Representation Matters

By Kadi

The 2018 midterm elections are finally over (sort of), and I don’t know about all of you, but I really, REALLY needed to take a moment to recover. The current climate of this country has taken a massive toll on my both my physical and mental health, and I woke up post election feeling extremely sad – hello ANOTHER mass shooting?! Yet, I also finally feel a little hopeful. Among other major firsts, for the first time in history, over 100 women were elected to the US House of Representatives. Out of these 100, there were Muslim women, and Native American women, and Black women, and gay women, and young women! You see, out of the many negative things that have surfaced with this administration, one thing in particular keeps nagging at me- the overwhelming backlash against immigrants, minorities and women in our country. Depending on the day, it seems one disenfranchised group or another is being attacked. And it has completely defeated my soul and my spirit. Some days it feels downright criminal to just exist in my black, immigrant, female skin. One look at the powers that be made it clear- people of color, especially women, needed more representation in order to make a change. For me, I feel the dire importance of this not only personally, but professionally as well.

As most of you know by now, I am a black woman who decided to take my appreciation for color and love of painting, and turn it into a profession as a hair colorist. For some reason this still throws some people off. Though my clients are comprised of women (and a few men) of every race and color, it still somehow surprises people that someone who looks like me decided to take this career path. Looking back, I suppose I can see why- there were no other examples.

When I was first hired as a shampoo assistant after beauty school almost 2 decades ago at Frederic Fekkai in New York City, there were less than half a dozen black employees out of hundreds of people. Two of us were shampoo assistants, one a styling assistant, and two were in management. None were actually elevated at the time to the position of stylist or colorist. While getting my license at the Aveda Institute in Soho, I determined that if I were to actually try and make a career out of hair, that my focus was to be in color. I was a strong stylist and I could do a mean blow dry (still can BTW), but I was a terrible hair cutter. I would literally hide in the bathroom whenever haircuts came in on the days we took client models, and wait until someone walked in requesting hair color or highlights. Though it was required that we be competent in both, when describing it to my teacher I would compare it to forcing a painter to be a sculpture. I simply didn’t easily have access to that skill of being able to see a clients face and determine what shape would best suit them. But I can immediately and innately take one look at their hair, see a canvas, and know what picture I wanted to paint. Combined with the fact that chemistry had always been one of my strongest and favorite subjects to study, I was immediately a hair color nut. I had found my gift. I was meant to be a colorist.

My teachers saw this passion, and encouraged it. Even all those years ago, barely in my 20s, I knew that I had a special connection to haircolor. It came effortlessly, and it gave me so much joy. So when career day came and a representative from Fekkai came to our school to recruit assistants, even though we were told it was a lofty goal being it was the best salon in NYC, I knew that I had to try and expand on my love of color and attempt to get hired there. And what really sealed the deal? The recruiter mentioned that colorists made way more money than stylists. He basically had me at hello. Saddled with debt and student loans from undergrad at Spelman and beauty school, my mind was made up. I would do anything in my power to become a successful colorist at the top salon in the country at the time. Because at Spelman, we were taught that our rightful place in the world was wherever we wanted to be. So, you know, aim low. LOL.

I got hired, was totally pumped, and thinking I was well on my way. Imagine my horror when on my first day, I was promptly handed a horrific nylon (read:plastic) navy-blue vest/apron thing that signaled to all the posh upper Eastside clients that I was the lowest person on the totem pole- a shampoo assistant. And the pay? About $3.36/hour, plus tips and commission on product sales. To this day I still don’t know how that shit was legal. Talk about a rude awakening! For months I was taught the specific shampoo technique that Fekkai wanted us to use on clients. And I was told the only way to get a shot at the next level of assisting was to sell products and meet goals that for me were next to impossible. Any of my clients will attest that the last thing I would be described as is a product pusher. So it was with mortification that I realized the only way to get to be a color assistant was to sell sell sell. You also had to wait until there was actually an opening in the color department to be an assistant there, and that only happened if one of the assistants got promoted to colorist. The assistant program was rigorous and they made it clear – a promotion was never guaranteed.

