Category Archives: Beauty U

Bring On the Beauty Start-Ups?

Beauty Salon For Rent Main Street USA Virginia Sole-Smith

A few weeks ago, listed beauty salons as one of the best start-up businesses for 2011.

According to, the cosmetology and barber schools (that educate salon-entrepreneur-hopefuls) grew at 29 percent last year, and nail salons grew at 9 percent.’s reporting shows an industry with a low barrier to entry for salons and barber shops. Pair that with a recent resurgence in barbershop nostalgia—and with a return to beauty-service spending by consumers—and it’s a perfect storm for rapid growth in the salon and beauty industry. Bring on the beauty start-ups.

Well. Let’s take a look at that, shall we?

I suppose, by some measures, the $10,000 and 4 to 12 months it costs to get through beauty school add up to a “low barrier to entry.” For sure, it’s not medical school. But neither is the average post-graduation income ($9 to $15 per hour) anywhere close to what doctors make.

The statistics that forgot to factor in to their analysis are ones that I learned my second month in at Beauty U from Simon Scott: Beauty salons have the second highest failure rate of any business. And 80 percent of students who graduate beauty school leave the industry after five years.

So let’s look again at the numbers that have in a lather about beauty start-up potential. Beauty schools grew at a rate of almost 30 percent last year. Nail salons — as in, the places of business where beauty school graduates can actually earn a living — grew at less than 10 percent.

Trade schools always thrive during a recession (or a post-recession, if that’s what we’re in now) because if you’re out of a job, quickly retraining to qualify to do something else makes some kind of sense. Unless that “something else” is a job paying not much better than minimum wage for a business that’s likely to fail.

On my post-Beauty U road trip last summer, I saw beauty salons and barber shops on practically every corner of the Midwest. I did not see a lot of customers in them. I did see a lot of “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs.

Meanwhile, my Beauty U friends are having varying degrees of success in the business. A few of my classmates have landed part-time spa jobs. Most are still working the non-beauty-industry jobs they had when they arrived at Beauty U. One of my former teachers is now working at Sephora, while another is doing office temp work. That’s not exactly the rocket ship success that beauty school admission officers like to promise, or the “recession-proof career” that the beauty industry trade groups brag about.

It might not cost much to start up a beauty business. But to keep it going? That’s another question entirely.


Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty Schooled, Beauty U, Career Opportunities

Beauty Schooled is on Marie Claire!

"The Price of Beauty," by Virginia Sole-Smith Marie Claire

Because I know you never get tired of reading about me performing bikini waxes. But this piece, which just got published on, is actually about the art of the upsell.

Which I’ve touched on before — like over here — but never in quite this much useful detail. It even includes a handy sidebar on how to get the spa service you really want. And people, it is big news for a women’s magazine to do a story like this, even online. So click, check it out, and pretty please, leave some comments, tweet it and Facebook Like It, if you do?

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Filed under Beauty Schooled, Beauty U, In Class, Press, Tip Jar

[Back to Beauty U] The Written Licensing Exam

The written part of our licensing exam is held at one of those vocational high schools where they teach Driver’s Ed and certify real estate agents on the weekend. There is a lot of dingy gray carpet and all the fluorescent lights seem to have one bulb out.

Meg and I plan to meet outside, fifteen minutes early, so we can sit together. We’re both nervous and we both show up at least twenty minutes early. We are not the first to arrive.

When we reach the check-in table the first thing the old lady exam proctor says to me is, “Your purse is filthy.”

I’ve put it down on her table to search for my checkbook and am completely disconcerted. Is purse hygiene part of the test? Am I failing already? Continue reading

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Filed under Back to Beauty U, Beauty Schooled, Beauty U, Career Opportunities, In Class

Bam! Licensed.

Virginia Sole-Smith Esthetics License

I realize this is a little anti-climactic for those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, since I spilled the beans last week when the license arrived — and then failed to deliver on the follow-up post all week.

Look, I’m a licensed esthetician now. We’re very busy and important.

(And wear sexy biker chick jackets.)


Filed under Beauty U

[Back to Beauty U] Mary Kay Calling

Back to Beauty U: An occasional series where I roll out some never-blogged-before Beauty U moments

Mary Kay and Missiles

The first thing I learned from Delores is that Mary Kay ladies don’t drive pink Cadillacs anymore.

Well they can — a shiny pink convertible is still one of the choices if you’ve earned Career Car privileges — but Delores drove up to Beauty U in a silvery-pink Chevy Equinox SUV. She wore a royal blue skirt suit with black fishnets and black knee-high boots plus lots of gold accessories and I later learned that the suit itself was a “Mary Kay Sales Director” suit that she had to qualify (in sales numbers) to wear, but that the accessories were all hers.

