Artie sharpened the charcoal Wet ‘n Wild eye pencil as Sarah, Belle, and Katherine held me down.
“No!” I begged my friends. “No, please no!” But they merely laughed and tightened their grips as I thrashed. To makeup obsessed sixth graders, glamorizing a bushy-haired, ice hockey-playing tomboy was too funny a prospect to abandon.
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In middle school, puberty and its cruel sidekick, body odor, necessitated I shower daily to avert an insect following, but beyond that I deemed grooming frivolous, vain, and a lame use of time. Ten years later, my views on beautification have softened somewhat. I occasionally blow-dry my hair straight and, when heading out at night, even apply eyeliner and mascara. Still, I never waste more than nine minutes getting ready. I’m woefully impatient, but what truthfully keeps me from spending more time on my looks is the fear of looking like it. When I see women who are visibly made up, I automatically assume that they are insecure or conceited. Neither are labels I’m looking to wear.
Full disclosure? I’m also beauty illiterate. Nail polish finds its way into the creases of my knees when I do my own pedicures, my only adventure with a curling iron led to a tripped smoke alarm, and I once mistook liquid eyeliner for a fountain pen. Looking unnatural terrifies me, but I wouldn’t mind knowing how to subtly enhance myself. So a few weeks ago, after an experiment with blush left me looking like Elmo, I decided to seek guidance from a place where, on average, 480 minutes a day are dedicated not just to getting ready, but to methodically studying how to get ready. I decided to drop in on a beauty school.
Part of me actually wanted to learn the skills I lacked: to understand what hairstyle best suited my face shape, how to apply lipstick properly, what colors complemented my blonde hair and hazel-green eyes. But, perhaps anticipating failure, a bigger, more self-righteous part of me wanted to find a school that would affirm my assumptions about the beauty-focused. I wanted to believe my cosmetic cluelessness was a harbinger of good sense — that beauty students spent their time giggling, dousing each other with glitter, and debating the merits of matte lipstick, while as a Yale student, I focused on studying evolution, planning community service trips, and discussing Kant. You know, things that mattered.
Branford Academy of Hair and Cosmetology sold me immediately with its website. The intro page flashed photos of models in extravagant face paint with hairstyles taller and wider than the fanned tail of a peacock. I had already begun dashing down the address when my speakers began playing the school’s jingle, a poppy number that could easily out-cheese a Kraft factory.
Branford Academy of Hair and Cosmetology,
It’s so exciting when you see all the possibilities
of having your own careeeeeeer,
your future begins right hereeee,
we make it eeeeasy for you to achieve your dreams.
At Branford Academy of Hair and Cosmetology… your
future begins TODAY.
The deal was sealed. The ditty still ringing in my ears, I grabbed my car keys and sped up I-95 North towards my cosmetological future.
Before I crossed from the“Lakeview” strip mall parking lot into Branford Academy, I inhaled deeply, bracing (and secretly hoping) for lithe girls in pink dresses, florid perfume, and Rizzo-esque permed hair. Tattooed men in pressed black trousers, the pungent scent of nail polish remover, and disembodied mannequin heads greeted me instead.
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Shocked, I made my way to the school’s main office to find Diana Leonardi-Discher, the school’s founder and owner. Dressed cleanly in a blue and white striped button down, black leggings, and platform motorcycle boots, Diana sat facing her computer, her electric-blue eyes fixed on a live image of the school’s clinic floor. She alternated her attention between the video and an email that she pecked out with long, French-manicured nails. “The camera’s so I can keep tabs on the students while I do boring work in here. I’m nosy,” she said, shrugging.
Surprisingly, given her trade, Diana’s face showed only a few signs of re-touching: crisp black lines on her upper eyelids, the tell-tale crust of mascara on her lashes, and a thin, rosy ring of liner around her lips. Of her beauty routine she explained, “I have to get two kids to school, and get to work all before 8:30 — there’s not a whole lotta space for me-time.” Sunday, her only day off, she goes barefaced.
A brawny male swaggered into Diana’s office and asked if he could clock in.
“Nope,” she said firmly. “It’s 9:15, you’ll have to wait until 10.” Students must log the number of hours they spend at school so Diana knows when to promote them to a more advanced grade.
