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Master Color Expert: A Deep-Dive into the Wella World of Color

Jamie Newman | April 28, 2017 | 12:01 PM
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Gina Cooper works on her mannequin head.
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Wefts of colored hair show damage from various treatments.
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Thurman-Hall reviews content with attendees.
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Newman’s first time measuring color with a scale.
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Phase one group hug it out.
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Phase One class with Thurman-Hall
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Attendee Carlee Smith consults with her client during a practical.
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Attendees Joseph Razo and Kelsey Higgenbotam in Phase two.
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Newman is presented a “honorary” Master Color Expert certificate by Thurman-Hall and Tatum at graduation.
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It’s one thing to talk to talk when I write about hair color almost every day in some shape or form as an editor at MODERN SALON, but it’s a whole other ball game to walk the walk.

Wella graciously invited me with an exclusive opportunity to attend phases one and two of its Master Color Expert Program at the Wella Studio in L.A. to experience the journey through the program as a member of the class. It was a win-win—I would learn about hair color to better my writing on the topic and the class itself would get great exposure! Oh, and spending two weeks in L.A. during a Chicago winter was also a plus.

To even enroll in the Master Color Expert Program, one must be working in the industry for five years, with a minimum of one year using Wella color, and have taken the four prerequisite courses within a 12-month period, not to mention pay their way to L.A. or New York and take off work. The prize at the end of phase two is the not-guaranteed hope of graduating at the end with the title of Master Color Expert to take back with them to the salon, an elite honor that fewer than 100 people have since the program’s conception five years ago.

I, on the other hand, have only been a part of the industry for less than two years, and am considered more of a professional client than a professional hair stylist (or professional beautician by any definition of the trade). How ironic is it that the first time I ever picked up a color brush, used a color scale and mixed color with developer in a color bowl was during Master Color Expert phase 1?

Unlike the pre-requisites—Color Craft classes that range between one and two days each—that are offered at ateliers in cities across the country, Master Color Expert is a studio-specific seminar offered only at the New York and L.A. studios currently due to the prep, involvement and dedication that goes on both behind-the-scenes and in the class itself.

The program’s description in its informational pamphlet reads: “This program will push your boundaries to understand color in depth and all aspects that relate to color, allowing you to grow your skills, clientele, creativity and business to its upmost potential.” Graduates can increase their revenues by about 30% or more.

Sure, that fits the bill, but it’s really so much more.

PHASE ONE

Upon attending phase one, like me, each attendee also had a different catalyst that drove them to join the class. Building their business and credibility, of course, but also to challenge themselves.

“Master Color Expert has always been a goal of mine,” says attendee Joseph Razo, who is a brand educator. “If I’m not in a classroom, I don’t feel like I’m learning anything in life. Being a colorist, a salon owner, and a mentor to my staff, it’s important that I connect and brand myself with Wella, and they provide the education to really excel as a stylist, which then helps me excel as a mentor, which then aids in me excelling in my business.”

An instructor is who shapes a class, and Victoria Thurman-Hall was certainly a pivotal part of our experiences during Phase one. Thurman-Hall is a Wella signature studio artist and the Master Color Expert lead at Wella Studio L.A. Master Color Expert isn’t her job, it’s her passion. She realizes the commitment it takes for a salon professional to leave their salon, and delivers on making the absolute most of their time. She communicates with them through email before, during and after phase one, and gives them her cell phone number. She believes the least she can do for someone passionate about their education is to make herself available.

Thurman-Hall says that for every 20 people that attend the prerequisites, maybe 10 want to go on to do Master Color Expert, and maybe five of them can actually fit it in their life. Between the pre-requisites, phase one and phase two, she says it adds up to about 30 eight-hour days attendees are devoting in hopes of achieving their Master Color Expert status.

“I don’t think of myself as a teacher, I think of myself as a coach. Coaching doesn’t mean am I coaching for my style, it means am I coaching for your style,” Thurman-Hall says. “Before there was ADD, I was determined ‘hyper’ in school. So teachers would say ‘she doesn’t focus’ or ‘doodles too much’ … I’ve had such bad learning experiences where teachers were like ‘oh she’s incorrigible’; you are what people allow you to live up to. So I decided for these hairdressers, I’m not going to let them live up to those bad expectations.”

That’s why on the first day of class, Thurman-Hall gives attendees a V.A.K. test that determines what type of learner they are—visual, auditory, or kinesthetic—then adjusting how she teaches the class accordingly. I wish all of my teachers, or at least one, throughout grade school and college, had done the same.

Phase one breaks down hair color to its literal core and goes back to basics. Aside from expanding creative and technical color skills, the class explores the science of color, anatomy of hair strands, the scalp and growing phases, pricing, consultation best-practices, laws of application, and more. It was a daily occurrence during class that Thurman-Hall would take us out of the classroom and outside, into the hallway, in a dark room, or into the salon-studio space in order to demonstrate something for visual learners, have a hands-on experience for kinesthetic learners, or repeat things several times in different ways for auditory learners.

Thurman-Hall reviews content with attendees.
Thurman-Hall reviews content with attendees.

“I didn’t expect to dive in so deeply into the science—the way our eyes work, how we attract to color, the way we perceive color, the emotional aspects behind color—I never thought about that,” Razo says.

I fully participated in class, giving my client-based observances through my own in-salon experiences for attendees to learn from, or practicing my saturation of color on a hair swatch alongside them, admittedly probably making them feel a bit more at ease as they compared their own results with my pitiful ones (I got better with practice, and their help, I promise!). We formed a symbiotic relationship, learning together and building a bond.