Delores carried in a pink tote bag brimming with catalogs, while behind her, Sue wheeled in a the biggest pink polka-dotted suitcase I’d ever seen. Upon closer inspection, the dots revealed themselves to be tiny hair dryers and makeup brushes. There weren’t any clients on the books, so everyone piled into the spa classroom while Sue passed out little plastic-covered cardboard folders. Inside, they held a mirror and a plastic tray, divided into different inch-sized compartments. Mine held the remnants of many prior product applications. The mirror in Blanche’s folder was cracked.

The next thing I learned from Delores was that if I wanted to, I could make “a corporate income” selling Mary Kay products right out of my home. “Even in the recession, our saleswomen are doing better than ever!” She jumped right into her speech about that while Sue came around and squirted little bits of product onto each of our trays.

“I always wanted to stay home with my children and Mary Kay has let me realize my dream,” Delores said, showing us her gold charm necklace that featured silhouette heads for each of her three kids. “My husband has even been able to retire early because my business is so successful!”

I knew that Sue was between jobs and trying to pick up a bartender gig. They mostly relied on her boyfriend’s income, doing something for the town that meant whenever we had a snowstorm he had to pull double shifts and plow the streets.

“That’s why I’m so thrilled that Susan has come back to Mary Kay again,” said Delores. I had never heard Sue go by “Susan,” but it sounded right coming from Delores, all successful and corporate. “She can help support her family and still have time to be with her son and pursue her education! Now ladies, let me tell you about our amazing new skin care line.”

And as we were instructed to dab each of the product samples from our little trays onto our faces — the custom Mary Kay “facial” — I couldn’t figure out if I was being sold a career or a face wash.

Delores really liked the Mary Kay Timewise 3-in-1 Cleanser, which promises to cleanse, exfoliate and tone you all in one step, but Miss Jenny was underwhelmed. “We don’t like combination products here,” she explained to Delores, rubbing a bit of cleanser doubtfully onto the back of her hand. “If you’re going to do all those things properly, you really need three separate products.”

“Of course, that’s why we also offer our Classic Basic Skincare line, where you use a separate product for each step,” Delores responded smoothly, marching us right along to the lip treatment samples. “Remember, ladies, you earn 50 percent commission on every product you sell. That’s why I’m so pleased that Susan has come back to us — the sky really is the limit!”

In fact, this was Sue’s third time selling Mary Kay, which meant it was the third time she had bought the $120 start-up kit, where you get samples of all the key products and a guide to selling them to all of your family and friends. “The first two times, I didn’t make any money,” she told me later. “But this time, with our esthetics knowledge, being in this business, I think it makes a lot of sense.”

After our “skin care class,” Delores handed out catalogs so we could page through all the different shades of Mary Kay eye shadows and lipsticks. “Remember, ladies, if you buy tonight, Susan will earn 50 percent off everything!” she told us. “You really are helping out a friend. That’s how Mary Kay works. You can help her even more if you agree to host a party, plus that way you can get free products!”

Of course, we all wanted to help out Sue. Miss Jenny bought some eye shadow. Miss Stacy agreed to host a party. I bought the lip treatment and later I would buy a toner and a clarifying mask, when Sue swore they would be just what I needed to clear up my Beauty U breakouts. (They weren’t.)

By then, she had hosted a few parties where she earned $500 in a night — way better than bartending. Except out of that $500, she also had to pay for party snacks and wine, pay Mary Kay to maintain the web page of her “exclusive online store,” and pay for inventory so she could make more sales at her next party.

That first night, Blanche had been the most suspicious of the whole thing when Delores began her sales pitch. “Can I get another mirror?” she asked Sue, handing back her cracked one. “Do you really make any money this way?”

But the magical phrase “corporate income” — plus Delores’s shiny car and spiffy suit — seemed to go a long way. By the end of the night, she had signed on to Delores’ team, forking over the $120 for her own starter sales rep kit. And she and Sue helped Delores cart out the roll-along suitcase and the pink tote bag, chattering about that 50 percent commission and the great new range of eye shadow colors.

So. I’m pretty fascinated by the whole world of direct-marketing cosmetics, which so many women at Beauty U seemed to at least dip a toe in — without ever making much money.

Have you tried selling Mary Kay, Avon, or another direct-marketing makeup brand? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments, or email me (beautyschooledproject [at] gmail [dot]com) with your story.

[Photo: “Missiles and Makeup,” by Brent Moore of, via Flickr.]


