Salt Lake City, UT, August 2010
Christie moved to New York City by herself at age 20 to work in a salon. Now ten years later, her clients include celebrities and magazine models. Christie talks about battling the stereotypes facing hair dressers and how she has gained confidence in her skills, intelligence and spiritual understanding despite not having an academic education. Christie also reveals how her sister’s death from a heroin addition brought her divorce-torn family together and healed her personally.
Within ten years, you have become a successful and celebrated stylist. How did you get started in the industry?
I grew up in McLean, Virginia, which is a very education-oriented, intense sort of place. When I finished high school in 1997, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Where you going to school?” My friends were going to MIT and Johns Hopkins and other prestigious schools and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I decided to go to Utah to be closer to my father and his family there.
One of my aunts owned a really successfully salon in Utah. She suggested that I try beauty school. It would only be a year, so if I hated it I could just try something else.
I wasn’t one of those girls who grew up braiding everyone’s hair; I was a total tomboy. I’m still a tomboy, which is ironic because I’m in the beauty industry. I loved beauty school. From the day I started, I fell in love with it. I think my aunt hoped I would work for her, but I knew that I wanted to go back to the East Coast where I felt so comfortable.
You were just turning 20 years old when you finished beauty school and you decided to move, alone, to New York City. What motivated you to make that move?
Once a month at my beauty school, we would have guest artists come to do presentations for us. One of the presenters came from a salon in Stamford, Connecticut, and I became enamored with that salon. So, I got a job there and I worked in Stamford for six months, but every weekend I went into New York to go to the singles’ ward there. I soon met a fashion photographer who in the bishopric there, and I started working with him on his photo shoots. I was coming to the city two to three times a week — church was there, my freelance work was there, all my new friends were there — so it seemed natural to move into the city.
After moving into the city, I started working at Cutler Salon on 57th Street in Manhattan. The owner, Rodney, is a fantastic guy and wonderful to work for, and he would always say that he liked having Mormons work for him.
How did you manage living in the city alone financially?
It was really rough, honestly. I didn’t have any help from my parents. I was really independent growing up and I wasn’t one who was going to ask anyone for money. My first place in New York City was a three-bedroom apartment I shared with five girls. I slept on a bunk bed. We were on 106th Street and we had cross-town busses screeching outside our windows every night, and it was in the type of neighborhood where the couple next door yelled at each other constantly. I learned to sleep with a pillow over my head!
I started as an assistant at Cutler. I was making about $200 a week and working 50 to 60 hours a week. So, every night after work I would cut hair out of my apartment or I would go to people’s houses and cut their hair. That’s how I got to know so many of the members in New York, and I became really close to many of the families there.
The months that I couldn’t make rent, my roommate would come shopping in my closet! She would look through my clothes and she’d say, “What can I buy from your closet this month?” Even though she would always ask me for beauty and fashion advice, looking back, I totally see she didn’t need my clothes and was just being kind to me. She is a great friend, and one of the people who helped me get by month to month during that early time when I was scrapping by.
Where do you get the motivation to stick with it, even though it was financially difficult?
I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature, but there were times when I said to myself, “What am I doing? This is ridiculous.” But I was always surrounded by really good people, like the roommates in my apartment. At first glance, my roommates and I didn’t seem to have a lot in common and I was worried that we wouldn’t mesh, but they ended up being fabulous. They were really great influences on me.
I also think I got lucky with the salon where I worked. As I said, the owner was very positive and encouraging. Every week, the assistants had to go to a class called “People Skills.” It meant a lot to me that the owner would take the time to sit down with the assistants – his lowest-level employees — for an hour every week and talk to us about how to be successful. All of the things he taught us fell in line with Mormon philosophies. So, I was around really good people in every part of my life who motivated me.
What were your responsibilities as an assistant at Cutler?
As an assistant, you’re basically someone else’s slave for two years! It’s not actually that hard to get in to be an assistant, but it’s two years of really intense work where you’re in the salon from 8AM to 8PM every day, you’re washing hair, you’re on your feet all day.
There was one day a week when the assistants could do hair for a model. When we’d have our model days, the other assistants would never have their own models to do. But for me, being Mormon, I had everyone in the world wanting me to do their hair, so I would recruit my friends to come in. Always taking advantage of these model days set me apart from the rest of the assistants.
