Laina Hall graduated college before she finished high school. As a child growing up in the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Hall knew she wanted to be a hairdresser. So she enrolled in community college to get herself trained, while studying the civil war and calculus during the day.
Her hair instructor spotted her talent, and suggested she compete in the regional SkillsUSA competition.
"I don't think I want to," she said.
After a few minutes of persuasion, Hall relented.
"Alright, I'll do it," she said. "But I want to go all the way."
She did. "I went to regionals and won that," she says matter-of-factly. "Then state and won that, then nationals and won that."
Now Hall is the best hairdresser in the U.S.A. under 23 years-old. At least according the 2011 WorldSkills Competition in London, where she's representing her country against the best young hair stylists in the world.
The contest involves four tests over four days. In one, Hall will have to perform a "90 degree" women's haircut, in two others she'll be styling a woman and a man's hair from two photographs, and in the final "long hair design" test she display her own creativity, armed with just a blow drier, a comb, and a bottle of hair spray.
Hall has no shortage of ideas. To her, hair is like clay to mold, and she takes inspiration from everything: movies, magazines, flower arrangements.
She's also been practicing. Her brother, she says, "has been my little guinea pig." And since her mom started letting her cut her hair, she's "improved it times ten." Right before our conversation, Hall had given herself an A Line cut.
This isn't the first time Hall has traveled overseas to showcase her hairdressing skills. After she won nationals last year, a guest invited her to compete in OMC HairWorld in Paris, the "World Championship of Beauty," where hair artists from Armenia to India to Greenland gathered to out-beautify each other.
You might think someone in Hall's position -- told you're one of the best in the world at a skill, at the age of only 19 -- might get a little cocky. But watching so many experts at work, from the judges at WorldSkills to the competitors at HairWorld, has only made Hall realize that hairdressing is a craft where you get better with every hour spent crafting.
"I'm just beginning and I have so much more to learn," she says. "All of them [the experts] are a thousand times better than me."
This attitude is all the more important in a field like hairstyling, where trends come and go, certain styles migrate from New York to Tokyo to Santa Cruz, where your most skilled design may go out of fashion at any moment.
"This industry is constantly changing," she says. "Don't ever think you're better than someone, because you can always learn from somebody else."
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