A conversation with hairstylist Rubi Jones

Who is Rubi Jones? She isn’t just a hairstylist, and she isn’t just a leader. She’s a person fighting for education in her craft, and human rights in her communities workspaces. She is creating a safe space for learning and self-education. She is pushing for the right to take care of a sick loved one, or take time off after the birth of a child. She’s calling on her community to step up their game, and she’s asking them for help in the fight. Read our conversation with Rubi Jones and dig a bit deeper into the history of hair, and the problems the industry is facing now. 

PHOTOGRAPHER MEGHAN MCGARRY 
INTERVIEW BECK DIAZ @hypebeck

In an effort to bring comprehensive hair education into her industry, Rubi Jones created Salon Study – a temporary beauty research library housing and creating printed matter devoted to hair. This collection of works is open to the public. 
Salon Care was born of the same need to give back to her community. It is a project rooted in nurturing the roles hairdressers have in the communities they live/work in. During the Spring of ’21 Salon Care is focusing on passing paid family + medical leave for all workers.

Where did it start for hairstylist Rubi Jones?

It’s funny; a few weeks ago, a friend asked me to do a career day for her kid, and my intro was a photo of me and all of my extended family at my sister’s quinceañera. Our hair and makeup were all done up to the nines with the looks everyone wears now but in the ’90s. I told the kids that that was how I grew up. I would get dressed up at least once a month for a wedding or a quinceañera in my family, and we would do each other’s hair and makeup. Every time my family got together, there would be perm solution in the air, and that’s just how I grew up! Hair was always in my life, but never something that I thought of as a career. 

I am a first-generation immigrant, so from day one, my family wanted me to go to college and do the whole “thing,” they wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, etc. So, while the hair and the makeup were very much a part of my life, school was also a big part. I was trying to be my own identity, trying to find myself. 

I went to college for art history, and I never entirely fell in love with it. I would always drive around and see this beauty school near my university and wish I could go there. So one day, I signed up on a whim. I naively thought that I would do college during the day and beauty school at night, and then the day I started beauty school, I just thought, “Oh my God. Is this how I should feel when I’m in class?” I never wanted to leave; I fell in love with it. I finished off my semester and did beauty school from there on out. 

I always loved fashion. Going back to the quinceañeras, what came along with the hair and makeup was picking out a dress from a magazine. My grandma, who is a super talented seamstress, would sew the ones we wanted. I always loved magazines, and when I started beauty school, I learned that I could do hair for magazines. That was it for me. It came full circle. 

After beauty school, I came to New York because I would look at those tiny fucking editorial credits to see where the hairstylists lived and what they did. Bumble and Bumble were credited in a lot of those at the time, so I just went and got a job there. At the time, they did a lot of fashion shows and had a great assisting program where you learned the basics of hair. It was so intense. You had to master a blowout; you’d be blowing out hair for three months straight until it was perfected, then you’d move on to a haircut, and it was like a straight line until it was perfected, then a bob, and so on. It took like two years, sometimes three, for someone to make it through the whole program. That’s where I started my New York career. I would do fashion shows and assist on shoots, just to try to work my way into the world, and I slowly made it.

Did you ever feel the weight of being a woman in the world of editorial hairstyling? 

I think I assisted for about five or six years before I signed with an agency, and when I was starting to shop around for agencies was kind when I realized how sexist the industry was. I remember leaving an agency meeting with an agency that I really loved, and they had reached out to me to meet, but it didn’t quite flow. When I walked out of there, I had a flashback of my first month at Bumble. An artist at that agency had been signed for a few years already, and I had started on the exact same day with that person, and I remember at Bumble I was telling the staff and managers that I wanted to do fashion shows. I was asking them to let me be on the show circuit, and they told me I had to go through all the steps and training before I could do that, but this co-worker of mine, who I think is an incredible and extremely talented hairdresser, he was able to do the fashion shows. I remember asking why he could do it, and I couldn’t, and they said, “Well, he’s a guy.” 

I remember walking outside of the agency meeting not feeling great, which is normal, you know, sometimes a forum doesn’t go the way you want, but that came back into my head, and I just started crying. I just thought, “What the fuck”. 