Phase one is essentially an obstacle course consisting of different challenges that draw upon all aspects of hair color and one’s career. Thurman-Hall doesn’t demand perfection in tackling it, in fact she steers far against that grain, but she does demand effort and excellence. Tackle the course and you pass the class.

“The reason why I’m here is because I don’t want to be stuck seeing facets of my career individually—as a colorist, as a business owner, as a salon professional—I want to be able to see the entire universe surrounding hair color, and specifically mastery as far as being an artist, a business owner, a stylist goes,” says Gina Cooper, stylist and salon owner from Park City, Utah. “To me, this is 100% committing my time and myself to finding what it takes to be that master. From there, it carries into mentoring people and my team and knowing how to get in and out of a color situation with confidence because I invested the time here during this program.”

Challenges include on mannequin heads, through client scenarios, on real-life models, quizzes and a final exam, and with one another. It was a frequent and sometimes difficult reminder to these seasoned stylists and industry veterans that they were, in fact, here to learn, not to be flawless. The pressure was on and tears were shed (good and bad). 

I was also there to cheer them on before their assessment, which I was probably in much better spirits about because I didn’t have to take it. Passing the assessment is the deciding factor of whether or not a phase one attendee can move on to phase two.

“I’ve had people come in who have come here to do it for the title, period,” Thurman-Hall says. “And then, something happens in there and there isn’t one person who doesn’t have a breakdown, a humbling moment, a moment of reflection on their life or career and feel something a little bit different. There hasn’t been one time that I haven’t had passion. It happens at different times for different reasons, but everybody goes ‘I earned this.’ Because it’s not given away.”

The best part? Everyone passed.

Phase one group hug it out.
Phase one group hug it out.

PHASE TWO

It felt so good to be back at the Wella Studio when I returned to L.A. at the end of February. Lucky for me and the other attendees (Cooper and Razo from phase one included), Thurman-Hall was joined by Lynette Tatum, newly minted Master Color Expert lead educator at the New York Wella Studio.

“I’ve taken on a much stronger responsibility with the Master Color program this year,” Tatum says. “I’m really excited about my new responsibility because this is the journey where you see the students grow the most, and you see the most results for the work that you put into it. The self-realizations that they come to, hearing the stories of how much more money they’re making, how much more confident they are. I was a good hairdresser, but now I know that I am an amazing hairdresser.”

The first day back, Thurman-Hall and Tatum had everyone write down an accomplishment they had made as a result of phase one before returning for phase two. Examples ranged from “Getting it right the first time—and fast—because of consultations,” to “The feeling I can tackle any hair challenge with 100% confidence,” to “My confidence is at a level I’m not sure I had,” to “I started charging for my worth.”

Phase two consisted more of practicals than classroom learning like phase one. That meant more hair swatches, more mannequins, more models, but this time with higher expectations and a much larger and looming end-goal: being able to graduate at the end of the week.

Thurman-Hall and Tatum, outside of class time, were there more as reminders of achieving excellence as opposed to hands-on coaching like the previous phase. But, attendees were certainly aware that they were being watched—and judged—on whether or not they were practicing what Thurman-Hall and Tatum had preached.

“After phase one, I felt high from excitement,” said Briana Tao, a Boulder, Colorado-based stylist. “At the salon, I felt like I had so many more options, so much more knowledge. I put a lot of pressure on myself coming back to phase two to be the best, but on the first day of phase two and after sharing ideas with my classmates, I realized it’s not about being the best. It’s about learning and being inspired by my peers.”

Phase Two class at the Wella Studio.
Phase Two class at the Wella Studio.

After four days of timed challenges, such as matching a Pantone color chart in a team assignment, creating your “best color” on a model and avant garde color on a mannequin and another exam, all my classmates were able to move on to graduation.

GRADUATION

One has to understand Master Color Expert isn’t just about hair color—contrary to what its name suggests—which brings me back to my initial point: it is so much more than that. The passion that is behind this program is as much inspiring as it is contagious. Master Color Expert brings people from across the country, all different backgrounds, and all different stages of their careers together because of a common passion. It gave all of them a support system in achieving a common goal of mastery, one that will certainly outlive their time in the studio.

 “When people come to the studio, they’re very open to learning because that’s what the environment lends itself to,” Tatum says. “Because people are choosing to come, they’re very serious about learning and I respect that so much. I know the people who come to the studio think of this as a career—it’s a calling.”

Newman is presented a “honorary” Master Color Expert certificate by Thurman-Hall and Tatum at graduation.
Newman is presented a “honorary” Master Color Expert certificate by Thurman-Hall and Tatum at graduation.

I think I could speak for everyone in the room when I say graduation made us all take a step back and say to ourselves “This is why I love what I do.”

Thurman-Hall and Tatum both told me teaching and mentoring are their passions. They feel like they owe their students the knowledge that they have learned throughout their careers as part of a paying-it-forward.

For Thurman-Hall specifically, Master Color Expert is why she wakes up and goes to work everyday.

“Wella allows me to teach to these incredible, creative souls that walk through this door that say ‘I’m crazy enough to want to spend 30 days working on my craft,” she says. “I’ve had a 72-year-old woman come in and say ‘teach me’. You want to talk about being humbled? This lady has done more hair in her lifetime and she’s coming to me and saying ‘Victoria, train me. I have five more years and I want these to be the best five years of my career.’”

When she said that, Thurman-Hall started crying, and then muttered through happy tears, “This is why I get up and do it, because these people.”

THE LAST WORD

“A master knows how to pull the lens back and examine the situation in its entirely,” Cooper read at graduation. “They see the Mona Lisa; but they also look at the wall the painting is on, the room that it is in, the people in the room, and the building it is honored in. They have a worldly view of a situation. This is our building. These are our people. And we are all part of it, the artists of our own Mona Lisa.”

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