Claudia Diesti, an accomplished internationally trained hair stylist, is interviewed by Alexander Michaels – shows how she turned a life of challenges to incredible success.
Born in Bogotá Colombia, Claudia Diesti is the middle of three girls. Her mother was a traditional stay-at-home wife and her father was an attorney and later a local judge. Claudia gives credit to her strong determination and drive for education to her father. He was a strict but loving man who grew up in a time of political unrest in that country and at a very young age was the sole survivor of a mass execution of all the men in their village. All the men were rounded up and taken to the woods where they were shot on a ground. “My father was in the center and they did not check to see if anyone survived. He waited then ran back home,” said Claudia.
Always the inquisitive one, she had felt the drive to educate herself, even from a tender young age. She says, “I was one of the few girls in a private school that absolutely loved going to classes. Top grades did not come easily as I was the type that needed to study but I loved it. I was the teacher’s pet who sat at the front of the class and never played around. Teaches liked me but I was not so popular with other students. The scenario was the same at home because I always sought my parent’s approval and enjoyed spending time with them as we would sit home on Saturday nights sewing. My father would buy a shirt he liked but then would redo the collars and proceed to custom fit it himself. My sisters were quite the opposite and loved to go out with the boys from school, which my father did not allow, and I would be the one to tell on them.”
It was during her high school years that she began developing a lot of health issues including asthma and problems with her teeth. “After going through many torturous surgeries I descried that I wanted to become a pediatric dentist as felt I could help young children better than many of the doctors I had to deal with. “
Right after high school Claudia began attending a very good dental school. “I loved being right back into school and was doing well. A few years into school my oldest sister introduced me to Gonzalo who was friends with her boyfriend. I really didn’t want to date anyone but because my father would not let her go without me I gave in,” said Claudia. Gonzalo kept pursuing her and later they decided to get married. “I knew he was trouble but everyone seemed to be OK with him so I let others determine what I should have done for myself. Things did not start well. Gonzalo was very jealous and began resenting my attending college.” At first it was just arguments, but later he became more aggressive and forbade it. Claudia remembers that period as a very difficult time because it started becoming much more abusive and violent. “I knew nothing was going to get better when one day he sat me down and drew a circle on a local map. He then explained that without his permission I was never allowed to go outside that radius! I knew from that day I was a prisoner in my own home! I could deal with the screaming and being hit but I didn’t know if I could handle much more,” she said. She did deal with things quietly as she felt a good traditional wife should, especially since she knew other women that were going through the same issues in the area. In 1988 she became pregnant. “I thought things might change but I remember when I told him the news he said coldly, ‘I can’t love something I don’t know yet.’ Although I didn’t want to admit it I knew that my child’s fate would end up the same as mine…unloved and unhappy.”
Claudia was saddened when her husband was not there for the birth of their child and about the idea that he seemed unhappy that it was a beautiful little girl. “Unfortunately as the years went by he became much stricter in what Monica (our daughter) and I were allowed to do. He felt that little girls should not be outside playing in case they got hurt so he made sure that she did not go outside much. I remember many times where Monica and I would watch the children in the neighborhood play outside through a window that faced the front. The two of us would laugh and enjoy what we could but it killed me inside when she would ask, ‘Can we go and play with them?’ I would just say yes, maybe tomorrow, but I knew that he would be furious if he found out so I never risked that.”
Monica became unwell because of the lack of exercise and social interaction. After examining her a doctor said that there was really nothing irreparable wrong with her and that her posture looked like that of someone who was atrophying because lack of exercise. The doctor also said that mentally he could see that something must be wrong at home. “I began denying everything he said but inside I knew then what I needed to do. I talked with my father and began a plan to leave for America. With my parents help I was able to trick my husband into signing papers that would allow Monica to leave the country. I convinced him that I needed to take Monica to the US for a few weeks because of her health.” She continued, “Never did he suspect that I had said my goodbyes to my family and had no intention of ever coming back! I clearly remember him looking at me like he wanted to hurt me more than he had ever done before and saying, ‘I’ll deal with you when you come back.’” Visibly shaking, Claudia said that she does not remember ever being as scared as she was on that plane. Until she was in the air she felt that there was some chance he could stop the plane before it took off. Once in the air the gravity of what she was doing began to hit her but she did everything she could not to cry in front of her daughter.
Upon arrival in Miami she moved in with her sister and the sister’s husband into their one bedroom apartment in downtown. “They really helped me cope and get through the first few days that were really tough. They loved Monica so much that shortly after we arrived they said we needed to find a good school for her. We found a small apartment in Wellington, which had the best schools around. With their help I found work cleaning homes in Palm Beach Island. It helped pay some of the bills but I knew I now had the chance to do something I really wanted to. Although I loved dentistry I knew it would be difficult trying to transfer school credits from my country to the US so I began looking at different career ideas.” Back in Colombia Claudia had a friend from school whose family owned several cosmetology schools. She remembered how excited the students looked, how there was so much energy and how much they seemed to enjoy their work. With only one car between them, her sister began driving her around as they looked at different cosmetology schools. “Although I liked several I knew I couldn’t afford most of them,” said Claudia. “Then we meet a very kind teacher who owned a small school in West Palm Beach. He could see I so desperately wanted to attend even though I did not have all the funds necessary.” The teacher came up with the idea that Claudia could clean the school after classes as a way to help pay for her tuition. “I was more than happy to do this! So I cleaned homes in Palm Beach during the mornings, headed to classes in the afternoon and then I would clean the school at night.” The arrangement worked for a while. School would take her longer to complete but it was her only option. It was around that time that she began experiencing a lot of pain in her stomach. She tried to deal with it as much as she could on her own but eventually had to see a doctor. That was when she learnt that she had endometriosis, a painful female health disorder that occurs when cells from the lining of the womb (uterus) grow in other areas of the body. She had surgery shortly after but the recovery was slow. Gil, the school’s owner, kindly kept their arrangement to give her a few months to recover before returning. “He could see how much I loved school,” said Claudia. She continued, “Some of my first words in English were ‘more work please!’ while other students looked for ways to get out of doing things I was doing as much as I could.”
