Two strong forces conspired to put my head in the hands of the Ultima College of Cosmetology. The first was the inimitable ARC Value Village store at 72nd and Federal, where I have shopped for life's little necessities for nigh on to a decade. Several years ago, ever on the alert, I noticed a new trend: pink-smocked women with cigarettes milling about near the entrance to the store. The pink women, I soon discerned, were nicotine-needy escapees from the newly opened Ultima College, which is sandwiched between ARC and a ceramics supply house.
The second irresistible force was Robin Sganga, or Miss Robin, as she is called by Ultima students. I discovered Miss Robin on Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday I traditionally celebrate by slapping on ten extra pounds and falling into a deep depression. As any female with an ounce of negative self-esteem can tell you, this is exactly when the evil promise of Perm Salvation can take hold of your life and ruin it but good. Here's how it works:
1. You feel bad.
2. The bad feeling comes from your head.
3. Maybe if you got a new head?
4. Maybe if you just got new hair! 5. Maybe if you just got new hair today!
The first "Walk-Ins Welcome" sign I found that fateful Friday was at a strip-mall salon called Montego Bay. Miss Robin, who had just moved to Colorado from Vegas, was offered up, with a bit of a sneer, by a snotty receptionist. Miss Robin was wearing a form-fitting black cowgirl ensemble with white cowboy boots. She had a soothing Long Island homegirl accent and a wonderful habit of plopping down on any available chair and slowly leafing through hair magazines, as if time mattered not at all. Other stylists were forever brushing briskly past Miss Robin, shoving aside her supply cart, snippily telling her that other clients were waiting--but she cordially ignored them. Instead she told me, in mouth-watering detail, how she planned to turn her turkey carcass into soup. Then slowly, slowly, she began to futz with my hair.
At the end of two hours I emerged looking a little like Edith Bunker, but feeling triumphant. At the end of two weeks my perm had relaxed and I appeared decent enough to receive compliments from strangers. So I followed Miss Robin as she searched for a salon that she could call home.
It was tough. For one thing, Miss Robin had run her own shop in Vegas, and it was, she says, "total street. We danced in that shop. I'm talking party time. I'm talking a body-building manicurist. I'm talking Dominick the stylist, who won some kind of prize in the gay ball. The bar was right next door, too, so forgetaboutit."
Miss Robin gave up her shop when she became pregnant--an event she always indicates by whispering "like this" and miming a large stomach--and decided no decent child could be raised in Vegas. Her husband, a poker dealer, got a job in Central City, the Sgangas moved to Arvada and the child was born. All was right with their world--except that Miss Robin could not find the right spot to do hair.
I followed her to a J.C. Penney salon, where Miss Robin got no respect, and then to a Westminster ranch house known as Dave's Hair-A-Tage. I was just becoming fascinated with Dave, a macho guy who cuts hair on a sort of illuminated throne platform, when Miss Robin informed me that, although she would continue to work the Hair-A-Tage by appointment, she was now permanently, and happily, installed at the Ultima College of Cosmetology.
"I teach everything," she told me. "Coloring, pedicures, manicure...I even taught a class on toenail dysfunctions and disorders last week. These kids learn anatomy, physiology, cells, muscles...It's practically premed, to tell you the truth."
Time for a house call.
I catch up with Miss Robin in the faculty lounge, where Ultima College president and founder Norma Johnston is politely asking her not to chew gum in front of the students. This, I figure, is Miss Robin's business, but I like Norma anyway, because even though she instituted the rule that students must address instructors as "Miss" or "Mister," she feels uncomfortable with honorifics herself, and everyone just calls her Norma. In the same vein, Norma insists that students and faculty not "fraternize" until after graduation, but this does not prohibit her from buying diapers for single moms and helping students pay their overdue heating bills. Similarly, while Norma posts motivational sayings on the college walls--"Showing up is 80 percent of life"--she apologizes for her loyalty to Norman Vincent Peale. "I know he's as old and as trite as can be," she says. "It's just that he's right."
When she first discovered Doctor Peale, she had very little to think positively about. Norma had gotten her hairdresser's license in 1960, when beehives reigned supreme. A few years later she was living in Aurora, a divorced mother of three "who thought I would do nothing with my life but hair." She scraped by until 1971, when she was injured so severely in a car accident that doctors doubted she would ever stand behind a chair again. In desperation, Norma got her instructor's license, then watched in amazement as her career took off. She eventually hit the road as a traveling instructor for Redken Laboratories. In the process, she healed her body "through sheer defiance," she says.
