They spend hours together every few weeks, confiding in each other, offering advice, and going through life changes like new jobs, weddings, pregnancies, and illnesses. Some people form this kind of bond with their hairstylist. Others hope to make this connection when they sit in the stylist’s chair. Two Northern Virginia stylists introduce us to longtime clients they’ve developed special relationships with over the years and share the stories of how they’ve become a significant part of each other’s lives.
A Family Affair
Current Salon & Color Bar by Nese | Ashburn
When Shari Hickman’s daughter Caroline was diagnosed with leukemia at age 13, there was only one person the two of them trusted to cut her long locks before she started losing her hair due to chemo.
Nese Altas, who owns Current Salon & Color Bar by Nese with her husband, Ryan Mallard, gave Caroline her first haircut when she was 2 years old and has served as a stylist for the whole Hickman family of six.
“The first step was calling Nese and saying, ‘Hey, can we maybe come in and get a haircut, like to shorten it a little bit?’ She kept the salon open one night, and it was her and Ryan, and Caroline and I went over there, and she gave her a beautiful little bob haircut,” Shari says.
But a few weeks later, Caroline’s hair started coming out in clumps. “It was kind of time to let it go,” Caroline says. “It was one of those things that’s so incredibly emotional for anyone who’s fighting a disease like that, but I think especially young women, your hair is kind of a part of your identity and who you are, and mine was so long. I knew I didn’t want to be in public to do it, because I knew it was going to be very emotional for me.
“My mom immediately texted Nese and asked if she would be willing to come to our house to do that for me. Nese immediately said, ‘Yes.’ She didn’t hesitate at all. I think she had just worked a super long day at her salon and then drove out to our house. She sat in the kitchen with me, and she buzzed my hair off for me. … I was crying but there was nobody else that I’d rather have do it. I grew up with her.”
About a year and a half later, as Caroline’s hair started to grow back, Altas was there to style it in new ways. “She helped me design a little pixie cut to rock,” Caroline says. “I wanted to feel confident and beautiful, and she made sure of that.”
Caroline Mullen, now 22, has been in remission for five years and got married in October. “I’ve been on this journey with Nese my entire life at this point, from first haircut to buzzing my hair to helping me get my wedding hair. She really is family, what she’s gone through with us,” she says.
That family relationship began more than 20 years ago, when Altas was a shampoo girl and working her way up at a salon owned by her cousins in Leesburg. When the Hickmans moved to Leesburg from Louisville, Kentucky, Shari’s husband, Drew, first went to Altas at the recommendation of a college friend. The Hickmans then started bringing their two young daughters to Altas, but Altas had to push for a few years to get Shari into her chair.
“Every time [Drew] came in — every four weeks — I said, ‘Send her, send her. I can do a better job. She can save money.’ And one time I said to him, ‘Hey, if she doesn’t like it, I’m not going to charge,’” Altas says. “He went back home and said, ‘She’s persistent and she wants it. You have to go to her.’”
Altas, who’d come to the U.S. from Turkey on her own at age 18, was trying to build a client base beyond the men and kids whose hair she was cutting. She thought having Shari as a client would help her gain more customers by word-of-mouth. “She was a well-known, beautiful blond. There was no internet, no Instagram, no marketing back then. So you had to hustle,” she says.
Once Shari was in the chair, the two quickly became friends, and the family followed Altas when she opened Current, her own salon, in Ashburn in 2012. Altas’ plan worked, too. The Hickmans lived in Leesburg’s large Woodlea Manor neighborhood, and people would stop Shari to ask her who did her hair. At one point, they counted 30 to 40 people who’d come to Altas’ salon from the neighborhood.
Shari says she’s always been willing to try new styles, and she trusts Altas to tell her what will work best with her fine hair. Her four daughters, ages 25, 22, 18, and 16, are all loyal to Current, too. She notes that her oldest, Hannah Mallon, who’s living in Alaska while her husband is stationed there with the Army, waits until she comes back to NoVA to get her hair done, as does her 18-year-old daughter, who’s a freshman at the University of Tennessee. All of the girls have served as models over the years as Altas trained new members of her staff.
