Next time you're enjoying a relaxing shampoo and scalp massage, remember this: salon assistants (those little shampoo saints) often make the same wage as fast food and retail workers. Their wages are supplemented by tips from clients and stylists--but, speaking from personal experience, sometimes the tip never comes.
Working in a salon is a physically and emotionally draining job. Tensions run high as stylists apply their skill to give clients what they want, and there's usually a team of underlings that keep the wheels turning. On top of doing a blow-dry every hour and about four shampoos per hour, assistants must keep floors swept, color bowls and coffee mugs cleaned, towels laundered, and products stocked.
That is a whole heap of work. The kind that leaves you knocked out on the couch at 9 p.m. on a Saturday, an hour after your 10-hour shift ended. True, some salons have cleaning staff separate from their assistants, but just the progressive few. Many consider the back-breaking labor and demeaning pay a part of the deal for unlocking the secrets of the masters of the chair.
I polled my hairstylist friends for their stories from basic training. Most salons have equal parts drama, intrigue, laughter, and good-ass hair, and I don’t think that will be changing any time soon. What can change is the respect we show to the learner, with acknowledgement and a nice tip.
“Once, my old boss got so mad at me for getting a round brush for her one size too large that she literally threw it at my head and said, ‘I'll get it my damn self!’ Epic.”--D.C.
“I learned a lot about housekeeping, like how to do dishes really well, and not much about hair.”--T.B.
“A very famous grand-mentor stylist in Miami once saw me dozing off while misting a celebrity client with water, [so he] took me in the back and sprayed me in the face”--D.P.C.
“My former mentor is a famous Frenchman at an uptown chichi place. He would tell me and other co-workers that we should lose weight and wear heels during long hours, and I have witnessed him touch women's breasts while cutting their hair.”--G
“I spent a whole night after a shift scrubbing down the salon so that we could host a PR event for a smoothing method. The payoff was to have a chance to style a blogger the next day, so they only paid us in pizza and beer, which the manager had to argue for. When I showed up for the event, I was told I would be last to get a subject to work on because I was not ‘ready.’ When all chairs were full except mine, an African-American blogger walked in to get the service, and the stylists stared at me with sheer terror. They all thought incorrectly that a) this woman’s hair would not become smooth with the method we were demonstrating and that b) I would not be able to ‘handle’ her hair. I remained calm. She was thrilled with the result and I did a great job, because hair is made of the same stuff no matter what the texture and curl pattern, and I knew this from going to a multi-cultural cosmetology school and learning to do every type of hair before working at this blonde factory.”--Dani (me!)
“When I signed on as an assistant at my first salon I had no idea that would include housekeeping as well. Really? I have to clean the toilet? I still lose sleep thinking about it!”--William at Chair No. 5
“I don’t know which was worse, my paltry salary or the handful of times when my boss was moody and shouted at me to shut the f--- up because he found my enthusiasm for life pretty annoying.”--A
“Near the end of my apprenticeship, a stylist (with a decent following) who would routinely fall asleep in our waxing room, abuse his clients, and drink on his three-hour lunch breaks was kept on and I was told I wasn’t ready to be on the floor. I eventually quit to be a stylist somewhere else when I realized that I could formulate, plan, and execute better things than a stylist who already had a chair at the salon I was aspiring to work at”--Steph at Fox and Boy
“I always say that it's like any abusive relationship. You put up with it until you can't take it anymore. And then as a stylist you either become an appreciative angel to your assistant, or you become the devil that your mentor was to you.”--G.F.
“Watching one of my mentors blow dry even the finest hair made everything click for me. He was so talented that you could learn by watching. He made the classroom come into practice and everyone that left his chair looked like a million bucks”--M.
“Obviously, I learned haircutting and styling techniques that I would have never come across had I not apprenticed in salons for four years. Along with all of that, I gained an almost absurd work ethic (nine hour days on your feet without taking a break?) as well as an attention to detail that was honed over years of observing and working with some of the talented stylists that I surrounded myself with.”--G.
“Education was abundant. That knowledge is still used a decade later and has made me the stylist I am today”--William at Chair No 5
“I worked under an absolute color genius.I learned her expert methods and soaked them up like a sponge, and to this day have only made just a few mistakes.--Dani (me!)
“Working at a salon that used the Paul Mitchell System was almost seamless, I understood so much right away it was a breeze to go somewhere else”--Steph at Fox and Boy
“Precision is what I came out with”--N.D.
My mentor was good to me: she took care to ensure that I was learning and that she wasn’t piling it on along with the directives of higher-ups. But she couldn’t save me from the emotional abuse and mistreatment that I suffered from other superiors. To be frank, I dealt with harsh sexism from many angles, and it wasn’t pretty, but I also became a damned good stylist.
Stylists endure no fewer than 1,000 hours of in-school training, not counting their apprenticeships, some lasting up to four years. Oftentimes, being a stylist at one salon means nothing to the next, requiring a period of being an assistant yet again.
If more clients show appreciation to these gracious apprentices by tipping them for good service, they will feel appreciated and may stay the course of their sometimes perilous training period. Should the client be forced to subsidize the abhorrent wages at most salons? No. But America still runs on a tipping system for services, and for now, tipping well is the simplest way to assert your opinion of the service you were provided.
Have you ever noticed anything crazy/hilarious/uplifting or otherwise between a stylist and their assistant? Do you tip your shampoo or blow dry person?
Photos by Darnell Scott