Editor’s note: This story was told by Cynthia Alvarez to author Jazmine A. Ortiz and has been condensed for clarity.
Like most younger Latinos from neighborhoods like mine in the Bronx, New York, hairstyling came naturally, but it was a hobby. No one had money to go to the salon, so we always did each other’s hair. When cornrows took off in the early ‘00s, I became the unoffical neighborhood braider to make some cash in high school. The creativity of this braiding technique was a lightbulb moment for me: I knew that doing hair was more than a passion. It fed my soul. But at 16, it would still take some time for me to figure out what that really meant.
After high school, I decided college wasn’t for me but I wanted a career and stability, so my parents suggested I join the Air Force. While enrolling in the Air Force, a chance encounter with a celebrity wardrobe stylist changed everything for me. He was working with a big-name rapper and you could say he introduced me to the world of the celebrity glam squad. I had been experimenting with my personal hair and makeup, so you might say we bonded over self-expression when it came to all things fashion and beauty related. He loved the styles I did on my hair and encouraged me to elevate my hobby into a profession.
At the time, my only frame of reference for hair stylists was Dominican salons—you know, wash and sets for 20 bucks—and I thought, no. I just knew I wasn’t cut out for salon life.
But the more I accompanied him, saw what work looked like for him, and found out how much money hair stylists on tour were making, sometimes just to flat iron hair. I was sold on the dream! This behind-the-scenes world that once seemed so unattainable looked full of potential and possibilities the more I saw it up close. Shadowing him, I met celebrity hair and makeup teams on set, and they would always need an assistant, so I would sign myself up. I built a kit of essential tools and products and was good to go. Sure, I had moments of self-doubt but I knew I needed to take advantage of this unique opportunity.
I knew I wanted to go to beauty school, so two weeks before being sworn into the Air Force, I made the bold (and probably rash) decision I wasn’t going to do it anymore and was going to pursue hair full-time starting with enrolling in beauty school. Of course, my parents were furious, and we didn’t talk for a while. As a parent now, I understand that they just wanted stability for their child.
While in beauty school, I was still assisting, so that was fun because I was honing my skills in real time. Then after beauty school, I worked at a salon on New York’s Upper West Side, which, to put plainly, I found boring. For the year I was there, it all felt like a revolving door of the same types of clients and services. I had these big plans to style models and build my portfolio, but I got sucked into the day-to-day of salon life.
Right as I could feel myself slipping away, I got a call from one of my mentors working with one of the biggest R&B singers at the time. She sported cornrows, and America was falling in love with her soulful voice and piano skills just as much as her style. She was going on tour, and when my mentor passed on the opportunity because it wasn’t paying enough, she put my name in for the running of lead hairstylist. One day I accompanied her to the singer’s video set and got to meet her and we bonded over the fact that we were both from New York City. A few weeks later, I got a call saying that I was chosen for her world tour and we were leaving in two weeks.
Prior to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had never been anywhere besides Florida and Puerto Rico. The tour took us to places like London, Portugal, Munic, Holland, and Germany for the next two years—my life completely changed. When the dust settled, I hired an agent and did two more world tours with the same singer. In 2010, I said yes to another tour with an international Latina pop star while pregnant! And then, in 2018, I went on tour with her again, and my son was able to join me for a few shows and see his mom in action.
Today my work is mostly freelance, which means I travel to celebrities to do their hair for award shows, accompany them for touchups on the red carpet, and partner with salon brands like Biolage Professional to educate consumers on products like its crowd-pleasing All-In-One Multi-Benefit Oil. The hours are long, but I get to check off my travel bucket list one place at a time. I’ve always felt that I lose my creativity when I'm physically stagnant but I find my inspiration through movement and interacting with other creatives. I think that's why I still love what I do. When I tell my story, I know my parents hate the fact that I mention they weren't supportive, but I think that's important to note because not everyone will see your vision. You just have to make people believers by sticking to what you want and who you are and being ready to make it yourself with or without other people's support. I say this all the time: What's meant for me is for me. No matter where I'm at in the world. No matter what I'm doing.
Cynthia Alvarez is a celebrity hair stylist, Biolage brand ambassador, and Bronx, New York native currently residing on the West Coast with her son. Keep up with her work and travels on Instagram @cynthiaglam.
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