Altas started out angling to style the hair of everyone in the Hickman family — and has become like a member of it. “She’s like a younger sister to me,” Shari says of her stylist. “We’ve been through a lot. We share life’s joys and life’s challenges.”
Help from a ‘Hairapist’
Eclips Salon & Day Spa | McLean
To Carol Ann Bischoff, whose mother was a hairdresser, maintaining her hair has always been essential.
Her daughters — now ages 23 and 21 — were still in elementary school when she got a recommendation to go to Eclips Salon & Day Spa in McLean. For years, the Arlington resident had gone to a salon in DC, and she was looking for something new.
As the general counsel for a telecommunications trade association and a member of several boards of trustees including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looking the part was important to her, she says.
Bischoff first saw another stylist at Eclips, but when that stylist was out on maternity leave, she started going to Courtney Vaughn. The two clicked right away. “From the very, very beginning, it was like we were working together,” Bischoff says. “I just love sitting in her chair. Now I call her my ‘hairapist.’”
Bischoff says her mother always told her that it didn’t matter if you were wearing a beautiful gown or a garbage bag: If your hair didn’t look good, you didn’t look good. So, she has always prioritized her appointments with Vaughn to maintain her short hair and to keep up her dark color before she shifted to gray.
“We would talk about the beach and our dogs. [Vaughn] wasn’t married yet. And so, I feel like I’ve gone through her engagement and her wedding and then the birth of her two daughters — and I have two daughters. It was kind of a neat mom-to-mom kind of thing,” Bischoff says.
Vaughn started out as a receptionist at Eclips when she was just out of high school and worked in each department in the salon before becoming a stylist. Vaughn says Bischoff has imparted “a lot of mom wisdom” over the years, even bringing her a big container of stickers and books to pass down to her own girls, who are now 5 and 8 years old. “It’s really kind of fun reliving it through another family,” Bischoff says.
Spending hours together every six weeks has evolved into a friendship. “I mean, we’re clearly different generations. But I really look forward to coming here,” Bischoff says. “I would be in her chair for two-and-a-half, three hours. … I never ever missed a hair appointment. I would reschedule anything else but not my hair appointment. You know must-see TV? It was ‘Must. Do. Courtney.’”
The two agree it’s important to carve out that time for yourself as a mom. “You feel good when your hair is good, and you just exude that out to the world.”
Vaughn experienced her client going through life changes, too, including a battle with cancer two years ago. “Four days after my mom’s funeral, I learned that I have a very rare form of cancer,” Bischoff says. “It’s called a rhabdomyosarcoma, and I have the spindle cell variant, which is very aggressive. I had radiation and I had surgery and I had six months of really aggressive chemotherapy. … I became completely bald — I mean everything — my eyebrows, my eyelashes.”
Vaughn helped Bischoff find a wig, although Bischoff says her family actually preferred seeing her bald to seeing her in a wig. And Vaughn was there to help her client navigate the changes in her hair as it grew back in — white and curly — which was a big change from her dyed brunette bob with honey highlights.
“We almost had to pivot and adapt because it was curly and then a little wavy. And you were still unsure if you were going to color it or not color it,” Vaughn says. Bischoff embraced the changes, saying her hair was “wash-and-wear” for a while when it was wavy.
She has kept the gray, which has darkened since it first started to grow back in. But on the day of our interview, she and Vaughn decided to add some blond highlights to give it “a little sparkle,” the stylist says.
That evening, Bischoff was going to a Virginia Cancer Specialists dinner celebrating sarcoma survivors. She was feeling good about herself as she was getting ready to leave the salon, as she has each visit for the last 15 years. “I feel beautiful. I feel relaxed. I feel incredibly relaxed. I feel like a new person,” Bischoff says. “That’s why I always keep my appointments.”
Feature image of Vaughn and Bischoff by Amie Otto