I used the sister missionaries as models for the longest time. They would come into this fancy salon on their preparation days and get their hair done for free. I would highlight their hair and blow it out. The Manhattan sisters always had really, really good hair! I just had an endless stream of friends and ward members coming to support me and help me practice, and the other assistants didn’t have that kind of network.
I remember there was a Mongolian sister with very dark hair who came to me several times, and the last time she came was right before she went home to Mongolia. I highlighted her hair and made it really light. I think the mission president must have wondered, “Who is this Christie Somers girl, giving the sister missionaries highlights all the time?”
Towards the end of my apprenticeship, as part of my testing to get my own clients, I had to pass on a “double process” which is an all-over bleach blonde. And it had to be a virgin double process, meaning one done on someone who had never colored their hair before. thought, “Where am I going to find this person in Manhattan?” I called my friend who is half Japanese and half Hawaiian. He was studying for the bar exam and needed a break, so I said, “Come on over here! Today you are going blonde!” About a week before he started work at a really conservative New York law firm, I turned this Japanese/Hawaiian guy into a blonde!
When you get done with your apprenticeship you have to put on a fashion show to showcase your work over the two years. I used girls in my ward for my models and I made all my friends come. I had a friend who’s in a great band come and play for my show. As they were unpacking all of their equipment, I could see the owner of the salon wondering, “How loud is this show going to be?” It looked like a real miniature version of a show you’d see at Fashion Week, and was a much bigger production than the other assistants put on.
So after that I was on the floor everyday; I started taking my own clients. Eventually, I think I had about half of the Manhattan stake as my clients. At one point, the owner was like, “So, the Mormons are keeping us in business right now!”
How did you move into styling for fashion photography?
I got started doing photo shoots with the fashion photographer who was in the bishopric of the ward. He took me on shoots to do hair, but one day the make-up artist didn’t show up. I had never done make-up for anyone else. As I said, I was kind of a tomboy and I didn’t really wear makeup myself. So he said, “Well, just run down to Duane Reade and buy some make-up!” Now, I would be appalled by going to Duane Reade for make-up!
After that unglamorous beginning, I started assisting some of the big editorial stylists on shoots and then continued meeting people. The creative world in New York is much smaller than you’d expect, so my network grew quickly. I did a lot of producers’ hair, a lot of creative directors’ hair, and they referred me to photographers. I just built relationships with people and that seems to be the most successful way of doing business.
Do you have one story in particular of a funny or high-profile client that you’d be willing to share?
I’ve done Fashion Week. My clients include Norah Jones and Rachel Ray, and I have done makeovers for Good Housekeeping and other magazines.
The story I like best is probably about a woman named Dorothy Rabinowitz, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She has a column in the Wall Street Journal and a syndicated column. She’s a spit-fire lady. She looks like a tiny Jewish grandmother, but she is very intimidating! The first time that I ever did her hair, the owner of the salon said, “This woman is a big deal. Do not screw up her hair!” I was really nervous.
The first appointment was great: we chatted about her dog and stuff. I think she enjoyed it because most people want to talk about politics with her, and I think she was just happy to come in and talk about her dog. She liked her hair and made another appointment with me. The second time she came in and sat down in my chair, I started asking her how she liked her color and she interrupted me with her low raspy voice, “They tell me you’re a Mormon.” I thought, “Oh no!” But then she said, “I love the Mormons!” I was so relieved because — not that I was keeping my religion a secret or anything — but I just didn’t want to go head-to-head on doctrine with a famous journalist. That would have been way out of my comfort zone. But she just talked about how much she loved Mormons and we created a great bond. We were unlikely friends, but we loved each other.
All my coworkers in New York defended me to the ground if anything came up about the Church in a work setting. There was a girl I worked with who was really confrontational and she and I locked horns on everything because she had a more negative attitude and I had a positive, upbeat attitude. My way wasn’t better than hers, but we often just butted heads. I remember one day I overheard her talking to a client and the client made some crack about Mormons and she totally let her client have it. I was so surprised! Of all the people in the world to stick up for my people, I did not expect it to be her. But I think people appreciated that I was open about my religion and willing to answer questions, but that I never tried to push it on them.
