The bend point is the place on a strand of hair that dictates where a hairdresser should cut. It is the furthest place at which a strand can be held away from the scalp and still fall towards the ground. It is the point at which you know which direction the strand will go: up or down, long or short, good or bad.
Jenna Vollono wraps strips of foil around pieces of her best friend Olivia’s barely-blonde tresses. Standing firmly on the ground, her arm scissoring in and out of a curtain of hair, Jenna is balyaging, a coloring technique akin to impressionist hair painting. Each motion is strong and decisive: the physiology of an expert.
“What are we going to do?” Jenna asks. “More blonde?”
“No, no more blonde,” Olivia says. “I want to do something different.”
Jenna’s mouth drops open in mock horror, and she rolls her eyes. She is an East Coast Italian with cherubic features like those of Michael’s car-bombed bride in the Godfather. At 27, she is the kind of girl defined in short as “fun” or “spunky” and in long as “vivacious” or “stouthearted.”
Olivia pulls up photographs of Pinterest “hairspiration” on her phone screen. With one hand still nestled in hair, Jenna deftly takes the phone and scrolls through it. After a few moments, she gives a quick nod and hands the phone back to Olivia, resuming her work.
“Do you know what she’s going to do?” I ask.
“No,” Olivia says.
“Are you worried?”
Olivia shrugs, “No. It’s Jenna.”
When I ask Jenna about the unpublished memoir she’s been working on, she says it begins with her rape. But her full history starts in a New Haven supported by industry, which in turn supported the families of Italian immigrant laborers. Her father worked 27 years as a warehouse manager for Star Supply, a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company. At night, he picked up odd jobs, mostly stocking shelves in grocery and clothing stores. Jenna’s mother was an amateur artist, selling painted wooden ornaments around Connecticut. The kids helped peddle on the weekends. Then a specialized holiday shop called the Christmas Tree, opened nearby. It killed the family business and turned her mother into a cafeteria worker.
Though she did not tell me all the details of her experience, I wondered about the casual nature with which Jenna opened up. As we sat in a salon surrounded by hair products, glass windows, and hairdressing implements, all attained through Jenna’s sheer force of will, I couldn’t reconcile the images I’d seen of victimized women with the one I saw standing in front of me. She was secure, narrating her biography while simultaneously running a blow dryer through her best friend’s hair.
When Jenna’s older sister started a nail business from the basement of their house, she was making $2000 a week and had two cars, a Jetta and a Miata. Jenna was impressed. But the day her sister was set to go to hair school, she also found out about an unplanned pregnancy. She unenrolled, moved her nail business, and left her mother to care for her infant son.
This meant Jenna was left unsupervised. She didn’t have to sneak out to get into trouble. Shy, but easily encouraged into running through the New Haven night with her friends, she walked right through the front door to drink and get high and roam the streets of New Haven, stealing a car to find her drunk sister, watching her drunk sister strip naked on the front lawn because she couldn’t find her keys, following music around the city: ska, punk, and metal. Once, at a Misfits show, tiny and completely wasted, Jenna dove onto the stage, smacking her head on the side of an amplifier and waking up with Jerry Only’s hot, alcoholic breath stinging her cheeks. Then she jumped off the stage and got back into the crowd, continuing to scream.
“School-phobic” Jenna couldn’t sit still and couldn’t focus on things she wasn’t interested in. She dropped out of East Haven High at 16. “But it’s not because I wasn’t good at school,” she tells me on a day when everyone has left the salon, “it’s because I was raped.” She does not say any more about it than that.
Jenna transferred to adult education, which, as she says, was “shit… a fast track to a No Questions Asked Diploma.” The class was full of unwed mothers. The youngest was 14. Jenna thought often, “I’m alive still. This could be so much worse.”
At 17, Jenna decided to attend TEACH, The European Academy of Cosmetology and Hairdressing LLC, in Guilford, Conn. Jenna spent from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in adult education and from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. in hair school. Each day brought a new lesson. Wednesdays were twist day, when students spent all of class curling hair. Jenna’s favorite day was color day, when the class learned dry sectioning for color application with gel, utilizing flipcharts, the law of color, balyage, virgin color application, weaving techniques, color theory, and grey coverage. Jenna and her classmates completed the 220 mandatory theory and clinic hours. These got them to the final exam that would guarantee a cosmetology license. However, pretty much anyone that can afford to enroll in classes ends up with a license. This access becomes a problem on the job market, where everyone knows that you graduate by filling out a multiple choice test and being handed a diploma that says nothing about your hairstyling acumen. Out of Jenna’s 40 classmates, only about 15 still do hair. “Making it” is the exception.
