Your story's sad to tell: a teenage ne'er-do-well, most mixed up non-delinquent on the block…Your future's so unclear now…What's left of your career now? Can't even get a trade-in on your smock. Beauty school dropout, no graduation day for you. Beauty school dropout, missed your midterms and flunked shampoo …
Forget the teenager portrayed in Frankie Avalon's "Beauty School Dropout." That song, made famous in the movie "Grease" is certainly no reflection on what's happening at the Torrington Beauty Academy-with almost 100 percent of its enrollees graduating.
Tucked away on Water Street in the city's historic downtown, in a time-worn building slated for a facelift in the future, the Torrington Beauty Academy is the first step on the path to what can be a very well-paying career.
In fact, Money magazine has deemed cosmetology and hairdressing as one of today's "50 hottest jobs," with annual earnings, including tips, of more than $38,000.
As a result, beauty schools are attracting students who are wide-eyed with ambition, like 18-year-old Lauren Green of Wolcott.
Ms. Green had no idea that the person on which she was practicing in the beauty school's "lab," where between 80 and 100 clients have their hair worked on each week by students, would eventually write a story about the experience.
"I really want to work in London when I graduate," the enthusiastic Ms. Green told the guinea pig who was undergoing a cut and color.
"Yes, Lauren has some big plans," Robin Vigeant confirmed in an interview the next day.
Ms. Vigeant and Kristine Devaux are co-owners of the school, which has been located in downtown Torrington since January of 1965. "We are one of the last few [longstanding] businesses in downtown Torrington," Ms. Devaux noted.
In fact, the Torrington Beauty Academy is part of a dying breed. "There aren't that many [beauty schools] like us around anymore," she had mentioned the day before in the reception area, as the reporter was paying $38 for the cut and color by an eager student in the beauty lab that would rival services costing three times as much in a real-world salon.
A few years ago, Ms. Devaux explained, the trend was for older, second-career students to enroll in beauty school. At one point, she said, a 70-year-old woman enrolled in the program upon her retirement from the Torrington Company. She graduated and went on to receive her beauty license and eventually obtain a job in the field.
Currently, Ms. Devaux said, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, with most of the students at the academy being recent high school graduates.
The school has 30 students enrolled, and the owners said that they can comfortably accommodate approximately 40. Since both women became mothers, they have brought in additional instructor-stylists to help with the lab and course work.
Ms. Vigeant and Ms. Devaux, better known to their students as "Miss Rob" and "Miss Kris," purchased the school in 1992. The pair, who are best friends, went to high school together, then attended the Torrington Beauty Academy at the same time and, in addition to working in salons, after graduation they both taught at the academy.
As she worked along, Ms. Green, who enrolled last October, chatted about some of her experiences with the school.
She was, she explained, actually ready to attend another beauty school in Connecticut when "Sharpie," a man so nicknamed because he travels to salons and beauty schools throughout the region to sharpen their scissors, suggested that she reconsider her initial choice and instead apply to the Torrington Beauty Academy, "because it was the best around."
"Sharpie is good advertising for us," said Miss Kris, who explained that he has an insider's view of what's happening in the industry.
Lauren and her other classmates pay $7,000 in order to receive 1,500 hours of training, which prepares them to take the state exam, a test required in order to become a licensed hairdresser and cosmetologist.
Cosmetology, according to the school's Web site, is " … the art and science of adornment through care and treatment of the hair, nails and skin."
Graduates of the academy typically earn anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 starting out, according to the co-owners. And there are even graduates, including some working in Connecticut, earning an income in the area of six figures.
But make no mistake about it. The students' training is rigorous, and Miss Kris and Miss Rob expect a lot from them.
"We give them a good education," said Miss Rob, who explained that when she and her co-owner graduated from beauty school, "We were scared." When they were in school, the duo explained, they used to go shopping, run various errands for their instructors and do just about everything under the sun-except focus on their studies.
