Beauty Schooled

American consumers spent over $200 billion on beauty products and services in 2009 — an awful lot of lipsticks and manicures — yet the average salon worker earned just $9 to $15 per hour. But these numbers don’t tell us the human costs. Like, what happens when these products aren’t subjected to pre-market safety testing. And how a 13-year-old feels when her mom takes her for a bikini wax. Or why many of us would rather not make eye contact with the woman we’re paying to scrub our feet.

From November 2009 to August 2010, I spent 600 hours learning to excavate pores, apply makeup and wax, well, everywhere, with the hope of finding some answers.

Also: The names and identifying details of all Beauty U folk have been changed (unless otherwise noted) to protect their privacy.

The Interview is also a Sales Pitch.

Beauty School 1

Sal is a big guy, with the thick, golden mane of a man who knows hair is his business, and dyed eyebrows to match. His office is decorated with motivational posters that say things like “Leadership” and “Positivity,” along with photos of his daughter in a shiny blue prom dress. He has very bright blue eyes and stares straight at me when he holds for laughs. Which is often.

Beauty College is tucked into a dingy storefront on a side street off this upstate New York town’s languishing business district. There’s a crack in the glass of the front door and someone has forgotten an umbrella in the corner. It’s a big room with mirrors and fake wood-paneled walls, linoleum floors and mannequin heads scattered about.

I fill out an “Interview” form that makes frequent references to The Professional Beauty Industry, as in “Why are you now interested in joining The Professional Beauty Industry?” and “Do you have any family members currently working in The Professional Beauty Industry?” It also notes that The Professional Beauty Industry has plenty of job openings despite the recession, and that the average salon employee can expect to make $18.01 per hour, once you factor in tips. Assuming a 35-hour week, that’s about $32,000 per year before taxes.

Beauty College charges $12,800 for it’s 1000-hour training program.

Sal gives my form a cursory glance and informs me that since I already have a bachelor’s degree, I won’t qualify for any financial aid grants, but he welcomes me to apply for a loan and embarks on a lengthy explanation of the various ways I can go $8,000 to $10,000 in debt for the foreseeable future if not the next ten years. It’s really all down to the government, he explains, because Beauty College is very willing to work with me, but the government has all these rules. “I don’t want to get political, of course.” I can even go ahead and get started with the next round of classes on September 14 – he doesn’t mind if I can’t write him a check until October. I say I need to talk the finances over with my husband and he nods sympathetically. “Bring him in, if you want. He might feel better if he checks the place out for himself.”

Then we talk about why Beauty College is a much better investment than what Sal likes to call “Traditional Education.” Traditional Education basically trains you for nothing, being the main difference. You write term papers and party and learn “philosophy” for four years, but then, what do you have to show for it? Does anyone say, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Virginia?” What jobs would an English major even qualify you to have? Sal knows what it’s like. He was a Phys Ed major himself.

Beauty College, on the other hand, gives you marketable skills that translate to specific jobs. They work with you every step of the way. They ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Virginia?” More to make a point than to listen to the answer — Sal doesn’t actually put me on the spot with that question, but moves right along to explain all the contacts they have with salons all over the tri-county area and, of course, in New York City, so they always know when someone is hiring.

Beauty College will keep in touch and make sure to continue to offer me plenty of other opportunities for advanced education, which is so important in The Professional Beauty Industry. After all, their program (the full cosmetology license training) takes 1000 hours. During that time, I’ll learn to cut, color, perm, straighten, and relax hair. I’ll learn to add weaves, extensions and braids. I’ll learn to paint nails, wax skin, and apply makeup.

“But the thing is,” Sal says, leaning forward and raising one blond eyebrow confidentially. “In 1000 hours you basically learn just enough to be dangerous.”

Orientation: The Professional Must Constantly Strive for Excellence

My 600-hour adventure learning to apply makeup, excavate pores, and wax, um, everything. Read more about it here.

James VanDerZee, Beauty School Photo

Barb is the admissions director at Beauty U. She’s a whole different ball game from Sal over at Beauty College, and I’ll admit, a major reason that I chose to enroll in Beauty U’s Esthetics Program over BC’s Cosmetology Course was that when Barb called me “sweetie,” it didn’t sound gross.