There’s a gender gap in the hair industry, and when I was looking for an agency, I saw it in the rosters. There were no women in a lot of rosters, or sometimes there was just one, but there were plenty of men. These are the little things that happen. It’s never this huge, in-your-face experience, it’s all these tiny micro-aggressions that push you back. 

“European white men who came to America and the barbers who were already there, and saw that the industry was flourishing and said “Let me just tell you how it’s done,” as historically happens everywhere. So, organizations were created, regulations, a bunch of tiny things that slowly erased the story of the true salon industry. ”

It’s hard because when you think about the general public, they don’t see what you see. They don’t go to the local hair salon and see it overrun with men. When the general public isn’t catching onto this, it’s not something that is a “major fight”; it’s something that the professional women in your avenue are waging on your own, which sucks even more. 

Exactly. Coming full circle, that point goes back to what I’m doing here. In the last year, there was a point in time during that insane lockdown that I didn’t touch hair for months at a time. I felt such mourning, and I deep dove into reading and researching. I started reading all these books that tell you the history of the American hair industry. In these books, I saw exactly what happened, dating back to the 1930s, that created the segregated and sexist industry that we live in now. That’s what pushed me to start this. 

All these things that had never made sense to me, like when you look at the rosters and the heads of the major hair care brands, and 95% of them are European white men; it started to click. The industry is extremely segregated. For the most part, white hairdressers don’t know a single thing about black hair or any other marginalized community in the US. They’re all just completely separate. In these books, you see exactly why. I could tell you all of it, but part of the reason for this library is to physically and visually show people. 

When you come and see this library, you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard about the history within most of these books. Hairdressers will wonder why they never received these books in their training. Ask yourself who was writing these books. Ask yourself what stories were being written and added into our cosmetology textbooks. That’s why I want the most extensive collection of cosmetology books so you can see why they’re so segregated. Look at the authors then; look at the authors now! There are literally two black people on the cosmetology board of textbooks. I’m grateful for one of these companies that sent me books for the library, and I just want everyone to come and see where we are, what’s missing, what hasn’t been told, or what may just be an oral history at this time, and where we’re going to go from here. Things need to change. 

Do you feel that one of the reasons for this segregation is buried in the industry’s inception? 

Interestingly, in a very small gist, one of the ways that the industry began in the US was because women needed a safe space to work. You were either black, and you didn’t have safe spaces at all because you were working in people’s homes in incredibly unsafe working conditions, or a factory with hazardous working conditions as well. White women were also working in factories with dangerous working conditions, so the American hair salon began. You weren’t able to go to a barbershop because barbers didn’t want women in their spaces, so they created a safe space where they could economically thrive. 

Men saw that this happened, European white men who came to America and the barbers who were already there, and saw that the industry was flourishing and said “Let me just tell you how it’s done,” as historically happens everywhere. So, organizations were created, regulations, a bunch of tiny things that slowly erased the story of the true salon industry. 

Throughout the industry, there has always been this push and pull. As you said, everyday Americans are mainly seeing women at their local hair salon. These places have been a safe space for anyone that wasn’t excepted in a barbershop. LGBTQ+, all minorities, everybody that doesn’t exist in a white Euro society. These regulations came through and destroyed it all. 

When you come and sit in my chair, I naturally am taking care of you. Yes, I’m taking care of your hair, but also so much more than that. That’s where the community work comes into play for me. In these histories, you read that hair salons have always been community spaces where the workers take care of their communities through their hair needs, which leads to health, which leads to economics, voting, all of that. As soon as black women, and women and general, got the right to vote, hair salons signed women up to vote. A few weeks ago, all hairdressers were invited to this US chamber of commerce meeting where they’re trying to use hairdressers to help educate our clients about the vaccine and its importance. 

Everyone knows the importance of what a hairdresser can do when you sit in their chair. Still, I think that these regulations have slowly been trying to professionalize the industry and take away some of that intimate personal connection that each hairdresser has. If this hadn’t happened, the industry would have already pushed forward some of the things I’m fighting for now, like paid family leave. These are family issues, and in a workplace where it’s primarily women, these individuals would have fought for these things just like they did in the past. In the past, Madam CJ Walker, Annie Turnbo, and so many other hairdressers had always been involved in the community and political work because when you see an issue with your clients and your community, you take care of it. 

