NEW YORK, May 22, 2008 -- This isn't the first time I've been paid to have my hair cut by one of the best stylists in the world. It's probably the fifth.
I'm not a model. Although after nine hours, five blow-dries, three shampoos and one fabulous catered meal, I'm starting to understand how they feel. And by the end of the day I'll leave with a cut and highlights that would have cost me about $400; except not only am I not paying for the service, I am being paid $200 for my time.
And anyone can do this.
I'm at The Studio NYC, a training salon owned by Wella-Sebastian at Rockefeller Center in New York City. It's not a typical salon. There are no regular hours and no appointments, just a storefront and a sprawling studio behind closed doors.
The Studio -- and several sister salons across the country -- hosts training events, where hairstylists flock from their hometowns to learn from the world's best colorists, cutters and stylists. And these masters need someone to demonstrate their skills on.
Enter the "models." Most of us are not models in the usual sense of the word. We stumbled on this gig on the same place you stumble on nearly everything worth finding in New York -- on the omni-useful Craigslist.org.
The ad reads "Hair Models Needed," but it also makes it clear that no experience is necessary.
What is necessary is that you have no extensions, weaves or chemical relaxers including lye, no-lye or Japanese straightening. But you can have a color job older than last year's swimsuit.
You also need to have time. Before each training event, Wella-Sebastian posts an ad to announce the model casting, which usually takes only 10 to 30 minutes.
But if you're picked, you may be asked to stay immediately afterward for prep work -- any initial single-process color or cutting that needs to be done before the day of the actual event, which is typically the next day. Generally, models spend five to eight hours, in total.
The number of women who show up to the casting depends on how much money is offered for that particular event. When $300 or more is on the table, you can expect to see 20 to 50 women there. But I've seen as few as 10.
Each event brings a different crew of stylists and a different set of criteria for determining whom they'll pick to work on. It's not always the prettiest face or the best hair that gets chosen. They're looking at everyone as a blank slate, so if they smell a way to spice up your mousy brown split ends, welcome to the payroll.
The best advantage you can bring to the casting: an open mind.
Open to Change
Each event is different. Sometimes master stylists are hired directly by Wella-Sebastian; sometimes it's an outside company, like Vidal Sassoon, that is using the facility for the day. You don't know when you show up to the casting whether they'll be demonstrating creative cutting or classic highlights, natural layers or an asymmetrical look.
So it's often how willing you are to part with your long locks or natural color that gets you chosen. If only a handful of women show up, or the event is about "classic"-looking styles (like one event I did for Vidal Sassoon), you may be able to get away with just a simple trim and a deep condition.
But this event I'm here for today is titled "Creative Styling With Nick Berardi."
Berardi traveled the world teaching for Vidal Sassoon for a decade and is now a top stylist hired out by Wella-Sebastian to lead these seminars at their studios across the country.
At the casting, Berardi and his cohort, color specialist Alexandra Matiz, look at my hair and get very excited about the possibilities.
"I'd love to do some disconnected pieces with your curls and really make it sexy," he says, as Alexandra asks me what I'm open to in terms of color.
"I'm wide open with color," I say, adding with a small laugh, "just not, you know, blue."
"No blue?" she responds, looking at my hair more closely.
I hadn't imagined blue was on the table but it's clear I was alone in that assumption. I quickly realize if I do this event I'm signing up for a very different look.
But if you're going to leap into the great unknown, you may as well do it at the hands of the people who are paid to explain technique to the crop of stylists you would under normal circumstances be booking an appointment with.
So I agree to pink and copper highlights and a light reshaping of my layers and promise to be there the next day at noon.
Model for a Day
I'm not the only one in for a new, creative look. When I arrive midday, Matiz is already well into bleaching Erin Albrecht's short, dark locks to a sassy platinum blond.
Albrecht first participated in one of these events last summer. "I liked it so much, I came back for another one a few months later," she said.
This is her third event at The Studio, and she's not worried about changing her look. "I look at it as a job and an opportunity," she says.
As Berardi chops shorter layers into my hair, I ask him how open most people are to drastic change at these kinds of events.
"Now that Katie Holmes has cut her hair short, a lot more people are willing to do it," he says. "People are really influenced by celebrity. In Europe, it's different. They tend to be a little more creative, a little less conservative. They're influenced more by street style."
Of course, Wella-Sebastian sends Berardi, who's based in the New York area and co-owns the upscale Salon 5 in northern New Jersey, to helm these events at its other studios in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
And the crop of amateur models that turns up is different in each.
"The girls in San Francisco are great," he says. "They're really into it and get really creative."
Berardi builds loyalty not just with the stylists that come to train with him, but also from the models. Sheena Sisk did her first hair event with him at The Studio back in February. A couple months later, she wanted to chop her long hair off into a super-short, curly 'do.
"I called Nick," she says through a cloud of hair spray. "I knew he was the one I wanted for such a major change."
Now, she's back at The Studio for her second event, having her new cropped look touched up and highlighted again. And, this time, she'll get a check in the mail a couple weeks later.
Ready to Try?
Wella-Sebastian has studio locations that hold regular training events in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. For more information, check out www.wellausa.com.
Berardi also holds similar events at his own studio, Salon 5 in Fort Lee, N.J. For more information, visit www.nickeducation.com.
If you don't live near one of these locations, call the most high-end salons in your area and ask about similar events or opportunities. Not all studios pay, but at many you can sign up for a free cut and color in exchange for your time. Just make sure you communicate clearly what you are and are not willing to have done.