Last week I received a letter reminding me to be on time to orientation and to “bring a pen to write with.” Tonight I arrive five minutes early to find the room already jam-packed, and everyone has a pen placed squarely on the desk in front of them. Everyone sits in anxious silence until the girl next to me whispers, “This is so awkward.” Her name is Tiffany and she’s taking the cosmetology course, while her mom is considering esthetics. Tiffany is 18, along with about three-quarters of the women in the room, but there are a good handful of us who are older. I spot one gray head. When Barb asks who signed up for evening classes, it’s our hands that go up, reminding me of today’s New York Times piece about community colleges being so swamped thanks to the recession that they’re offering midnight classes.

Barb is also not kidding around about the need for punctuality. “My thing is, don’t be late,” she says right off the bat. (Barb has a lot of her things.) We start promptly at 5 PM and are told that the doors will be closed at 5:15. When a terrified latecomer arrives at 5:18, everyone holds their breath, but Barb grants her entrance with a heavy sigh.

Barb leads us through our orientation packets — the dress code (all black), rules (no gum chewing, no cell phones, no eating in the salon), and fire evacuation procedure. She interrupts herself frequently to expound upon what she’s written: “My thing is, no dresses, because when we let you girls wear dresses, people showed up like they were going to a club.” “My thing is, don’t wear open-toed shoes because we work with chemicals here and you don’t want to spill chemicals on your pretty toes.”

The rule we spend the most time on is “Client Awareness.” That means you’re not allowed to refuse a customer at any time. “I don’t care if they have bad skin or open wounds,” says Barb. “You can tell your instructor, but you can’t no.” If you refuse to serve a customer to their face, you’ll be sent home — and every hour you miss is an hour you’ll have to make up later.

Barb stops for questions a lot, but hardly anyone asks one. This concerns Barb, mostly because she doesn’t want to hear it later if we don’t understand something that she’s telling us now. The classroom has mirrors on every wall, so I can see that we seem to be following along just fine. Tiffany asks if we can wear leggings. Kosher, as long as you have a long sweater on top. “Good, because I wear leggings a lot,” she says, with relief.

When we finish, everyone lines up at the salon cash register. I write a check for my $1500 down payment, while the platinum blonde behind me confides that she’s already nervous about our weekly tests. “I have three learning disorders, so I’m not so good at test taking,” she explains. “But I do my mom’s hair and I just seem to have a natural gift for it.”

I tell her that I think she’ll be just fine.

[Photo Credit: "Reception in the Office of the C. J. Walker Company" by James VanDerZee, 1929, from here.*]

*Do click through, because it’s got a great story — Madame C. J. Walker, founder of the beauty school pictured, was reputed to be the first self-made woman millionaire in the USA.

Step 1: Check Your Appearance

My 600-hour adventure learning to apply makeup, excavate pores, and wax, um, everything. Learn more about the project, or catch up with Orientation.

This is a Wakeup Call Mirror

From the “Graduation Requirements” workbook, which Barb says we should carry with us at all times:

When you’re made aware that a client is here you must:

1. Check your appearance.

2. Go out to the waiting area to greet your client.

Barb says hair and makeup should be done before we get to school. “If you don’t wear makeup, that’s okay as long as you don’t look like you just woke up, or really bad like you just left a bar or something.”

Most days, I don’t wear makeup. Just saying.

[Photo Credit: "Girl Looking In A Mirror" by This is a Wake Up Call/Lee Summers via Flickr.]

Career in a Bag

My 600-hour adventure learning to apply makeup, excavate pores, and wax, um, everything. Learn more about the project, or catch up with Orientation.

Esthetics Kit Day 1

Having parted with $400, I am now the proud owner of:

1 FantaSea Deluxed Multi-Layered Cosmetic Kit.

Yes. That is like fantasy, only aquatic. Their logo includes a swan — presumably what all us ugly ducklings can become once we explore the kit’s many layers.

1 Repechage Balancing Hydrating Mask.

1 Repechage Aqua Massage Cream

1 Repechage T-Zone Balance Cleansing Complex

1 Repechage T-Zone Balance Toning Complex

1 Repechage Opti-Cleanse Extra Gentle Non-Oily Eye Makeup Remover

1 Repechage Opti-Firm Lift Cream SPF 10

Clearly, we’ll be learning more about this Repechage business. So far, I can tell you that my cat likes the smell.

