaching the end of their lives?

LB: Up front, I have to say that I have no expertise – only what I have witnessed through the various experiences I have had with The Lipstick Project. What I’ve seen is entirely basic and 100% human nature: touch is grounding and calming. It brings you back to the present and can be incredibly comforting. We don’t heal people or save lives, but I do think that we have a huge capacity to help give our clients “good days.” Good days to us are days when our clients can feel “normal” or like themselves again. Days when, even if for a few minutes, their minds wander away from any pain and suffering, and towards something lighter and more lovely. Touch plays a big role in these good days because it helps people to know they’re not alone, that someone is there with them, focused on them and reminding them that they matter.

Many people might think that only female patients would be interested in receiving spa services, but TLP provides a range of services for men too. Can you tell us a little about the similarities and differences between the male and female patients that you serve? 

LB: When it comes to male and female clients, there are actually very few differences in what they desire. I thought for sure we would see more females than males and that we’d be doing a lot of fun up-dos, fancy nails and funky make-up but that’s really not how things go. When it comes down to it, we rarely use makeup and fancy curlers and things like that. Our work is about bringing someone back to their “normal.” Trimming beards, cleaning up ear hair, filing and cleaning nails, massaging cracked feet. It sounds pretty basic but plays a significant role in returning dignity and a sense of self.

And what about the people who provide the services – all the volunteer estheticians, massage therapists, make-up artists and hair stylists? What do they take away from the experience?  How does it change or impact them?

LB: The work they do is very intimate. They are caring for people who are in incredibly vulnerable situations, and so the experiences leave a mark. Some days our volunteers leave the hospice light and happy and some days they leave quiet and more inward focused. It all depends on the day and what happens and what the energy is like inside. But no matter what, the compassion and care they show our clients never waivers. But I know our volunteers feel their experiences deeply and carry it with them. To me, their willingness to step into such challenging situations where they confront their own mortality and the fragility of life exemplifies courage, strength and a deep understanding of what it means to be in community with people. Because ultimately that’s what they’re doing – they’re being there for people when they need it the most. They’re coming alongside people and letting them know they’re not in it alone. Isn’t that what community is all about?  But truly, they’re the most diverse, loveliest group of women I know. They’ve got spunk, attitude and are the gentlest, most compassionate caregivers I have ever met.

Leigh Boyle (second from left) with some of the volunteers from The Lipstick Project
Leigh Boyle (second from left) with some of the volunteers from The Lipstick Project


If you had to choose one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work with TLP?

LB: Never wear grey when you public speak under hot stage lights and always, always, always surround yourself with people who are smarter, stronger and more creative than you.

Starting a charity from the ground up is hard work. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for a new charity and wants to make it a reality?

LB: Get some really good people in your corner. The Lipstick Project is the product of a small army of really talented, intelligent, passionate people. No one ever does anything on their own and TLP is no exception to that. So know who you want on your team, know who you trust and know who you believe in. These are the people you’ll go to when you are celebrating a big step, or when you’re facing a big question mark. To journey through it all together is the key to it all, so make sure you get wonderful people on your team because they’ll take your idea and run with it and make it better and more beautiful than you ever thought possible.

Finally, how can people get involved with or help support The Lipstick Project?

LB: They can get in touch with us! We need all sorts of support, from financial to volunteers. We will take it all! We love RMTs, estheticians and hair stylists and we also love accountants, lawyers, photographers, videographers, social media gurus, etc. Given that we are 100% volunteer-run, it takes a lot of different people with a lot of different skill sets to make everything happen. So if you like what we do and what we’re about, just jump on our website and send us a note.

Visit The Lipstick Project website for more information, or to help support and get involved with the charity.