Did you feel supported in your career by your family?
My dad and my step-mom were totally on board, but my mom wasn’t too keen on it. Education is very important to that side of my family and they didn’t know quite what to make of me. My mom was really upset at me for the first few months of beauty school because she was so disappointed I wasn’t going to a fancy college. So, I’ve definitely fought with the beauty school stereotypes.
I remember about five or six years after I’d moved to New York my brother came up to visit during the Christmas holiday. He went to Oxford and George Mason University… very intelligent and very educated. In New York, it’s customary to tip everyone in December — your doorman, your mailman, your hairdresser — and you typically tip your hairdresser the same amount you would pay for your hair that month. There’s a funny tipping culture in New York which I didn’t know about until I was getting these $250 tips in December.
So, that whole week my brother was visiting I was coming home with hundreds of dollars in cash at the end of each day. And my brother said teasingly, “You’re the only person who’s ever made me reconsider college!” Even though it was said jokingly, it was still reassuring because he was acknowledging that I was really good at what I do and didn’t just become a hair dresser because I was some dumb blonde who didn’t have other options.
Even the other night, I was playing Scrabble with one of my friends and I beat her and she said, “You know, you’re actually pretty smart!” I said, “Why is that surprising?” And she said, “Oh, because you’re a hairdresser, and you’re blonde, and people just look at you and they don’t think you’ll be intelligent.” I think I’ll always battle that stereotype, no matter how successful I am in my career.
What was it that kept you active in the Church during your time alone in New York?
The bishop of the singles’ ward was hugely influential in my being active in the Church in New York. When I moved to Utah right out of high school, I had a hard time with the culture there. I remained active, but I was not totally committed at that time. When I moved to New York, there was a huge void in my life, not having any family out there or any support system and being so entirely independent. So, I threw myself into the singles’ ward there.
Initially, I felt really out of my element there in New York and I was really intimidated by the people I met there. I would call my brother after Sunday dinners with ward members and I’d say, “Not only could I not add one thing to the conversation, I didn’t even have any idea what they were talking about!” I felt like I was in over my head since I hadn’t gone to school, and hadn’t served a mission.
Where did you get your confidence?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. My first home teachers in New York were one guy who was getting his PhD at Columbia, and another who was part of a huge, academic Church family. I remember the first time they home taught me about the Old Testament I just sat there and thought “Whoever reads that?”
That was actually a really funny experience because I tried to make some witty comments while they were there, trying to make myself feel better about having no clue what they were talking about. I made some comment like, “How important is the Old Testament, really, to your spirituality?” And they both looked at me totally appalled: “It’s SO important!” When they left I burst into tears. I cried to my roommate, “I don’t know anything about this religion that I profess to believe in!” I was really overwhelmed. But the lesson I took away from that experience was that it is okay to find your own spirituality. People come at it in different ways and that’s okay. At a very young age, I had to face who I really was: what I could do and what I knew was right, and be okay with that.
I also think New York was a really great place to discover that about myself. There are members there who are from every walk of life who make Mormonism work for them. I think the bishopric of my ward was a perfect example: there was a fashion photographer, a teacher, and a banker; three totally contrasting careers and they all made it work. I also think that in an environment like that you see the real need for the Church in your life. You come together as a family with the other members and there’s this support system. So for me, all the elements of the Gospel became very real and you can see and feel them in that city environment.
Why did you decide to relocate to Utah?
I was sitting in General Conference in the Manhattan chapel when I got a call from my dad. I checked my voicemail and my dad was crying. My little sister, Jani, had died of a heroine overdose. I had been aware Jani was having problems but I didn’t know the extent. I decided right there I needed to go home and be with my dad for the funeral.
I was nervous to go to Utah because I’d had a lot of problems with my dad and stepmom when I’d lived there for beauty school, and they hadn’t been a big part of my life since I’d moved back East. I actually hadn’t even talked to my dad for a long time before the call about Jani came. There had been a lot of hurt and disappointment and dysfunction that had occurred in my family and that had left a lot of scars. But as soon as I saw my dad and my stepmother, all of that pain and vulnerability and anger was just gone in a second. It was the most bizarre, but spiritual, healing experience I’ve ever had in my life.
