The following is the abridged interview with Hairstory hairdresser Wes Sharpton. Editor-in-Chief Tess Aurore facilitated the conversation, and Sharpton was quick to own the narrative.
Tess Aurore: So, Wes: Who are you?
Wes Sharpton: I am, at the end of the day, a queer kid from Oklahoma. My friends and I would always joke: I’m the original country queer. And that’s where my story started.
Growing up, were you that brainy kid? The cool kid? A jock?
Well, I always felt I was smart, but not necessarily in an academic sense; rather, I had an awareness of the things around me, I had some ‘people’ smarts.
Arguably the most important smarts to have.
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?’
Someone’s status was your shield, in a way.
Yeah. I also remember being in school and changing the paths that I would take to get to different classes because I didn’t trust that I was safe in a familiar routine. 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.’
I can’t imagine having to think like that, so strategically, just to exist.
It sounds awful, but it was just the way that we had to navigate the world in that place, at that time.
You didn’t have the easiest time growing up, that’s what I’m gathering here.
Growing up gay, poor, having learning disabilities… These are all challenges, but there is a gift in these obstacles.
Imagination is crucial to have.
You know, 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.
What was your main imagination?
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.’
And you escaped to fashion.
For me, my “otherness” was in the fashion world, which I believe I gravitated to because it wasn’t a place I belonged…
What do you mean, didn’t belong?
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.
Then I was invited to a hair show, which is really where people stand on a platform and cut hair. 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.
The original country queer enters the big city.
Yes, but I really didn’t love fashion much once I was in the thick of it. 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 I really started to lean into hair cutting and worked for years in salons, which led to how I got started with Hairstory.
Hairstory took off immediately. It blew up. You must have been so thrilled.
It’s funny, the thing about life lessons is that they’re continuous, and one of the biggest lessons I learned was actually earlier on, pre-Hairstory. Some of my work had ended up in VOGUE, which, as a child of the nineties, was a big deal.
Wow, what an achievement.
Yes, yet despite this incredible achievement, I wasn’t totally fulfilled. In that quick moment of being in VOGUE, I went, ‘oh, this won’t fix you.’
Quite the realization to have after something so monumental happens.
See, 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. But it’s not it. 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. 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.’
You know, it’s the kind of thing where you have it all, and that’s when you want less of it. Or none of it. Like, you get everything you wish for and it doesn’t matter. You’re still not happy.
I think the more that you have in life, you also always have a dream of simplifying your life at the same time. I’d be like, okay, I’m doing this stuff, then also having daydreams of maybe I could just open up a juice bar on a beach or something – something that requires zero effort. 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.’ And then Hairstory came into my life, a brand that is fully supportive of the hairdressing community.
How were other brands not supportive of the hairdressing community?
A shift came when online e-commerce became a thing. Everything was available in Sephoras and Ultas, and then online. When this happened, salon clients could find everything on Amazon, so it caused a lot of problems for hairdressers, who made their money not only in the chair but via product sales in-salon. As e-commerce grew, we were almost abandoned by haircare companies who had previously said they were ‘pro the hairdresser.’
Because why invest in something like the hairdresser when you have the internet? That’s sarcasm, of course.
Plus, hair care companies all say the same thing: that hairdressers don’t know how to retail. But this isn’t true! 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 Hairstory came along and enticed you, because it was about the community.
The CEO, Eli Halliwell said, ‘I’m gonna give hairdressers affiliate links. Hairdressers’ clients can shop online and hairdressers will reap the rewards.’ And so I thought, ‘here is someone who’s bringing something new and fresh that also allows us to participate, respects our work and allows us to be considered.’ And it was really [hairdressers] being considered, which was bigger to me than the idea of the link.
Which was revolutionary. I mean, affiliate links, you can throw that term out now. But back then, it was this new thing.
Definitely, As well as this new business model, I was also drawn to what Hairstory was selling – a new concept in a space that’s historically always been the same, shampoo, conditioner, detangler… What reinvention could happen from there? The one thing that energized me the most was a big idea. You know, anybody who is ‘othered’ in their life, the opportunity to be a part of something that you feel is bigger than yourself is a deeply satisfying thing.
I feel that way, absolutely. And that gives me my first question: what is your definition of beautiful?
I don’t know that I’ll ever have that ability to say, ‘this is beautiful,’ because I don’t know that I’ve dismantled all of the messages that say what isn’t beautiful yet. 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.
I just wonder what the world would look like if people thought they were enough already. And so that is what it is. So I would love to be like, I think this is beautiful and this is beautiful, and I would love to give you a clean, pretty PR answer, but I don’t know that it would be the truth.
We’re not looking for PR answers, we’re looking for the truth at QUILL. Cereal box answers aren’t interesting.
I was thinking about this the other day: 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 maybe why you’re motivated to change that for others. So, I don’t know.
Second question: do you ever think you’ll be enough? And I’m asking this because I think about it, too.
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, 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. 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.