For Chicago-based hairdresser and salon owner Leah Freeman, doing hair was never part of her plan. But with all that she’s achieved in her decades-long career, it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else. Both an educator and an artist, Freeman has taken her craft all around the world thanks to her hard work and passion. Considered a global color authority, she’s been named one of the Top 20 Most Recognized Colorists in the salon industry. As the Global Healing Color Director for L’Anza Healing Haircare, she constantly shares her knowledge on complex color techniques and trends with ease. On top of all that, she also owns her own salon, Fuse Salon and Spa and already has plans to open another business.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Freeman to discuss her career highs, her salon, and the industry changes that she would like to see.
The Tease: At what point did you figure out that you wanted a career in the hair industry?
Leah Freeman: For a long time, I struggled through school. I was never clinically diagnosed with having dyslexia until later in life. My parents knew I struggled but at that time there weren’t a lot of resources for people that had certain learning disabilities and I was one of those people. When it came time to graduate, I had to tell my parents that I wasn’t graduating on time which was devastating because I’m the only child. I graduated high school months later and I wanted to go to the University of Hawaii or somewhere crazy far away. My dad was like, “No way. You barely graduated high school.” So, my dad made an agreement with me that if I went to trade school and made it through then I could go to any university that I wanted to. A friend of my mom suggested that I try beauty school. I could always cut hair in college and make extra money if I wanted to. So, I ended up going to beauty school and I just took to it. It was never a lifelong dream for me.
You opened your own salon, FUSE Salon and Spa. What inspired you to become a salon owner?
Leah: I think the main reason is that my dad wanted to go into business. My dad wanted to invest in something and he saw that I was really passionate about the industry that I was in. So, we opened a salon and it failed horrifically for the first 11 years. My parents in an 11 year period spent just over 1.5 million dollars just to keep our doors open. It was devastating. At one point, we were going to close the salon. But, my mom, who’s no longer with us, begged me to keep the salon because we had planned to move to like Nashville or Austin. So, we ended up staying back and decided to go back into business. My mom and my dad and I talked. My dad asked, “If you could move anywhere, where would you go?” and I said, “In Illinois, it would be historic Frankfurt. That’s the only place I would go.” So, we went down to historic Frankfurt. We opened up FUSE and we’ve now been in Frankfurt for six years. We just took over the other side of our building in our second week of COVID and now we’re going into the apparel business as well.
With the current coronavirus pandemic, what has it been like being a salon owner during this time?
Leah: I think with COVID, it’s all about how you look at it. When it first happened, it seemed really devastating. Now, looking back at being closed for 89 days, I have been able to spend 89 days at home with my family — which I have never done in my life. I have never been home for more than two and a half weeks at a time. I’ve been on the road for 130 – 150 days a year for the last 20 years. From a universal perspective, I think that the world was trying to tell everybody to slow down. People look at it really shitty but it changed my life. It made me look at things a little differently. It made me value the walk versus the run. I’ve been racing my whole life and I’ve just now learned that it’s okay to walk. It’s okay to enjoy the moment.
In your role as the Healing Color Director for L’Anza, you are constantly educating others on color technique, trends, and theory. How important is continued education as a stylist?
Leah: I think education maintains passion. Yes, it’s branding. Yes, it’s sales. But, the reality of it is that it makes people passionate. I can always tell when my job becomes a place to work and no longer a place of passion. That’s when I tell myself, “You need to reach out. You need to talk to somebody. You need to go see a show or pay for an online video.” What education does is it gets people to start thinking differently again because we can get in this one state of mind and that’s it. It helps us to feel inspired and still like our jobs.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career so far and how did you overcome it?
Leah: I think if anything, the biggest hurdle for me has been that I had to stop finding reasons within myself for why I wasn’t getting to places that I wanted. For so long, I’ve tried to reason and lay blame somewhere. Now, I like to take responsibility and figure out how I can get what I want.
What has been one of the biggest milestones in your career?
Leah: To be honest, I think my biggest milestone is being a salon owner. I’ve done a lot of cool things with companies and I’ve traveled to various countries, but I work with 26 kickass people that I just love being a part of. I have a really good relationship with my staff. So, I think that’s just my biggest milestone — just hanging onto the salon and not letting it go when we could have. The fact is, if I wanted to talk my parents into closing, they would have closed. It took me taking my mom’s perspective and realizing that these people are more than just people – they’re our people.
What changes would you like to see happen in the hair industry?
Leah: I think what’s currently happening. The Black Lives Matter movement is huge. As a hairdresser, something that I recognized and known for a long time is that the industry is very divided. It doesn’t make any sense. Whether it’s fine hair or textured hair or dense hair, it’s all hair. There’s just this big division and it starts in beauty schools. Beauty schools are very one side or the other. If anything, we need to see that division disappear. To me, I would say that inclusion in the industry is huge. I think we’ve seen a lot of manufacturers and online platforms do a beautiful job of changing and saying that we should have done something a long time ago. We are seeing a progression there which is great but I would like to see a little more.
I would also say that there is a big stigma to our industry. I do think that COVID has kind of changed that a little bit. Ironically, we have become really essential to everybody. People were doing underground haircut and getting paid thousands of dollars. I mean, I had friends that were doing a hair for a grand – like balayage for a grand. People were desperate. If anything, it’s just educating the country and the world that all jobs are jobs. I have had so many people that have sat in my chair and said, “Can you believe that my daughter wants to go to beauty school?” and I’m thinking, “You know you’re talking to someone that went to beauty school.” You could be a hairdresser and make an amazing living too.
For any young hairstylists who are just starting out in their career, what advice would you give them?
Leah: I think the biggest thing that I still fight to this day as a business owner and as a salon professional is that social media hurts. Social media has been a great achievement in our world but it’s also been a big downfall and people can be nasty. So number one, I would say is to be prepared for the fact that people are just not happy and they are going to say nasty things. Number two is that when you’re looking for a position or a job, make sure that with your boss you come first and the customer second. I see a lot of salons defend the customer in certain situations which I understand that the customer is important. But, your staff is showing up to work every single day and they are working eight hours a day. They do a haircut and they get publicly blasted online, with no one coming to their defense. It’s disgusting to me when I see that someone is blasting a 19-year-old online as if she woke us this morning and said, “I’m going to mess up your hair so you can publicly tell everybody about it.” Number three is to remember that relevance is key and the best way to maintain relevance is through education.
What are you looking forward to doing next in your career?
Leah: I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. I’ll let the universe hand that to me. I think that I have become more of an open vessel about opportunities and acceptance. If you had talked to me in February and said you’re opening a clothing store next door in three weeks, I would have been like, “Girl, you’re crazy!” When you sit back and just let things happen, it’s awesome what could happen. I think that’s why I have gotten to where I am to a certain degree.