After the rebuffed student stomped away, I remarked on the surprising number of males at Branford Academy.
“Oh yeah. We’ve got everything: manly men, straight men, girly girls, lesbians, and a few that don’t know what the heck they are. Some of my students are really clean-cut, snappy dressers, and some make you stop and go ‘Huh? And you want to go into beauty?’ But one of my most talented students right now is a lesbian with woah-mamma huge gauge earrings and tattoos up the wazoo. I learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover.”
But in Diana’s mind, appearance is still important. “Look, I know it’s misguided, you know it’s misguided, but 90% of first impressions are nonverbal. It’s human nature to assume.”
As we chatted, I wondered whether Diana was taking stock of my appearance. Could she offer me any suggestions off the bat? She turned back to the screen as if afraid her assessment might offend me. “I can’t help it. When I look at someone I automatically see what he or she could do to improve. For you? Highlights, mascara, warm-toned clothing.”
As I examined my gray sweater against my pasty skin, a slight woman appeared at the office door and knocked lightly.
“Hi doll,” Diana greeted her. She introduced the woman as Sandy and explained that as a senior at the academy, she had already completed 1200 clocked hours of theory time and clinic practice. Sandy had earned two of those practical hours the previous afternoon by highlighting Diana’s voluminous shag. Referencing her new honey-blonde do, Diana began: “Looks great. I love it. But now I’m going to critique it.” Without pausing, she continued. “If you don’t get the hairline right, it’s no good. You have to take into account the whirls and cowlicks — in your mind you have to construct a pattern. Foil first and make sure you get the paper flat. Pretend you’re Christopher Columbus — you have to figure out: how are you going to get a round surface flat?”
Sandy nods silently — Diana’s authoritative speaking style discourages interruption. After 30 years in cosmetology, Diana knows what she’s talking about.
Diana’s beginnings in the beauty industry were far from glamorous. In her teens, whenever she broke a rule set by her strict Italian-immigrant parents — “whenever I talked back, gave a funny look, or so much as talked to a boy” — she was sent to her uncle Art’s barber shop in East Haven to sweep hair off the floor. Then one day, when a sudden flood of customers overwhelmed the small shop, Diana’s uncle slapped a pair of scissors in her hands and, pointing to a hunched gentleman with profuse ear hair, said, “Alright kid, make yourself useful.”
After that, Diana stopped sweeping and started cutting. Her technique was impeccable, her results handsome. Engaging with clients helped break her of her crippling shyness. Still, Diana didn’t immediately recognize cosmetology as her calling. She loved cutting hair, but perhaps because her clientele was “older-than-sin” and accordingly unattractive, Diana didn’t think much about the aesthetic side of hairstyling.
She didn’t pay much attention to her own appearance, either. Her parents forbid her from wearing makeup, and she usually pulled her curly platinum hair into ponytails. Her choice to attend State Beauty Academy came only after her father refused to pay for a liberal arts college. “I’m not going to work harder at your life than you are,” he said — a mantra that Diana often repeats to her students and three children. He demanded Diana learn a trade, find a job, and work until she snagged a nice, Italian husband to provide for her. She chose to pursue cosmetology, not because she loved it, but because “Bartending? Construction? What else was I going to do?”
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Between 1983 and 1987, Diana took out student loans to pay her way through cosmetology school, repaid those loans by working at salons across Connecticut, and married an Italian carpenter. But contrary to her father’s plan, Diana never leaned on her husband for financial support. Instead, she did the supporting, convincing him to quit his unprofitable gig chopping wood and start chopping hair. Diana gave him a cosmetology crash-course, and later that year they co-founded Joseph Anthony Hair, Nail and Skin Studio in Branford, just down Main Street from where Branford Academy now operates.
It was only while running Joseph Anthony that Diana came to love cosmetology. As she developed a loyal clientele, she realized she could make people feel better about themselves.
“I had people come in, feeling crappy, and 40 minutes later…Voila! A new haircut and their day was totally turned around.”
But running a salon was not without its frustrations. Diana’s standards are as high and firm as a hairsprayed bouffant, and she was often unhappy with her stylists. “I thought ‘I’m teaching them and I’m paying them? Something’s backwards here.’” She urged her husband to let her turn the salon into a cosmetology school, but he refused. Seven years later, they divorced and her husband offered her a choice: the salon or their seven-year old daughter, Jessica. The choice was not difficult. Diana took Jessica, found a space in Branford, and in 1997, Branford Academy of Hair and Cosmetology was born.