“…For minorities to see their culture on a white person, with an all-white team, is so upsetting. If I’m backstage working and seeing that, there’s no way I’m not thinking about my family that taught me how to do my make-up like that and thinking about where they are at this point in time versus these people that are fetishizing our culture at this insanely expensive event.”

I resonate with your history and upbringing in hair so much, as a Hispanic woman myself. But I know that everyone’s story and history are different. What do you think should happen in terms of having these minorities come together to write or rewrite their history?

A couple of things come to mind. Last year, I read this amazing article where a black writer was talking about how she knew all of the white hair references. She said she knew all the haircuts and techniques, but none of her white friends knew the relevant references to her culture. This is once again an example of looking who’s behind the media that we’re consuming and the stories we’re learning and prioritizing. I think that it’s so important for everyone to educate themselves about all different cultures. I feel like the more we know about each other, the less we’ll be fucking it up. I think cultural appropriation is such a big deal in the beauty industry. I do believe that if people educated themselves more about these references that they have, and stopped fetishizing them, and deep dove into their history, maybe they would look at them differently and possibly use the references more respectfully or correctly decide when is the right time to use them or not. 

That’s the big thing isn’t it. This has been such a divisive topic lately, and it should be! It feels like hairstylists, and even individuals, aren’t grasping the importance of mindfulness and respectfulness. They just think it’s a hairstyle, no biggie. But like you’re saying, there could be a whole history behind that one hairstyle that they don’t know about and aren’t making an effort to understand. 

A revolution, maybe! I mean, for my specific culture, I identify as Chicano, and when I first started doing fashion shows, Chola makeup was such a thing. There were always mixed feelings that I had about it. I was excited to see my culture represented on the runway, but like…can you at least pronounce ‘Chola’ correctly? There would always be a question of how much of this is fetishizing versus acknowledging and celebrating. 

Many of these things are huge divisive statements, and for minorities to see their culture on a white person, with an all-white team, is so upsetting. If I’m backstage working and seeing that, there’s no way I’m not thinking about my family that taught me how to do my make-up like that and thinking about where they are at this point in time versus these people that are fetishizing our culture at this insanely expensive event. It just really paints a picture. 

That’s also why I think it’s so incredible and important for everyone to tell their stories. I love the Instagram account @nuevayorkinos. If we don’t tell our own stories, nobody else will. I hope that having this library will also shed light. While we were researching, there were so many things that we were like, “how is there not a book on this, or this?”. I want people to come and see what we have, see what’s missing, and maybe even decide to write their own stories. Maybe a publishing house can make the changes they said they would make last year in terms of diversity and publish some of these missing stories. 

There is research out there. It exists. It just needs to be written. 

“I understand how it’s not easy for stylists to pull from fashion houses when they only make sample size clothing, but the only way to change that is to be vocal about how we need that to change… I think calling yourself a stylist when you can only style one type of body is just as bad as a makeup artist that only does one skin tone.”

So you started this library, Salon Care; what are your hopes for it in the future? 

I hope that I can have a massive research center for hairdressers and anyone interested in beauty in the near future. Right now, we curated this to be a tiny but mighty version of what we hope it will be. You’ll find miniature versions of categories that will be way more expanded in the future. We tried to prioritize books that you can’t find next door at a bookstore or a museum. These are the stories and books that I would go into the FIT research library and museum library, digging for portraits of Mexican people that aren’t fetishized and taken advantage of. It’s deep diving, and that’s what we’re trying to have here alongside everything. In the future, I want a massive research center where the study can be on books, scientific journals, everything. 

Right now, if I want to learn about scalp care, I have to really dig to find a scientific journal about it. This information exists; people are researching this topic. But, what is readily available instead is a haircare line that’s pushing a product and the research they have to support that product. I’m not saying that that product might not be amazing, it probably is, and I will probably recommend it to people, but I think that information has been so hidden. 

Information is at our fingertips in every other industry, and you can find whatever you want to learn about. For hairdressers, it’s like product companies are still trying to funnel our education through their lens. As an editorial hairstylist, I’ve never had one specific brand that I use. I think all hairdressers are in that same boat. We’re at a point where we should be able to educate ourselves outside of the lens of singular brands and then go to the brands that we want to use and recommend the products that fit the client’s needs. 

