Senior Sarah O’Sullivan knows when people see her, they see her hair. They see the stripped down, once-was-blonde, neon yellow strands that define her past.
Coming to East freshman year, O’Sullivan knew only one person — and that person wasn’t herself.
She started as the new girl with pink hair: lava girl to some, hot-girl-with-the-pink-hair to others, O’Sullivan kept on with her head and ponytail high, hiding her insecurities.
Now, in her senior year, O’Sullivan has found her way of expressing herself through her hair color and style.
O’Sullivan began her freshman year working at Lumine Salon. By the end of junior year, her boss and owner of the salon, Nancy Weber, told her to get senior pictures done as soon as she could. Weber wanted O’Sullivan to come to New York City with her in April of 2019, free of charge, and model for her in the 2019 Goldwell Color Zoom Challenge. But there was a catch: going to New York with Weber meant O’Sullivan had to give up something she had always controlled — her hair.
Goldwell is a globally-recognized hair product company that has held several national hair competitions around the world. This year’s competition was based off of their new color line: “Remix,” an array of bold lip colors and blue bobs. The competition was held during the last week of April with the goal of creating a seamless seventh look for the 2019 Goldwell collection.
Browsing through pictures of this year’s Goldwell Color Zoom theme — filled with hair colors of fuchsia and green with bangs and pixie cuts — O’Sullivan was skeptical about giving up her hair to Weber, who could then dye and style it any way she wanted to.
Her boyfriend said don’t. Her friends said do it. Her mom said go for it.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Day one — shopping. O’Sullivan was hopping into Ubers and taxi cabs alone, scrambling to find the perfect outfit to compensate Goldwell’s new line. At this point, her hair was bleached white as a baseline for the yellow hair Weber would use the third day.
They finally found the look: a silk green dress, a hot pink trench coat, red leggings and bright red shoes.
Day two — Weber’s training — filled with hair coloring classes. Day three — go time.
Stepping foot into a skyscraper whose top floor seemed nonexistent in the meatpacking district of New York, biting their nails and surveying the scene, O’Sullivan and Weber got onto the elevator and headed to the top floor.
Surrounded by white, shiny walls, a huge window and a balcony that led to an ocean view slightly blocked off by skyscrapers, frantic competitors scurry to wash, cut and dye their model’s hair. All of them were pining for the same top five slot — O’Sullivan was the only teenage model in the room.
Most of the models there were 30, paid and cranky about what the stylists were doing to their hair. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, went in the competition with an optimistic attitude towards what Weber was doing to her hair. All of this — the city, the competition, the thrill — was her payment.
After 10 hours of dying and washing, Weber was done completing Sarah’s look: neon yellow hair with short bangs.
Day four — photoshoot day. Moving down an assembly line of makeup artists and final touch-ups, Cheryl Esposito, the artist who performed every contestant’s makeup, opted for white face paint on O’Sullivan’s fair skin to achieve a porcelain finish — like a human mannequin.
Her doll-like appearance gave Weber and O’Sullivan a leg up in the competition.
Being the second to last ones in line, O’Sullivan continued to bite her nails and adjust her yellow hair to prepare for the shoot.
“Standing there, the only way I can describe it is that I felt like I was being photographed during a Vogue photoshoot,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m not tall. I’m not the prettiest person, but it felt so good. That was probably the most confident I have ever felt, and I had bright yellow hair.”
This was it — her neon pageboy cut was worth it for O’Sullivan.
The photographer, Weber and Goldwell staff members gathered around O’Sullivan while she was being photographed because, according to Weber, O’Sullivan was a totally different person behind the camera.
“I don’t think [Sarah or I] realized how strong the look we had created was until she got behind the camera,” Weber said. “A lot of the people from the color company came up and looked at it. The lead educators from Goldwell came up and looked at it. Then these other educators came up and looked at it — that’s when we realized — wow, this look is amazing.”
Leaving the photoshoot and the last day of the competition, O’Sullivan hugged the previous year’s winner who was teaching the coloring classes, and he whispered in her ear, “See you in Vienna.”
Vienna is where the international Goldwell Global Zoom competition will be held Sept. 27 to Oct. 1.
After nearly two months of waiting for the competition results, O’Sullivan peered down at her phone to see an incoming call from Nancy Weber telling her that they had made the top five in the country, and although they didn’t end up making the number one spot they needed to go to Vienna, O’Sullivan used this experience to build her self-confidence to heights she didn’t know existed.
“Sarah has always been a risky person,” O’Sullivan’s friend and senior Jillian Harte said. “Although, having her yellow hair definitely lowered her self confidence which forced her to find other things she loves about herself.”
At first, O’Sullivan struggled with things like her hair clashing with her prom dress and boys questioning her about why she colored her hair. But with time, O’Sullivan realized she didn’t need normal, blonde hair to be confident.
“I used to not be okay with standing out through my hair, and it’s true, it forces people to look and stare at you,” O’Sullivan said. “It also forces you to be comfortable with who you are, or you just won’t make it. I didn’t realize how sad I was before, but then after going through this I have gained so much confidence and I am so grateful for that experience.”
Now, O’Sullivan is back to blonde, but plans to dye her hair pink again this school year or before she goes to college.
“In the end, I think a lot of people use hair as a cover up,” O’Sullivan said. “Everybody at East — for the most part — has the exact same haircut, style or color. When you see somebody with unique hair it stands out; not being normal took my confidence away which forced me to be confident in the way that I treat people and treat myself — now, I can confidently say that I am pretty. I’m not the prettiest person I know by far, but I am pretty.”
*video by Maggie Schutt