Hairstory’s Wes Sharpton doesn’t give me a chance to ask a question after I open with “Who are you?”
Instead, Sharpton launches into his full story. Who he is, how he got to Hairstory, the history of Hairstory, and where they are now.
It’s like he’s practiced telling this tale, the way it flows so naturally. I follow along easily, lost in his descriptors.
But I don’t laugh. No, I tear up multiple times instead throughout the hour-long journey.
When he gets to the end, he mumbles that he’s sorry for “blabbing” on. I tell him it’s fine; I only have two questions now, anyway.
“Sure,” Sharpton says, nodding. I don’t know what he expects me to ask; maybe something about Hairstory, or a detail he left out. But it’s clearly not these two questions.
Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Here’s Wes Sharpton’s story, from humble beginnings to Hairstory.
“My friends and I would always joke: I’m the original country queer. And that’s where my story started.” It’s a succinct intro, but Wes Sharpton makes it seem like the easy way to start the story.
Sharpton grew up in Oklahoma in the ‘90s, before he had the resources that we do now for the LGBTQ+ community – and when the state was extremely conservative regarding gay rights. “It was feeling like there weren’t enough of us in people’s homes yet to really like that I could feel…” He searches for the right word, eventually landing on: “safe.”
I quietly listen to him describe his strategies in school: taking different paths throughout hallways to get through class, never following the same one, because there was a lack of safety in familiarity. “I thought ‘if I am in this space and I keep doing the same thing every day, someone’s gonna notice my path to get to class and that’s gonna make me vulnerable to being beat up, or something like that.’” He shrugs. “It’s what you had to do to survive.”
There was more strategy; making friends with those who could indirectly, unknowingly protect you. It helped Sharpton develop his “people smarts,” something he takes pride in.
“I think many people in my position had to get smart and quick! And we had to move in a way for survival, right? We had to be a little strategic for our own safety, like, ‘who do I need to align with to be protected?’” I didn’t come out until 24; the thought of dodging and befriending solely for strategic reasons makes my stomach churn.
But Sharpton says it so casually, no shock factor attached to the words. As he says, “it sounds awful, but it was just the way that we had to navigate the world in that place, at that time.”
But through the media, Sharpton knew there was more out there for him, more than what conservative Oklahoma had to offer him. There was space for him. Space where he didn’t have to be strategic.
“I just had an inkling in my mind: ‘there’s gotta be a place. There’s gotta be a place where not everything is like Oklahoma. I’m not gonna always have to change paths. I’m not always gonna have to switch gears. I can have a routine one day without fear.’”
A routine is something most youths take for granted through their adolescent lives. They wake up, quickly scarf down breakfast, go through the motions in school, and continue on to extracurriculars, or to do homework, or to visit friends, or to simply rest at home. And it happens every day. Rinse, wash, repeat. There is no strategy involved.
Sharpton did not have this luxury. But he did have those dreams of a better place.
“Growing up gay, poor, having learning disabilities… These are all challenges, but there is a gift in these obstacles: imagination,” he says, smiling. “The idea of seeing and training your mind to imagine something that isn’t quite there yet in reality is such a valuable gift.
“I could have a bigger vision of myself than others could, because I could imagine things that had not existed in the world yet, as we know them.”
He eventually made it out of Oklahoma. Here’s how.
After escaping school and its lack of consistency, Wes Sharpton gravitated toward fashion.
This is where I tear up for the first time.
“Can I be honest with you? Really honest,” he asks me. I say yes, of course, please.
“For me, my otherness was in the fashion world, which I believe I gravitated to because it wasn’t a place I belonged…” Sharpton pauses and looks at me.
“I never felt beautiful. I never felt pretty in my own skin. And I thought, if I can’t really have it myself, at least I can be a part of it. At least I could have a piece of something beautiful.”
My heart lurches to my throat. I swallow down the lump. Be professional, I tell myself.
Sharpton continues on after telling me his secret about his experience at a “cheap” cosmetology school, where he learned the details of makeup and hair care. He had assumed he was going to be a makeup artist, but after being invited to a hair show – “which is really where people stand on a platform and cut hair” – he was drawn to the hair world.