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Diana finished critiquing Sandy’s highlights and motioned for me to follow her to the clinic floor. “We teach everything,” she told me, sweeping her arm around the small facility. “Manicures, pedicures, nail art, makeup, facials, massage, haircuts, hairstyling, hair treatments, client relations — everything you need to know to work at or own a salon.”
Besides the mannequin heads eerily screwed onto the backs of salon chairs, Branford Academy looked like your average salon. A bulwark of mirrors bisected the room, flanked on either side by spinning black leather chairs. Around the corner, past the row of sinks in a smaller wing, a student knelt buffing the toenails of an elderly woman in one of the clinic’s two pedicure chairs. The students practice mainly on mannequins and each other, but Branford Academy also has a following of live customers, drawn to the school for its steeply discounted prices and well-trained students.
Before students are allowed to work with clients, they have to complete at least 90 hours of classroom time, reading and memorizing a cosmetology textbook that covers everything from dandruff and body waxing to the basic principles of electricity (helpful for understanding beauty appliances). Once students master the first half of the textbook they can work with live customers, but they need another 110 hours of classroom time plus 1300 practical hours before they can take the State Board Exam and become licensed professionals.
“Hey buddy,” Diana said, prodding the pedicurist. “What’s with the pants?” The student was in jeans, a violation of Branford Academy’s all-black dress code. Diana’s trade may focus on color and creativity, but her rules are black and white. Hair and makeup must be done prior to arriving at school. No gum. No cell phones. No foul language. No…well, almost no exceptions.
“I’ll let you off this time, but next time I’m sending you home. And watch how much polish you’re putting on that brush.”
As we walked to a classroom across from Diana’s office, she volunteered, “I think my way of doing things is the right way. So sue me.” Breaking into a faux-evil voice, she cackled, “My main goal here at B.A. is to create an army of mini-mes.”
It was 9:30 a.m., time for Diana’s class. Branford Academy has five instructors on payroll to educate its 52 students, but Diana can’t resist teaching. For three hours every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, she takes a break from administrative duties and lectures the seniors.
She wished the class good morning, bade them to open their textbooks to page 220, and launched into her lecture.
“What are the purposes of hair?” Diana asked the class.
“Protection and adornment,” they recited in unison.
“And what, Sean,” she said, singling out a student with an ornate star-scape shaved into his head. “Are the only places we don’t grow hair?”
“Palms and the bottoms of the feet,” Sean said confidently.
“And what, Jessica,” she called to a petite girl in a trendy sweater. “Is the technical term for knotted hair. No looking in the book!”
“Ms. Diana?” interrupted a burly student seated in my row. “Why does hair grow back thicker when you shave it?”
Exasperated, Diana answered: “Luis. We just read about that yesterday. That is a total myth.”
Though Diana hates reprimanding students, she fiercely defends her draconian teaching style. “Look, I know I’m being an asshole and some of my students will hate me for it now. But many of them work second jobs. They’re not going to go home and do the homework, so I have to make sure they learn here. Eventually they’ll look back and realize I only wanted them to succeed.”
Diana says she draws her greatest satisfaction from watching her students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, “make something of themselves.” About half her students enter the academy with “a closet full of bald Barbies” and a love for cosmetology already deep within them. But the other half enroll because cosmetology is the best of their limited career options. 90% of Diana’s male students never graduated from high school or attained g.e.d.s. For them, as well as for many of the female students, cosmetology is a way to a more attractive life — physically, emotionally, and financially.
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It seems the human desire to look good is as old as we are. Strips of hide recovered near the skulls of newly evolved Homo sapiens, along with red pigment found near gravesites, suggest that archaic forms of hairstyling and makeup were developed as early as the Ice Age. A little later, around 4000 B.C., societies began to use cosmetics and coiffures not only for beautification’s sake, but also to indicate social and political standing. Egyptian noblemen sported elaborate hairdos beset with gold and flowers, while servants tied their hair in simple loops at the napes of their necks. In ancient China, kings and queens used red henna to stain their nails, while their lower class subject wore pale colors or went au naturale. Wealthy Greek women painted white lead on their faces to blanch their skin of color — paleness separated the upper class from the commoners who toiled in the sun.