Filed under Back to Beauty U, Beauty U, Career Opportunities, In Class, Makeup

[Back to Beauty U] The Exit Interview

photo of beauty school graduation diploma

For some reason, I am really nervous about going back to Beauty U for my “Exit Interview.” Maybe it’s because it sounds so formal, even though I can already guess it will be much like the entrance interview, and thus, not all that scary. Maybe it’s because it’s always a little awkward to go back to places you’ve left. (Ever quit a job and then go back to visit a few months later? Always. Weird.)

So Meg and I schedule our exit interviews at the same time, which makes me feel better. Miss Susan, the night school director, tells us we can even come in together if we want. We say yes, please and go sit on folding chairs across from her desk in the main office, where posters of pouting models with jagged haircuts hang haphazardly in the big window that faces the parking lot and the highway beyond. Continue reading


Filed under Back to Beauty U, Beauty Schooled, Beauty U, Best of Beauty U, In Class

Reclaiming the Leg Wax?

phot of DIY leg waxing

A lot of people have been curious to know if I learned anything magical at Beauty U, like that has totally changed my daily beauty routine, or that works SO super well, I want to shout it from the rooftops because I can’t believe there are still women walking this earth without having been enlightened by this Good Beauty Word.


For so many reasons, this has not exactly been the case. But there is one beauty treatment that I initially had a lot of doubts about, but am now coming around to appreciating. Not in a rooftop-shouting way exactly. More “oh well, alright then.” I was reminded about it when I saw this great post over on beauty dart and I thought I better come tell you all about it.

It is leg waxing. Continue reading


Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty U, Waxing

Breaking the Dress Code

Have I told you guys about the Beauty U dress code? It’s not too draconian: Black shirt, black pants or skirt, black Beauty U apron. The list of what we can’t wear is longer: No open-toed shoes (a state health code), no shirts with writing or prints, no jewelry besides a watch and a wedding ring, no dresses, no jeans (though you can earn jean privileges if you get a good grade on a test or sell the most products in a given week), and no tank tops.

Some parts of the code are super strictly enforced. O the first warm day, two students were sent home for breaking out the flip flops. If you wear jeans, you best have a jean pass ready to display when a teacher asks. And if you forget your apron, you have to rent one from the office for $2 — with a $20 deposit that is returned to you at the end of the night when you return the apron.

Other parts tend to get ignored. Necklaces and earrings are frequently on display. Dresses are fine as long as they aren’t what Miss Barb describes as “Club Gear.” Layering a colored tee under your black cardigan usually passes inspection.

But we enter murky territory one night a month, when Beauty U hosts a themed Spirit Day: 80s Night, Mardi Gras, Pastel Day, and this week, of course, Cinco de Mayo.

The night before, Miss Susan reminds us that we need to dress up for Cinco De Mayo. “You can wear jeans if it’s part of your costume, but otherwise all the usual rules are enforced,” she says somberly. “If you are not dressed for Cinco De Mayo and you are wearing jeans, you will be sent home.”

Which is totally the kind of announcement that puts you in a school spirit state of mind. But I understand why she feels the need to hammer that home — at this point, spirit is so generally non-existent that getting to wear jeans is the only reason people bother to dress up.

Photo of J. Crew Papillon Watercolor Pastiche BlouseNot owning a sombrero or any traditional Mexican peasant blouses, I’m at a bit of a loss for how to demonstrate my Cinco De Mayo spirit, so I settle on jeans, gold (closed-toe) flats, and a bright, tropical-ish patterned cap-sleeved top similar to the one you see above. (It’s a few years old so I can’t find a picture of it on the interweb, sorry! But what a good excuse to look at pretty spring tops. Sigh. No wonder I’m late getting this post up today.)

Traditionally Mexican? Not so much. Festive enough to let me get away with wearing jeans after weeks of all-black boredom? I’m hoping so.

But after attendance, Miss Lisa calls me up to the front of the room. “I don’t agree with it, but the other teachers are mad you’re wearing a sleeveless top,” she says. “I know it sort of has sleeves, but the issue is we can see your armpits when you raise your arms.”

I had assumed that the no tank top rule was to prevent students from wearing the spaghetti strap type of top that leaves bra straps and cleavage out for all the world to see. Which is not something I have a problem with, but I can see why it isn’t considered “professional attire.” But armpit discomfort is a new one for me. And is anyone else finding it to be a bit of a disconnect that I can’t display my armpits, but I can spend four hours a night waxing the hair off other people’s? (Not to mention the many other parts of the female body that we’re viewing on the regular.)

Hilariously, Miss Lisa decides that my outfit is so cute, she’s going to let the armpit thing slide this one time.

Less hilarious: When she says, “I mean, did you see Markesha?”

