Image courtesy of Salon Head Candy Robin Dorton (front row, third from right) with the Salon Head Candy team.

--by Christine Kasap-Davis

“The air conditioner is broken!” Robin says cheerfully, pulling me into a big hug. She feels like the sun and her hair is pulled into a messy bun, but she has a big smile on her face as usual. Despite the temperature, the salon is busy and everyone is in good spirits, but that’s no surprise; never once have I been in Salon Head Candy and felt anything but a positive, upbeat atmosphere. Now that I work here as Salon Coordinator, I’ve been fortunate enough to peek behind the curtain and, instead of drama, I’ve found more of that positivity: a team of women who strive to be the best and build each other up, instead of stomping on each other in a race to the top. The motivation behind this attitude is our salon owner, Robin Dorton. She has built her business by working with, not competing against. She started her stylist career in a mall, then moved to New York City, and in less than two decades has created a booming shop of her own, one with 100+ new clients a month and the winner of “Best of South Jersey” two years in a row.

Robin is originally from Arizona. As a child, her family traveled between there and NJ. As teenagers, Robin (and her now-business partner, Alex Feliciano) worked in Cherry Hill Mall, airbrushing shirts at an independent stand and selling them. Robin was always on the move, always looking for new ways to make money. She cleaned homes, gardened, cut hair in the neighborhood, even lied about her age to take a job at Taco Bell. As she said, there was no one to take care of her - if she wanted money she had to find a way to make it. Traditional schooling was not a positive experience. At 16 she left school and received her GED. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in PB Beauty’s Cosmetology program. Robin started her hair career in Cherry Hill Mall, practicing the basics and discovering her style. She found a niche in color, and built a solid clientele over time; she even completed her Master Color Certification at the Wella Color Studios. She and Alex took out a second mortgage on their house to open his business (she is a partner), 12 Oz. Studios (specializing in tattoos and piercing).  Her career was booming; unfortunately, an emergency gallbladder surgery would change all that. She was fired over the phone while at the hospital awaiting surgery and during bed rest recovery she gave some serious thought to what she wanted from her career.

“I said, ‘If I had to start over, I don’t think I want to start over around here. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it on my terms,’” says Robin. Her own terms meant New York. She put together her resume and a small portfolio and hit the pavement, applying in person to Louis Licari, Frederic Fekkai, and John Dellaria, among others. The first two offered her positions on the spot, but her heart was set on the third. Even though her resume was tossed in a pile with others when she applied, she went back the following week to apply again. “The reason I wanted to work at John Dellaria so badly was because when I had taken the Wella classes, one of the instructors named Virginia Reardon really encouraged me and told me I should apply to be a Wella educator and I wanted to work with her and she worked there,” explains Robin. During her second visit to John Dellaria she spotted Virginia, completely randomly, at a window on the third floor color room from outside the building. This chance meeting was her foot in the door at her dream job. “John asked me what days I could work and I told him I’ll work whatever he wanted me to work. I just kept saying ‘okay’ to everything he asked. Work Saturday? Okay! Sunday too? Sure!” she laughs. “Pretty much I said ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me to do’.”   

Concurrent to her time at John Dellaria, Robin applied to be a Wella Color Educator. She went through the process of three auditions, including a trip to LA for her final audition before receiving the letter that she was an official educator. After two years with Wella she was the number one freelance educator in the country and the most-requested by salons in every state. Her schedule was grueling: “I would work at the salon until 6, drive to Connecticut, stay overnight, hold a class on Monday, head back to Jersey and go to Twelve Ounce to answer phones that night. I have insomnia so if I wasn’t going to sleep, I might as well be at work.” This continued for some time - she worked four years with John Dellaria, five years with Wella. She was busy but run-down, successful but exhausted. And she began to notice more and more chronic aches and pains.

The mystery health problems would continue for some time and only once she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis did Robin realize that some symptoms had been visible for years, only she had attributed them to workplace stress. Traveling numbness in her legs, a knot of pain between her shoulder blades; we are in an industry that puts a terrible strain on the body and as she said, why would she think these are indicative of something bigger when she stands all day, doing a steady stream of blowouts and cuts? The headaches were brutal, but she took ibuprofen and went to work, all day every day, finishing at the salon and taking the train back to South Jersey only to finish her nights at 12 Oz. “Oh yeah, there were nights at the shop that I would be asleep at the front desk,” she laughs, “absolutely. And they let me sleep because they knew I was exhausted. It just wasn’t in my nature to go home and go to bed - there was always work to be done.” That dedication is the bedrock on which Salon Head Candy was built. Relentless determination to be the best - not for bragging rights, but because why be anything less than that?

After spending years in New York, Robin decided to return to New Jersey for work, officially exhausted by her non-stop schedule. She worked a few last hair shows with Wella and only worked a day or two at John Dellaria before leaving completely. Her health issues also worsened - she was lethargic, and her headaches became more frequent. She became clumsy, dropping things constantly, and spent months battling GI issues and intense vertigo. She was chronically nauseated and would often throw up after eating. “I thought, Well, maybe I ate something bad, or I was allergic to something - I would make excuses for why it was happening.” All of this, to her, was more proof that she needed a slower, calmer way of life. She took a position with an undisclosed regional beauty chain who promised her an education position; she would travel along the East Coast and train salon managers and stylists. It seemed perfect - she could continue to do what she loved but on a smaller, less frenetic scale. But that didn’t happen. The aforementioned position was rescinded and she instead became Salon Manager for a shop with a retail location. The corporate nature was stifling, and she became frustrated by the lack of creativity. When she proposed a new idea to her Regional Director, a way to bring some variety to the salon and reach more clientele, her ideas were used without being credited. “It drove me crazy; everything was so boring and by the book. There was no fun in it anymore.”

