7 Investigates: Diverse hair salon shortage

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(WSAW) -- Jonette Arms became a resident of Wausau a year ago. She quickly discovered a problem she did not expect.

“When I got here I asked, 'where are your beauticians who do diverse textured hair, specifically for me, African American hair?' And no one knew,” she said. “And even other African Americans, no one knew. They knew of places where you could go get your hair braided. I don't wear my hair in braids."

Like many people, hair care is important to her, so she did her research. When she looks at work examples on salons’ websites and social media pages, she explains "I don't see anyone that looks like me."

Specifically, no examples of people with hair like hers, tightly coiled. Really curly hair is often more fragile because its coil shape does not allow the hair to hold moisture well. The oil from a person’s head does not make it all the way down to the end of the strand like straight hair, which makes it more prone to breakage. So, if a stylist does not use the right products or handle the hair properly, real damage can be done quickly.

“I think what would help make people feel comfortable is having someone, not necessarily that has to look like me, but where the community says, you know, it’s this beautician or cosmetologist, that she is skilled in doing diverse types of hair,” Arms said.

She has not heard of someone like that in central Wisconsin.

“I had to go back to my beautician in Milwaukee and say, ‘can I, you know, stay on your schedule.’ And she said, ‘you’re going to drive all the way back here?’ And actually, that’s what I’ve been doing,” she explained.

She is not alone; 7 Investigates spoke with other community members and learned people are traveling up to three hours away to places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay to find a stylist they trust.

“I have been called the fixer," Kimyatta Ratliff owns Universal Designs Salon in Green Bay, the closest recommendation 7 Investigates got from central Wisconsin community members.

She is originally from Los Angeles, but she saw an opportunity when visiting her sister in Green Bay.

"I saw that there weren't anybody here really doing hair for African Americans, so I thought it was a good place to come open up a business,” she said.

She is booked months in advance, though she says she can squeeze people in if you give her a call, and she said it is not uncommon for people to travel three hours to get to her.

“My clientele come from all over really,” she said.

Robin Whitcomb is one of her loyal, local clients.

“We just hope Kim never leaves, that’s all. Because that’s my buddy, that’s my hair! Shoot! We do like Kim,” Whitcomb exclaimed.

She used to go to Milwaukee "every week. I need my hair done, I can't do it." Whitcomb explained it is about the experience, not the stylist’s own hair type or skin color that matters.

“I did one place one time, I think you went out of town,” she recalled looking at Ratliff, “and this girl did my hair and I went in there with curls, I didn't come out with curls. So that's why, nobody but Kim."

Universal is in a name for a reason.

“I have a lot of white clients that have curly hair and say that 'I can't find nobody here in Green Bay to do my hair.' So, it's not just African American hair,” Ratliff said. “I think people get scared of the different texture in general.”

Ratliff said it comes down to stylists understanding the basics of hair and having the confidence to execute those services. That confidence, however, comes with practice, which is something State College of Beauty Culture Administrator Andi Burns said their students need more exposure to on real clients.

"We survey our students all of the time and one of the end of the year things that came out in our surveys were they want more ethnic hair. They want more African American hair,” she said. “They want to, you know, work with it more so they feel very secure with their abilities when they get out into the salon and spa.”

“Some of our students get lucky and have an African American or someone with that super curly hair in their chair and then some will just never get that experience, you know, they’ll just get it on the mannequins,” Burns continued.

She said there are a few stylists in the area confident enough to handle curly-textured hair, but she also often hears the problems of people traveling to bigger cities where the population is more diverse. Burns does encourage all people to come into their salon because they are always looking for models, which are people instructors or guest instructors demonstrate different techniques on a live person. They are also in need of clients for their students, who are always supervised by an experienced instructor.

“The more different types of people and hair and skin and nails that come through the door, the better our students are trained,” Burns said.

With more than 500 African Americans in Wausau alone, not to mention the surrounding areas and people of mixed backgrounds with curly-textured hair, this is an opportunity to not only get a cut of those hair profits in north central Wisconsin, but fill a disparity in the community too.

"This is my community and I would like to be able to receive all of my services here,” Arms said.

Ratliff said she will be hosting classes this summer to teach people about African American hair and curly-textured hair, hair styles not often seen in Wisconsin, and business classes for stylists. She said she will also be offering learning opportunities for the general public to learn about how to care for curly and coily-textured hair. To sign up and learn more click here.