Markesha is one of the cosmetology students. She’s black. I’d put her weight at around 300 pounds. Most days, she walks with a cane. Today she has chosen to wear a pink tank top covered in sequins. And a sombrero.

With Miss Lisa’s blessing, I go about my business, armpits still visible. (I mean, if I were to walk around with my arms raised, which I don’t so much do.) But a little later, as I’m carrying a load of laundry through the hair salon, I see that Markesha is still sporting her sombrero, but has changed into a giant black t-shirt with sleeves that nearly reach her elbows. One of the other cos students tells me that the head cos teacher, Miss Tabitha, made her go get another shirt out of her car.

So for the record, you could chalk up the difference in dress code enforcement to the fact that different teachers were calling the shots. I do catch Miss Tabitha giving my bare arms a stern look.

But I can’t shake the feeling that if I were black, 300 pounds, and covered in sequins (instead of white, half that weight, and wearing a top from J. Crew), I probably would have been digging through my trunk for something else to wear, too.


Filed under Beauty Schooled, beauty standards, Beauty U, In Class, week 25

Do You Want Fries with Your McFacial?

Older workers package cosmetics on the assembly line at the Bonne Bell cosmetics factory in Lakewood, Ohio. (David Maxwell/AFP/Getty Images)

Tonight we finish clients early, so Miss Stacy does a mini-lecture about different kinds of spa employment.

Booth renters (which make up a majority of hair stylists and nail technicians) pay a spa owner weekly or monthly for their chair or workspace. You get the benefit of being associated with the spa’s name (great if it’s a place that attracts lots of walk-ins), but you’re essentially running your own little business. “It’s very hard to booth rent if you’re just out of school because you won’t have any clientele built up,” explains Miss Stacy. “And you have to buy all your own products and equipment, but it will take awhile to earn that back in services.” You also won’t get any benefits like health insurance or paid vacation.

Of course, regular salon employees probably won’t get that either because most of those gigs are part-time and paid largely on commission. Miss Stacy says she’s heard of a few set-ups where an esthetician gets a day rate no matter whether she works on clients or not, then earns a commission on top of that. But most of the time, you just get 40 to 50 percent of the sticker price on every service you perform. The key benefit that Beauty U likes to tout here is the flexible work hours — so great for moms! Unless, of course, you’re counting on this gig to be your main source of income and only booking two facials per week. So the pressure is still on to build your own client base, and on top of that, you’ll face a lot of upselling pressure. “Some spas have very specific quotas you have to hit in terms of how many products you sell each week,” Miss Stacy warns us. (We’ve been seriously slacking on the retail front this week.)

The other big drawback of being a spa employee (especially the kind that earns a day rate): You’ll have to perform your services exactly the way the spa thinks they should be done. Word on the street is that the fanciest spa near Beauty U gives each employee a handbook that lists step-by-step instructions for each facial and bikini wax. “They want to ensure that customers always get the same quality of service,” Miss Stacy explains. “But I won’t work at a place like that because I don’t want to be a robot.”

I don’t blame her. It reminds me of when we were learning body treatments and Miss Lisa told us not to linger over the product application. “You’re not a masseuse,” she said. “You’re here to apply the product.” Translation: When a client agrees to shell out $75 for a cellulite wrap, it’s not because of your talent; it’s because of the cream on your hands. They’ve bought into what that potion claims it can do for them (shave inches of their waist). You’re the life-size spatula they use to slather it on.

So many Beauty U students are currently employed in jobs that require standardized, repetitive labor: Fast food restaurant cook, grocery store cashier, retail store clerk. The whole point of doing this, as we’re told over and over, is to find a career that offers creative and financial freedom. And we’re already finding ways to take pride in our work. Meg is the queen of extractions. Stephanie is a master of the smoky eye. Blanche nails an upsell on every client (and I swear, they seem happy about it). I’m surprisingly good at shaping eyebrows.

We celebrate these talents in each other precisely because it breaks up the monotony of yet another facial. After all, women perform so many different kinds of labor in the name of beauty, both in terms of our own personal grooming routines and the work estheticians, nail technicians and hair stylists perform for us. And most of it — after the novelty of a new cream or shampoo wears off, after you get used to the way it all makes you look and come to expect that you’ll always look that way — becomes straight-up drudgery. Shaving your legs over and over. Washing your face before bed using your particular arsenal of cleanser/toner/night cream/whatever. (This is a habit I shirked constantly before Beauty U because when I’m ready for bed, I’m so tired I often forget to brush my teeth — but since enrolling, I’ve been indoctrinated with fear of the evils of going to sleep with the day’s sweat and grime in your pores.) Sure, we’re satisfied by the results of these practices, but in terms of getting it all done? They’re just more chores on our already ridiculously long to-do lists.