10 Makeup Brushes, assorted.

1 Eye Pencil Sharpener

1 Eyelash Curler

1 copy Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians

1 copy Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians Workbook

1 copy Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians Exam Review

Milady’s has been publishing the textbooks used in almost every beauty school in the country for 80 years. (They claim to have educated “10 million beauty professionals.”) They also offer life coaching.

1 student ID card.

This entitles us to 10% off at any beauty supply store. It is a major perk. We’re encouraged to experiment with different brands, add our own favorite products to our kits. As our teacher, Miss Jenny, says, “We’re professionals and that means we only work with professional products.” (Though she does admit to a Sephora addiction.)

There is much discussion of which beauty supply stores we might visit on a class field trip. “You get excited and you want to buy everything,” Barb warns. “Some of my girls went last week and they all came back with organic everything, even organic brushes.” (Did USDA develop a certification standard for makeup brushes when I wasn’t looking?)

1 Black Duffel Bag. To carry it all back and forth! I saw one girl had upgraded to a roll-along suitcase. She seems smart.

[Photo Credit: My iPhone. Hence the poor quality.]

Class Participation

My 600-hour adventure learning to apply makeup, excavate pores, and wax, um, everything. Learn more about the project, or catch up with Orientation and Week 1.

Milady's Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians

The lecture portion of class is spent reading from a PowerPoint presentation loaded above us on a flat screen monitor. We go around the room, taking turns to read aloud until Miss Jenny moves to the next person. There are six of us:

Blanche, who says she always loved makeup but never learned much about it because she was such a tomboy.

Meg, who tells me “I grew up here and never left,” at break. She has a toddler and is getting a divorce.

Stephanie, who is a high school teacher and hosts cosmetics parties on the side.

Sue, who sells Mary Kay and says she loves to make people feel beautiful.

Tasha, who sells Arbonne. She’s getting ready to take her state board exam in a few weeks and just sitting in on our class for a refresher.

And me. I’m pretty sure that I’m the youngest.

Half the class struggle with phrasing and pronunciation as they read.

A lot.

I like that Miss Jenny is patient about repeating a phrase (“tertiary colors” or “assessing a client”) until they get it, but I wonder if they do.

[photo credit: Delmar Cengage Learning, Milady's parent company]

The Daytime Face

My 600-hour adventure in beauty school. Learn more about the project or catch up with Orientation and Week 1.


Miss Jenny announces that tonight, she’s doing Daytime Makeup Applications on everyone.

A Daytime Application, in case you’re wondering, should be very light, with no more than two colors of eye shadow, and minimal contouring. Miss Jenny sees a lot of people walking around with Nighttime Eyes during the day. She is not impressed by this.

She starts by stippling concealer and foundation, then applies eyeliner with short, feathery strokes. You are never supposed to line the lower lid during a Daytime Application, or most any other scenario where you might be applying makeup with at least half your functioning brain cells. Miss Jenny is clear about that.

And so, we watch everyone’s faces transform into porcelain-smooth canvases punctuated by black flutters of lashes talk about our own makeup addictions. I’m quite partial to my pink gloss. Miss Jenny confides that she’s a recovered lipstick addict herself and “it was not good for me or my look.” Now she just needs her gloss and her mascara. Meg needs her eyes and brows to always be done. Stephanie is on a quest to find the perfect under-eye concealer for a woman of color.

Blanche, a no makeup lady who later asks us to explain about Sephora, looks slightly bewildered by the entire operation. When Miss Jenny finishes her Daytime Application, she peers into the mirror while we rave about her golden, glowing skin and glossy lips. “Guess I didn’t know what I was doing,” she mumbles. I’m not sure if she means when she tried to apply makeup in the past, or when she walks around in her own makeup-free skin every other day of her life.

In our workbooks we have written that the main purpose of makeup is to “enhance desirable features and minimize imperfections.” When asked to name two other benefits makeup offers for “our inner self,” we write: “It can boost your self-esteem” and “It can make you feel more attractive.”

Sue can’t leave the house without her full face on. “Maybe if I’m just running to the store,” she muses. “The corner store.”

When Miss Jenny is finished, everyone looks fabulous.

And, somehow, exactly the same.

