Sarah McGinty is aflutter with excitement as she turns on the pink neon light in the back of the Philadelphia salon where she works (it buzzes to life reading “Good Vibes Only”). Her eyes—already lit up from her sparkly eyeshadow—really start to glow as she looks over her schedule for the day: she’s booked with back-to-back clients all coming in for her signature haircut. She starts listing off their names, sharing anecdotes about each of them, reminiscing on how they met.
If it wasn’t apparent Sarah loves what she does, she has no qualms about spelling it out for you: the back of her sweatshirt reads “Bomb-Ass Hairstylist” in bold white bubble letters. “I’m obsessed with doing hair,” she laughs, turning around to show off her prized apparel. Passion has never been an issue for the stylist, but she’d need more than a love for hair to rescue herself from rock bottom.
As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall.
“When I was a little girl back in the early ‘90s, my mom would come home from the hair salon with her wedge haircut and teased bangs and perm, and I would immediately start cutting my Barbie dolls’ hair to emulate her. I thought the hair would grow back, kind of like a Chia Pet. My mom was like, ‘You really have to slow down because I can’t afford to keep buying you new Barbies!’
I think maybe I always knew I wanted to work with hair, but I let societal stigmas around vocational training get to me. I wanted what I thought would be a more stable career, so I went to school for set design. All of my friends there knew me as the artistic one, so naturally when Halloween came around they’d ask me to help them with their hair and makeup. One of my friends wanted to have a bullet hole wound for his costume one year and I decided to give it a try. Mind you, we’re at a school in North Philadelphia, so seeing someone with an injury like that is not taken lightly—it looked so realistic the police stopped him and were convinced he needed an ambulance.
I signed up for makeup classes, which were only really offered to the acting students at the time. I’d find myself visiting the makeup room between classes, just staring at the wigs and watching the actors transform themselves. I was a year and a half away from graduating from my set design program when I had the conversation with my dad. I told him I really, really loved doing hair and makeup and wanted to see where it might lead—he asked me to finish my degree first. I got my diploma and immediately enrolled part time in hair school.
“I literally felt insane because everyone around me was telling me to give up, to get a ‘normal’ job, but I just couldn’t.”
I worked during the day and took classes at night. I ate, slept and breathed hair. By the time I got my certification, I’d been assisting at a salon for four years, working 9am to 9pm and burning myself out. I was killing it money-wise—I bought a little sports car, I was getting my nails done every week, I was partying hard. But I also didn’t feel proud to go into that salon anymore. It was gorgeous, with big vaulted ceilings and the coolest vibe, but I felt like I had worked my butt off for the chance to have my own chair there and management kept moving the benchmark on me. I knew I had to leave that salon and start fresh, and that’s when my current boss took a chance on me.
What I hadn’t planned for was that when I decided to take the leap from assisting to working behind the chair, I’d no longer be making an hourly wage—in Pennsylvania, you can only work as a commission-based stylist. If you don’t book clients, you don’t get paid. I went from a steady income to whatever money I could eke out by getting one or two walk-in clients a day. I couldn’t pay my bills. I was robbing Peter to pay Paul, and this was the same time that all my girlfriends were getting married. I felt so guilty because I could never afford to be part of their weddings—I was literally that person eating ramen noodles and getting her electricity shut off. Then one day I came down from my apartment to hop in my car and I realized it had been repossessed. I had to get a ride from a friend to a family party and face my dad—it was the worst kind of pain seeing how disappointed he was, knowing he had put it all on the line to support me by cosigning for me to go to hair school. He looked at me and said: “Sarah, I could pay your car off for you right now, but I’m not going to. You know you need to figure this out on your own.”
“I was literally that person eating ramen noodles and getting her electricity shut off.”
That moment lit the fire under my butt. The very next day I went back into work and started my Instagram account and signed up for free online personal branding classes. When I do something, I do it with my entire heart and soul—I mean, even when I text my friends, they’re getting four paragraphs minimum [laughs]. I literally felt insane because everyone around me was telling me to give up, to get a ‘normal’ job, but I just couldn’t. I knew I’d never be happy in life if I just got that regular job. I had to make this work, so I just went into complete hustle mode.
I’ll never forget that feeling of my first few repeat clients coming through that salon door. When I’m behind the chair, it feels like I’m living in a podcast because I get to interview people all day—a hair stylist really is a confidant, a therapist, a commissioned artist and a friend all wrapped into one. Sometimes I’m the first to know if a client is expecting a baby or going through a divorce. I was clear and precise about the kind of people I wanted to attract to my chair—I’m not joking when I say I wrote a seven-page paper on exactly what kind of clients I wanted, down to their taste in music [laughs]. I work in the ‘Gayborhood’ in Philly. I still commute to the city every day because I love getting to show up and be an ally to so many of my clients who are in the LGBTQ+ community. I get to use my art to help them express themselves fully and it’s an honor to get a safe space for people.
“I’m not joking when I say I wrote a seven-page paper on exactly what kind of clients I wanted, down to their taste in music.”
When I was getting my start, we sometimes had hair educators representing different brands come into the salon to conduct classes on how to use professional hair products or color techniques. I was like, ‘They’re having so much fun, and I love how they dress, they are so confident and they can answer any question.’ Eventually the brand Kenra was hiring educators, and I decided to go through the three-hour interview process. I peed in a cup for a drug test and everything, even had a friend film me doing a tutorial on a mannequin head. I was so nervous I thought I might throw up, but I got the job. The only problem was now I would have to travel all over Delaware and Maryland to teach and I didn’t have a car.
I think I helped invent Lyft because one night I got off the subway in Philly and met a cab driver. I guess I’m really good at talking to people because he gave me his number and told me to call him whenever I needed a ride and we became buds—eventually his friend was selling this little Suzuki that had, I’m not kidding, 180,000 miles on it. Did I have the cash to buy it? Absolutely f*cking not! But I picked up bartending jobs to pay it off and made it happen. That’s how I started my travel education career and by 2021, Kenra had awarded me ‘Hairstylist of the Year.’
It’s easy to think back on all the paths in life you didn’t take, but I know in the deepest depths of my soul that this was the right choice for me. I made myself two dream boards, one for my bedroom and one for my bathroom. Over the years I’ve pasted different phrases onto them: public speaker, traveling the world, financially independent, good friends, self-acceptance. I feel connected to all of those words, so that’s how I know I’m living my dream. I’d like to go to Bali and teach a class there, maybe own my own salon one day, but the real dream is to wake up happy every single day and be obsessed with where I’m at.
My advice for chasing a dream is to be a magnet to the people who inspire you. Surround yourself with people you look up to and who are successful in the ways you define success, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Hopefully they’ll give you authentic answers and you can take the ones that work for you and use them as building blocks on your own path. Even if you’re very artistic on the outside, you have to be disciplined in equal measure. The best work is born from routine.
“My advice for chasing a dream is to be a magnet to the people who inspire you.”
When the Barbie movie came out, I was really pestering my friends to see it. They were like ‘Totally, we will, just be patient!’ and I couldn’t figure out where this strong urge was coming from for me to see it immediately. My mom passed away very suddenly in 2017. We’d had a difficult relationship because she struggled with some mental illness. After she died, my dad found a pile of Christmas presents wrapped up for me from ‘Mrs. Clause.’ There was a thinner box that had my mom’s handwriting on it and my dad handed it to me to open— it was a hair stylist Barbie. Whether it was my mom’s intuition or maybe her just saying ‘I told you so’ one last time, I realized she’d recognized my love for hair for all those years. Things will always come full circle if you follow your heart.”
Sarah wears the Baja Slip-On Platform in Black/White.