At Beauty U we learn to perfect all of our personal beauty routines in ways that create yet more repetitive labor for ourselves. Committing to aggressive eyebrow reshaping plans that require vigilant maintenance to “correct” past transgressions. Deciding the lip hair only we can see really does need to be waxed every three weeks. Washing our faces before bed nomatterwhat. And of course, we take responsibility for our clients’ beauty labor too. So as eager as I am to hone my facial technique, I clock-watch constantly as I time the cold hydrating mask, because the ten minutes it takes to set up are the most boring of my life. There’s a point during every full leg wax when your back starts to hurt from hunching and reaching, and you’re thinking “this will never end,” while also entering a bit of a trance-like state of wax/rip/repeat. And those are the “fun” parts of our job. Every service we perform also creates a load of dirty laundry to wash, work areas to clean, and trash to take out — all the very epitome of undervalued, unrewarding and repetitive labor typically performed by women.

So when a client tells you that your hands are magic or her eyebrows have never looked so good, it makes all the difference. Suddenly your labor has a value beyond your 46 percent commission. And more than that, you have a value, because she’s saying that you and only you are capable of such things. You’re not just the anonymous person who cleans up her public hair in exchange for a folded-up $5 tip. You’re an expert, a miracle worker, an artist.

Nobody is jazzed about the idea of reining that in to perform McFacials step by step. But nobody is too sure how they’re going to give up even a semi-steady paycheck, either.

[Photo of older workers on a lip gloss assembly line at the Bonne Bell plant cosmetics factory, from this Epoch Times story, “US Workers Delay Retirement as Recession Drags On.”]


Filed under Beauty Schooled, Beauty U, Career Opportunities, In Class, week 25

On Baring It All

Ever since we gave Brooke her Brazilian, I’ve been thinking about possible pro-woman interpretations of this practice. I know it’s a common feminist response to view take-it-all-off waxing as a form of genital mutilation that Western women partake in only because we’ve been brainwashed to think we like it or because our self-worth is all tied up in being attractive to men.

But I also wondering if maybe this doesn’t give women who love waxing enough credit for knowing their own minds. Which doesn’t feel like a particularly feminist place to be. Some women I’ve talked to just love how it feels (“clean” and “smooth” are the words I’m hearing most). They love the reactions they get from their partners. According to that New York Post article, a lot of women also love bonding with their waxer. A monthly maintenance appointment becomes an opportunity to catch up with a good friend. (Who you pay. To rip out your pubic hair. She editorialized.)

But tonight we do another Brazilian and start talking about how the popularity of the hairless look seems to have originated with strippers and porn stars. And we have this exchange:

“I could never be a stripper,” says Beauty U Teacher #1. “They don’t have any self-respect.”

“I can’t even do a strip-tease for my fiance,” says Beauty U Teacher #2. “I’m like, lights off, please!”

“Absolutely!” agrees Beauty U Teacher #1. “I hate being naked with the lights on. There’s no need for that.”

I’m taking even the fake names out of this exchange, because it’s obviously so very personal. But I will tell you that both women are bikini waxing devotees. One even does her own Brazilians, which has to be the dictionary definition of “nerves of steel.”

I’m not saying that two women simultaneously claiming to love removing their body hair and yet hate being seen naked is a statistically significant finding. I’m sure there are loads of women who wax it all off and revel in the loveliness of their naked forms. (Are there? Are you one of them? If so, please weigh in!) But it’s a troubling correlation because it does underscore a theme I’m encountering over and over in my travels, here: That you can go to every possible length to meet the beauty industry’s standard of perfection — and still not like what you see in the mirror.

Then Beauty U Teacher #1 reaches in to remove the final strip on our Brazilian recipient, who is pulling her knee in to her chest to expose what we often refer to as “the back garden.” Teacher #1 yanks off the strip, taking every last speck of hair off this woman’s vagina and anus, then pats on the tea tree oil, almost reverently.

“You look gorgeous,” she says. “So beautiful.”

PS. You might notice that I’m skimping on photos at the moment. This is because it’s extremely difficult to find photos that illustrate a post about Brazilian waxing and don’t perpetuate a harmful beauty stereotype at the same time. It’s also because I do get the occasional extremely disturbing hater on this blog — and I don’t feel good about running a photo of a woman that enables these people can objectify her. (It’s a big interweb and there are plenty of other websites that cater to them.) If you have ideas for images/resources for images that would work for posts like these, I’m all ears!


Filed under Beauty Schooled, beauty standards, Beauty U, In Class, Waxing, week 25