That is so funny that you say that. I had this question, and I didn’t really know what it meant or what I was trying to say, but I wanted to ask you about the differences or similarities versus education and beauty and education in beauty. What you just said is so interesting; it’s almost like a pyramid. You have the brands up top that funnel the education down into the hairstylists when it should be the other way around. Hairstylists should be receiving a broad education and then making informed decisions from there. Why is it so upside down? Is there even a set curriculum in beauty schools?

There is, and there isn’t. Beauty schools, again, if we do a deep dive, they’re a business. Some beauty schools give a more comprehensive education than others. I’ll give you an example. My beauty school gave me a pretty comprehensive education, then I went to Bumble and had an even deeper education. On top of that, when I started working in fashion shows, I quickly saw how every black model, or any model with curly textured hair, would only get their hair touched by the three black hairdressers backstage. A, why are there only three, and B, why doesn’t anyone else know how to do their hair? I immediately knew that I needed to up my game in black hairdressing because I never wanted to be in a position where I didn’t know how to do my job confidently. 

So that’s not something that they taught you?

Not me. And I know I’m not alone because we see these examples everywhere all across Hollywood. I remember putting myself in the position of those black models and imagining as best I could how shitty that would be. I always made it my goal to assist these hairdressers, learn, ask questions, and just educate myself in this. I would practice at home and do all I could. You really have to seek it out yourself to learn whatever is lacking. 

Which shouldn’t be the case. 

It shouldn’t, but also, there’s this unique beauty to our industry. From day one of beauty school, it’s ingrained in your DNA as a hairdresser always to seek education. You’re taught that you’re always learning, and every hairdresser, no matter their age, is always looking to expand their knowledge. They are forever a student, which I think is so incredible. 

It’s ironic because it shouldn’t be the case. You know you don’t learn it all in beauty school, which is a whole problem in it of itself. Then secondly, you’re always learning, but if your avenues for learning are all funneled through these white lenses, then where do you go? 

I just want to give people access to printed matter. Visuals that will help further that education. 

“This is the pregnancy penalty and the motherhood wage gap, it’s just these little things that add on, and you don’t have job security.”

To switch gears a little, I wanted to talk to you about your experience as a mother in the hair industry. I read an article somewhere where you said that when you were pregnant, you didn’t tell anyone at your workplace that you were pregnant. 

Well, I was still assisting, and I was still doing shows, and I remember being pregnant backstage. One thing that always comes to mind is that I remember doing these major shows and being pregnant and feeling like, “Oh my God, this baby is backstage with me at Dior” or whatever, and that was so rad and special to me. I don’t think I realized how rare it was to be a mother in the hairstyling industry until later. Every fashion industry has its own demographics, but there aren’t too many mom hairdressers doing fashion work at a super high level.

Why do you think that is? 

I mean, there aren’t that many women in general. If we look at the numbers, it’s getting better, but at that time, it was exciting and fun, but I definitely had enough social cues to know that I should hide my pregnancy. This is part of my research with the paid leave campaign. This is the pregnancy penalty and the motherhood wage gap, it’s just these little things that add on, and you don’t have job security. 

I’m sure it feels threatening to some degree to be already skating on thin ice, so to speak, for simply being a woman in the industry and then to also be in the position where you need to ask for time off. 

Yeah. I mean, I didn’t even really have too many people to ask, specifically in fashion, so what I did for myself, which is what felt right for me at the time, was that I shared my pregnancy when it was visible, and I worked until the last month of my pregnancy. I felt like superwoman through my pregnancy. I literally felt superhuman. Walking down the street anywhere, I was like, “I am growing a human inside of my body, I don’t know about you, but like, you’re just walking down the street right now!” 

But I’m lucky I had a pretty healthy pregnancy, and I was able to work till so close to the end, but it was strategic. It’s like invisible labor that you do. I was strategic in booking enough jobs to finance the time off that I was taking alongside that, as well as having content to show on my Instagram while I was on leave, so people thought I was still working and still around. 

I was lucky that my daughter was born in August because it’s a slow time, but that wasn’t planned. When Fashion Week came around in September, the first question that came up was, “Are you still going to work?” You don’t ask a man that! None of my male colleagues ever got asked if they were coming back to work after becoming a father. I made it a point that I would do fashion shows in September, a month after I had my kid. The shows are usually just three hours, kind of easy; I also did a few VIP clients in September but, it was way too soon. 