Over the next five years Claudia would have six surgeries, the last one ending with a total hysterectomy. But in between the health issues things were going very well for her at school. Her drive was really getting her some attention and a sales rep from L’Oreal Professionnel noticed her work. In 1998 she met Dan, a divorcee from upstate New York, through a friend of her brother in law.
“My sister and her husband thought he was nice but I was very much focused on finishing school and being a good mother to Monica. I kept thinking he could turn out like my last relationship and so I was not as nice to Dan as I could have been at first. He seemed very sweet and he and Monica really got on so well. I knew she needed a father and he loved being with us. He would come to the school at night to help me clean as he could see it was not physically easy on me. It’s funny looking back as neither one of us thought that hairdressing would lead to all this,” Said Claudia. Dan didn’t think much of fashion or hairdressing due to the fact that his ex-wife was a former hairstylist that had switched to becoming a doctor after their divorce. Now Dan was dating someone that was originally going to become a doctor but was now working at becoming a hairstylist. They got married just before she finished school and together moved into an apartment not far from where she first moved to in Wellington. Dan worked for FP&L and Claudia began assisting at a hair salon in Wellington. “I was the only Latino working there at that time and with my thick accent didn’t feel like I really fitted in,” said Claudia. She persevered, working hard trying to get noticed. One day whilst working at the salon Claudia was in the back and the owner was mixing some hair color. When he turned around a small amount of yellow on the shelf above fell into the mix and Claudia quickly told him “some yellow has fallen into your color!” His curt reply of “Can’t you people say yellow properly?” before walking away made Claudia realize right then that it was time to leave! “Whether it was my thick accent or something else it was not going to work out there,” said Claudia. She continued, “I came home that night devastated. I’m not the emotional type but I cried to Dan about how much I wanted to show Gonzalo that he was wrong! I was not a ‘nothing without him.’”
Dan was a little shocked when Claudia soon told him that she wanted to go to Canada to train under the world renowned Martin Parsons. “I remember Dan’s face when I said the class was $700 plus the airfare and hotel! All he said at first was ‘it’s only hair. How much more can you learn about hair?’ We had very little money at the time but we did have one credit card. Dan felt so bad because of how much it meant to me that he quickly agreed to me going. I returned from Canada a very different person! Dan noticed my smile as soon as he met me at the airport. I loved the idea that there was so much more to learn, like a whole world of opportunities was now open to me,” exclaimed Claudia. She started attending as many local classes as she could and put aside some money so she could attend class in Toronto again. “I was addicted to education and it felt like I was back in college,” said Claudia. “In the meantime I began to charge a little more in my work but the owner came over and in front of my client told me to reduce the amount. Within two weeks I was setting up at another salon!” The previous owner had told Claudia when she left that people came to the salon because of him and that none of the clients would fallow her. “Within three weeks about 75% had followed me to the new location,” smiled Claudia
On her return from her second trip to Toronto Dan had a gift for her. It was a photo scrapbook and he had added the few photos Claudia had taken on her trip to Canada. “I can clearly see him kneeling on the bed saying that one day that one inch binder album would be full of pictures from all the classes I would attend around the country. Well that was in 2000. Today I have two three inch photo albums full of pictures from cities across the US, Canada, London, Bologna, Milan, Paris and Taiwan,” said Claudia. In 2005 she began focusing on a cutting style from Taiwan that uses an ambidextrous system in which the shears have the ability to interlock and using certain principles allow the stylist to cut quickly and with results that can not be easily achieved with the single-handed cutting methods. After a few years she became one of just a handful in the US trained in this Oriental system, which along with her passion and drive, introduced her to great artists in Miami. This led to her working runway shows and editorial photo shoots. After her daughter Monica finished school she was thinking of becoming a translator as a career. However, the excitement she had felt around her mother in the beauty industry made her decide to join that instead and she received her license in 2009. Mother and daughter started working work side by side in a private room Claudia had built for her exclusive clients from around South Florida. “Most of my clients are well-to-do business women and equestrians who, even in this economy, come from as far south as Miami and as far north as Vero Beach. I am blessed that I am presently booked up about a month in advance,” said Claudia happily.
The thing that is very clear when speaking with Claudia is how much she values the training she has received and the importance she places on continuous education. “I remember two famous quotes that have kept me grounded and always ready to learn what’s next. The first is Isaac Newton’s ‘If I have seen farther than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.’ Then there is Lynn Jennings’ ‘If I’m not out there training someone else is.’ Those two quotes always remind me that I owe everything to the great artists that educated me and that if I don’t continue to train I can lose everything.”
Claudia’s one great dream now is to work a runway show for Versace at New York Fashion Week. Then she would feel that she could finally put the ghosts of her past to rest satisfied that she has turned a life seemingly destined for misery into one of success and hope for the future.
Claudia’s The Eclipse Salon is located at 3975 Isles View Dr off Lake Worth Rd in Wellington Florida. www.stylesbyclaudia.com
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Interview by Alexander Michaels