While attending Empire Beauty School in Boston, Sasha Brown, a 30-year-old hairdresser from Watertown, spent nearly every evening after class Googling Nick Arrojo’s online hair tutorials for styling tips. Now, as a top three finalist in Arrojo’s Masters of Beauty competition, Brown can potentially put down the laptop and learn from Arrojo, the world-renowned celebrity hairstylist from “What Not to Wear,” firsthand.
“It’s a dream,” says Brown. “I always thought he was brilliant hair-wise and now I have a chance to work with him.”
The Masters of Beauty competition was open for all 150,000 students from 105 different Empire Beauty Schools in 19 states. The winner of the competition will win a 24-month apprenticeship with Arrojo at his New York City salon, Arrojo Studio, $10,000 for moving expenses, free classes taught by Arrojo and tickets to the New York International Beauty Show in April. The top two runners-up will also get tickets to the show.
“The goal is for the winner to become a really good stylist,” says Arrojo. “We’ll train them to the best of our ability.”
Brown says that winning this competition would be the best opportunity for her to grow as a hairstylist and to jumpstart her career, but she didn’t always think this window of opportunity would be possible for her.
Before the competition’s first-round deadline, her husband, Phillip Brown, had secretly entered her in the contest by submitting a picture of one of her haircuts. When Brown discovered she had made it to the second round of the competition, she was in shock.
“He mentioned the competition to me and I said, ‘No way would I have a chance with that.’ and he said, ‘Of course you will, you’re brilliant,’” says Brown, adding that her husband is her biggest fan.
The two then worked as a team to further her into the competition. As a professional videographer, her husband put together a video of Brown transforming her client, Leslie Pederson’s, look from a light brown do to a red asymmetrical bob. She was then selected to be a top 10 finalist.
“She wants to work for Nick Arrojo, she wants to go to New York City, she wants to learn as much as she can,” says Pederson, of Haverhill, who has been Brown’s client for eight years. “She listens and she knows how to cut hair. She deserves it.”
Arrojo says that the look Brown submitted stood out because her cut was up to par with his taste level. “She definitely had elements that I would consider the Arrojo style, which is contemporary and wearable,” he says. “We kind of have a more fashion-forward feel, and her cut kind of fit the brand.”
Although Brown had just started beauty school at Empire two years ago, her hairstyling practices began long before she was enrolled. While growing up in her hometown of Brighton, England, Brown would visit her mother, Lynn Rome, while she worked as a hairdresser at the Deborah Jane Salon. At the age of 5, Brown had started her beauty school education. She would observe her mother wash, cut, color and style client after client’s hair, and often helped braid some of the customers’ locks.
“I loved watching my mom do everything,” says Brown, adding that she continued to shadow her mother after they moved to a new salon in Palm Springs, Calif. when she was 13. “I loved watching her do perms, cuts, color, everything.”
Like mother like daughter, Brown dreamed of becoming a hairstylist and practiced her natural talent on My Little Pony toys, Barbie dolls and her family’s heads whenever she could run her fingers through their hair.
“I remember walking in the living room and my grandpa was on his chair and he had mini ponytails,” says Brown’s brother, Marc Rome, an attorney in Oklahoma City. “She’d use multicolored elastic bands to put his entire hair in pony tails.”
Brown and her brother grew up as polar opposites; Rome was a bookworm and Brown was a social butterfly. Where Rome was often spending hours studying for exams and quizzes, Brown spent her time singing, dancing and acting. Although she often felt the pressure to be “smart” like her brother, Rome never thought his little sister didn’t have brains.
“She was really intelligent, but she used her intelligence in different ways,” says Rome, who remembers Brown braiding her friends’ hair all the time growing up. “It’s more of a creative intelligence.”
After high school, Rome took the college route, attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but Brown knew that school wasn’t for her.
“I was always interested in the creative half of things, which didn’t really require the schooling in college but required schooling,” says Brown.
Going to college was something her mother wanted both of her children to experience, so she initially did not support Brown’s decision to pursue hairstyling.
