My Journey To Behind the Chair

The first time I cut off someone’s hair, I was 5 years old, unsupervised while the adults were watching the Super Bowl in the other room. I set the scene, making sure to have a towel to cover my younger, easily convinced friend, and placing a box on the floor to catch the hair, and then I went to town with my cuts-only-paper scissors. Her hair was fairly long, having never been cut before—and, needless to say, her very pregnant mom was not nearly as thrilled with her daughter’s hacked up pixie-esque haircut as I was. Scissors were generally kept away from me from that moment on, but when I could get my little hands on them I chopped off the hair from every Barbie possible.

Growing up, I always loved doing my own hair and makeup. In middle school and high school, I started researching special effects makeup programs and declared that that was what I was going to do. Alas, like many parents, mine felt that a traditional college path was what I needed, and off I went to the University of California Santa Barbara. After just over a year there, I knew it wasn’t for me: while I thrived in arts and humanities classes, I changed my major almost every month (much to the despair of my advisors) and I struggled to find my place. I moved back to San Jose and after trying my hand at college for another couple years while working in retail management, the best thing happened to me: I was laid off. I decided to take the plunge. Within three weeks, I dropped out of San Jose State and started attending cosmetology school.

I immediately felt like this was the learning environment I had been searching for. The first time I held real shears and cut hair, it just felt right. It came easily for me. In traditional college, my main struggle had always been taking classes I wasn’t interested in or that weren’t applicable to my major-du-jour. Why did I need to learn something I wasn’t actually going to use? Yes, I realized it creates a well-rounded person, but it just wasn’t for me. Now, everything I was learning applied directly to what I would be doing as a career. When I started cosmetology school at the age of 24, I was definitely a little older compared to my classmates—many of whom were fresh out of high school. I felt this gave me an edge, however, and I realized that a few years of college had endowed me with the skills to really study and readily absorb the information. I was hungry for the knowledge and, at this point, paying for school myself, which made me want to excel further.

Working with hair is much like sculpting, beginning with a block and carving out a shape. You use straight lines to create curves and softness, which translates into visual weight lines and forms. Adding color to the hair takes the shape further by adding shadow and light. Cutting hair is an equally terrifying and exciting thing all at once: you literally get to create a shape out of nothing… but as we all know, you can’t put back anything you take off. As an extremely visual, hands-on person (from playing piano and many other instruments to baking, knitting, and crafting), I love using my hands to help people feel beautiful and express themselves on a daily basis.

Cosmetology isn’t all creative, as there’s also the service part. Working with clients can be both challenging and rewarding, and often develops into a very personal experience for both the client and myself. It isn’t always an easy job. It is mentally and physically exhausting at times. Trusting someone, especially a stranger, to touch you isn’t something that comes easily for many people. Hair is an intimate part of us: it defines us and is one of the first things noticed about us. On the other side of the chair, the work I create is an extension of me and, like most creative jobs, my ego can be tightly tied with that. When a client is dissatisfied, it’s painful: I only ever want the best for my clients and I hold myself to the highest standards.

Throughout my career I’ve had some unhappy clients, either because of mistakes I’ve made or unrealistic expectations. Clients bring me pictures of celebrities or models as references, and I always do my best to explain that things like extensions, wind machines, lighting, and Photoshop contribute to the image, and that for the average person, most of those looks aren’t achievable. If a client isn’t happy with their cut or color, I always have them come back in so we can discuss and work together to reach a happier conclusion. I’ve had a handful of people cry in my chair. Nothing is worse. Those days I want to hang up my apron, lock my cabinet, and put my shears away forever. But I’ve learned to shake it off and get behind the chair again the next day, and work to learn from the experience.

My closest clients are like family. We talk about anything and everything—at times, very personal and privileged things. I’ve had many people tell me getting their hair done is better than visits to their therapist. It never ceases to amaze me how complete strangers feel comfortable telling me things they may only tell their closest friends. I feel fortunate to have a career that allows me to create tight, personal bonds with my clients.

I recently made the move from being an employee at an amazing team-based salon where I did all my assistant training to now renting my own chair and essentially running my own small business. This change in my career has given me new goals and hurdles to conquer. I’ve been able to expand the bridal side of my business, which has been quite exciting. It’s a whole different side of cosmetology for me: although I love cutting and coloring hair, I have a passion for styling because my freedom of artistic expression gets to shine the most in this area. It has allowed me to work with numerous brides, other creative types on photo shoots, theater productions, and even styling for The B-52s!

I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet. I’m growing as a stylist and trying to find my voice in this amazing industry. I feel fortunate to live in an area with many outlets for hair and makeup artists. It can be scary to follow your passion, especially in a society where we are pushed toward a traditional four-year college plan. I look forward to seeing my career evolve, traveling, meeting interesting people, and sharing in their journeys all through the simple commonality of hair.

Photo by Gali Levi-McClure
Photo by Gali Levi-McClure
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  1. I love this line: “It never ceases to amaze me how complete strangers feel comfortable telling me things they may only tell their closest friends. I feel fortunate to have a career that allows me to create tight, personal bonds with my clients.”

    As someone who’s about to start grad school to be an accredited therapist, I have often wondered what stylists (especially mine, lol) think of the phenomenon where clients talk out their personal problems while in the chair! Very interesting insight :) And OMG, jealous of you getting to style the B-52s! Thanks for writing this, Kate!

  2. fun to read this about you Kate! Some of it I knew…and still you made it all sound fresh and interesting! May you always feel the love for your art the same way you do now! Possibly on to other Rock Stars!! :-)

  3. i was there the day four year old kate went edward scissorhands on her friend, four year old emma, and remember that emma’s parents found a very good child psychologist and with her help as well as an innovative memory repression program, i am told that emma almost never wakes up screaming anymore..

  4. Loved reading your blog sis! Keep your head high, you’re heading the right direction!

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