27 September 2023

New Hair Talents: The Road to Success

What makes them shine? The hairstyling superstars of tomorrow are Muses, Diplomats, Artisans, Seekers, and Performers.

Talent is a true wild card. It is the X-Factor, the subjective, elusive but unmistakable something that boils down to “star quality.” And as a culture, we are ravenous for it. Talent competitions –American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, Dancing With the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance?– have become the most globally watched series in history. Cooking shows formatted like gladiatorial events, the most terrifying of these conceived and hosted by the intimidating Chef Gordon Ramsay, follow the same format. Celeb judges and global viewers vote who gets the gold star and who gets back on that long, sad bus-ride back to Buffalo, and vicariously we share the terror, the elation and the tears.

And why? The world of professional beauty is parallel in many ways to the singing contests and cook-offs which dominate the airwaves, and talent in the hair industry often finds its way to the spotlight via professional organizations. One of these is NAHA, or the North American Hairstyling Awards,  produced by the Professional Beauty Association (PBA). This year, NAHA celebrated 25 years as one of the beauty industry’s leading honors. 

Another is The Stars and Rising Star photo competition at America’s Beauty Show (ABS), produced by Cosmetologists Chicago. We caught up with a few of the hair industry’s up-and-coming superstars from both to get inside their heads and discover their winning formula. We discovered that most talented newcomers are never just packing a single skill – they are equal parts Muse, Diplomat, Artisan, Seeker and Performer.

The lyrical, poetic inspiration behind the art. This creative aspect is essential to the success of an emerging talent – and may be the most infuriating to others who simply don’t get the essence of this free spirit. The Muse is the one who is out lying on the driveway at night, gazing at constellations instead of studying for that math test. But of course, the ancient Greeks and Persians studied the stars as the basis for mathematics, geometry and physics. Go figure. Make-up artist Ciara (CiCi) Wright joined forces with hairstyling colleague, Katie Pickens to create the winning entry of the ABS Rising Star competition. It was modern yet retro and compellingly androgynous, reinventing voluptuous pin-curls in a palette of cherry and burgundy tones into a clean, cropped silhouette.

She comments, “I love that I don’t have any boundaries. I am able to be as creative as I want to be.” Tia Silbaugh, second-place Rising Star at ABS, adds “I like extreme color, like chop-ping off a ton of hair, or doing a crazy color. Edgy and bold that stands out. I also like to see a lot of layers in the hair, textured with movement.” Silbaugh’s courage behind the chair may be the result of early training: as a little girl, she often went to work with her mother, who for 27 years has worked as a hairdresser at Ladies and Gentlemen salon in Mentor, OH.

Unlike creative people who whip up masterpieces strictly for their own amusement, hairdressers are in a direct, intimate service profession. They often serve as ad hoc therapists, hearing personal client details in a moment of salon-oversharing, and even being asked to weigh in with opinions about everything from, of course, the hair du jour to larger questions (Do these jeans make my butt look fat? Is he cheating? Should I leave him?). Nicole Gary, WINNER of Student Hair Stylist of the Year Award at NAHA 2014, comments, “The most common mistake women make with their hair is not receiving the proper education on what products to use and why.”

Many of the emerging superstars we interviewed cited another common challenge: clients fixate on a celebrity’s hair and try to emulate the star’s cut, color and style, even if their hair texture and quality make this impossible. Carley Throgmorton, finalist for NAHA’s Newcomer Stylist of the Year, adds “These women are always fighting with what they have, instead of embracing what they can do with it.” Managing client expectations requires tact, grace and restraint so that clients are receptive to solutions. Hairdressers must be diplomats around the clock because, as clients, we reveal ourselves in a vulnerable state – like a soft-shell crab. When a hairdresser is faced with an insurmountable challenge, like taking lank, mousy locks into blonde beach-waves, interpersonal finesse is needed to keep clients smiling.

Creative people, including hairdressers, must develop muscle-memory, literally and figuratively. Carley Throgmorton, NAHA Newcomer Stylist of the Year finalist, comments “I love a clean, classic Sassoon bob, or the classic finger-waves of the 1920s” – both deceptively complex effects to achieve. These looks seem simple, but the technique is required to achieve them does not come overnight. Masters make the most difficult things look easy, tempting us to go DIY with sticky (ew!) kitchen scissors and box color. Let’s take a flattering fringe, or a casual tumble of California Girl highlights. Easy to wear, easy on the eyes – so it must be easy to create. Right?

Whoa, not so fast! Please trust us on this one: Anna Wintour’s power bob does not just happen with a few snips and a spritz of holding spray. Author Malcolm Gladwell cites his theory that you have to do anything no fewer than 10,000 times to get really, really good at it, whether it’s hitting a softball or playing a Mozart violin concerto. Repetition and practice is key. Ksenia Kim, NAHA Newcomer Stylist of the Year finalist, inspired by the disciplined styling of Old Hollywood, comments, “As a little girl I remember going to my mom’s salon and helping to clean stations, fold foils for them. I would love watching all the stylists in action, so I think that is when I realized I had a big passion for hairdressing.” 

With this in mind, The Artisan aspect of hairdressers is always pushing for more technical challenge and perfection. They then set out to do the impossible, just to test themselves and raise their skill-level, creating a coiffure which resembles a rainbow of ribbon-candy, or a spray of oversized ultraviolet blooms from another galaxy.  The Artisan aspect may seem at odds with the more free-wheeling Muse, but both are integral to the success of any gifted person.

Bailey Bute, NAHA’s Newcomer Stylist of the Year finalist, comments, “I like to be inspired by different things and finding something that you would not typically use in hair, then make it work in a hairstyle.” Bute is a Seeker, pushing the creative envelope. Seekers are restless by nature, and never really satisfied with themselves. This insatiable appetite is what drives the Seeker spirit.

In practical terms, this means a lifetime of commitment to learning. Great hairdressers often come to our attention while they are still in school, or have just earned their license to cut hair professionally. Not surprisingly, the classroom is often where you will continue to find them, decade after decade. And, they often express their love of learning by mentoring and teaching others.

Jason Appel, finalist for NAHA’s Student Hairstylist of the Year from the Aveda Frederic’s Institute, Indianapolis IN, acknowledges that even the best cut cannot stand alone. Nor does color, nor does styling. Women go to the salon to connect and bond. Is it really the ‘do alone that makes us feel gorgeous? It’s not. It’s the hairdo as created by the hairdresser, in an intensely personal space by the usually extroverted personality of the hairdresser. It’s the friendly first-name greeting by the front desk, the glass of bubbly offered as we slip into the chair, the way the hairdresser notices your new handbag, or asks how your son’s SATs went.

In this sense, the most successful hairdressers are born entertainers. It’s always showtime out there! Technical competence isn’t enough to bring you back to a salon where you don’t feel personal chemistry. Appel comments,I feel the customer’s #1 priority today is feeling pampered. They could go to a thousand different hair stylists and get an amazing cut, really, so you have to show them they’re special to you by spoiling them a little bit.”

By Victoria Thomas



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