By Ross Fredrick Williams
One of my earliest, fondest memories is of going, at age four, with my dad to pick up my mother from beauty school. Entering the Continental College of Beauty in Murray, Utah was like going to the park for me. The people running back and forth with such purpose, the clean capes draped over the clients in their chairs, the smells of perm solutions and burning hair, the rollers…it all made my eyes wide with wonder and possibility. I hated leaving, and I couldn’t wait to go back. That’s why I was so upset when my mom decided to drop out; she said she was allergic to a lot of the solutions. I didn’t know what that meant of course. All I knew was I wasn’t going to get to go to my park any longer.
Flash forward to age 12. Bored out of my mind one hot summer’s day, I decided to go on a ‘treasure hunt’ in our garage. There was always something good to find in there, as my parents never threw anything away. Everything got stuffed into boxes and stored in the garage. About an hour into the hunt, I opened the box that would change my life forever. At first I thought that what I was seeing was a dead animal and jumping back I let out a sound that can only be described as a high-pitched, inhuman wail. Once I calmed down, I took a closer look at what was truly in the box and discovered a human-haired wig. I could not believe my eyes; I swear I started to hyperventilate with the thoughts of what I was going to do with this, the most valuable treasure I had ever come across. I immediately started in on the rest of the box to discover more wigs; they were not human hair wigs but wigs nonetheless. I also found a Styrofoam head and in that moment an idea formed and my destiny was set. I knew what had to be done: I had to make these things my own and that’s exactly what I did.
My parents worked during the day and my older “jock” brother had just gotten his driver’s license so he was never home. I had the entire house to myself most of the time. I took the treasure into the house and locked myself in the bathroom where I went to work on step one of my plan: shampooing and brushing the human haired wig. It took me about an hour, but I got it clean and smooth. I then put it on the Styrofoam head but it wouldn’t stay so I got long nails from my dad’s tool box and shoved them deep inside the head at a sharp angle. This thing was not going anywhere.
The next day was like Christmas. I could not wait until I was alone and could play with this new toy. The minute my parents drove off I got out the hair and began brushing it with a brush that I had taken from my mother’s drawer. I also took one of her curling irons and two combs. I didn’t know the first thing about hair, so it was all trial and error at this point. I cannot even begin to tell you how many burns I sustained in these early days or how I managed to hide them from my parents—but of course I’d gotten really good at hiding things from my parents by then. At 12 I knew instinctively to hide things about myself: I knew that boys didn’t play with dolls and that boys who did were a kind of different that meant their parents wouldn’t love them any longer. So I hid my brushes and wigs along with my feelings.
As the summer drew to an end, I had gotten really good with the curling iron. I spent all of my free time playing with this wonderful gadget. I would watch TV while locked in my room and copy the styles of the actors from some of my favorite shows of the day. One such show was Little House on the Prairie. I did Laura Ingalls’ braids, Nellie Olsen’s ringlets, and updos inspired by Miss Beatle the school teacher.
When I was done for the day and had to put my things away, I found the best hiding place in the world. My room was in the basement. From my closet I could put my tools and wigs between my ceiling and the main floor of the house. I thought I was brilliant—I was wrong. My brother also used this kind of space to hide things like dirty magazines and apparently checked to see if I did the same.
I will never forget the day my brother barged into my room and without saying a word went to my hiding place and pulled out all of my hidden treasures. I had been playing with these things and hiding them for years because I didn’t want anyone to think or know what I knew about myself but had not yet put into words. “Male stylists are gay.” I could not go to beauty school, because I didn’t want people thinking or knowing my deepest, darkest secret. My parents would surely stop loving me, I would have to move out, and I would be looked upon as a disgusting freak. These are just some of the thoughts that flashed in my mind as my brother stood in front of me, my secret world completely exposed. My hands went numb, my heart felt like it was going to pound right out of my chest, my vision blurred, and the room started to sway back and forth. I felt as though I would collapse right there—dead! Now don’t get me wrong. I was always a bit of a dramatic child, but this episode was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was quite certain that my whole world was about to implode.
My brother stood there for what seemed like an eternity, until I spoke. All I managed to say was, “Don’t tell mom and dad.” I just kept repeating it (almost hysterically) until he said “okay.” My brother never spoke about it again, not to me or my parents. He never called me a “fag” or asked me why I would play with what I’m sure he thought of as dolls.
That moment was so traumatic for me that I decided to hide my hair things forever. I could not bear to throw them away, so I put them back into my ceiling. But I took a broom handle and pushed everything so far back that I couldn’t see it, let alone reach it without tearing my ceiling apart (which I never did). My stash is probably still there today.
The next six years were a blur of jobs that were just that—jobs. They were not careers nor were they fulfilling in any way. I tried to go to college, but school was not for me. I hated almost everything about it. I was creative and I had no outlet for that creativity to flow, until I was 24. At 24 I got a job at the Marriot in downtown Salt Lake City delivering room service in the mornings. I learned on the very first day of work that all of my male co-workers were, in fact, gay. It was a dream come true, I could be myself completely for the first time ever. Room service shared the kitchen with the restaurant and I got to know all of the servers really well, all of whom were female. One morning before work one of the servers from the dining room came over to the office and was trying to French braid her hair. She was not very good at it, and it was making her crazy. I walked over to her and told her to sit down and put her head back so I could fix her hair. I put her hair into a simple but perfect French braid—you would have thought that I had done her hair for the freakin’ prom the way she went on and on about how fabulous it was. I was in heaven—I’d done a real person’s hair for the first time ever and she loved it. I WAS HOOKED!
The next morning (to my total surprise) four of the servers came into work early so I could braid their hair. It took me about half an hour but I did them all and none of them looked the same: I did French crowns and ponies; one of them I made turn upside down and started at the nape with a fabulous bun on top. They each paid me five dollars and in 30 minutes I’d made $20. At that moment I knew I didn’t care what the rest of the world thought. I would tell my parents (okay, my mom) that that’s what I wanted to be—I was going to be a Hairstylist. 25 days later I started beauty school at The Continental College of Beauty. I now work at Milagros Salon & Spa in Seattle’s vibrant Belltown neighborhood, and I can honestly say it’s a dream come true.
Photo provided by Ross Fredrick Williams.