Norma returned to Denver in the mid-Eighties to help open a string of beauty schools. In 1990 she bought out Rocky Mountain Beauty College and changed its name to Ultima, "which is a Marines word, like semper fi," she says. With the help of her husband, a former Continental Airlines executive, Norma took enrollment from 40 students to the current 120, offering night as well as day classes.
"It's a good life for me," Norma says, "and it irritates me and upsets me when people say there's no money in cosmetology. I can drive a BMW and live in a nice house in the mountains, and it's all because of cosmetology--and you're talking to a high school dropout farm girl who had no idea of life."
There are, in fact, only two aspects of this life that Norma does not find fulfilling: filing students' financial aid forms with the government, and having her own hair cut. "I'm a lousy client," she admits. "I won't sit still and I complain about everything." Neither her students nor her staff are subjected to this ordeal, however. Instead, Norma flies to Hawaii, where one of her daughters is entrusted with the onerous task.
But hair continues to fall by the truckload onto the Ultima College floor. Today students have begun a two-week haircutting lesson that is part of their introductory course. Once they pass an exam on six subjects--manicure, pedicure and acrylic nails; scalp treatments and facials; haircutting; permanent waving; styling and braiding; and color and lightening--they spend the next six to eight months working on the public in the Ultima salon. The entire course takes most students about a year to complete, after which they study for their cosmetology licenses (cosmetologists are regulated by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies) and go out into the real world. Students can start the process at any time. "Some of them are at ground zero right now," Norma tells me. "They're in Mister Jerry's class. You should go watch."
Two long mirrors are fastened above two long counters where thirty disembodied rubber heads are clamped. Each head is embedded with a foot and a half of real hair, imported from Korea. A notice at the nape of each plastic neck promises that all hair has been boiled for hours and that all lice and lice eggs contained therein are "guaranteed dead." Therefore, it adds, "students can use this free of lice panic."
No lice panic is evident as thirty students begin to cut a quarter-inch of hair from the bottom of their practice heads. "Don't elevate," Mister Jerry warns as he strolls about, looking for trouble. "Don't cut past the second knuckle. I want this even, now."
"Oh, Mister Jerry," comes an anguished cry. "I'm having another crisis!"
"Oh?" Mister Jerry asks coolly. "Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing in my class?
"That's my standard greeting," he explains.
It fails to strike fear into the hearts of the students. They think Mister Jerry is funny, especially when he threatens to smack them with the ruler he calls his Catholic stick.
"You have to keep it like a team effort," Mister Jerry says. "Otherwise they gang up on you. You can tell within a couple of days if they're going to make it or not."
I can tell within a couple of minutes that I do not have what it takes to make a clean T-part from ear to ear, to tease hair into a sort of flirtatious nest or to stand for hours at a time, feet encased in the flat rock-and-roll boots that are so prevalent around Ultima I have come to think of them as Beauty Booties. Open-toed shoes and sandals are bad, warns Mister Jerry. If hair falls between your toes, they "can swell up and hurt, and you could end up in the hospital."
But such hazards will not dissuade these students from the careers they feel they were born to have.
"All my life I wanted to make people look beautiful," whispers Dany, a nineteen-year-old just out of high school. "All my life I did things to my family's hair. I spiraled my sister's hair last week! They trust me. I want to make people look beautiful," she says, even softer, "because I want to make me look beautiful."
Shannon, too, has been doing hair all her life, and now that she has a child to support, she's depending on it to pay the bills. "I'm gonna love the public," she says determinedly. "I'm gonna be freelance and go to people's houses and do their perms so they can be private. Me, when I get my perm, I don't like everyone looking at me."
"I'm not doing hair for the rest of my life," announces Fredda. "After this, I'm going to school to get a Ph.D. in exercise so I can be an aerobics instructor and inform people that you have to be in good shape. I am going to touch people in many ways," she decides. "The sky's the limit."
Margie, who probably is the oldest student in the class by a decade, hopes this will prove to be true. "I was laid off as a supervisor, and I decided to get good at this instead," she says. "I'm one of the few who never cared that much about my looks until now. I have really had to learn about today's fashion. The poof on the top of the head. The buzzcuts. I have just absolutely had a blast so far."
