Sarah Potempa has earned her stripes to be called a celebrity hairstylist. Growing up in Libertyville, a north suburb of Chicago, she’d always had a passion for working with hair so she started pursuing it at a young age. Name the celeb and she’s probably touched their mane, Gabrielle Union, Reese Witherspoon, Kendall Jenner, Zac Efron, Molly Sims, Lea Michelle, President Obama are just a few.
The Beachwaver founder and her team were in Paris for their second year of being sponsors of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. The show is set to air on Dec. 5 for viewers worldwide, though pictures and snippets from the show has already made it’s way online and there were tons of Beachwaver sightings. We recently chatted with the beauty entrepreneur about how she got her start in the beauty industry, how she went into business with her sister to create beachwaver and and how the partnership with Victoria’s Secret came to be.
SociaLifeChicago: Before you invented the Beachwaver, you were a celebrity hairstylist; Can you walk us through that journey from taking beauty classes to your “I need to spread my wings and fly” moment?
Sarah Potempa: I was really into styling hair, it was more of a fun pastime for me; I always did my sister’s hair. I started working as a shampoo girl at a salon in Mundelein (IL) when I was 15. On my first day of work, my boss made me look at Italian Vogue and W and all these high fashion magazines, and she said, “I want you to just look at all the ads. Turn the pages and look at the ads. It’s somebody’s job in New York City to do the hair and makeup for these ads.” But then I said to her “No one reads the ads! They read the articles!” I was really confused, but also interested in it. She also had me watch educational videos from Vidal Sassoon. Though she had never really left her salon, she was fascinated by the world of fashion and beauty, so at the time, I would do photo shoots in the basement with my little sister. That’s how it all started. When the time came, my parents actually wanted me to go to college even though I knew I loved beauty. So I went to NYU; I have a degree from Gallatin, which is an independent study program where I studied business and creativity and that sparked my love for business. I worked at a salon in SoHo called Prive where I got do my first runway show with the team there; then I took a job doing economic country reporting in South East Asia. For a year, I traveled around the world interviewing business people, CEOs about their businesses and trying to get investors.
SLC: Wait you went from beauty to reporting? How did you find your way back to beauty?
SP: So, I had an interesting moment in my life where I was traveling, but I really wished I was traveling and doing beauty. That’s when I actually came back to Chicago and I went to the Aveda Institute and got my license. Here I was with my business degree and my license in cosmetology, so I went back to New York to the salon I had worked at, and I started assisting a French celebrity stylist, and I was thinking “Oh, this is amazing, I’m in New York City, this team is so cool, we do fashion shows!” Then I had a friend who was dating a girl who was a producer for photoshoots, and he said, “You’ve gotta meet my girlfriend.” I met her, and she changed my life. She said, “You need to meet an agent; tomorrow you’ll go to this meeting with this agent, you’re going need a portfolio. If you wanna be at a photo shoot, and you want to do this, than this is how it’s going to happen.” So, the next day, I interviewed with her and I loved her. She’s from the Midwest, too, so we instantly got along, She set me up with a gig and literally the next day I started assisting Bob Recine, an iconic hair stylist who only worked with Vogue Italia, French Vogue, W, and big name photographers. I started working with him on a Donna Karan campaign that weekend, and after that, he hired me on as his full time assistant. I quit the salon and I started doing that full time. I was Bob’s assistant for two years, and got to work with all the supermodels at that time. Then I started to assist Danilo, who did Gwen Stefani and Pink and I was traveling all over with him. to Europe and to all these runway shows; I had so much fun learning from the most talented people in the industry. Then I get signed t an agency and the agent told me “you’re going to be a celebrity hair stylist” but I initially rebuffed and said “No, no, I’m fashion” but she convinced be that I would be doing hair for celebrities.
SLC: Danilo, that’s major! Now you transitioned to celebrity hairstyling how did beachwaver then come to be?
