The hair entered the room in a halo of tufty coils like springs from a broken mattress, piled on the head of a willowy teen who had quit trying to tame it.
If there was any hope, it was here with the woman other curlies talk about at parties, delivering her name in a hushed tone reserved for secret government passwords.
Cynthia Cheslock. The Curly Hair Whisperer. Their Hairy Godmother.
They pay $95 and up for her haircut. Some drive 90 miles or follow her from salon to salon. They say it's worth it.
Naomi LeVine slunk into the chair at Salon Lofts in St. Petersburg. Things would have to get very basic before they could get better.
"Straight hair is like Levis," Cheslock told her. "And curly hair is like a silk blouse."
Cheslock tugged one of Naomi's tightest curls. Her hair would have to grow 16 inches before it looked an inch longer. This is what most people don't understand, why women with curls get traumatized, give up and slick it into a bun. One bad cut and it's years, many years, before it grows back.
This was not just a haircut. This was trust.
• • •
Curls can be kinky, wavy, swirly, swavy. There are slacker curls (the ones that don't spring), teacher's pet curls (the ones that do) and class clown curls (the ones that act out). There are curls shaped like Zs and curls so small they barely circle.
They all require special care, products, angles, stacking, slicing, science. Some people have several kinds of curl at once, conspiring in different zones of the head to drive their owner bananas.
Curly people stick together. They're a maligned minority, underrepresented in a world of beauty where magazine makeovers end in flatirons, where Taylor Swift is cute and Molly Ringwald is funny, but Jennifer Aniston is sexy.
"I call it the Cult of Curl," said Cheslock. "We are a tribe, and we talk to each other. I always talk to the other curlies in the room."
Cheslock, 48, has endured all types of twists in her nut brown mane. She grew up in the 1970s, when every boy had a photo of Jaclyn Smith or Farrah Fawcett in his locker. Her hair was not that. As a kid, it was wavy like Sandra Bullock. When she got her period, it sprang into Julia Roberts mode. When she had a baby, the coils shrank smaller in certain spots. When she entered perimenopause, it went full-tilt curly.
Her mother didn't like Cheslock's baby-fine curls, she said, so she would straighten them and roll them into barrels on the ends, then top the whole thing in bows. Cheslock went to class at her exclusive preparatory school in New Jersey looking perfect.
She wasn't. She was highly learning disabled, dyslexic with words and numbers. The thought of college was daunting.
"I just felt like it took so much energy to get through high school," she said. "I wanted to do something creative. I needed to go in another direction."
She liked geometry and angles. She thought police work would be interesting, because you have to solve problems. But nothing fired her up like a friend's frantic call on the night of a date to rescue hair in distress.
She had no patience for girls with stick-straight locks who insisted on having bangs like Jennie Garth. She liked New Jersey's Dominican, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian and African-American girls. She liked the curly attitude. Those people had an obstacle literally growing out of their scalp. They could handle a crisis and move on. They didn't expect perfection.
She went to hair school, trained with experts in New York, read everything she could about curls. She practiced by cutting her own hair, and she got better. She read Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey, and started thinking of curls as a science, as a house that needed renovation.
She could be the contractor.
• • •
"Are you always pulling it back and wish you could wear it down?" Cheslock asked.
"Yes!" said Naomi, 17, who regularly deals with high school boys hiding pencils in her massive bun. Naomi does not find it so hilarious.
Women in Cheslock's chair have horror stories. They were teased when they were six. They burned it on an ironing board before junior prom. They were deeply hurt when their husbands told them straight hair looks better, as if it's any different than skin color or leg length or eye shape.
"It's not just about hair," she said.
Cheslock moved to Florida in 2003, and her clientele of frizzy-haired women grew in the humidity. It was a boomerang, sending a good haircut out into the world to bring back more clients. She advertised on naturallycurly.com. She tapped on shoulders when she noticed limp curls or bad bulk or bald spots.
"Was it relaxer or the hot iron?" she asked one woman in line at Borders. The woman turned around, stunned.
She opened a private business in the Salon Lofts on 22nd Avenue N. She preached the "pineapple," piling hair on the top of the head before bed. She preached cream cleanser and boatloads of gel. Washing just once a week. Never brushing. Sleeping on a silk pillowcase. Showering with a satin cap. Moisture, moisture, moisture.
The breakthrough wouldn't happen immediately, she said, but it would happen. One client texted at 8 a.m. a month after her first appointment.
I can run my fingers through my hair!
I know, Cheslock replied.
The testimonials started showing up online.
I've been going to Cynthia for three years now. Her salon is 55 miles from my house but it's worth the drive.
after about 5 years of having my hair destroyed regularly by "stylists"... she has restored a beauty i didnt think id see.
Can you remember the first time you paid a visit to your current stylist? I do and with good reason: I had my first haircut by Cynthia in January 2007, and I remember the date clearly because it truly was a life changing experience.
• • •
"Now's the fun part," Cheslock told Naomi. "The slicing part."
Cheslock slid her $750 scissors, which she has professionally sharpened, through the hair as if she were curling ribbon. She spritzed the hair with a combination of 16 ounces of distilled water, aloe vera and essential oils mixed inside a salad dressing mister.
She showed Naomi how to section her hair and rake through gel, first with palms, palms, palms, then fingers, fingers, fingers. She showed her how to "plunk" her hair, to turn her head upside down and wrap it in a flour sack towel purchased in bulk at Sam's Club.
"Now, just like when you're bored on the phone, you're going to twist each piece, then skip it like a jump rope," she said.
The curls started to shape up.
"Oh my gosh," said Naomi's mother, Janice. "Oh my gosh. That is gorgeous. That is gorgeous. Each step it just keeps getting more beautiful."
Cheslock handed Naomi a mirror. Naomi's nose crinkled and her lips spread into an enormous smile.
On the other side of the mirror, a sticker said, "All the curly people make the beauty of the world."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.