What It's Like To Be...

A Hair Stylist

January 30, 2024 Season 1 Episode 11
What It's Like To Be...
A Hair Stylist
Show Notes Transcript

Cutting to accentuate the client's eyes and ears, plotting to tame Einstein's hair, and riding the ups and downs of entrepreneurship with Ona Diaz-Santin, a hair stylist and owner of 5 Salon & Spa in New Jersey. What's the most irritating way a client can respond to a haircut? And why was she christened "The Hair Saint"?

Our show takes a lot of inspiration from Studs Terkel's classic book Working. It features interviews Terkel did with more than 100 different people from different jobs: police officers, waitresses, gravediggers, private investigators. His guiding question? "What do they do all day?" Radio Diaries actually got their hands on the audio that Terkel recorded of his interviews and collected them into an episode that you can listen to here.

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Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath:
Ona Diaz-Santin has been a hairstylist for 27 years. She's known as 'the hair saint.'
A client gave her that name. It was a musician who traveled a lot.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
He was somewhere where it was hot and his hair was super dry, super dehydrated. And he came in and we treated him, we cut it, and he was so happy. And at the end of that, he's like, "Oh, you're like the Santa of hair", the saint. And I started cracking up and I'm like, "Okay."

Dan Heath:
The hair saint. It was a joke, but also not a joke. Ona takes her work seriously, and when she looks at a head of hair, she sees potential.
I asked Ona, if she could cut anyone's hair, who would it be?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Einstein. Einstein. Man, did that-

Dan Heath:
He does need a haircut.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
I look back at these pictures and I'm like, "My dude, but what happened? What?"

Dan Heath:
But it's kind of on brand, right? It's like the mad scientist look.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Yeah, I would definitely be like, "We can leave it big. And I love the vibe that you're going for. It's definitely you. But let's hydrate it a little bit and let's take care of the ends a little bit. We can still make it erratic looking and stuff, I think it looks cool, but definitely steam treatment."

Dan Heath:
I'm Dan Heath, and this is What It's Like to Be.
In every episode we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession: a welder, a mystery novelist, a criminal defense attorney. We want to know what they do all day at work.
Today, we ask Ona Diaz-Santin what it's like to be a hairstylist. We'll find out what's the most insulting thing you can say to your stylist about a haircut, and why her mom, who also cut hair, didn't want Ona to be a hairstylist. And how she handles it when somebody comes in wanting a celebrity hairstyle that clearly wouldn't work for them.
Stay with us.
So a new client comes into Ona's salon, sits in her chair. I asked her how she sizes someone up for the first time.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
It's, "Okay. Let's look at hair texture, hair type. Let's look at the density of the hair, how thin it is, how thick it is. Let's look at how close or far apart the eyes are. Let's look at, are the ears symmetrical? Is the face symmetrical?" I mean, there's so many factors to getting a beautiful haircut.

Dan Heath:
This is fascinating.
So just to pick on one detail, if your eyes are farther apart versus more close-set, how does that affect what you should do with the hair?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Well, if someone is asking for a fringe or a bang, if their eyes are set apart, you're going to make sure that you end the fringe really close to the corner of the eyes to give it the illusion that they're closer together. Right?

Dan Heath:
Hmm.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
And vice versa. If someone's eyes are really close together, you're going to want to make sure that you open up that space to give the illusion that they're broader, they're more open.

Dan Heath:
Ona says people sometimes come in with firm ideas of what they want, even if what they want might not be realistic.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Okay. I know she likes that Halle Berry haircut, but she doesn't look like Halle Berry. Right? So how can we meet in the middle?

Dan Heath:
How do you deal with clients who don't know what they want?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
You pry it out of them. Asking questions, open-ended questions. Or options: do you like this or this? They know what they like. They may not articulate it, but typically if you know how to ask questions, you get the answers you're looking for.
And then you summarize. "Okay, so let me share what I heard. I heard that you like fringes a little bit above the brow, you like exposing the brow area, and you like to be able to tuck behind the ears. So the length needs to be just long enough to tuck behind the ears. Is that what you mean?"
They either say, "Yes. Oh my God, you read my mind", or they'll say, "Nope, let me share it again." And then we just trial and error, "That wasn't it. So let's ask this question" until you get it.