SP: It was a really weird moment for me initially coming from fashion but I really loved it and loved teaching people. After doing Reese Witherspoon’s hair for example, then everybody wanted to know how to recreate the look. And I was getting all these good celebrities, and I think it was because I just loved hair-this was probably like ten years ago. My clients included Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Julianne Moore, Minka Kelly, Barrack Obama when he was a senator; Vanity Fair covers and Vogue, I was really heavily booked all the time in this celebrity world. What I found was I really loved talking to the beauty editors. I found that to be one of the most rewarding things, and so from that, maybe four years into doing interviews with beauty editor, events, TV appearances and webisodes where people would ask how to make a beachy wave? How do you do a braid? That’s where the Beach Waver and the company started, because I was teaching people, and I’d say it probably a thousand times, hold your curling iron upside down and wrap your hair around it backwards and wear a glove and I was really into teaching them and I was surprised that a lot of the beauty editors didn’t know how to do their own hair. So all the girls that I met at Cosmopolitan and Glamour, would tell me “I’m a writer, I don’t really know how to do my hair, you guys do it all the time for free, so why would I do it?!” That’s when this whole thing started because I was talking to an editor and she refused to put it in the article she said “It just sounds so bad, to hold the curling iron upside down.” Then I thought maybe there could be a way where you hold it upright to curl your hair. I got off the phone with her, sketched the idea for the curling iron, and later that week I called up to my older sister Erin, who was a corperate lawyer in Chicago, and I told her “I’ve got a great idea for a curling iron!” She was like, “great, I hate my job, I’m quitting.” I told her not to quit but she said she would and I said “Ok.” A couple weeks went by, and she literally quit her job in New York, we started working on the idea together.
SLC: So your sister quit her job and now you’re working on this product but also doing celeb hair styling?
SP: The first store retail location came about from doing Rachel Zoe’s hair for her launch on QVC. She was doing a TV segment, and the model they booked didn’t work out so she had me and her assistant model. Through that I met the head of marketing for QVC that day. I started talking to him and then I saw him at another event with Rachel and that’s when I approached him about our curling iron idea. He introduced to the people at QVC that run all the major partnerships and branding. We got a meeting with QVC. The prototypes we took to NYC for the meeting took us a year to make. We met with mechanical, electrical engineers from Chicago who made the first two beachwavers at a 3-D printing company in Wisconsin. We had my friend, who was an editor for the Real Housewives, film a video of me talking about hair, Beachwaver and backstage Fashion Week. We played the played the reel and demoed the beachwaver we had, and they were like “Oh my God, we want to buy a couple thousand of them.” They cautioned us that new products like ours “might get four to fives earnings in your first year, so don’t expect a lot. You’ll get to be on air a couple times, we’ll see how it goes.” In my first year, I was on air almost fifty times. They were so excited about it and we had a huge launch. It was pretty crazy.
SLC: Do you think the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show took beachwaver to the next level and how did that partnership come about?
SP: Yes! I absolutely think it took it to the next level. I think it definitely took the brand to the next level, because I think Victoria’s Secret and beachwaver are synonymous with sexy hair. The fact that we made a product that literally gave you the look, with women that used it saying “I look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel, I look so good, it’s changed my life.” I was working on a Victoria’s Secret catalogue shoot, and had a couple BeachWavers backstage, and Ed Razek who chooses the models for the show was there as I was demoing it. The VS PR girls had the tool and they actually approached us because they loved the beach waver. They had a hair partner but they were using flat irons. So when that partnership ended, VS came to us. We had a meeting, things happened pretty quick; we only had a couple months before the show. We were so excited and were both empowering women to look good, feel good, so everything aligned. I was able to bring some of my friends who were also established celeb hairstylists along. I got Ryan Trygstad, who worked at Sally Hershberger, and Michael Angelo, who owns Wonderland Beauty. So literally all my friends, these amazing celebrity stylists joined my team and were so supportive. It was a really cool day to be there. I had Kendall Jenner say “She’s killing my hair! Oh my God, it looks amazing!” And Kendal wouldn’t give interviews to anybody. We got all the models to rave, and they were just really excited, and I think the whole thing comes from a very authentic place; we invented a curling iron real girls can use. Even the VS models are real girls who want to look sexy too, and obviously when they get their hair and make up done, they feel really good, but they also don’t know how to do their own hair when they are off duty.
With contribution from Laura Barker.
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pronounced: Boh-la-jee, like the Bellagio but w/o the O. SLC Founder and Editor, loves to write about topics at the intersection of career and lifestyle for today's young professional and future leaders.