The demand for white skin remained high until the 19th Century and, in this alabaster obsessed age, the quest for good looks could kill, and often did. European women in the sixth century bled themselves white; Renaissance women smeared their faces with a compound that frequently caused muscle paralysis; and Regency Women even ingested small quantities of arsenic to prompt paleness.
Queen Victoria put a stop to absurd beauty measures when she assumed the English throne in 1837. Under her prudish rule, makeup was deemed immoral and became closely associated with prostitution — no respectable Western woman would be caught dead in it. But even without the arsenic and lead of previous years, beauty still meant pain. In Victorian times, many women mimicked the effects of rouge and lipstick by pinching their cheeks and biting their lips before appearing in public.
Sore cheeks and lips caught a break during World War I, when women resumed using makeup. The sudden absence of men allowed them more financial and social freedom, and the development of cheaper cosmetics meant even working-class women could procure lipstick, colorful eye shadow, and powders. The rise of Hollywood in the 1920s left laywomen star-struck, and they eagerly snatched up the products used by their favorite actresses. The same trend has continued to the present, with men and women alike striving for the tan, thin beauty ideal celebrated by the media and spending buckets of money to attain it. They say beauty is only skin deep, but due to society’s beauty obsession, so are the pockets of its moguls: today’s cosmetics industry is estimated at $18 billion.
Interestingly given its exclusive roots, today cosmetology is one of the most egalitarian fields in existence. Many states, Connecticut included, don’t require high school diplomas or g.e.d.s to start cosmetology careers. Even so, cosmetologists can expect to earn $30,000-$50,000 a year with tips and, due to a shortage of licensed salon professionals, the unemployment rate for cosmetologists is close to 0%.
As educational as it was listening to the students rattle off facts about hypertrichosis (excessive growth of hair in odd places), monilethrix (beaded hair), and furuncles (localized infections of hair follicles), this information wasn’t increasing my primp proficiency. I asked Diana if I could fast-forward to the practical component. Since makeup was the Achilles heel of my already feeble beauty arsenal, we decided to focus our attention there and handle hair and nails another day.
Diana escorted back me to the clinic floor and called over a student named Kyona, who had been chatting with the receptionist about the stress of her evening gig as a psychiatric ward secretary. Diana explained that, in addition to her secretarial duties and attending beauty school, Kyona was also working as a professional makeup artist.
So long as they are older than 17, Diana accepts most applicants to Branford Academy. Her favorite students to teach, however, are those with a clear passion for beauty. Kyona was one of the latter.
Diana explained, “You have people walk in with no makeup on — you know they’re not really interested. Then you’ll get people strolling in like a hot mess — they’re probably not so interested either. But then there are applicants like Kyona — I could tell that the girl knew how to put it on from the moment I saw her.”
She motioned for me to sit down in a high chair by the manicure station, winked at Kyona, and told me to come find her when I had a new face.
Makeup, more than hairstyling or nail decor, had always made my stomach clench. Except in cases of alopecia universalis (complete hair loss) and anonychia (a rare disorder that causes infants to be born nail-less), people are born with hair and nails. A full face of makeup? Not so much. While logically I knew that there was just as much potential to transform someone’s looks by changing their hair and nails, I still feared makeup more for its distortion potential. Too much makeup, and I worried I wouldn’t look like me. As Kyona readied her foam squares and brushes, I imagined myself made up as a geisha, a Goth, and — oh god — Lady Gaga? Hoping to distract myself, I struck up conversation about Kyona’s start in the cosmetics industry.
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“So, I was trained to do makeup by a drag queen,” Kyona started, but perhaps noticing the terror in my un-adorned eyes added: “Don’t worry, though, I’m just going to make you look real natural. A cute, daytime look.”
I breathed a small sigh of relief and loosened my death grip on the pen I was holding to jot down makeup tips.
Stepping back to determine a plan for her blank canvas, Kyona fished a “light-medium” compact out of her kit and tested its color on my hand. Pleased, she dusted pressed powder across my forehead, cheeks, and chin, sending a cloud of chalky-smelling residue up my nose. Powder foundation, she explained, creates a clear complexion without disguising skin as liquid foundation does. Next she grabbed a peach blush and with light circles rubbed it onto my cheeks.