[Photo Credit: The Daily Mail's Beauty Confidential column.]

Miss Jenny, Queen of the Brazilians

My 600-hour adventure learning to apply makeup, excavate pores, and wax, well, see below. (Learn more about the project and catch up with Orientation and the rest of Week 1.)


Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens gets a Brazilian, describes it as “like being tortured for information you do not possess.” (No, neither of those women are Miss Jenny.)

Whenever Miss Jenny is particularly pleased with the way your makeup is turning out, she says “ooh” and does a little twirl, pirouette-ing you in the revolving salon chair so the whole class can see your flirty lashes or nicely contoured cheek. This is because Miss Jenny loves her work — after nearly 20 years in an office job, she went to esthetics school when she was in her mid-30s and has never looked back, even when waking up at 6 AM on a Sunday to make up a bride for a morning wedding.

Here are some other things you need to know about Miss Jenny:

1. She does not allow profanity or gum chewing in her classroom. “We will all speak like the nice respectable ladies that we are.”

2. She speaks to the Lord every day before she begins work.

3. She tell us, proudly and right off the bat, “I am the Brazilian Queen.”

We’re months off from the waxing unit, but Miss Jenny lets us know now that a few weeks before we get there, everyone will have to start growing out all of our body hair so we can practice on each other. “And I do mean all of it!”

Technically, the Brazilian Wax is considered a Continuing Education topic — the state board exam only requires you to know eyebrow, lip, and arm waxing. (And you perform those services with honey, not actual wax, during the test.) But Miss Jenny is committed to giving us the most comprehensive and well-rounded education that she can. “I started teaching because I love what I do so much and I wanted to share that love,” she says.

I bring this up because Brazilians have been the talk of the blogosphere this week, thanks to Suzi Godson’s column in the British Times Online, where she tells one hairy reader that “like keeping one’s armpits and legs smooth, [a Brazilian wax] is now expected. If your boyfriend has been conditioned to expect a tidy Brazilian, he may genuinely find anything else very off-putting.” It’s all thanks to the porn industry, says Suzi, in her best boys-will-be-boys sigh.

“Wax for your poor, porn-addled boyfriend” may be the new “lie back and think of England,” but some of us aren’t convinced. “Huge sisterhood fail, ladies,” says Allure‘s Kate Sullivan.* Yes, indeed, and thank you. Salon’s Broadsheet has some good points too.

I have to spend 24 of my 600 hours on “superfluous hair” and will be asked to perform 10 bikini waxes before I graduate, so this is but the beginning of the waxing conversation here on Beauty Schooled. And at the moment I have to go sandblast off the ten pounds of foundation involved in tonight’s Daytime Face practice run. But let’s get the party started — where do you fall on the bush-to-Brazilian spectrum?

“Enjoy your hairless selves now, ladies,” says Miss Jenny as we pack up at the end of the night. It would not be overstating it to describe her ensuing giggle as devilish. “We’re going to get to know each other very well before you leave Beauty U.”

*Yep, that Allure, the monster beauty bible magazine. Remember that the next time you rant about women’s mags, what with their celebrity airbrushing and fad diets. (And by “you,” I mean “me.”)

On the Subject of Touch

My 600-hour adventure in beauty school. Learn more about the project or catch up with Orientation and Week 1.

http-// “professional stage makeup box” from The Art of Stage Dancing by Ned Wayburn (1925) via Project Gutenberg.


I apply my first Daytime Face on Thursday night. Blanche is my model. We start giggling while I fuss over which foundation to use on her (Beauty U is not exactly well stocked with makeup colors for African-American women) and load product onto my disposable wedge sponge, but when I reach in to apply the first blob, I pause. Miss Lisa — our most experienced teacher, who owns her own spa and looks every bit the PTA mom until she shows you one of her tattoos — comes right over.

“It’s weird at first, right?” She says. “Don’t worry, you get used to touching people fast. Now I touch everyone all the time, even if we’re just having a conversation.”

The last time I did someone else’s makeup was at an eighth grade sleepover. Now I’m inches from another person’s freckles and eyelids and I can’t even remember her last name.

It is weird.

And it’s only going to get weirder when we move on to facials and waxing — so even if I don’t get used to it, I better get over it, I think is what Miss Lisa means.