Dan Heath:
So take me back to the beginning. What was your very first haircut like?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
It was a bob, or a line, and it was in Englewood. At the time, I was in Englewood. I was 17 years old, and I got my first chair and I was pumped. I was so pumped and ready to go.
And at the time, the owner of that particular salon was like, "Yeah, you're ready to go on the floor." And I'm like, "Are you sure? I mean, I'm ready. I feel ready." But yeah, he's like, "Let's put you in."
And I remember that haircut and how scared I was, but at the same time I was fighting for my dream and I was so proud that I got that opportunity at 17.

Dan Heath:
That's a lot of pressure, I would think, at age 17,

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Man, I was all kinds of feelings. I was emotional, I was so happy, I was proud, I was scared, nervous. Just a lot of emotions.

Dan Heath:
From what I understand, you're not the first in your family to be a hairstylist. Tell me a little bit about that history.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh no. My mom was a hairdresser for many, many years, and she owned four hair salons. But even before that, my great-grandmother used to cut hair for the people in her village way back when.

Dan Heath:
No kidding.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Mm-hmm. In Dominican Republic, in a very, very small town, Santiago. Back then they were using fabric shears and just literally cutting the town on dirt outside.
And then my mom became a hairdresser, brings it to the United States, and goes to beauty school and ends up owning multiple salons. I grew up in these salons.

Dan Heath:
What are some of your memories from those days?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh my God. Sweeping the floors, picking up the phones. You know how many times I probably messed up appointments just hanging up on people?
And what's so amazing is my mother was like, "Let her play", or, "Let her pick up the phone", or, "Let her sweep", or ... I've tried shampooing people when I was little.
I never remember a time where my mother restricted me from doing anything there. That's one thing that now that I look back ... And I never thought about it until now. Never.
She just did not want me to do hair.

Dan Heath:
Why?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Because it's hard on your body. You never get to eat when you're supposed to eat. It's long hours. You stand all day. It's exhausting. It's like exercise. Anything that she could say, she definitely said it.
But it was inevitable. There's a few of us, three girls that my mom had, and a boy, and of course I'm the one that ends up becoming a hairstylist. And boy am I so happy that I made it.

Dan Heath:
It's such an interesting mix of talents that, at least it seems to me, you need to be a great hairstylist. It's like there's a lot of technical skills that, I imagine, take a lot of work to learn, and then there's an artistic sense. And there's also this whole other layer of social skills. I mean, there's a therapeutic aspect to having people in your chair.
What is it like to have these ongoing conversations with clients?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
I mean, your clients become family. I have clients that have been with me 25 years. I have clients that have been with me from the get, 27 years. I have clients that have been coming to me five years, two years. They just become an extension of who you are.
I really do believe that you attract certain people in your life. For some crazy reason, I have a lot of doctors and teachers and surgeons, but then I also have a lot of artists. I think it's a balance of who I am too: education background and obviously artsy. I love it.
But they do. They become family.

Dan Heath:
I mean, it really is a distinctive profession in that sense.
I was thinking about the guy who cuts my hair. Shout out to Lars. I mean, I sit in his chair for almost an hour once a month. And it occurred to me one day, I was like, "I have a lot of guy friends who I consider close friends that I probably don't have 12 hours of cumulative conversation with in a year." And that's kind of incredible, these relationships that form by virtue of the work.
And it sounds like you've had clients that your relationship lasts for decades.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh my gosh. And not only that, we're part of all special occasions, whether they're amazing or whether they're sad like funerals. We're there for everything. We're there for childbirth, we're there for weddings. We're there on a day to day. We're there for, "Oh my God, I have postpartum. What can I do?" We're there ... I mean, for any occasion. That's who gets that phone call. I'm so honored that I get a phone call from my client saying, "Hey, I thought of you. I have a question, and I know you're the person to go to." That's amazing.
So yeah, shout out to your man too. Hey.

Dan Heath:
I hadn't thought about just how many major life events you might be privy to as someone's hairstylist. Can you think of a client where there were multiple critical moments in their lives that you were part of?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Yep. How about christening, graduations, wedding?
I've seen children become full-blown adults, and then I'm doing their wedding hair. Well, that to me is mind-blowing. To see them being born, be part of like, "Oh, kindergarten graduation haircut", and then it was like, "Oh, this thing and that", and then graduation high school, "Oh, well, college", "Oh, they're flying in just for the haircut. They want to see Ona", and then all of a sudden, "Oh, I'm engaged. I'm getting married." And it's like, "What the ... How did that even happen? How fast are you growing?
To be able to see that is unreal.