After graduating from TEACH, Jenna applied to work at Supercuts, but forgot to put her name on the application. They called her anyway. After becoming the manager, Jenna worked at different barbershops in New Haven. Sometimes, she quit hairdressing completely. In those stretches she was a hostess, a bartender, a telemarketer, and an assistant at her family’s bakery. For a long time, at high-end salons like Capture, Jenna was only allowed to wash hair and take money under the table, even with a cosmetology license. “Starting out as a hairdresser,” she says, “isn’t easy, and it isn’t glamorous.”
Carrie White is probably the only famous hairstylist I could name—the “First Lady of Hair.” Jenna never mentioned White as an inspiration, but the parallels are impossible to deny. Always fascinated by hair styling, White was drawn to cosmetology when a classmate’s boyfriend dropped out of school and began making good money as a stylist. Like Jenna, White worked odd jobs to support herself before getting her cosmetology license. In 1964, she caught her big break and began hanging out with a cadre of renowned hair stylists. From them, she gained access to George Masters’ clientele and Nancy Reagan’s hair.
Carrie White begins her memoir with her own molestation. Like White, Jenna was sexually abused. For both women, hair was a refuge from the external forces that seemed determined to force the trajectories of their lives in a negative direction. For both women, being a hairdresser is an act of resilience.
Today, real notoriety in the hair industry is rare. Celebrity stylists like Bobbi Brown, Paul Mitchell, and Vidal Sassoon are a creation of product lines, and artificial contexts: reality television or hair shows. The most notable industry event, the Next–Level Hair Show, is hosted each October, in Providence, Rhode Island. It gives invited brands and stylists the opportunity to showboat for industry. They perform product and technique demonstrations. In videos of the event, stylists stand behind models, poised to cut, eyes glinting like a champagne glass catching light. “Most of the looks,” Jenna tells me, “will turn out terrible the next day.” But reality is beside the point. Outside the hair show, the glamour of the salon is dying out. As YouTube stars disseminate their own beauty regimens and at-home products approach salon quality, people are less inclined to shell out cash for a big name to do their hair. Icons that were once synonymous with hairdressing are now forgotten as anything more than a type of style spray. But when Jenna goes, her presence there is an achievement, represented by the expense account dinners, the fancy hotels, and the ability to believe she’s “made it.”
“Jenna’s booked through January. Sorry.” Dottie the receptionist puts the receiver back in its cradle and shrugs her shoulders. The Hive has only been open six months and already the salon has accrued enough capital to move into a bigger space. It is long and narrow with two hairstyling chairs, two mirrors, two sinks, a reception desk, built-in shelves filled with hair products and candy, a corner lined with clear, plastic waiting area chairs, a mini-fridge decorated with crayon drawings of a hand-shaped turkey, a building, and a flamingo, clean mugs on a wall rack, a bottle of red wine, and a globular white hanging lamp made out of plastic hexagons. To the left of the glass entrance is a picture of Buddha, a magazine rack, and a pink flamingo lawn ornament. Whenever the door opens a slight breeze ruffles everything in the room. The walls are light blue and the yellow-green of under ripe grapes. Troubling the salon’s otherwise modern aesthetic are a turquoise gardening pail, a series of stacked tea boxes, and a bright yellow ceramic beehive. The sign in front reads: “You’ve got 99 bobby pins but you can’t find one.” In the back there is a break room, where, after a crazy client comes in, a stylist can go to say, “Fuck that bitch.”
Dan, the Hive’s other stylist, tells me that the salon’s success is due to Jenna. People in New Haven know her and how good she is at her job. “She’s as accomplished as someone my age,” he says.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“48,” he answers.
Yelp reviewers tell the same story: “Jenna is amazing,” they crow. “Jenna is the best hairstylist in New Haven for people of all genders, ages, and hair persuasions.” Jenna prides herself on lacking all pretension, but her haircuts are not cheap. The Hive is not in the price range of a neighborhood salon or barber shop. Choosing to get your hair cut at the Hive is not about getting down-to-earth atmosphere for down-to-earth prices, but choosing a down-to-earth atmosphere for a price.