Do You Have Adequate Eyelashes? (I Thought Not.)

My 600-hour adventure in esthetics school. Learn more about the project, and catch up with Week 1.

Flower Eyelashes

In case you haven’t noticed, eyelashes are having a bit of a moment right now.

Brooke Shields is very concerned about them. You might not have thunk it, given Brooke’s eyebrows in the 80s, but she suffers dreadfully from hypotrichosis, the almost-a-real-medical condition of “having inadequate lashes.” Brooke thinks you might too, in which case you’ll also want to pay $120 per month for Latisse, a glaucoma drug that sounds much sexier  now that pharmaceutical company Allergan is marketing it for its lash-enhancing side effect instead.

Meanwhile, everyone from Lancome to Maybelline has taken a cue from lady razors, and ah, other lady devices, coyly introducing a plethora of vibrating mascaras. Miss Jenny has no patience with this: “We’re taking things a little too far now.”

Nevertheless, Beauty U prides itself on a cutting edge curriculum, so tonight we watch Miss Stacy demo eyelash extensions on Kirsty, one of the senior students. These are individual false eyelashes that an esthetician glues to your existing lashes to make them crazy long and fluffy. They can last up to a month, even withstanding swimming and contact lenses.

Applying eyelash extensions is finicky, pokey work: First your esthetician tapes your lower lashes to your face, so they don’t get in the way. Then you close your eyes (smart move, you), while she uses the world’s longest tweezers to pick up each individual lash and dip it in glue with one hand. With her other hand, she uses the world’s second longest tweezers to separate your top lashes and guide the first pair of lash-holding tweezers in place.

The entire procedure can take at least 90 minutes, depending how many lashes you need and how experienced your esthetician might be. Miss Stacy works deftly, grumbling about the crappy eyelash glue, but nevertheless securing a row of neat lashes in place. Then we all get a turn. Meg takes a pass because the whole thing creeps her out. When I pick up the world’s longest tweezers, all I can think about is Kirsty’s eyeball, millimeters from the tweezer points. She thinks the same thing at the same moment, and starts blinking madly.

I spend ten minutes attempting to secure one lash, while thinking about the time I had my wisdom teeth pulled and the intern dentist took ten minutes to place my IV, leaving my arm bruised and tracked up like a heroin addict. At least that was deemed medically necessary by someone other than Suddenly Susan.

I decide to hand the tweezers back to Miss Stacy.

The whole deal with eyelash extensions is that you’ll pay $150 for them if you’re a client of Beauty U (where, um, someone with a few months of schooling on me will wield the tweezers) and upwards of $300 at a real salon. The cost to you is on par with Latisse, minus the side effects like your irises or eyelids potentially turning brown, though plus the risk of someone poking you in the eye or you having an allergic reaction to the glue.

The cost to the salon is about $5 per procedure. So I guess we’re all pretty grateful to Brooke for getting out there and spreading the word on hypotrichosis.

Miss Stacy pinches one, precious, glue-dipped lash and points the world’s longest tweezers aloft, Circle of Life style. The esthetics lamp glows like the sun.

“There’s an awful lot of money in this,” she says.

[Photo credit: eBay]

The Lesson is a Sales Pitch, Too.

My 600 hour adventure in esthetics school. Learn more about the project or catch up with Week 1 and the rest of Week 2.



From pages 404-405 of Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians:

There is a difference between high-quality (usually more expensive) and less expensive generic brands. The quality of the products and brushes makes a big difference in how makeup application will go [sic] for you, the artist, or for your client — smoothly or not so smoothly.

Explain to clients why they should buy quality makeup and brushes. Why are they better? Is quality going to make a difference on their skin? Will quality products glide on easier and not tug on the delicate eye tissue? Clients will be more satisfied with products that are easier to work with and will discover that quality is worth the extra money.

From page 437:

Good lighting makes a client look good, and clients who look good are more likely to purchase the products you recommend.

From page 447:

In a [makeup] lesson, clients are shown step by step how to apply makeup. These services are more time-consuming and expensive because you are sharing your knowledge. Lessons are a good opportunity to retail products so clients can reproduce the look you create at home.


Just in case anyone is confused about why we’re all here.

[Photo Credits: Makeup Lesson Chart and Bobbi Brown 2008 holiday offer via Daily Moxie]