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Woodland resident Lea Graves got hooked in high school on the gratification of making others feel beautiful. That passion led the stylist at Vancouver’s Essentials Day Spa & Salon to vie for a national Master of Beauty award, for which she is one of three finalists.
“I love to make people happy,” Graves said. “It’s so rewarding to know when someone sits down that you can fix their hair or make them feel beautiful. That’s the ultimate goal as a stylist to make (clients) feel confident and make them feel good about themselves. It’s a very rewarding job.”
Graves was scheduled to depart Friday on an all-expense-paid trip to New York, where stylist Nick Arrojo of TLC’s “What Not to Wear” will announce the winner of the Master of Beauty Contest early Sunday at the International Beauty Show.
The first-place recipient gets to present a class on stage with Arrojo during a Masters of Beauty event, plus receives $10,000, three Masters of Beauty skills classes by Empire Beauty Schools and three classes at Arrojo’s studio in New York.
Graves found out on April 4 that she was one of three finalists in the contest.
“I was shocked, ecstatic, overjoyed,” Graves said. “I just can’t believe it.”
Her involvement in the contest began about a year ago, when Graves attended the 2011 International Beauty Show in New York. Professional stylists at the event were invited to participate by uploading photos of their work on the Masters of Beauty Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/mastersofbeauty.
The contest drew more than 300 applicants, said Angela Watson, director of media relations for Empire Education Group.
For her entry, Graves asked her longtime client, Vancouver resident Tabi Evans, to be her hair model. Evans hadn’t seen Graves in a while because Evans was growing out her hair. Evans said she agreed to go shorter because she trusts Graves with her hair.
“She was the first person I could say, ‘Do whatever you want (to my hair),’ and it would turn out great,” Evans said.
Graves gave Evans a classic bob and submitted the photo.
Fans of Masters of Beauty’s Facebook page voted on their favorites, then Arrojo and five judges from Empire Beauty Schools weighed in to select 10 finalists, Watson said. Official judges whittled contestants according to their skills, precision, technique and whether any signature Empire techniques were used, she said.
The second round involved making a video of a cut. Again, Graves used Evans as her hair model. This time, she gave Evans a mod-inspired razor cut with hidden layers beneath.
“It was a really technical haircut,” Evans said. “It was really cool. I went to another a salon, and they asked me who was cutting my hair and if they needed a (new) job.”
Evans, a sociology student at Washington State University Vancouver who works as a barista, said she carries Graves’ business cards around with her, because so many people ask her where she gets her hair cut.
“I really loved (the cut), and I guess the judges loved it, too, which is great,” Evans said.
Arrojo, who travels the nation teaching his techniques, is known for using straight-edge razors for his haircuts. Graves had learned from him while taking classes in Las Vegas and New York.
“His trademark is his razor,” Graves said. “I was just in love with how he was cutting with razors.”
For the final round, a videographer contracted by Empire visited Graves and interviewed her on camera.
“Because the winner is going to become a platform artist, at that point it was important to see the finalists’ personalities and presentation skills,” Watson said. “We want someone who (is comfortable on stage) and can teach others.”
Arrojo and five employees from Empire Beauty Schools, who were judges for the final round, chose Graves and two other female finalists, one from Richmond, Va., and one Fairfield, Conn.
“The fact that this contest has gone on for a year, and she is one of three finalists -- and the only one from the West Coast -- out of hundreds of applicants is pretty exciting,” said Teresa Schultz, Graves’ mother and manager of Essentials.
Graves, 30, graduated from Woodland High School, where she began her training as a stylist in the Clark County Skills Center Program. The program allows high school students to explore various careers. She completed part of the Vancouver Phagan’s Beauty School program before leaving high school and finished the rest after graduation.
Essentials is the fourth Vancouver salon she’s worked at since launching her career. She started taking professional development classes nearly eight years ago while a stylist at Vancouver’s Park West Studio, where she first heard of Arrojo. She has been at Essentials for nearly six years and charges $45 for a haircut.
“I don’t feel (like) I’m going to work every day,” Graves said. “I get tired, but it’s fun. I can’t imagine doing any other job.”