“Growing up, she wanted to be a hair dresser and I wanted her to have an education,” says Brown’s mother, Lynn Rome, who has been a hairdresser for nearly 50 years. “I just desperately wanted her to go to school.”
As a kid, Brown remembers her mother soaking her swollen feet in hot water and complaining about sore limbs, shoulder pains and pulled muscles from constantly styling hair. The hair profession was physically demanding, and that was another reason why her mother didn’t support Brown’s career path.
“She kept telling me it’s really hard on the body and it’s a lot of hard work, and I was dumb and I listened to her,” says Brown.
Following her mother’s wishes, Brown went into various jobs trying to discover her passion. She worked as a flight attendant immediately after high school, was a nanny for seven years, was a waitress at multiple restaurants and was a dental assistant for five years.
“It was good pay and my mom kind of coaxed me into the go-for-the-money kind of thing, but I was miserable doing that,” says Brown. “I worked hard at it but it didn’t fulfill me.”
It wasn’t until she was 28 years old when she realized doing hair was her true calling. Two years ago, her husband had come home with a botched haircut that “looked like someone had their eyes shut when they were cutting his hair,” says Brown. She grabbed a pair of scissors and intuitively knew how to recover her husband’s awful new ‘do, and when she was done, Brown says her husband looked at her and said, “This is ridiculous. It’s time for you to do hair.”
“I like her cuts a lot better than other people I’ve been to, to be honest,” says Phillip Brown, her husband, who was in the Army, stationed in North Carolina at the time. “I’m really picky when it comes to who cuts my hair, and she does such a good job.”
When she moved back to Boston after living in the South with her husband for three years, Brown went straight to beauty school, where she’d have three-to-six walk-in clients a day coming in and out of the Empire salon. As a hands-on learner, Brown perfected her techniques through her experience at the school.
Emily Shuman, a career planning specialist at Empire Beauty School in Boston, says Brown was a standout student. She says that compared to other students, Brown had a large clientele and it was clear she produced quality work and that her clients were drawn to her perky, bubbly persona, which made them often come back asking if they could make an appointment with “the British girl.”
“Every single client left here with a giant smile on their face ready to book their next visit with her,” says Shuman. “She’s a very charming student here and made the clients feel very at ease. They didn’t feel like they were getting their hair done at a beauty school, she made it feel like the real deal.”
One loyal walk-in client of Brown’s at Empire was Jenna McGowan, who says that she enjoys going to Brown to get her hair done because she’s talkative, funny and a great listener.
“She’s very easy to talk to, which is great,” says McGowan, who started going to Brown a year ago. “That’s what people are looking for in a hairdresser.”
Brown’s brother agrees. “I think it’s really quite appropriate she’s a hair dresser because there’s more to being a hairdresser than just the design component,” says Rome. “There’s an entertainment component to hairdressing and she’s very good at being a hairdresser.”
In addition to studying Arrojo’s online videos and attending Empire part-time, Brown would seek inspiration by going into various hair salons throughout Boston and passively observing other stylists at work. She constantly envisioned hairdos that would look good on people everywhere she went.
“She’s always looking out for what she can do to people’s hair,” says McGowan. “She dreams about what she would do to their hair if they would let her.”
Her easygoing and welcoming personality and her commitment to improving her craft is exactly what Arrojo says he is looking for in a winner. “The salon is very friendly and I think very cool,” he says. “I’m looking for someone who’s very nice and someone who’s very committed.”
And committed, she is: Brown won first place in a competition at Empire put on by Arthur Miller, an owner of a salon on Newbury Street; volunteered to do children’s hair while teaching them about hygiene at the school; and always participated in school events, even dressing up as Betty Boop for an Empire look-a-like contest.
Currently, she is working at the Waban Salon in Newton, where both she and her more-than-proud mother work side-by-side. The competition winner will be selected on May 21, and Brown says if she wins, this will help her provide for her, her husband and their two children, Bailey, 6, and Brighton, 3, and it would create more opportunities for her in what she is most passionate about–the hair business.
“Finally my passion got the best of me and I did what I knew I should’ve done 10 years ago,” says Brown. “I love it and it’s not hard work to me at all. It’s loads of fun.”