Jen Littell, Hair Stylist & Creative Director
I had to have been, gosh, maybe seven? I wanted a perm. And of course my mom was like, no, we’re not going to get you a perm, that’s ridiculous, you’re seven. I had this fascination with eighties pop culture and the hair and the look and everything. I wanted the leg warmers, I wanted the cool hair, I wanted to look like Madonna. I think that was my first fascination with hair, was trying to copy that and figuring out ways to get that. I finally had my first perm at a Fantastic Sam’s.
And then I started thinking of ways to manipulate my hair. I even had electrical wire that I would cut and then bend into a horseshoe, and I zig-zagged my hair through it. I slept on them. I slept on electrical wire! It was a very wavy, crimped look. That was kind of the in thing for a while. I don’t know how I came up with these ideas, if I was looking in magazines and I read about it somewhere, or what. I did the soft rollers, I did braids, I did everything. Every night. This is an eight-year-old doing this to her hair every night. Back then, I wasn’t like, “I’m going to be a hair stylist.” I just had a fascination with hair. And then once I reached my early teens, that’s when I started experimenting. On myself and my cousin.
I think I was 14 when I put Sun-In in my hair. I’m a natural brunette. Sun-In on brown hair… yeah, it’s orange. So, when I messed up my own hair at that point, I moved on to my cousin. I colored her hair and I made that orange, too. Not Sun-In! We used box dye. My cousin had kind of medium brown hair and it said it would look blonde... Box color is a lie.
I didn’t think I could have a career doing hair until I was like 20. I didn’t go straight from high school into cosmetology school. My parents wanted me to get a degree, so I went to UCI as a biology major for two years, and did that, and tried. But I was struggling. I was like, “This is not what I want to do.” I felt like I should still attempt a degree in something. So I took random classes in psychology and random classes in art. I loved art. I felt like there was always this pressure from my family and from society, like I had to get a degree. Both my parents had degrees; that’s what you’re supposed to do. I felt like I was a failure if I didn’t. Even if I was going to do hair later in life, I still had to get something to fall back on. I kept trying for that. And then I realized… there was just this epiphany, like, this isn’t working.
So I dropped out, did a few classes at a community college, still didn’t really lead anywhere. And then I became an assistant manager at Starbucks. I hated that… I realized that I don’t like managing people. I was like, “I know what’s going to make me happy: I need to go to cosmetology school. I don’t care what my parents say, I need to do this.” It never crossed my mind that I should do that when I was in high school because I was always told “Go get a degree, go get a degree.” You’re taking all these aptitude tests, you’re doing all these things… I’m taking AP bio … it’s a straight line to exactly what I was supposed to do. After I quit Starbucks, I went to Fullerton College to get my license. A year is usually what it takes, but it’s full time, it’s 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. So… yeah, I did it.
When I first started taking clients, I was scared and always questioning whether I had made the right choice. If a client that I had pre-booked no-showed or cancelled, I was devastated and doubted myself. Plus, during that period, I wasn’t making much money. That made things worse. Like, should I get a second job or even ditch this altogether? I think about two years in things started improving and I saw this as a career.
It’s a unique relationship between the hair stylist and the client and sometimes when you sit down in the chair for the first time… might not get it right. I’m learning your hair, we’re learning communication. So it might take one or two times before “This is what I want, ok, perfect, we got it.”