For my eyes, Kyona picked out pots of bronze and mossy green powder whose shimmer quotient inspired my palms to start perspiring. She swept the green over my lids, and gingerly swished the bronze into the creases below my brow bones. Then she took a lighter, mint green and wiped it around my tear ducts and under my eyebrows “to open the eyes.” She stepped back to assess her progress. Apparently deciding I needed even more sparkle, she snatched her brush and applied another layer of green.
Once satisfied with my lids, she chirped: “Time to enlarge your lash line!” Selecting a brown liquid liner from her box, she warned me that this was one trick I should not try at home. Liquid liner takes much more precision and experience to apply correctly. I chucked, recalling the time that I applied liquid liner to paper. For a moment, the sensation of the cool, wet pen against my closed lids helped soothe my nerves. That is, until Kyona got to my eye’s outer corner and I felt the liner curl up dramatically. The language of my frantic thoughts, if uttered aloud, definitely would have gotten me sent home for the day.
Mascara came next. Kyona applied one careful coat of Maybelline’s Brownish-Black and separated the clumps with a Lilliputian metal comb. “And now the finishing touch,” she said, producing a tube of nude-ish pink lipstick. She swiped the buttery formula over my pursed pucker and instructed me to smack. After 55 minutes and 34 seconds, my face was finally finished.
“Beautiful!” she said, clapping. “It’s just the right amount. People will say ‘Wow, you look pretty today!’ But not ‘Woah, who are you today?’”
I reluctantly wandered to the mirror hung above the manicure station. When I finally worked up the nerve to look at myself, I was shocked. My skin gleamed, my eyes bore only a slight resemblance to Cleopatra’s, and my lashes looked longer than the Nile. Yet, like an old friend, there was the mole on my left cheek.
I looked like me, only better.
Even though I loved what Kyona had done (and was thankful for what she hadn’t), I knew immediately that I would never replicate it. No number of tips — “pick warm tones,” “hold the mascara brush like a pencil,” “don’t ignore the brow bone!” — would help my hand attain the steadiness of Kyona’s, or give my eyes her vision for contouring. Yet even if I could achieve her results, I knew I still wouldn’t.
Kyona and Diana showed me that beauty-oriented people could be substantive, smart, grounded and strong. My time spent at Branford Academy reconfirmed that assumptions based on surface information — a person’s career, style, or face — are often wrong. But, as Diana had said, just because we know first judgments are often incorrect doesn’t mean we’ll stop making them.
The students at Branford Academy want to look as though they spend time and energy on their looks. They are professional prettifiers and need to look the part. But I am in the business of brains. When I first meet someone, I want him or her to see a girl who’s confident, approachable, and bright — not a self-admiring blonde belle. I want to look presentable, but not so done-up someone might conceivably think appearance is among my top 10 priorities. Kyona’s work was far from gaudy, but it was still visible. From across a room I might look natural, but from across a desk during office hours, even my most absentminded professor would probably notice the sparkles blanketing my eyelids. And so, my nine-minute maximum would remain.
I thanked Kyona and plodded down the hall to Diana’s office. She was seated at her desk, talking in a gentle voice to a young woman with a lip ring. The girl, who couldn’t have been more than 20, had been kicked out of her parents’ house and was running out of couches to crash on. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to pay tuition or finish school.
“Chin up, doll. We’ll make it work for you. We’ll make sure you graduate.”
After the girl left, she mused, “A lot of these students — they’re not looking for hand-outs, they’re looking for helping hands. There’s a big difference.”
Suddenly locking eyes on my face, she jolted in her chair. “Wow mama! Looks gooood. Now you just need a date.”
I laughed awkwardly.
“So, have you learned anything?”
I thought about telling her the truth: how she and her students had shattered my preconceptions about the beauty industry like a dropped cake of eye shadow; how much I’d come to respect her; or how ashamed I was of my original motivations for visiting Branford Academy.
I wanted to tell Diana these things, but I couldn’t.
So, after a long pause, I answered lamely, “Sure. That using light colors on your inner eyes and brow bones makes eyes pop.”