"We learned the hard way [after graduation]," explained Miss Rob. "And we don't want our students to. We really care about our students, and we want to send them out [to their first jobs] so they're not afraid. It's our mission."
The Torrington Beauty Academy's hairdressing course instructs students on shampooing, scalp treatments, hair cutting, permanent waving, manicuring, hair relaxing, hair styling, coloring, facials and makeup, and more. Men's hair cutting and styling are also covered in the curriculum.
Students start out doing hair on mannequins, but after 200 hours of training in the clinic, students like Lauren Green work with real clients in the school lab under the supervision of an instructor. Income from the clinic helps pay part of the school's operating expenses and keeps tuition affordable. While the student stylists receive no payment for their work, they are permitted to accept gratuities.
Admittedly, in the lab the students do a lot of roller sets for older women. Many of these ladies have been coming to the Torrington Beauty Academy since it opened 40 years ago. And as much as the owners appreciate their patronage, they also realize that when the students graduate and begin to work in the real world, clients requesting roller sets will be few and far between. So when someone walks into the lab with a more modern "do"-there's a buzz at the beauty school. "We call these our 'cool clients,'" said Miss Rob, "and we like to keep them happy so they'll come back."
Miss Kris said that when a client comes into the lab to have their hair done, she tries to quickly assess the situation and determine which student stylist she will assign to the task based on the client's hair and personality.
In addition to technical skills, one of the most difficult things that students must learn, according to Miss Kris and Miss Rob, is the art of multi-tasking-a skill that they have observed female students, in general, being better at grasping than are the male students.
"I relate it to waitressing," Miss Rob said, and she explained that while a stylist is cutting one client's hair, they may need to keep an eye on another client whose color is processing, and think about yet another client who's waiting in the wings, all the while making each think that they are the stylist's sole focus.
It's important for students to learn to work quickly and focus on several things at once, the teachers explained, because clients have places to go and things to do, and the stylists need to keep turning clients in order to keep revenue flowing in to a business.
Another thing that is difficult for many students, according to Miss Kris and Miss Rob, is learning to be comfortable physically touching people they don't know. When it was mentioned that Ms. Green, the student stylist, tackled the undercover client's head with gusto, the teacher/owners were pleased. They train the students, they said, not to be tentative. The term for those who are timid is "tender touchers," and Miss Rob explained that it connotes a lack of confidence that a client can readily sense.
Just like in the popular movie, "Steel Magnolias," Miss Rob has this sign by her desk: "I'm a beautician, not a magician." Even though the word "beautician" is outdated-the correct term to use these days, according to Miss Kris, is "stylist" or "designer"-the sign still makes the point that you can't turn a Camilla into a Diana. So part of the school's curriculum involves helping students develop skills necessary to handle a wide range of personalities, including customers who can be difficult or have unrealistic expectations.
But even with all of the rigorous training the Torrington Beauty Academy's students undertake, when it comes to predicting who will make it big on the outside, and who won't, the owners said it's a difficult call. "Sometimes, you have a student and you think they're just so eager," said Miss Kris, "and then they end up fizzling out."
But everyone, they stressed, must first pay their dues. And the pair is thrilled when one of their students does make it big. "We've seen the go-getters [and their salaries], and they make us jealous," joked Miss Rob.
"There's a shortage," of hair stylists, said Miss Kris. "Half of [our students] are placed before they graduate. … We have salons that call us all the time when they're looking for help."
But what about those students who just don't have what it takes to make it as a hairdresser? Do Miss Kris and Miss Rob take them aside and gently tell them that beauty school might not be for them? "We've never taken that position," said Miss Rob. "Who are we to say?" She said that she feels there is a right place for everyone.
The Torrington Beauty Academy is located at 22 Water Street in downtown Torrington. For information on enrollment, services to the public, prices and hours, call 860-482-4386.
The Web site is www.torringtonbeautyacademy.com.