I Once Got Paid $900 to Let Someone Highlight My Hair

Yes, really.

I Once Got Paid $900 to Let Someone Highlight My Hair
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

As a woman who stands 5-foot-3-inches tall — and that's being generous — I wasn't destined to walk any fashion designer's runway. Yet there I was one summer day in Orlando, strutting down a catwalk in stiletto boots and borrowed clothes, techno music blaring in the background, as I served my fiercest, most unbothered model face to the cameras clicking in the audience below.

Those heels might have made me look 5-foot-8, but neither my body nor the clothes were the stars of this show. My halo of thick, coiled Afro-textured hair served as the canvas for a hairstylist's cut-and-color masterpiece, a look he hoped the stylists who were watching would replicate on heads of hair across the country. I was modeling in a hair and beauty trade show.

In this world, top hair designers from the most recognizable brands unveil the latest trends in cutting, styling, and coloring to thousands of cosmetologists who soak in the ideas and inspiration to bring back to their own salons across North America. And much like fashion designers need models to show off their clothes, hairstylists can't just create their styles on mannequins with wigs – they need living, breathing, catwalking heads of hair to give attendees the true picture of how auburn highlights pop on black hair, or how an asymmetrical cut might look on a platinum blonde. And for a few days each year, I was one of them.

At the time, I was a sports writer working at the local newspaper in Orlando, but for five years, I took a few days off during the summer to become a poor woman's Tyra Banks for the weekend. A major hair show, Premiere Orlando, drew thousands of stylists to the land of Mickey Mouse and friends. That's just one in a circuit of major North American hair shows, which often take place in destination cities, like Chicago, Atlanta, New York City, and Las Vegas. Some events have a more targeted approach, like the long-running Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta or others focusing on natural textured hair, which have grown in popularity in the last decade.

According to one insider, it behooves brands to participate in these showcases — and to show out when they do. Matrix vice president of education Martin Dale says it's important for the company to have "a loud and proud presence" at each show. "By attending hair and beauty shows, Matrix is able to share our community and culture with these hair stylists and get them excited about Matrix products, launches, and upcoming opportunities," he says. "Not to mention all of the amazing new tips and tricks stylists learn while attending that they can take back to the salon to use on their clients."

With hundreds of companies in attendance, it takes a lot of models to serve as the face, or the hair, for each show. Unlike the fashion world, where designers work exclusively with agencies to book models they might sign on weeks or even months ahead of runway time, beauty brands hold casting calls on-site a few days before this kind of show. Some brands will contact agents, but many place notices at local modeling and acting schools, on Craiglist, in the classified section of the free city newspaper, and on casting websites. Some companies have even visited the mall the day before to find potential models. They send out email blasts detailing the number of hours or days they need you, any height requirements (which they don't always have!), and the pay they're offering — some call for as many as 600 people to model in a given day.

This egalitarian approach draws in a wide range of talent. Sure, many who show up and are casted are already involved in their local acting and modeling scene, but there's room for women who are shorter than your typical runway model, "older" (as in over the age of 21), and who don't necessarily wear sample-size clothing. Men can get in on the fun, too.

Inside a Casting Call

Thirteen years ago, I first saw the model call notice tacked to the wall of the Orlando acting school where I took classes for fun. I was 27, ancient even in the world of hair modeling, but I thought my hair might help me stand out. I put on my little black dress and walked through the hotel doors to find a sea of hundreds of women herding their way into ballrooms labeled with the names of major brands. We were almost all wearing LBDs.

We sat down, and a group of impeccably stylish men and women with amazing hair walked to the front of the room, and announced how many models they'd need. I later learned that these were legends in the industry — Nicholas French of Matrix, Gerard Caruso of Rusk, Patrick McIvor of Redken, among others — people who traveled the world teaching cosmetologists about hair trends that originated within their own organizations.

They explained the rules: They would approach the models they were interested in working with, chat about potential cuts and colors, and if everyone agreed, the model would be booked. If a potential model thought a color was too bold or a cut was too drastic, the stylists would move on. Our eyes were glued to their movements as we all wondered if we'd be next. Every year, I was one of a few black, natural-haired models in the crowd; someone would always approach me.