“I thought, ‘dang, these people are cool…. Maybe there’s a space where I could do this.’ And then I started to cut hair. I ended up in New York, where I trained and worked at Bumble and bumble. for many years.” Goodbye, Oklahoma; hello, Big City.
However, the fashion world wasn’t what Sharpton expected. He was glad to have escaped his hometown and found his niche in cutting hair, but “a fashion set is not as amazing as people assume it is, there’s a lot of standing and waiting and then ‘go.’ There’s a lot of pressure.”
So, Sharpton leaned into hair cutting. He worked at salons for many years, perfecting his craft, therefore putting Sharpton on the map. But it was when his work made it into Vogue that he faced a major realization.
“I thought, when I got into VOGUE, that I would be whole. And that would mean that I had made it and showed everybody and did the thing,” he says.
That’s understandable. Those who have felt othered, felt the doubt from those surrounding them… “making it” means you proved them wrong, that you are where you belong. But it was the opposite for Sharpton.
“I realized then that I needed to do some internal work, and that I’d need to align myself with things that I really loved and really believed in,” he tells me. “The press is interesting, right? It happens quick and it happens fast. I remember taking that moment and going, ‘okay, cool. This is great that this is going on in your life, but it won’t fix you.’”
He recalls doing an interview on what hair is best for your face shape; he felt “icky” after doing it, and he decided then and there that he would never tell someone how to be beautiful again.
Instead, “I thought, ‘what if we stopped having these conversations about face shape? Why don’t you just come in and you tell me what you really love about yourself? Then I’m gonna focus on how I can bring attention to that.’”
So, when someone sits in his chair and complains about their face, he resets the conversation. He has the client tell him what their favorite feature is, and he highlights that instead. “You are not designed to hide. And I, as a hairdresser, am not designed to help you hide,” he says. “I’m not OK with the culture of criticism and having a ‘solution.’ I say, let’s blow that out of the water because this is a bunch of bullsh*t, and we don’t need to be participants in that.”
He was thrilled to make this change, taking a stand to never speak about face shape again and then bringing it into his personal practice. But, he tells me, he was tired. As his career grew exponentially, he was also growing tired.
He dreamt of simplifying his life, ending his story and “opening a juice bar on the beach.” Something that didn’t exhaust him so much.
“I was really leaning into a little bit of that fantasy of thinking, ‘it’s time to wrap this show up. Maybe it’s time to do something different,’” he recalls. “And then Hairstory came into my life, a brand that is fully supportive of the hairdressing community.”
Ah, there it is. Enter: Hairstory.
The hair world was facing a crisis: what was once so exclusive had become accessible. People were able to buy hair products online, if not for cheaper on Amazon. The hairdressing community took a hit financially as e-Commerce capabilities grew – those who relied on product sales and in-person sales were losing out to a fast-growing and fast-moving Internet.
“As e-commerce grew, we were almost abandoned by haircare companies who had previously said they were ‘pro the hairdresser,’” Sharpton says. ‘Hairstory did something different that appealed to me because it supported hairdressers in a way no other brand had done.’
The idea came from Hairstory’s CEO, Eli Halliwell: providing hairdressers with affiliate links, therefore rebirthing exclusivity – just online, this time.
How Hairstory’s affiliate links work, in Sharpton’s words: “Hairdressers are rewarded for their client relationships – so much so that, after one affiliate sale, the customer remains connected to their Hairstory hairdresser for eternity, with the hairdresser rewarded ongoingly.
“Eli told me; ‘Your clients are always connected to you, and we will always pay you and we’re always gonna do that every time that they return. We will always honor sharing your education about these products with your clients.’”
Sharpton was drawn to the concept, because “the one thing that energized me the most was a big idea.” On top of this, he felt that Halliwell was supporting the hairdressing community, which had been so brutally abandoned by others.
Part of the reason behind the abandonment: the misconception by so-called “pro-hairdresser” companies that claimed that hairdressers were poor at selling their products, or simply didn’t know “how to retail.” But Sharpton strongly disagrees.
“This isn’t true!” he emphasizes. “It’s that our entire business is built on trust. We’re intuitive at our job and we have a personal connection with our clients that doesn’t align with pushing for retail sales.”