Margie has her heart set on a job at Fantastic Sam's when she graduates in November, but she's already practicing on her husband's hair at home, because "a barber cut his ear once and he won't go near one now. And I minister to people who are poor, from my church. I cut their hair, which is nice for them. I will continue to do that."
"I've wanted to do this since I was 13," says Heather, who at 21 is raising two children on a gas station attendant's salary. Still, she felt discouraged about her career until the previous day, when Ultima brought in motivational speaker/hairdresser Kitty Victor to address the freshman class.
"She was the most wonderful woman in the whole world," Heather says. "She owns her own shop, and she's so full of energy, and she travels all over the world. `If you want it,' she says, `you can have it.' And I thought to myself, oh, I want it."
Jeanette wants it, too, especially after ten years as a bartender. "I miss parts of that life," she admits. "When people have a few beers in them, they listen up, boy. But at least what I do for these clients will make them look better instead of worse."
Out on the floor, the clients are beginning to back up. Lured by extremely low prices, they come--by appointment or just walk-up whim--for all salon services. One elderly woman seems to be here for the day, enjoying everything from a Marilyn Monroe bleach job to a complete pedicure. Right now she is splayed out in a manicure chair, a beatific smile on her face. The reception area, watched over by a pink-smocked attendant with even pinker acrylic nails, is packed. But none of this fazes Miss Robin, who carefully observes as a student installs a spiral perm on a tiny teen mother with several patient kids parked about her chair.
"You gotta watch it with those loopy-doop rods," Miss Robin tells her charge. "Take your time."
A young man--one of just three in the current class--stops by to complain that by switching from night school to day school, he's lost two regular clients. "If you run into them," he says, "maybe you could tell them..."
"Run into them?" Miss Robin repeats incredulously. "You cawll them. Cawll them."
"But I can't--"
"Sure you can. And put on your coat. And if you're not busy, go blow-dry yourself. Or blow-dry somebody else. Or go watch a beauty video. Stay busy. It's practice for the real world."
Now another student arrives with one of the female wash-and-set clients who are the mainstay of salons everywhere. On the way to the chair, the two become stuck in a conversational lull. Miss Robin swoops in to save the situation.
"May I take your coat?" she asks, slipping off the client's raincoat to reveal a yellow sweater. "My, we're bright today! Won't you have a seat? Hey," she hisses to the student, "get your coat on! Be professional!"
Professionalism is not a problem for Dedra and Thomas, a young married couple getting their beauty school degrees together. Thomas, who became interested in hair when he heard that Great Clips hairdressers can make $8 an hour, is smoothly chatting with, and T-parting, an eighth grader. Dedra has brought her Mary Kay sample case along, hoping to make a sale during the lunch break.
"There's always faces out there," she says hopefully, in a beautiful Southern accent. Still, Dedra has a full-time job at Wendy's to fall back on. She worked at McDonald's until recently, but "people there were in such a hurry and tended to be hateful," she says. Clearly, there's no room for hate in this couple's life plan: They met at church in Kentucky and plan to return after graduation to start a mom-and-pop hair salon. In a twist on the theme, Thomas will do the up-dos, perms and bobs, and Dedra will handle the men's cuts. "I just think men tend to be more nicer," she explains.
Although Eric, with his hair-dude hauteur, looks chic-salon-ready, his plans are far from concrete. "I know I'll be starving for a while," he says, "because maybe I'll apprentice downtown? Or I'll do the full-service salon thing? I can't seem to picture myself in a chop shop." While contemplating the lack of artistry at those franchise clip joints, Eric leafs through Cosmopolitan, looking for looks.
And here comes one: on Miss Deb, the hair-cutting instructor. Miss Deb's own wild black hair is waist-length, nicely accentuating her two-inch-long fingernails painted black or purple or both--"and they're not acrylics, they're mine," she says. Her eye makeup is straight out of Bewitched--think Endora--but her classroom manner is strictly Gomer Pyle--think Sergeant Carter.
"Let's cut hair, not fingers," she says crisply at her second seminar of the day.
"Remember, girls, I am looking for nice, clean sections," she admonishes.
"Hey, we're dropping too many combs here," she barks.
"Oh, Miss Deb, help me," one new student pleads. "My doll's hair was feeling all good till I shampooed her, and now look at it--it's all sticky."
Miss Deb fixes the sticky girl with a withering look. "Did you shampoo her?" she asks.