Dan Heath:
Do you have any multiple generation clients where you're dealing with the kids of someone who was a previous client or current client?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Yep. I have the moms, I have the grandparents, I have their children. Then all of a sudden, the children are having children.

Dan Heath:
I just had a funny thought. Have you ever had a situation where you're dealing with multiple members of the same family and you realize you're getting different perspectives on the same conflict?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh yeah. And of course then getting asked, "So what did so-and-so say", or, "What did this one say? I told you she was going to ... Did she say something to you?" And I'm like, "I have no idea."

Dan Heath:
Now, do you play Switzerland on this? I mean, just Swiss neutrality?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Yep. I plead the fifth. I plead the fifth. Absolutely.
And yeah, you do experience all angles, right? You do experience everything with your clients.

Dan Heath:
Has anyone ever gotten emotional after a haircut?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh my God. That is why I think I do what I do. To be able to break the stereotypes and the myths and anything negative when someone sits in my chair is genius. It just makes me feel ... I can't even describe the feeling.
I have a good friend that turned into a friend. She was a client. And she came to me, found me, loved her haircut. Ends up getting cancer, she goes missing for like two years. And I'm like, "What happened to this person?"
We link up at a friend's house party, we start talking, she comes back, and her hair is really thin, and I'm like, "We're going to get through this. We're going to do this. We're just going to do it." And every six weeks coming in, getting her hair cut, prepping, doing the work, talking to her about how, "God doesn't make mistakes. It is what it is. You're alive. Great. And we're going to get that hair back."
And now her hair is just beyond flourishing, becomes a very close friend of mine. Love her to death. And next thing you know, a couple of other great friends get together and now we're going to people's homes and we're giving mini transformations because they can't leave the house. Either they're too weak, or ... And we're paying it forward.
And there's no words that can describe how you feel when you're helping somebody, you know? And all it took was a haircut.

Dan Heath:
Hey folks. Dan here. This is episode 11 of the show, and it's high time we pay tribute to a man named Studs Terkel.
50 years ago, he published a book called Working. It's made up of interviews with over a hundred different people from different jobs: police officers, waitresses, grave diggers, and private detectives.

Studs Terkel:
I'm seated somewhere in Brooklyn, home of a Anthony Ruggiero and his wife; a very delightful boy.
So this is a book about work, jobs people do. How would you describe your work?

Anthony Ruggiero:
Let's see. How would I describe my work?
90% of the job is the ability to move around to different places without causing any suspicion.

Dan Heath:
That's a clip from a Radio Diaries episode where you can actually hear snippets from the interviews. I'll put a link in the show notes.
There's no way this show would exist without Studs Terkel, so just wanted to share that inspiration.
Now, back to the show.
Was there ever a time when you just got something wrong? Maybe you obviously unwittingly botched a haircut, or maybe it was more about the conversation, and you just look back afterward and you thought, "I'm not going to make that mistake again?"

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh, yeah. You hope you learn from your mistakes. Yes, I've botched up many a haircut. I'm sorry, my people.
I think in the beginning of your career ... I wouldn't say super botched.
I do remember one instance I was cutting my husband's hair. I had just met him and I was so in love and, "Oh my God", right? And I'm cutting his hair, and I totally cut his ear. I totally cut this guy's ear. And he married me, that lunatic.
But-

Dan Heath:
It worked.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
I think that was the only time, number one, that that has ever happened.
And yeah, so there's been many a times that I've done something that you wish you can either learn from or, "Man, I wish that didn't happen that way."
I mean, even now, just with my self growing journey and what's happening now in my life, it's up and down. That's just life. It's an up and it's a down. It's an up and it's a down. And when you're up is when you got to prep for the down. And when you're down there, you do a lot of growing and learning, and then you get back up and then you prep for the down. Because that's just how it is. It's like the stock market. It's like anything in life. Up and down, up and down, up and down. It's never straight. It's never a straight arrow. It's never a straight road. There's a bunch of curves in roads. That's just how it is.

