Forty years ago, I sat with Leo Passage (3/21/1936 – 5/11/2011 ), founder of Pivot Point International, discussing our upcoming hairdressing educational tour of China. Should we do a historical presentation and bring the audience up to date—or, begin where we were in 1979? The solution called for more than mere choreography and theatrics; it was about successfully delivering an inspirational handshake to a generation of Chinese hairdressers shut off from the world for decades. The genius solution of Mr. Passage was through inclusiveness and step-by-step education—the hallmark for Pivot Point philosophy.
We presented a snapshot of the current beauty industry by introducing cold-wave perms provided by Wella Germany, (perms were still done with heat machines that hung from the ceiling). Bill Blass, a popular fashion designer at the time, provided ladies fashions, and Max Factor makeup techniques. Our models were all from the hotel staff and had never experienced a complete makeover. I caught several young women staring at themselves in a mirror in awe of themselves.
My unforgettable travel partner was Xenon (RIP- 5/2001) a well-known hairdresser from Australia who was working in Chicago for Pivot Point at the time. He and I could keep anyone up for hours recounting our experiences in China— me, wrapping a permanent wave with hot tea when I couldn’t communicate that I needed water for my spray bottle, eating snake, live shrimp, chosen as participants in a magic show to the enthusiastic cheers from the audience, and being presented with outrageous gifts—like giant bejeweled rhinoceros horns, to which Xenon quickly said, “No darling, this can’t go in my suitcase.”
The political climate led to suspicion of our true motives; could we really be spies? Passports were continually checked and our whereabout were carefully observed, Xenon and I had a man and a woman “chaperone” with us from waking time to being dropped at our hotel door at night. Xenon was such a charmer and soon disarmed our chaperones who concluded we couldn’t possibly be foreign agents, we really were just hairdressers, and the strict surveillance became a little relaxed—which basically meant going to the toilet unaccompanied.
During our visit to Hangchow, a city of Zhejiang Province in East China, our hotel was across a beautiful lake where the men and women were canoeing and strolling. With our unassuming chaperones gone, Xenon and I escaped through a back door and walked to the lake. Immediately, the Chinese surrounded us politely and keeping a respectful distance. A few tried practicing their English with us, others took photographs with old fashioned viewer cameras. All we could do was smile, gesture friendship and smile some more.
A young man tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “You like sugar balls?” No clue. “Yes, of course,” I replied. He gestured for Xenon and me to follow him for a couple of blocks with a throng of people behind us. We arrived at a dimly lit café-type place where something like a pizza wood-burning oven was built into the wall with a caldron hanging onto a raging fire. I walked up to the oven, smiled to a lady holding a big spoon, and looked inside the caldron to see the floating sugar balls in hot syrup. Soon, we were all served a small bowl of warm sugar balls—a local delicacy. By now, the word of the wandering westerners was out, and the small café was surrounded by hundreds of Chinese, crowding the street, doorways, peeking through the windows and on the roof of the building.
We thanked our newfound friends and walked back to the hotel accompanied by hundreds of people in absolute silence. We arrived at the hotel steps as the sun was setting. We turned and waved goodbye to the hundreds of people who walked us home and they all waved back. There was something about this moment that formed a lump in my throat.
How did a guy from a small town in Mexico wind up being an ambassador for freedom? All I thought I would do is work in a salon somewhere. This moment in time set in stone my commitment to forever share whatever I know or have. As salon professionals, this is what we do, isn’t it? We shine a ray of light to illuminate a client’s best self. Like a honeybee gathers pollen for the hive, we are eternally in search of that which makes our skill set magical and reaffirming. This is why at 74 years of age, you can find me teaching at IBS New York and Las Vegas next year. I will be there as long as you are.
China was a moment in time that will never come again. But you need not go so far to give the gift of your own brand of magic--because it’s always within you. You will meet so many people who have shut themselves off for decades, just like China, from their own beauty and talent. It is always the cosmetologist who brings light into their darkness. I am so proud to be a cosmetologist. I exhort you to embrace your role as ambassador of self-love. You really don’t need the latest or most expensive, just offer your own heartfelt version of “sugar balls.”
Don’t hold back--you will never run out.
I say, give it all you’ve got.
Carlos Valenzuela is as a licensed cosmetology instructor, ex-salon & school owner. His focus is guiding salon professionals to a more fulfilling career & lifestyle.