"Yes, Miss Deb, and everything was fine until--"
"Did you use conditioner?"
This is a simple mistake, but it is not the kind you want to make when Miss Deb is in charge.
"Because I'm an asshole," Miss Deb explains cheerfully. "I demand a lot. I demand perfection, actually. And I don't give out all that much praise. Every once in a great while I might say, `That's a damn good job.' See, I don't just like hair, I love hair. I was doing my family's hair since I was little."
She gave her older and younger sisters perms. Her mother, a migrant worker turned school janitor, got a new 'do from her daughter. And in her spare time, Miss Deb tried to straighten her own mass of hair with perm solution, in order to look like Cher. "That was those days," she recalls. "Now I just look like myself, me, me, me--that's all you see."
At Ultima, the Miss Deb look is accepted unconditionally. It used to be more problematic. "Back about twelve years ago, I was out of work," Miss Deb recalls, "and I was riding around on my motorcycle looking for a job. But when you're riding without a helmet, your hair's gonna look bad, and people thought I didn't know what I was doing."
Instead of a salon job, she got her instructor's license and found, as if by fate, the perfect niche. "The thing is, the students like me," she says. "They bring me things, they feed me, they try to bribe me--which doesn't work. I had one student buy me a $300 leather jacket after she graduated."
Which was nice, but it didn't entirely erase the stress of forcing students to be all that they can be, so that they can "graduate and pass their boards and get a job," Miss Deb says. "People ask me if anything wonderful ever happens to my students. What could be more wonderful than that?"
As Miss Deb explains her philosophy, she is working on her oldest sister--whose name, no kidding, is Sister. As brusque as Miss Deb might be in the classroom, she is a salon seductress behind the chair, and Sister's heavily made-up eyes are beginning to close from the sheer bliss of it all. "Sister used to wear her hair dyed purple, if you can imagine," Miss Deb says as she snips, "but now we're doing her nice and natural, nice and natural."
"How about if you dye just the gray so it looks like highlights?" I say.
"What color do you have in mind?" Shawna asks.
"Oh, whatever," I say, neglecting to mention that I actually visualize sun-kissed streaks, sort of Gloria Steinem circa 1967. "Maybe something golden."
Miss Deb is called in to consult, and whips out a page of hair swatches. "Now me," she says, "I'd take you all the way to Banana." From what I can see of the swatch, Banana is pure Crayola yellow. But I also see a wild conspiratorial gleam in Miss Deb's eyes. I ask myself: Do I want to settle for looking like any other aging, graying reporter? Or do I want to take one more walk on the wild side? I meet Miss Deb's eyes in the mirror.
"Banana," I say.
"All right!" she answers.
Shawna finds all this amusing. "And it'll probably turn out orange, ha ha, just kidding," she says. "Anyway, it's only semipermanent, so it'll fade."
"Are you sure?" I ask her, but I'm now alone under a hair dryer that smells oddly like boiled cabbage.
Thirty minutes later Shawna rinses the Banana out of my hair and scrubs hard at my forehead.
"So?" I ask her.
There is no reply.
Back at Shawna's station, I finally look in the mirror. I see--chicken curry.
"Eric?" Shawna asks pleadingly. "Come and look at this. Isn't this...cool?"
Eric runs a hand through my mustardy locks. "Did you want this?" he asks. Somebody's mother, the kind who wears two-sizes-too-small stretch pants and fries her hair into a stiff white-woman Afro, says: "Oh, I think it's kind of cute. It's not that bad."
More pink smocks approach.
"Whaddaya think?" I say defiantly.
Their mouths pop open and stay that way. Then one of them bravely asks, "Are you pissed? I'd be pissed."
"It was Miss Deb's idea," Shawna informs them.
"Miss Deb!" someone yells, a bit of panic creeping into her voice.
Miss Deb appears, grinning widely. "Ha!" she says, "I'd call that Banana!"
"But would you call it good-looking?" I ask.
"It's totally, entirely Banana! If it were permanent, I'd worry, but it'll wash out in a couple months, so who cares?"
In the meantime, life has seldom been more interesting. In certain fluorescent lights, my tresses have a greenish cast; no doubt people think I'm some kind of chlorine-wallowing athlete. The orange stain on my forehead is fading to a suave tan, always intriguing in the winter months. And my eyes have never been more...startling.
"Oh, you'll get to like it," Miss Deb had predicted, "you'll get to like it a lot."
She was right.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.