Dan Heath:
Speaking of curves in the road, in 2017, the woman who owned the salon where Ona worked told Ona on the down low that she was planning to sell the salon. Ona figured she'd stick around if the new owners ran things well.
And then a few weeks later, the owner called her into her office.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
And she goes, "Listen, I don't want to sell it to the person that is ready to buy." And I said, "What do you mean?" And she goes, "For like two weeks, it's been bugging me. It's been bothering me. And I don't want to sell it to this person." And I said, "Well, what are you going to do?" And she goes, "I want you to buy it."
And I said, "Okay." I said, "Listen, in my 10-year plan ... I still have a good five years for this. In my 10 year. See, this is in my 10-year plan." And I kept like, "10 year, 10 year." And I said, "Listen, I have to go home and I have to chat with my hubby, and I'll let you know. Give me a week."

Dan Heath:
So Ona thinks about it. She decides, "No, it's too much. I'll just take an offer from another salon." She had a great offer in hand.
But then she started to have second thoughts.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
And then I couldn't sleep. And I thought about it and I said, "But then the team's going to break up, and then that means I'm not going to see this person's face again, and I'm not going to see that person's face again." It was like family.
So I went back and I said, "You know what [inaudible 00:17:59]? Yeah. I thought about it and hubby said that if this is what I want, that he would support me 101%." And I went in there with a mindset that that was it. "My 10 year is now here." And I took it. And that was six years ago.
Has it been easy? No.

Dan Heath:
Yeah. What's been different about owning the salon versus working there?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
It's one thing to manage your chair, your little business within the bigger business, and then there's another thing managing multiple chairs and then treatment rooms and everything else along with it: people, other clients, numbers, all of these things. Because you're so used to doing it on a smaller scale and then now all of a sudden you're doing it on a much bigger scale.
COVID was interesting during that time. I bought it in 2017 and 2020 comes around and it's like, "Wow, mind-blowing."

Dan Heath:
Hmm. Can't imagine.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh man.
You know, when that happened, I didn't get up from the bed for 10 days. We closed and I was in bed for 10 whole days.
And then I said, "Ona, get up from the bed. You smell. Go take a shower. It's going to be okay." And I physically had to talk to myself and show up for other people. And that was really hard to do, to show up for others when you feel no one's showing up for you. That was really rough.

Dan Heath:
Hmm.
How long were you closed?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Almost four months.

Dan Heath:
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
But God is good. And I always say, if I didn't have my faith, if I didn't have the God that I have ... Man. I don't know how people do it when they don't believe. It's really hard. It's hard to not be able to vent to God and say, "Hey man, this is hard. I need help."
And I think it's been day by day now. Every day just learning and trying to grow. And sometimes you feel stretched and then you grow. It's like a muscle. You go to the gym, you have that muscle size, and then you stretch it, you stretch it, you break that muscle, and then you make a bigger muscle. And that's all it is. You're stretching, you're stretching, and then now you've grown and now you get to that next level, and now you try your hardest to keep doing that.

Dan Heath:
Tell us some of the basics about how stylists get paid. Like when stylists start out at a salon, are they generally on salary?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
I think it differs for many different salons. Some are hourly, some are certain base salary, some are commission. We happen to be a commission salon. So the more you work, the more you get paid.

Dan Heath:
So tell me more about that. Commission means there is no guaranteed pay, but you get presumably a larger chunk of what you're charging clients?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
You get paid depending on how busy you are. Right?

Dan Heath:
Okay.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
It's never a set number. You can make way more or you can make way little. It's like a scale.

Dan Heath:
Mm-hmm.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
And you're working to make it happen. "I want a big paycheck, so I'm going to make sure that I stay busy or I stay booked or do any cross selling or upselling."
Or if some salons give bonuses for retail, that's another way that you can do it.

Dan Heath:
And at some salons, don't stylists basically pay to rent their chairs and then keep what they earn or keep what they earn net of a commission back to the salon?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
They absolutely do. But that's in states that allow chair rentals. In the state of New Jersey currently, we are the only state that does not allow a chair rental situation.

Dan Heath:
Huh.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Mm-hmm.

Dan Heath:
Yeah, looking back over the last year, what do you think was the single highest priced service that anybody requested? And tell us what was involved.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
I would say AirTouch.

Dan Heath:
What is AirTouch?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
It's a type of technique that's utilized to lighten or pre lighten hair.

Dan Heath:
Okay.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
A lot of times it goes by the hour, and sometimes you're sitting in someone's chair for six, seven hours, sometimes four.

Dan Heath:
Whoa.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Yeah. Depending on how long your hair is, it's going to take a minute. And it goes by the hour. So whether some salons charge 200 an hour or 150 an hour or a hundred an hour, it depends.

