A Commitment to Beauty

Ma’Dear’s salon aims to teach customers how to maintain their total image, starting with hair

A blue flash blazes into the salon. A short woman with slight wrinkles wearing white bedroom slippers and blue sweatshirt power walks into Ma’Dear’s Total Image Body Salon and Day Spa. Her shoulder-length, gold-highlighted, black hair flies behind her, a small piece of it tied up in a mini-bun.

Before anyone comments on the state of her appearance, the gold-highlighted woman holds up a finger. “Don’t you start with me, don’t you say nothing about my hair,” she says. She graciously hands an envelope of money to a stylist who’s with another customer, thanking her for doing her hair earlier in the day.

Jackie Emery, owner of Ma’Dear’s Total Image Body Salon and Day Spa, blow dries Tiffany Alexander’s hair. Alexander has been a patron of the salon for 12 years and comes in every two weeks. -- Photo by Mackenzie Reiss

“Check you out,” another stylist says to the gold-highlighted woman.

The gold-highlighted woman smiles. The smile exposes a gap in her gums, where two front teeth should be. She twirls, with a small shake of her bottom, and points at her “audience.”

“Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying,” she says.

With a last hip shake, she heads out the door and leaves the rest of the women in stitches of laughter.

Welcome to Ma’Dear’s, a South Avenue salon that includes a spa area and a clothing boutique, a block from Wilson Farm’s. For many blacks, hair is an essential part of identity, an expensive habit and a canvas for self-expression. In a 2009 report released by the Mintel International Group in Chicago, black hair products, including shampoo and relaxers were estimated to make up about $165 million in annual hair sales. Historically, beauty salons have been one of black women’s first means of entrepreneurship. And for all these reasons, Ma’Dear’s offers more than mousse, scissors and barber’s chairs. It’s a place for strong relationships, a place for invigoration and a place for hair.

Maintenance is key

Jackie Emery opened Ma’Dear’s 15 years ago, and the interactions with her customers keep Emery at her black leather chair each day, she says. The shop sees around 40 to 50 customer daily.

About halfway through Emery’s task, a woman with uncombed long black hair midway down her back enters the salon and taps Emery on the shoulder.

“Hi, dear,” Emery says, a huge smile on her face. She and the woman share a long embrace.

“Just wanted to pop in,” the woman says. “We’ll talk later. Just wanted to say, ‘Hi.’ ”

“OK, dear, nice seeing you,” Emery says.

The woman, a loyal customer, walks away from Emery. She comes in often to visit. “I’ve had clients who have been with me since I opened the shop 15 years ago. I even have some who have been with me since I graduated beauty school,” Emery says.

Luis Claudio, who has been working at the salon since January, buzzes Ron Gregory’s hair. -- Photo by Mackenzie Reiss

Past Emery’s chair, in a separate side room of the salon, Eppie Davis, a faithful Ma’Dear’s customer for almost a year, sits under the dryer and chats with the woman sitting across from her. She comes to the salon to relax, to enjoy its atmosphere and its people. “Syracuse is a small city. Sometimes you randomly know people that come in, and you feel comfortable,” she says.

Davis makes it a point to come to the salon every two weeks, even if she needs just a wash. “Your hair and your physical appearance is the first thing that people see. It’s important to maintain,” she says.

Maintenance is the key to beauty, to good feelings, to invigoration, Emery says. Emery wears a streak of purple through her bangs. “Your hair is how you feel. I feel purple today, so I’m going to wear purple in my hair.

Someone’s happy, so they want to wear a happy style — it isn’t ghetto,” Emery said.

To Emery, the salon represents just one aspect of good maintenance. But her customers need more than just a weekly wash or a monthly touch-up. That’s why Emery started her own print magazine. She calls it Image Ink.

Emery released Image Ink in August, with the next issue in the works. The publication aims to help people cope with life problems. The salon’s clients serve as Emery’s inspiration. Employees and clients contribute content to the magazine with self-help articles, Q&As with stylists, financial advice and poetry. Emery has high hopes for the magazine’s future.

“I would like the magazine to go national eventually and maybe even a talk show from that,” Emery says.

In the meantime, the salon holds monthly women’s support groups to teach self-esteem and empowerment. Emery leads these, and females ranging from working women to junior high students attend to discuss life struggles and ways to cope. Emery also hosts hair shows that display different hair creations to the community.

Lucinda Price has been styling hair for two years at Ma’ Dears Total Image Body Salon and Day Spa. The hair braids that she did for Princetina Conklin should last anywhere from two to three months. -- Photo by Mackenzie Reiss

And yes, the final maintenance key is your hair and how you wear it. On a recent Saturday, a visitor finds a full range of house specials: One lady walks in with short-cropped hair and leaves with hair down to her shoulders. A young girl suffers through the pinches and pulls of a braid job. And one woman needs convincing before scissors reach her locks.

“I want it to be long enough to brush,” she tells her friend, who sits next to her.

“You’ll be OK, sista,” her friend says.

A blow out

Hair matters, even when you’re 8 years old.

Toward the end of that Saturday, Jaquaya Gregory, salon receptionist, walked toward the stylists, a man in her wake. “Do we have any time for a walk-in?” Gregory asks the four stylists, all of whom had clients in their chairs. “This man here wants to have his daughter’s hair done for her birthday.”

The stylists discuss the pending appointments: A 5 p.m. braiding, a 4:30 p.m. wash and set and three clients still waiting under the dryer.

“We’ll make it work,” a stylist, Lindetta, responds.

A little while later, the man’s daughter appears. A girl with long, thick braids halfway down her back decorated with colored barrettes. “Happy birthday,” the stylists and clients say in an unplanned unison. She looks at the ground, and then takes Lindetta’s hand and heads over to Lindetta’s chair.

“What style do you want?” Lindetta asks.

The birthday girl smiles, her faced still turned to the ground, “A blow out.”