For 30 years, hair stylist Hélio de Souza has worked and lived in the U.S., and over the years he has become one of the most sought-after professionals in his area. His popular salon is located on 2nd Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets (near Bloomingdale’s) and has a clientele that goes from UN diplomats to tourists and businessmen.
When he came to the U.S., he did so without much of a plan. There were a series of coincidences, and the same happened as then young aspiring artist found his way into the world of hair styling – the rest, as they say, is history. We caught up with him over an email interview. He speaks of his origins, and the path that led to his success in foreign lands.
Which were the main hardships you faced when you came here?
I left home when I was still very young, from a small town in the state of Minas Gerais. My Italian family was extremely close-knit and protective. I was raised with lots of love and care from family and friends. It was a wonderful world, but it was too small for me.
I was trying to broaden my horizons in order to expand my mind, searching for ways to translate information in an artistic manner. I went to Belo Horizonte, where I enrolled at Fuma, the local fine arts college. I became a regular at galleries and theaters, where I met innovative and creative people – some of them hair stylists, who awoke my curiosity in the profession.
A friend of mine, Breno Gotlib, who lived in New York, invited me to come. I am very grateful to him, for he gave me the opportunity to begin my career here, and he gave me a lot of support along the way. It was very hard to leave home and become part of this unknown world. It was hard for me to understand why people were so intolerant, and why friendships were so superficial.
Everything seemed to be as cold as the weather, and I missed my family, the sun and the skies of my home state. I could not speak English, and back then I was practically mute because there weren’t many Brazilians around, so I used a lot of gestures as I assimilated everything else.
Which are your strongest memories of that time?
There have been so many that it would be impossible to list them all. I do remember one night at Studio 54 when I attended a show by Grace Jones. As I waited for her, I danced with this statuesque creature who was covered by a veil. Later that night, someone announced “… and now ladies and gentlemen, miss Grace Jones”. To my surprise, the woman I was dancing with lifted her veil and to my astonishment, it was Jones herself.
Another occasion was a costume party promoted by (the late) Margaux Hemingway, who was a famous model in the 70s. One of the judges voted for me as best costume. She came down from the stage and told me that she had voted for me because my outfit reminded her of a film she had made in Paris. I innocently thanked her and asked her name, and she replied, “Gloria Swanson” (note: the star of Sunset Boulevard)
There are so many unforgettable moments, but I remember fondly of when I received my “green card”, which looked more like an ATM card – it was the key that opened the doors to my professional career. From that moment, Bruno Gotlib and I could open our first salon in New York, which immediately attracted Brazilian celebrities, presidents, models, singers, etc.
Many Brazilians come to the U.S. with clear intention of returning some day…
In fact, many who came here never thought of staying. There are many factors that weigh on that, and based on these you can distinguish who stays and who doesn’t. Many came and never really arrived because they were unable to break free from their roots. Others became like gypsies – they lost touch with their own culture but never really assimilated here. Others are here temporarily with a goal, whichever that might be.
I don’t think that anybody came to stay forever, but many were surprised by the rush that comes with living here. That might be a positive or negative aspect of the city, but to some that speed is almost like a drug. New York is my addiction, Brazil is my cradle and my love and I am a weathered man who has kept the balance of things through emails, phone calls and letters, reaping the seeds that I planted in Brazil
What would you say to someone who is willing to follow your profession?
Don’t compare yourself to no one. Just follow your dream, and try to make sure this is what you want. Find a good school where you can get your basic skills and your license. Work as an assistant with a renowned professional, where you will pick up technique and ethics, and with these tools you will go up the ladder of your success.
When did you realize you had the talent to become a hair stylist?
I remember that when I was very young, a female friend and a cousin started a “salon” in our garage. We thought we were real stylists, but in fact we were just children fantasizing on a craft, chopping up our friends’ hairs. Empty beer cans and pieces of bamboo were our hair rollers. One day I went to Belo Horizonte, where I studied industrial design at Fuma while holding a job at a local bank. It was only later I realized I had the talent, after Atlas School of Cosmetology, while working towards my dream by holding various odd jobs.
What do you look forward to after 30 years?
Thirty years? It seems like yesterday, for I feel like a young man who just happens to have a lot of baggage, like a magician. That is what I look forward to for the next 30 years: I want to savor the sweetness of my conquests and experiences.
I came here when I was very young, but I don’t want to stop, but want to continue in a more harmonious manner. I want to slow down a bit, to appreciate my own growth as a human being. I want to style hair slowly and enjoy the process of transformation.
I want to get up in the morning and breathe the air in the “pranayma” style of yoga. I want to breathe the air of this fantastic universe and live another 30 years making my dreams come true and also making people happy by achieving the hair of their dreams.
Have you done anything to help your fellow Brazilians back home?
For ten years I have been holding a fundraising dinner to benefit the children of a Community Center in Brazil. It gives me enormous satisfaction to see these needy children grow with a little more dignity. To see the smile on those kids is like looking into a mirror: I see myself smiling as well.
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article appeared originally in The Brasilians.