While at this job, Robin and her longtime boyfriend got married. Immediately after the wedding, they both came down with a stomach bug. Tommy was better in a day or two - Robin was not. She couldn’t get out of bed, and the room spun constantly. After a few days, she developed an ear infection. An otolaryngologist confirmed the presence of a tumor in her ear that required surgery; the procedure was minor. “The doctor said recovery for the surgery was a week, maybe two - for me, it was eight.” The vertigo remained, and her doctor confirmed that the tumor was completely removed but suggested that she have an MRI to rule out any other problems. The MRI revealed lesions on her brain, the cause of her vertigo and migraines and, in her doctor’s opinion, an almost irrefutable sign of MS. “I just bawled - I lost it. I asked him if I was going to be like this forever and he said he didn’t know.” She was advised to see a neurologist as soon as possible. The day she was scheduled to be back at work, she had an epiphany. “I stood out front and called Tommy. I said, ‘I cannot go back in there. I can’t. It is literally killing me.’ I just knew if I went back in, I would stay forever and that couldn’t happen.” After giving two months’ notice she left, and three months later found the location for Salon Head Candy.

“It was a really amazing time, and also the worst time of my life. The shop opened in December of 2012. I was first told about the very likely probability of MS in August of 2013.” Robin was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis by the doctors at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia only six months ago, after a long series of doctors’ visits and test after test with no definitive answer. She endured a sleep apnea study (which was ruled out); six months later, another MRI of her brain was taken but it was deemed not clear enough. After being told to come back for another MRI in six months, Robin decided to take control of her diagnosis. “This was going on for so long - I could feel my body doing these very strange things. I was starting to get scared - this is my brain we are dealing with, I don’t have time to waste.” Her name was placed on a nine month waiting list for an MS specialist at Penn. She called every day to see if there were any cancellations. After six months, she had an appointment with Dr. Dina Jacobs. A two-hour appointment included a full blood panel and a spinal MRI. This was the first time Robin was shown the results of her MRI’s - she could see where the lesions on her spine lined up with back pain she suffered with for years. She was shown the typical pattern of lesions on the brain that indicate MS - her MRI was almost a perfect match. After two years of having no answers from other doctors, Penn gave her an official diagnosis after only three months.

Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic and frequently disabling disease of the central nervous system; the cause of and cure for are not known. Symptoms are often unpredictable and can differ drastically from person to person. It is often referred to as a “snowflake disease” because of the wide range of indicators. They can be mild such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, causing paralysis or blindness. Most people with MS receive a diagnosis between the ages of 20 and 40 but the physical and emotional effects last a lifetime. A large part of living with a medical diagnosis like MS is finding support. Unfortunately, the attitude in many support forums becomes more of a place to vent and less of a place to be uplifted when you need it most. “I can’t be ‘Woe is me’ about this, even if that was in my personality - which it isn’t; that doesn’t help me get anything done,” Robin told me. “I still have to get up and run a business even on days when my body won’t cooperate - complaining won’t change that.” And just as she has always done in response to an inability to find what she wants - she created it. “Leading with MS” (https://leadingwithms.wordpress.com/) allows Robin to spread the positivity she wants to find in the world. Her posts vary from sharing recipes to her three-item gratitude list of the day. The goal of this blog is simple: if her struggles can help one person stay positive, to look for the good instead of being overcome by the bad, then it’s a success. “I’ve learned to think differently, to frame experiences as positive instead of negative. It isn’t always easy, but when you have a disease like MS it is really necessary.”

“I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.” It’s a simple statement but a rarity today. People come into this industry without understanding that in order to be "somebody", you definitely have to start as nobody. It doesn’t matter what school you attended or who you know - what matters is how hard you're willing to work. Will you arrive early and stay late? Will you come in on a day off without complaint? Will you do the things that other people don't want to do, will you hustle every minute of every day to make a name, to learn this craft? The future in this field is for the people who work tirelessly and create when it seems like all the new ideas have been done. The future is a woman who has let nothing - poverty, homelessness, and ongoing illness - stop her drive, a woman who will give until there is nothing left. Robin keeps a photo in her office above her desk - a black and white younger version of herself staring through a salon window, the trademarked Bumble & bumble sign behind her. The photo caption reads, “Looking into the future.” When I ask her about it, she grins. “Alex took that one of the days we went to New York so I could apply to salons. We passed a Bumble shop and I said, 'This is it. This is what I want.’ And now…” She waves a hand to encompass everything around us and smiles. I ask her how that feels, to have accomplished this dream. “Someday someone will pinch me and I’ll wake up; I’m just so grateful for all of it.”

Writers note: At the time of this article going to publication, Salon Head Candy has been invited by Nick Arrojo to become an Arrojo Ambassador salon. To celebrate this huge event and bring awareness to MS, we are hosting an MS Cut-A-Thon on October 29 – 100% of the money raised that day will be donated to the Greater Delaware Valley Chapter of the National MS Society.  Nick Arrojo and his team will be here between 6-9pm to celebrate our new partnership.

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