Between all the hurdles, the heavy feeling of defeat before I even began, and NEVER seeing anyone who looked like me elevated and promoted to the position I one day dreamed to attain, some days that mountain seemed impossible to climb. Even though I forged some of my most fulfilling friendships during that time with all the other assistants (many of us are still in touch today!) and have beautiful and hilarious memories, my frustration was endless, and they were many days I went home in tears. It was actually on one of those tear-filled, feeling sorry for myself walks home that I ran into Myka on Madison Avenue, and reconnected as friends. My eyes were literally so blurry from crying that I didn’t see her and I walked right into her! To this day it is still one of the best examples of your worst day turning into your biggest gift;)

Fast forward almost 20 years, with a ton of hard work, 2 incredible mentors- the color director of Fekkai Constance Hartnett and then Serge Normant, taking a chance and putting their faith and trust in me, many friends in the industry trusting my talent and willing to share and grow their businesses with me, and fighting for myself every step of the way, I can say not only did I finally get that first promotion, but now have a career that fills me with endless pride. There are SO many crazy things that happened along the way, and one day I will write and blog about them all, but for now I will say that it was never easy. In fact, some days it was downright maddening. I got huge pushback from the higher ups at Fekkai, who I’m certain just couldn’t picture someone like me as a lucrative member of the color department. One in particular spent so much time scowling and looking down at me while clutching her clipboard that I always felt if I made one wrong move I would be tossed out on the street. (Sidebar- to this day I think about that clipboard and wonder what the hell was on it.;)).

I fought like hell to be taken seriously, and was extra hard on myself if every single client I did was not a perfect outcome. I just knew that once I got the opportunity, there was no room for error or anything less than excellence. I also got constant surprised and/or skeptical looks from some clients who were put on my schedule who were not expecting their blonde specialist to be a black woman. In one particular incident, I was sent on an emergency job to match the hair color for a body double that needed to stand in for a client that was shooting a commercial. After driving in extreme heat and traffic to the body double’s apartment in the Valley, I stood at her door with all my supplies while she questioned rudely “YOU’RE her colorist?!” After I stood in shock and finally responded with a simple, “sure am”, she reluctantly let me into her apartment so I could begin what ended up being one of the most horrific nights of my career. She questioned every move I made. “What are you mixing? What are you doing now? Are you sure that’s right??” 5 hours later I sat slumped in my car unable to drive home completely mentally and physically exhausted from it all. (I’m also still traumatized at the level of filth that was in her place. Her 7 cats basically made her studio apartment their bathroom and I’m pretty sure I gagged the entire 5 hours I was there.) Thank goodness THAT no longer happens. Because of Instagram, there’s no longer that mystery and everyone knows who they’re about to meet.I also had some assistants along the way that I know had to get used to working for a black woman. It was a power dynamic that just wasn’t seen in many high end salons, or the world at large for that matter.

With all of that being my personal experience, it definitely threw me off guard when a few days ago, my current assistant of over 3 years Ashley, who is an amazing Latina woman of Guatemalan heritage, also from a family of immigrants, expressed how grateful she was for her job and to have someone take a chance on her. It was the first time in almost 20 years that I realized that I had reached a true full circle moment. It was also the first time one of my assistants acknowledged and recognized that by working for me, it was possible for someone like her to make it too.

I share all of these personal memories to say, representation matters. We all need to acknowledge that this country consists of many people of beautiful, varying cultures. And we all need to see ourselves reflected, whether in a job in a senior position, or on the TV or movie screen. We need to feel like we are part of the story too, and that we all matter. That it’s not such a far-fetched idea to want to exist, and succeed, in places where there is literally no sign of us or examples of us. Newly elected US Representative Ayanna Presley said it best Tuesday night after becoming Massachusetts’ 1st Black Woman elected to Congress. She stated, “In order to be a 2nd, there has to be a first.” Here’s to all those working together to pave the way for many more 2nds.

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