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."