Sometimes I get people that are like “I don’t know what I want.” Ok, let’s look at some pictures. Let’s see what your hair can do and what your hair can’t do. What I think I can achieve for color and what your expectations are and see if we can meet somewhere in the middle. Maybe what you want is something that we need to work on. Like, you need to come to multiple visits before we can get to that color. Sometimes that one is the hardest to explain. It depends on the client. If they came in with black hair and they want to be that pastel pink… well, having the ability to be like “You’re not going to walk out of here with pastel pink today. But this is what we can do. And then when you come in again, we’re going to get you to this level, and it’s this process and you just have to be patient and this is the best way that’s going to keep the integrity of your hair.” Trying to get them to understand that is really hard because they have that expectation: I walk into a salon today, and I’m walking out with pastel pink. They’re telling all their friends, they told everybody! They even snapchatted it! And then they’re sitting in your chair and you’re like “You’re not getting pastel pink hair today. I am so sorry.” They don’t want to hear that. Someone that’s a little bit younger really doesn’t listen; someone that’s a little bit older is like, “Ok, yes, I understand.” Expectation versus reality in the chair is everything.
I’ve learned to play therapist, part-time. I’ve had someone going through a break-up and they’re like “I need a change right now, I need this.” Or “I’ve been having these ideas… what do you think?” But anytime there’s something going on in their life, breakup, moving, loss of a loved one, illness… they can’t control any of that. Their whole life is out of control and there’s nothing that they can do and they know that if they come and sit in the chair, that is one thing they can control: their hair. When they sit down in the chair and they have black hair and want blonde, and you tell them they can’t… I think it affects them more than someone who’s ok. When someone sits down in my chair and the first words out of their mouth are “I need something different right now,” I’m like, “Sooooo, what’s going on? Let’s not make any rash decisions right now!” That happened to me once before. A client said “I want you to chop off all my hair.” And I said “Are you sure?” Ok, sure. Cut it, bam. And she cried. Cried! I cut it like she wanted it but it was too much. When you do something so drastic, a change like that, and there’s so much going on in their life… she just couldn’t see herself any more. She saw somebody else. And that was just too much for her. So, I’ve learned to ask questions. “What’s going on?” “Let’s do a little step today, if you’re still feeling like it, next time we’ll do a little bit more.” I’ve learned to pick up on little nuances with people and I know when to take a step back with stuff and when to move forward. You make sure that you learn to read people. It just takes experience.
We’re educating all day long. That’s all we do. I swear, on a 24-hour basis we are educating people on how to style their hair, how to take care of their hair, this is what your hair can do, this is what your hair can’t do. I feel like as a hair stylist, that’s our job. But like I said, I literally have people in my chair tell me way more than they probably tell their therapist. Sometimes the hair turns out great all day long and at the end of the day, I need a drink! Just because of all the stuff I was told! You get so close with these clients; I mean, you have someone in your chair every four or five weeks for years. I see them so often and become part of their life and I know everything about them and they know everything about me. Who do you have that you get to sit down with for two hours and have their time? I love that part of my job.
The relationships that I form with my clients… they give me something, too. Knowledge. It’s kind of cool learning about different things, like their vacations or their travels. To hear about some things in life that I might never do, and I get to have that in my chair. People that lived in different parts of the country or they’re from another country, listening about different cultures… so cool. I love that. The hard part, though, is remembering what they tell you.
I will never be replaced. I find my job very important. There’s nothing that anybody can do that will replace us. No matter when we see a new gimmicky thing in CVS or on the Target shelf or whatever, we laugh… that just means more color corrections for us. There’s nothing they can do that can replicate what we do. You know why? Because I don’t even do it to myself. I don’t color my own hair. Can you get a robot to start cutting hair? And when you get a robot that can balayage your hair… then I’ll start to get nervous!
There’s something about the human touch. I’ve had some clients say this is the best part of my week, or the best part of my month. I love being told that. I’m sure there are people that worry about their jobs day to day, the way everything is changing. I just read an article about retail and retail is scary for a lot of people because of online shopping, you know? They worry about their jobs, if they’re going to have a job in five years. I guess I don’t have that fear. I feel very fortunate for that. The only thing that could maybe affect my business is if some weird trend happens out there where crazy, wild, natural, uncut hair is the thing. But I don’t see that happening.
I’m lucky to have a job that I love doing. I don’t feel like I have a job sometimes. To me, it just feels like fun.