Jenna admits this freely, unafraid of her need to make a living, but seems unable to confess to the slightly upper-minded touches she’s put on the salon. The Buddha. The wine. Dottie, the receptionist, whose sole job is to sit at the front desk, greet, sweep, and answer telephones. In this way, the Hive is more akin to an upscale salon than to the Super Cuts Jenna used to manage, where $5 would get you a haircut with no blow dry. Jenna is closer to being Carrie White than the kid who once forgot to use a razor guard, buzzed off half a man’s hair, and had to give him a free cut. Now, mistakes are rare, and her prices match the perfection3 she achieves. In her twenties, Jenna has become one of the most sought-after hairdressers in New Haven. Her success has been so great that less than a year after opening, she’s ready to find a new, bigger space. For newly-minted businesses in the post-recession economy, this is almost unheard-of.
Laura is Jenna’s biggest fan. Her oldest client and ex-adult education teacher, Laura came to Jenna after losing her first hairstylist to a Ponzi scheme. That was 11 years ago. Jenna did Laura’s hair while working in barbershops where bosses made her give pedicures to clients with erections and taught her to put Splenda in bleach to stop it from burning the scalp. Laura stood by Jenna when she worked under a man who would ask clients to leave if they smelled bad, a woman who began a prostitution ring and treated her employees like slaves, and a guy that was part of the mob and used Jenna to make money drops at the local bank.
Laura whispers stories about Jenna to me excitedly while sitting under a dryer and waiting for her plastic-wrapped hair, thick with dye, to turn purple. She is doing her best to keep her from hearing how much I know. She glances up every few seconds, pausing to make sure she is out of earshot, and then biting voraciously into a new saga. The expression on her face is one of pride: “Jenna is an inspiration,” she says.
Laura explains why she likes getting her hair done by Jenna. “Jenna lets people be themselves,” she says, “I’m old, but she lets me wear my hair purple. And she knows what to do with color. She knows what will make you look good. Most stylists can’t do that.” As she says this, an older woman with cherry-sucker-red hair walks into the salon. She drops a book on the table with the title Ask and It Is Given.
Jenna walks over to Laura and me. “What are you two talking about?” she asks with a raised eyebrow and a grin. Laura smirks and starts whispering to me about Jenna’s ex-boyfriend, the one who’s been in love with her since the eighth grade and who moved to Ohio to escape his unrequited feelings. “He really told her that,” Laura says in disbelief, “He really did.”
Carrie White said of hairdressing: “It was a real self-worth job. If you didn’t like people, this was not the place to be.” By that reasoning, Jenna shouldn’t be a hairdresser, because she really doesn’t like people. She says she does not make friends with clients. She says that when they sit in her chair, they want to talk about themselves. When they go out with her to a bar or wherever, they continue to want to talk about themselves. All the friends she has as clients were her friends before they were her clients. People are different in the chair. It exposes them, makes them more vulnerable. A sense of trust is built, however unfounded it may be; Jenna knows some of her clients deal drugs only because they tell her while she snips. Once, a “totally normal looking girl” came in and told Dan, “My boyfriend wants me to take it up the ass, but I don’t think I’m ready.”
“People.” Jenna says, “that’s why we need the back room.” Still, it is difficult to find a client who does not leave satisfied or a neighbor that does not know Jenna’s latest stand-up comedy routine. We went to a café and she immediately greeted the barista like an old friend. I joked that I was walking around with a local celebrity. She shrugged her shoulders and grinned impishly. ‘I guess,” she said.
Jenna and her client Peter are talking about parts. He believes that people part their hair on the side that they write with. Jenna agrees. She hands him a mirror and asks how he likes his sideburns. I watch him use it to look at her face instead.
“You know,” Peter says, “you could have a TV show. Like, you could be a talk show host.”
“Yeah?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says, “You’ve just got something.”
Jenna runs her fingers along a clump of Peter’s hair until she hits the scalp. She slides her middle and ring finger down until the tuft sticks straight out. The bend point is when you know which direction the strand will go: up or down, long or short, good or bad. With a successful business, a dogged ambition, and an exceptional work ethic, I realize that Jenna herself has suddenly reached her bend point. From here, she cannot help but go up, buy a new house, a new salon, a new lease on life. Measuring the hair against the edge of her scissors, she lays the blade flat across it, and cuts.