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The opera music played on the sound system La LA! A client was talking about the horrible experience a friend had when her hair turned orange. Denise Jalbert, calm and scientific in her pink oxford shirt, lab apron, and latex gloves, flipped through her hundreds of client cards, whipped up the appropriate highlighting formula, and rapidly folded six-by-six-inch foil squares around sections of the woman's hair to make them look like they had been on vacation. The woman calmed down.
Jalbert works four days a week at the Plaza in the white-and-silver salon of Oscar Blandi, which sounds like House of Blondie if you say the name fast.
Whispering from the dispensary where she makes her secret color compounds for even the most famous hair Sharon Stone and Reno Jalbert confided that she uses cornstarch in her highlighting formula so it adheres to the foil better, which is a good fiscal move because she can work faster, make more money. Colorists are on commission; Jalbert gets 50 percent.
She recently bought her first stocks, "blue chips, tried and true." She pays a lot of attention to her money, "probably because I was an only child of a single parent. My mother didn't have much because she booted my father out when I was two. I grew up in Cape Elizabeth in southern Maine" where "the white clapboard houses have blue-and-red shutters" and "there is the most photographed lighthouse in the world the one you see in all the calendars. It is a very rich area right on the water. My mother chose the Cape after she was divorced because she wanted me to have a nice life. We had a tiny, tiny house, a toy house my friends used to call it. My mother's parents were French Canadian from northern Maine, a family of 10 kids. She worked for lawyers all her life, bankruptcy lawyers. My mother's the fastest typer in the world. She won awards when she was a kid.
"I came to New York in the '80s. I had a B.A. from University of Maine, studying painting, photography. I wanted to do some acting. I lost my path along the way because I got into hair color. Though I didn't lose my passion. I still act.
"Back then, I was doing some modeling. I met somebody in the hair business who said, You're so good with art, there's money to be made in hair color. There aren't that many great colorists who have an eye for what looks good.
"But everyone in salons has to get a cosmetology license first. It was the most hellish experience of my life. Most of the kids haven't gone to college, they've gone right into hair school because they don't really know what they want to do. Whereas I just wanted to make money. I had to take 1000 hours or something, learn what's going to be on the state board test how to do finger waves, the blunt cut, permanents. They haven't changed the test since the '20s. So I got my license. I went to work with the best colorist in New York. Who? Well, now he's my competition.
"I was married once for 10 years. As for family, I can't foresee children in my near future. I'm actually at a point where I wish there was something I could do for children. I wish there was a way not to just be a hair colorist. I just saw this documentary about an artist who was from the slums of Michigan and with his art he turned his community into a beautiful place. Standing behind a chair is not enough for me."
Jalbert does 200 sit-ups, 80 men's push-ups, and swims four miles a week. Last year she played a "sadomasochist nanny," the murderer Clytemnestra, and Tennessee Williams's Bertha "a paranoid, schizophrenic, alcoholic prostitute. I'm always attracted to these enraged women. I think because their lives are so different from what I've known. I've always been involved with artists. They've mostly been artists who don't know where their next check is coming from."