MONDAY Report : Cutting Across Cultural Lines : Beauty Salon Business Opens Avenue of Opportunity for Minorities to Prosper, Serve Their Communities

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Aruni Blount’s Los Angeles Beauty School roster reads like a meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly. Blount, a Thai who teaches in English with help from a Spanish-speaking aide, has had students from El Salvador, Trinidad, Nicaragua, Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Located in the cultural melting pot of mid-town Los Angeles, the college also helps foreign students obtain visas to study in the United States. Some graduate and return to their homelands to work, but most move into the 7,000 or so beauty salons operating in Los Angeles County.

In fact, Los Angeles Beauty College students are among thousands of Southland immigrants eager to buy a piece of the American dream by providing beauty services to their own cultural communities. The profession attracts recent immigrants because limited language or educational skills are not an obstacle to success, according to Jeff Weir, a legislative analyst for the state Board of Cosmetology. “There are very few entry level positions where you can get into it quickly, make a living and feed your family,” Weir said.

Although the state cosmetology board does not inquire about the ethnic origin of applicants or where they plan to work, Weir said Los Angeles County is clearly experiencing a boom in the number of beauty school graduates.


In September, 1988, the board reported that Los Angeles County had 56,467 licensed cosmetologists, an increase of about 1,000 a year since 1983. The same month, the board reported a total of 13,921 establishments and 114,700 licensed cosmetologists in Southern California.

Meantime, as demand for their services has risen sharply, salons catering to distinct cultural and ethnic groups are opening across the Southland. Beauty industry experts say they are successful because new immigrants often feel more comfortable obtaining beauty services from someone who speaks their language and understands their stylistic preferences.

They are also busy because the neighborhood beauty salon has traditionally been a gathering place for women to meet and socialize.

“In the past, beauty salons were one of the few places, besides a night club, where blacks could gather and relax,” said Cynthia Santiago, a Puerto Rican hairdresser who works at a salon catering to black women.


Almost Every Neighborhood

But once a woman has assimilated into American culture, she tends to leave her community salon behind and patronize a salon catering to a variety of customers. “Established Asian women who like to feel well-assimilated would rather frequent upscale places like Vidal Sassoon in Beverly Hills,” said Shi Kagy, advertising director and beauty consultant for ASIAM magazine, which covers people and events in the Pacific Basin.

A look at local Yellow Pages directories reveals thousands of beauty salons in virtually every neighborhood from Boyle Heights to Brentwood.

One favorite gathering place for Korean women seeking beauty services is the Gahin House of Beauty in Korea Town. The salon offers a full range of treatments, including massage, sauna, nail care and makeup applications. Gahin Choi, considered a leader in the Asian beauty community, founded the salon and spa 10 years ago.


Many Korean brides spend the day before their wedding being pampered at the salon, which is tucked into a shopping center on Wilshire Boulevard.

“A lot of women come from Glendale, Torrance and all over the city to Korea Town to get their hair done,” said Jino Son, a hairdresser at Gahin. “They come because Korea Town is very famous.”

Son, who previously worked in San Francisco, said there are more than 100 salons in the Korean section of Los Angeles. And, it seems that new ones are opening up every month.

He said many Asian women seek a hairdresser experienced in dealing with their thick, straight hair because it is usually more difficult to color and perm than Caucasian hair.


At Oshare in Japan Town, owner Geri Ogawa caters to a wide variety of clients, mostly professional women who work downtown. She recently asked a black hairdresser who specializes in hair weaving to join her so they could expand the salon’s ethnic beauty services.

“Most of my clients are working women who want to look conservative and businesslike,” said Ogawa.

Ogawa and other hairdressers said Latina women tend to favor long, wavy hair, which means they are not as dependent on hairdressers to achieve the looks they want.

In fact, absolutely straight, waist-length hair with a frame of short hair around the face, is the rage now for young Latina women, Ogawa said.


Special Beauty Problems

Roxanne Huapaya, a hairdresser at Elena’s Beauty Salon on Avenue 26, said most of her customers live in the neighborhood and are extremely loyal.

“There are a few salons in the neighborhood, and we are all busy,” said Huapaya, who has worked at Elena’s for two years. Although black women do not face a language problem in seeking services, they have traditionally sought salons skilled in dealing with their special beauty problems.

“Black hair is very fragile--a black woman’s hair breaks more easily than any other kind of hair,” said LaVerne Powlis, a consultant to Avon and author of “Beauty From the Inside Out, a Guide for Black Women.”


Powlis said in Los Angeles, black women seek out salons dedicated to providing the services they need. She said today there are scores of salons to choose from, ranging from tiny neighborhood beauty shops on Crenshaw Boulevard to trendy West Los Angeles salons like those owned by hairdressers John Atchison and Thaddeus Winston.

“I thought we could do a lot more to black hair than was being done,” said Thaddeus Winston, owner of Winston’s on Melrose.

Winston, who started his career as a barber in Indiana 20 years ago, said many professional black women visit the salon regularly because they “need to look right” for their jobs.

He employs several stylists skilled in hair weaving and braiding, techniques used to attach strands of real hair to a client’s own hair. Women who are too impatient to grow their hair longer, or who seek a glamorous, “larger than life” look, pay $500 or more for these services.


To meet the growing demand for hair weaving and other beauty treatments that take several hours, Winston is adding private rooms with televisions to his salon. He’s also planning to open a beauty school to train stylists to care for black hair.

“There is a renaissance in black hair care,” said Cynthia Santiago, a hairdresser at Winston’s. “There is a revolution going on, and it has to do with the technology available to deal with black hair.”

She said most of Winston’s customers are regulars who spend at least $40 and 90 minutes each time they visit the salon.

Santiago said she had to overcome strong opposition from her beauty school instructors when she wanted to work with black clients. The instructors told her that black women would not want a Caucasian to style their hair--an assumption proven wrong by Santiago’s clients.


Many black women in business and entertainment are willing to pay high prices for hair straightening, texturizing or permanents so they can wear high fashion styles.

“I call it ‘salon bondage,’ ” Santiago jokes. “The wonderful thing is that they can’t do it themselves so they need places like this.”