Dan Heath:
So you could walk out a thousand plus easy for that, sounds like.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Easy. Easy.

Dan Heath:
Okay.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Mm-hmm.

Dan Heath:
But it'll look good at the end.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh, you'll look phenomenal at the end. You better look phenomenal at the end, yes.

Dan Heath:
So Ona, we always end our episodes with a quick lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here.
What's the most insulting thing you could say about a hairstylist's work?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
"It's okay. Yeah, it's all right. Yeah, I could live with it or not live with it. I don't know." That to me is like ... It's either yes or no. The gray area for me is ... There's no gray. It's either, "Yes, I love it", or, "I don't love it."

Dan Heath:
That's interesting. Why is no a preferable answer to meh?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Because you can fix that. You can go back in and adjust what needs adjustment. But when you're in the gray area, you have no idea what's in that person's mind. And that's hard. It's hard to deliver if there is no clear answer.
So it's either yes or it's no. But that in-between? I'm not a fan of that in-between.

Dan Heath:
What's a tool specific to your profession that you really like using?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
So for me, I think the ultimate tool are my hands. I get to qouff hair a certain way. I get to piece things out with my fingers a certain way. I get to shake the hair a certain way to see what I need to see. It does many, many things.
Also, my shears. I am a sheer fanatic. And I have a few of them. I have a good six or seven of them. One could be for detailing, another one could be for texturizing, another one can be for dry cutting. So knowing your tools and how to use them are like ... For me, I love it.

Dan Heath:
What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of a hairstylist?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
When you go to the doctor and they say, "You need another profession because your shoulder isn't doing it. The rotator cuff is messed up and any little thing can mess it up."
Or my back issues. I have slipped discs. So standing or stretching a certain way is super, super important for me. Even the way I sleep is vital to how I wake up.

Dan Heath:
Gosh, I hadn't thought about the rotator cuff angle either. It's like hairstylist and baseball pitchers, I guess.

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Oh, man. I had a severe injury a few years back, and when the doctor was like, "Yeah, you need another profession," I'm like, "Yeah, well, that's not going to happen."
And that was hard. It was a hard thing to have to hear. I didn't get surgery, but I laid off it for quite some time, and it was really a hard time for me.

Dan Heath:
Who's the most famous hairstylist, whether real or fictional?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Well, I think for me it was Vidal Sassoon. I am a huge fan of his work, his legacy.

Dan Heath:
Why?

Ona Diaz-Santin:
Because he made everything look effortless and beautiful and the shapes. And he was a pioneer in bringing in certain shapes and techniques.
In his time, his craftsmanship with hair itself was ... No one was doing it. Not a single person. And still till this day, people still ... He has fans all over.
You know, I was blessed to have a few mentors in my life, but one in particular was actually trained by Vidal Sassoon. And to me, that was the closest that I could get to that. And that was amazing. And I'm so grateful for all that and the mentorship that I've gotten throughout the years.

Dan Heath:
Ona Diaz-Santin is a hairstylist and owner of the 5 Salon & Spa in Fort Lee, New Jersey. You can find her on Instagram at _thehairsaint_.
What I found myself thinking about after talking with Ona was the importance of listening. I mean, she's got 27 years of experience. She can size you up in an instant. "Your eyes are narrow set, your ears are out of alignment. You have type 3B curls." She knows what's going to look good and what's not. But then she has the humility to realize she's there to fulfill your vision, not hers. And that means listening and eliciting, and in some cases, prying your ideas out of you.
And let's be honest, listening is every bit as much of a skill, something to be practiced, as is the technical stuff like color treating and AirTouching.
Now, that goes both ways of course. I also thought about the people sitting in Ona's chair. And it made me wonder whether we've been told the customer is always right so many times that we start acting like it, even though clearly we're not always right. As customers, should we be listening more and talking less?
I mean, imagine coming to a brilliant hair artist like Ona and not asking what she thinks. She's got the skills and the practice and the artistic vision and the chairside manner to make sure you're happy with the style you leave with.
And folks, that's what it's like to be a hairstylist.
This episode was produced by Matt Purdy.
Next week, get ready. We'll be talking to a standup comedian.

Stand-Up Comedian:
My friend, Will Loden, featured for me recently when I headlined in Houston. And I did have a moment during his set where I thought, "Oh, he's too good. I'll never have him go before me again."