I’m lucky that I was able to do it, acknowledge that it was too soon, then take some time off and come back, but you don’t know any better. You’re just doing what feels right at the moment, and I think I needed to do that to prove to myself that I was invaluable. Maybe no one else thought my job would be gone, but things told me that it could be. I had to prove to myself that I was still going to be here and going to work, and I had to do that by doing it a month in. 

Did that make you feel guilty at all? Having to deal with the urgency in your work life and wanting to show up and do your job? Was there any motherhood guilt?

For me, after I had my daughter, and even throughout my pregnancy, I had a few friends tell me the same thing. Only one friend truly embraced me with open arms and said to me that what I was going through was exciting and beautiful. Everyone else said it was scary. My friend would just tell me not to be scared, that my baby would bring prosperity, and I just went with that. 

I do think that my brain shifted to a more efficient level. I think I just became a lot more discerning and had no time to waste. I had no trouble working out which jobs were worth it and which weren’t. It pushed me to compartmentalize my work, so much so that I decided to open up my physical studio. I wanted to be a mom when I was a mom, my creative shoot person on set, and in a completely other place for just cutting hair. I couldn’t have these parts of me mixed together because I really needed to prioritize what mattered at the moment. 

I think it led to this work. I think my kid helped me hone in on what was important even more. 

“Over 90% of American hair salon workers work in a salon with 1-5 employees. That means that no matter what, you’d never be taken care of. I want to change the narrative so that it’s not just a motherhood issue too. This is a human rights issue.”

Did you feel like you had all of the tools you needed to be able to do that? 

No, and that’s part of what made all of last year so hard. With the pandemic, my kid wasn’t at school; I didn’t have my studio anymore, I didn’t have work anymore; it was all physically living in one place. It took me a few months to realize why it was so hard for me, and it was because I had had it figured out. I had created a structure that worked for me, and now it was all under one roof, and I was falling apart. 

That goes right into the paid leave. All of my clients were telling me the same thing. We were all realizing that there was no structure in this country to help us be parents. We constantly have to overcompensate in all these different ways, and if one breaks, it all falls apart. 

Knowing that there are only five states that currently offer paid family or sick leave, what do you think this says about the path to reform? 

After this past year, at least for me at this moment, I feel like everything just broke not only in my career but in this country. As a country, we have an opportunity to pick up what works, leave what doesn’t. We all saw that paid leave became a pandemic relief, so let’s keep that in our hands! That worked. Let’s keep that, pick it up, and let’s push it. This is the closest we’ve ever been to possibly passing it as a national policy. 

The path to reform that we’re typically taking isn’t the path I’m taking. My approach for trying to push this cause is through hairdressers. If we look at the demographics in hair salons around the country, the places where there are the most mom and pop shops, who are the ones most affected by the lack of paid sick leave, are swing states and states that in this last election passed democratic rulings. That, or they have republican congressmen who are a little more in support of these issues. 

I also think that those who paid leave affects more are some of the people who feel disenfranchised by the government—these small mom-and-pop business owners who just don’t have any support. I want to reach all of these hairdressers, not the huge hair salons, but more so the smaller, local ones that are already doing the community work. When you classically think of a hair salon, you don’t think about the fancy New York City salons; you think about the mom-and-pop salons. Those are the ones that if you talk to them about the issues, first of all, they don’t recognize that they’ve been doing this invisible labor all along. When you really get into the conversation is when they realize it. 

Over 90% of American hair salon workers work in a salon with 1-5 employees. That means that no matter what, you’d never be taken care of. I want to change the narrative so that it’s not just a motherhood issue too. This is a human rights issue. People get sick. I want to show the faces of who this affects. It’s everyone, and it’s devastating. It shouldn’t be that way. The fact that 40% of Americans don’t have this, and so many Americans file for bankruptcy just because someone gets sick? That is so fucked up. 

This is a community issue; the salon is a community space. Paid sick leave is just one of many causes that I hope to rally for now and in the future, and it’s just the beginning. It doesn’t even take care of all these other issues that we need to fight as well, but it’s a start.