"Can I touch your hair?" one stylist asked. For once, this question was not wildly offensive but actually exciting for me to hear. He ran his fingers through my hair — well, as much as he could through my mass of tight curls — and began whispering to an associate using a bunch of letters and numbers in some mysterious hairstylist code. "I think she would look great with the 5BC and lowlights of 2JL, then we could warm up this part with a nice auburn." (Forgive me, dear colorists, if I've butchered your lingo.) The stylist turned back to me: "How would you feel if we dyed your hair jet black, then placed bright-red highlights throughout it?" Um, sure? I stammered. "Great, you're booked." And just like that, I became a model.

The Money and Swag

Depending on the company, models can get paid as much as $1,200 for a three-day weekend or walk away with just a goodie bag of hair products and styling tools (still not bad!). "Presentation" models, the ones who walk the runway, tend to be on the taller side, like fashion models, and for this reason they are often higher paid. "Demonstration" models stand around the stylists' booths on the trade show floor, and are paid a bit less (sometimes in the $100-$250 range). I've been both. One year I earned $900 for the three-day weekend; another I left with $200 and a swag bag.

The haircut and color, however, is worth hundreds of dollars alone. According to an InStyle survey of women across the United States, the average American woman spends $637 at the salon getting her hair cut, colored, and blowdried over the course of a year. Since these were titans of the industry styling our hair, they'd be charging that much for each look that we were getting for free. When you got a look you actually liked, this perk couldn't be overstated.

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Surrendering Your Hair

After booking, models spent the first day "backstage" behind the curtains at a major convention center where shampoo bowls and stylists' booths sprouted for the experts to do our hair. We became a quick sorority, giggling about how crazy our hair might look after we were done. I never even agreed to have my hair cut, though. I cringed when I saw other models' long, dark hair cut to ear-length asymmetrical bobs and dyed platinum blonde for effect. Mine was kept dark, but stylists liked to play around with red, purple, and honey-blonde highlights and undertones. I wasn't upset when some of the shocking colors faded to a more comfortable auburn.

One stylist was clueless about maintaining my curl pattern. After dying my hair the day before a show, he suggested I go home, rinse with cold water, and then "use whatever products you use regularly to make your curls show up like that." The next day, presenting my look onstage, he acted as if one of the products from his brand created the coils that I had shown up with — thanks to genetics and some drugstore leave-in conditioner.

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Show Time

On the day of the show, our call time was 6 a.m., and we were greeted with a full continental breakfast and coffees. The stylists did last-minute touch ups on our hair, and makeup artists attended to our faces, creating bright, shocking looks to match our new haircuts and color. Then, we waited to debut the routines we had just learned the day before. When my turn came, the beat dropped, and I strutted, I turned, I felt so ridiculously hot — like no one could possibly handle me. When I took my place in the center of the stage, the stylist walked over and ran his hands through my hair as he described how he created those vivid red highlights.

And unlike your typical fashion show, this kind of presentation has a participation element. Not everyone was impressed with my look — and they had the chance to say so. One stylist raised her hand and asked the designer how she could possibly take any of these looks back to her hometown salon. "This just wouldn't work in the rest of America," she said, pointing to me specifically. "Maybe that might work in New York, or London, but I don't see that where I live." Part of me felt an odd sense of pride at this comment: This lady thinks I'm a New York fashion plate, when I'm just a girl from Michigan who now lives in a condo in suburban Orlando and talks sports all day.

At the end of the show, I turned in my clothes, packed up my stiletto boots, and threw on my shorts and T-shirt, ready to head back into the Orlando night as just another regular girl from the neighborhood. Before getting home, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up some milk, eggs and bread that I had been neglecting to get during my stint as a model. "Your hair is so cool," the checkout bagger said. "It just looks… international!"

Huh? I had forgotten that my hair was freshly colored way more loudly than usual, not to mention I had a face full of makeup, including purple eyeshadow and false eyelashes. A bit much for grocery shopping, but it was obviously working for me. I told her I lived in the apartment around the corner, but I had just gotten back from a fashion show. It was as fun to say that as it was to experience the thrill of the shows for those five years.

I haven't done a hair show since 2010, but I still get emails about casting calls. There's a big one coming up in Columbus, Ohio, close to where I live now, and every time I see a model call, I start to wonder. I'm 41 and a mom now; the height "issue" hasn't gone away — but I sure could use some new highlights.

This is All Natural. From the kinkiest coils to loose waves, we're celebrating natural hair in its many forms by sharing expert tips for styling, maintenance, and haircare.

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