So Sharpton’s response to Haillwell’s big idea? “I thought, ‘here is someone who’s bringing something new and fresh that also allows [hairdressers] to participate, respects our work, and allows us to be considered,’” Sharpton says of Halliwell. “And it was really [hairdressers] being considered, which was bigger to me than the idea of the link.
“I was also drawn to [Hairstory’s New Wash] in a space that’s historically always been the same, shampoo, conditioner, detangler… What reinvention could happen from there?” Sharpton tells me. The unique New Wash – which helped to blow up affiliate links and what Hairstory is best known for – is “an all-in-one hair cleanser that rivals shampoo.” (Note: I’ve been using it for the past six weeks, and my review comes out tomorrow.)
So, Sharpton didn’t give up his hair cutting and start a juice bar. His excitement kept him around. He’s still with Hairstory to this day – the exact reason we’re on Zoom right now, my mic muted.
… Until it’s my turn to ask the follow-up questions.
I only have two.
The questions aren’t easy, and I’m aware of it. They’re direct, thought of as he closes his story, his vulnerable journey from “original country queer” to world-renowned hairdresser. But I don’t feel like asking Wes Sharpton easy questions after this story – this “Hair”story, if you will.
“What is your definition of beautiful?” I ask point-blank.
“I think that is such a hard question,” he says. But he doesn’t shy away from the question; he thinks hard about it.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever be whole, right? I don’t know that I’ll ever have that ability to be able to maybe be like, this is beautiful because I don’t know that I’ve dismantled all of the messages that say what isn’t beautiful yet. So my job is to try and dismantle a little piece of that in hopes that other people down the road either have to do less dismantling or hopefully one day have to do zero dismantling.”
Zero dismantling sounds impossible right now, but Sharpton is determined to do the work.
“I just wonder what the world would look like if people thought they were enough already as you came in,” he says. “I would hope that in the future, that we could have the idea that there could be a space for all of us.”
I reflect on how I’ve struggled to feel beautiful all my life, and how the internal struggle pops up every single day. Sharpton drops another piece of wisdom.
“I would love to give you a clean, pretty PR answer, but I don’t know that it would be, I don’t know that it would be the truth. I thought about this today and I thought, you know what? You always have a choice to be as honest as you want. And sometimes your honesty means that you have to be vulnerable about the way that you view yourself in the world and why maybe you’re motivated to change that for others.”
Then he apologizes. I tell him not to – QUILL doesn’t look for clean answers. We look for the raw, real, brilliant, honest, vulnerable truth. And that’s what he’s given me here.
It changes my next question, but it’s just as pointed, and I’m almost scared to ask it: “Do you think you’ll ever be enough?” It’s a personal question for myself as well, and I’m hoping Sharpton hasn’t run out of wisdom, because I desperately need it.
I could summarize what he says, but I’m going to give his full quote, because I teared up and nearly cried as he dove into it. I hope you enjoy it, too. I think it’s an appropriate close to the interview. Please take this to heart.
“I think it depends, right? I think, at the end of the day, I think that what we really want is just to be seen, because I think the idea of being seen means that you have value, and if you have value, then maybe someone could value you. And that is because when it comes down to it, you’d like to imagine for yourself that if you could be seen, that you could also be loved.
“We want the baseline. Like, you’re good, right? Like, you’re here, you exist. You deserve to exist. You can be recognized. We want that as a baseline and everything else, and as far as enoughness goes, maybe it’s just doing the work to unravel why we have tricked ourselves into believing that we’re not enough.
“Sometimes challenging yourself to be like, ‘what if I did this incrementally better?’ There’s never an end to mastery, right? There’s only just the journeys along the way. That’s the joy of the whole thing. And so in some spaces, I want to be enough, but I also want a healthy challenge to still be better.
“I think for me, enough will never be there because there’s always growth. As a community, we are sometimes a little harsh on ourselves, and I think we’ve got to remember to let people learn and grow. And we’ve got generations of experiences that are new, and queer people are learning. I didn’t have access to some of the things that are around today, so I didn’t have a language around some things. It’s cool that we can grow together.
“And I would say, just be gentle. Remember people are largely on your side. I think sometimes we get a little bickering amongst ourselves and we get overwhelmed by things outside of our group that we’re not addressing and that are not moving us forward. So I think that can be something that we have to be considerate of; to be kind to ourselves and let people learn.
“Let people grow.”