They felt it, too, my dad and step-mother and step-siblings. Our relationship had always been strained, but in that week surrounding Jani’s funeral, we just found this incredible love for each other. I had been working in the Manhattan Temple, which I think was important because it made me more receptive to those spiritual experiences, but it was interesting to have something so painful in the past turn into something so bright.
I was a “Life New Yorker.” I was never going to leave. New York has this way of getting into you and you can’t possibly consider living anywhere else. But when I came back to New York after that week of being in Utah with my family, I was a basket case. I burst into tears at everything, and I’m a pretty stable, optimistic person! All of a sudden it felt like there was a huge void in my life, like I needed to be close to my family and I needed to heal those relationships. Within a couple of months I decided I was going to move to Utah, which I assumed was going to be the kiss of death for my career!
It has been a really healing time, and I’ve even been able to stay busy working. I bought a townhouse when I got to Utah — because I was sick of paying rent in New York! — and I had my older brother and younger sister come to live with me, which was wonderful because we’d been totally torn apart as kids by divorce. I think if you saw us today, you’d never know we’d been through what we did as a family.
All together, I have nine brothers and sisters, plus a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law. There have been a lot of marriages and divorces and re-marriages, and it’s all very confusing. Technically, you could say that I’m an only child because all of my siblings are half- or step-siblings, but I don’t really worry about those distinctions.
I was just at my brother’s sealing a few months ago. We have the same mom, but different dads. As I looked around the sealing room, between he and his wife there were three dads and four moms present. The only “full blood” relation my brother had in the whole room was our mom. But the room was stuffed full with our family, even if many of the people there wouldn’t even fit on a traditional pedigree chart…unless they start making spaces for your mother’s third husband’s second wife. But he counts them all as his family because they love him and he loves them, and because we all know that the power of the sealing is going to make it all work out. That’s what makes my crazy family stick together.
Would you describe what your dad is doing to combat future drug-related deaths like Jani’s?
My dad is a sort of rough-around-the-edges kind of guy. He’s not the sort who’s just going to lie down and take stuff. So, when he found out my sister, Jani, was doing drugs, he decided he was going to fight and he was going to try save his daughter. He started finding out who her dealers were, where they were dealing, and who they were getting their drugs from. He started getting familiar with the drug community in an effort to save his daughter. The one dealer in particular who provided Janie with most of her drugs had six felony warrants out for him already, so my dad would call the cops and say, “Okay, here’s where he’s dealing. Here’s who he’s dealing to. Here’s where he’s getting it.” But for the life of him, he couldn’t get the dealer arrested. He felt so frustrated because he felt he either had to take matters into his own hands, or he had to watch his daughter die at the hands of this dealer. This dealer was super aggressive: he climbed up to my sister’s room in the second story of our house to give her drugs through the window one time she was trying to detox. He texted my sister 37 times one day.
Finally, after a few months, my dad put a bounty out on the dealer to have him arrested so that anyone who turned him in to the police would get $500. Within three hours, the dealer was in jail. Of course, my dad gave the money to some little druggie kid who had dirt on the dealer, so that strategy wasn’t sustainable. But it got him thinking about ways that he could get involved in the system to make a change.
He started a foundation called Dads Against Drug Dealers and he’s received tons of national press — the ”Good Morning America”, Fox News Channel, People magazine – for trying to change the landscape of drug dealing in the United States. My dad calls drugs “the secret combinations of our times.” He made reference to that on ”Good Morning America” and my siblings and I were like, “Dad, that doesn’t make sense to anyone else who’s not Mormon!”
If there is one thing you would encourage other LDS women to do, what would it be?
I can only speak from my own experience obviously, but I feel that when you’re exposed to different people, different cultures, and different belief systems, it makes you more tolerant and more loving. love God’s children even more because of my experiences in New York and in my career. I hope every girl chases after opportunities — whether they’re career opportunities or opportunities with children — lives a full life and keeps upbeat and positive, realizing the differences in people are the beauty of God.
At A Glance
Location: Salt Lake City, UT
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Hair and make-up artist
Schools Attended: Paul Mitchell School, Provo, UT
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Abide With Me: ‘Tis Eventide”
On The Web: www.christiesomers.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Portrait by Alisia Packard.
At A Glance