For the first 24 years of my life, my hair routine was as low-maintenance (and inexpensive) as possible: I washed it with shampoo from Trader Joe’s, let it air dry, and called it a day. Once I got my hair blown out for the first time, though, I knew that I’d never be able to go back to my barely-groomed state. There was no way, though, that I could afford to pay $30 and up for a weekly blowout, so I found an alternative: moving from salon to salon as a volunteer hair model. It takes a little more effort than calling and asking for an appointment, but it means that you never need to pay full price to get your hair done again.
If you want to do the same thing, here’s how:
Find an apprentice stylist.
If you live in a major city, bookmark SalonApprentice.com. It’s not the most user-friendly site, but it’s still the best way to find stylists who are training or auditioning for jobs. You can sort the listings by date, salon, or service offered, and occasionally even find opportunities to get paid for being a hair model at a trade show or photoshoot.
Salon Apprentice is like Craigslist in the sense that you need to act fast, and will usually get only one response back for every five emails that you send. To save time, I’ve saved an email with my availability, a few sentences about my hair (long, thick, naturally straight, not colored) and pictures of the front and back that I can easily copy and paste.
If Salon Apprentice doesn’t cover your area, check to see if there are other cosmetology schools, like The Aveda Institute, nearby. Large high-end salons often have their own training programs for apprentices with some experience, so it’s worth calling to see if they ever need hair models.
Don’t expect it to be quick.
Most likely, you’ll be one of several models who are there for a class, and the stylists will take periodic breaks so that the instructor can demonstrate one technique or another. You also won’t be allowed to leave until the person who is leading the class has critiqued the final result (which is really great if you enjoy listening to strangers discuss your cowlick as if you can’t hear.) Since my hair takes forever to dry, I allow at least two hours for each appointment and bring a book.
The fact that inexperienced stylists tend to take longer has actually turned out to be an added bonus, because I can follow along and figure out how what I should be doing with my hair at home. I still can’t replicate a salon blowout, but I’ve learned what products and techniques work for my hair and which don’t. That alone has saved me time and money.
Take advantage of the opportunity to experiment.
After getting the same exact haircut every couple of months for the past ten years, I changed it up by responding to a post from someone who was looking to practice long layers. This shocks people who can’t imagine letting an inexperienced stranger near their hair with a pair of scissors. But I did my research and checked out the salon’s website in advance, so I was sure that I wasn’t going to walk out with a totally dated or unflattering hairstyle. I also figured that if I hated the final result, it would be less painful than if I’d paid $100 for it.
If you’ve been thinking about a new color or highlights, there are plenty of apprentice colorists who need models, too. It’s usually not free, but you’ll only be charged for the cost of the products. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to get an equally discounted price for a touch-up, so factor that cost into your calculations before you commit. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for what you want.
Obviously, if you’ve volunteered to get a pixie cut, you can’t show up and ask for a graduated bob. But other than that, it’s not out of line to express your preferences to the stylist and the person who’s instructing them. Historically, I have been very bad at this, and there have been many times that I have left a salon with perfect curls, eager to get home and spend the rest of the night taking Photobooth selfies, only to realize they completely collapsed while I was on the subway because I didn’t want to ask for extra hairspray.
“They’re professionals!” I always think at the time. “Why would I tell them what to do? They know so much more about this stuff than I do. And I don’t want to be demanding.” Please do not be like me. Your hair has been attached to your head for your entire life, and you know it better than anyone, including a stylist who met you an hour or two ago. Also, there is nothing demanding about being expected to be compensated for your time. In this case, compensation comes in the the form of a hairstyle that you are happy with, and which ideally lasts for more than an hour.
Bring some cash for the tip.
I’m embarrassed to say that this didn’t occur to me at first, but even with a free service, regular tipping etiquette (meaning 15-20%) applies. I usually look up the salon in advance so that I can figure out what a blow dry costs and calculate what a 20% tip would be. If I forget, though, it’s easy enough to ask, “So, what does a blowout normally cost here?”
Besides the obvious perks of great hair and getting to tell people that, no big deal, I’m a hair model, there’s a psychological benefit that comes from spending time in a clean, minimalist salon, accepting a glass of water with lemon and a straw, and letting someone brush out my hair until it’s sleek and shiny like the mane of a show pony. A lot of “self care” is expensive, and often it feels like I’m torn between taking care of my current self (getting massages, buying flowers) and taking care of my future self (building my savings account, paying off my student loans.) Hair modeling has made it possible for me to do both those things at once.
Antonia Farzan is on Tumblr.
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