The Stylist Will See You Now

LaDosha Wright plays doctor at her Coventry salon.

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LaDosha Wright calls herself a hair stylist, but the - better term would be "hair therapist." - Walter  Novak
LaDosha Wright calls herself a hair stylist, but the better term would be "hair therapist."
LaDosha Wright gently hangs up the phone, then settles herself into a big black leather seat next to her newest client, her feet tapping to the jazz that envelops her Coventry Road salon.

"If you're coming here looking for Halle Berry hair, or you just want a stylish updo, you should go somewhere else," she warns. "Here, we look at hair as an extension of the body."

Sounding like the voice-over at the end of a drug commercial, she begins to recite possible side effects of her impending consultation.

"We're going to ask you some hard questions about your health and give some honest responses," she says. "Some people don't like that. They don't like hearing criticism. They can't take it. They get defensive. That's fine. We're not for everyone. I've actually referred people to Laura Lee Salon, down the street. I've told them I thought they'd be better off there. And you know what? They probably were."

The client hasn't bolted yet, so Wright rises, her smile shining as brightly as her gold Chanel earrings, and digs her manicured fingernails deeply into the scalp.

She calls herself a hair stylist, but the better term would be "hair therapist." Where other stylists' desks may boast family photos, hers has a framed diagram of a skin cell. Inside a drawer is a dog-eared medical dictionary; a large white placard Scotch-taped to a mirror asks in big blue printed letters: "Hey . . . What's your problem?" It's not a rhetorical question.

A longtime Cleveland social worker, Wright found it endlessly frustrating that her clients, especially black women, refused to open up about their problems.

"Teen moms who just had their children taken away and 13-year-olds who are victims of abuse are not the most generous with information," says Wright, whose own hair is a volcano of dyed red waves. In order to get them talking, she would turn to the subject she knew well. "Hair," she realized, "is something everyone could identify with." Talk of weaves and straighteners gave way to conversations about abuse, then solutions, and soon Wright began to see "how hair could be used as an analogy for self-esteem." To have great hair, she found, people were willing to change unhealthy behavior.

The concept led to Reverence Salon, which opened three years ago with only Wright on the payroll. Since then, she has added seven employees. An endless procession of cardiologists, nutritionists, cancer experts, enzyme lecturers, and biochemistry professors make regular presentations. They're all part of Wright's plan to bridge medicine and cosmetology.

Though considered new to Cleveland, the trend stems from the work of a surgical professor in California, who was frustrated at the high breast-cancer mortality rate among black women. In 1997, Dr. Georgia Sadler discovered that the best way to reach black women was at the salon. She trained dozens of California stylists in how to talk to clients about screening methods and ways to open up conversations about health.

"The experiment created a whole new interaction level between customers and stylists," says Sadler. "Stylists told me that they were amazed to learn how many of their clients had had breast cancer and never told them. The stylists said, 'I've been through proms and marriages and babies with them, and I never knew.'"

Wright takes a decidedly militant approach to consultations. Instead of politely dropping vague references about health, she drills them, all the while providing running commentary about their hair.

"Tell me about your diet. Do you have high blood pressure? Do you take medication? Are you sure you're not supposed to be taking medications? Did your doctor tell you to take medication and you're not?" she asks, hands on hips, peering down with a look so severe that a wave of guilt washes over the room.

Wright sighs loudly. She admits that she's lost more than a few clients with her inquisitions. More important are the ones she's reached.

"When I first met with her, I thought, boy, is this woman nosy," says Alicia Thomas of Twinsburg, who nearly walked out of her first visit. Five dozen appointments later, "People are always saying to me, 'Your hair looks so healthy.' But actually, I think it's just because I've become a healthier person. It's because of LaDosha that I've taken control of my body again."

A year ago, Clevelander Valerie Hicks' hair began losing its normal luster. Instead of going to a doctor, she went to Wright.

"LaDosha kept telling me, 'Valerie, your hair's shedding. It's not normal. It doesn't look healthy. You need to go to a doctor.' And I kept saying, 'No, no, I went to the doctor a year and a half ago. They said I was fine.' We went back and forth on this. Then one day, I finally went to the doctor and they found a lump. It turned out I was in the earliest stages of breast cancer."

Wright only shrugs. "The same thing's happened 10 times before," she says.

"You don't see your heart, you can't see your liver, but hair is something you look at every day. You might not take a medication because you can't see it working, but if taking the medication -- or not taking the medication -- starts to have an effect on your hair, more people are likely to do something about it."

Wright turns back to the woman in the chair, and the drilling continues.

"Have you been to the doctor? When was the last time you went to the doctor? I think you should really go to the doctor. Tell them your cosmetologist told you to go. No, wait -- don't tell them that. Sometimes doctors don't like when you tell them a cosmetologist told them to see you.

"The medical community doesn't really respect cosmetologists," she says, her voice dropping into a sigh. "They should."

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