From Barbie dolls to fashion models, Detra Smith has been there and done that

A surprised Detra accepts the coveted top stylist award in Atlanta.

She knew she wanted to be a hair stylist when she was still playing with Barbie dolls and having fun working on mannequin heads. Sure enough, Detra Vest entered cosmetology school while still a student at Hartselle High. She completed the required 1500 hour course at the Master’s Cosmetology Institute in Huntsville, interning under the tutelage of Ann and Gary Bray, internationally recognized stylists who were pacesetters in the 70s and 80s. 

Even back then, Detra was a standout student. She was a model in the National Vocational Industrial Clubs of America Competition (VICA) in Louisville, KY when she was still in high school, winning there and going on to the national level where all skilled trades were represented in a staged arena with President Ronald Reagan as the guest speaker. (Today that organization is known as SkillsUSA)

In 1984, after earning her cosmetology license, Detra was selected by the Brays to represent their school in many styling competitions. This might have been the beginning of her interest in doing runway and fashion shoot competitions, in any event, she won the honor of being named top student stylist on the international level, placing 6th and 8th out of the top 10 in fierce Las Vegas competitions which included participants from 46 countries.   

“My high school classmates were on their senior trip to the beach and I was on my way to Vegas to enter that competition. All I could think of at the time was that I was missing my senior trip,” Detra laughed.

That was the first time she ever traveled anywhere by plane, but it certainly would not be the last! 

After attaining her cosmetologist license, Detra assisted other stylists for the Master’s Salon. After leaving them in the mid 80s she worked in Decatur for a while before opening her own salon in Moulton in 1988. 

She met her future husband at a church service. In 1986, she married Lawrence County native and Hazlewood football legend, Danny Smith. On the 28th day of December, 1990, the young couple became the proud parents of their only child, a vivacious little red-haired girl they named Hannah.

Thus the name of Detra’s first salon, Hannah & Me, which was located on Hwy. 157, in a strip mall across from where WalMart is today. At the time, it seemed a long way from downtown Moulton. Detra built a thriving business there, before buying a building on East Street near City Hall, where she still works fulltime as owner/stylist in addition to traveling all over the country to do classes and events for such top industry brands as Matrix and Olivia Garden. 

“At first, my only goal was to get pictures of my hair styles into the trade magazines,” Detra recalls.  But, she was offered a job with the Matrix salon products line as a developer and later she began styling for runway and bridal shows. That led to working regularly for New York Fashion Week for several designers and beauty brands.  

These key positions led to other opportunities with more and more exciting offers coming her way. She was on a roll and she worked hard to make it happen. 

“People may not realize how much time it takes to prepare for anything like this. With competitions I have to know exactly what I’m going to do when I walk in. There is no time for OJT,” she laughed. “But seriously, I would often get to the shop at 5:00 a.m. to work on a particular hair style for an upcoming show and when I was working with trainees, I was always studying so that I would be able to teach them what they needed to know to succeed in this business.” 

All of this hard work paid off. Soon other top companies began to appear on her resume, including a trendy company which develops tools for the beauty trade.  “One of those magazine photos of a hairstyle I’d submitted attracted the attention of the VP of Marketing for Hot Tools, which was already a Fortune 500 company. I was offered and accepted a position as the company’s Artistic Director.”

Unless you have a vested interest in the beauty industry, it might have escaped your attention that by 2014 the worldwide beauty industry, which covers everything from hair and skin care to makeup was estimated $425 billion industry. The market size, measured by revenue, of the Hair Salon industry alone is estimated to be $46.2 billion in 2022. Working for one of the top names in this industry is a big deal, folks. 

For the next 12 years after Hannah entered school, Detra did a few shows and competitions here and there, but between her growing business and Hannah’s school activities, she had her hands full. However, after Hannah left for college, Detra once again renewed her interest in working with trending styles and making a national reputation for herself and her salon. 

“Hannah graduated in 2009, and it was then that I started more intently on show stages and also worked as the Artistic Director for Hot Tools,” said Detra. “In that capacity, I held press conferences for the industry, worked on new product development, ad campaigns on national and international levels.” 

She traveled extensively for Hot Tools, jetting off to cities like Las Vegas, Chicago, LA, Dallas, Orlando and of course, New York, on a regular basis. She did research and development for new product launches, worked on the launch presentations, helped to develop the brand, did press events, trade shows and sales events, as well as working on photo and video shoots for advertising and editorials, helped to develop and train an educational team, even writing the manual for educational workshops, and was the social media consultant for the company.  

 She somehow juggled being a wife, mother of a college student, salon owner and being active in her community and church while breaking into the competitive business of being a professional hair stylist for some of the top designers in the world. 

Some of these national and international designers employed super-models to showcase their trendy new designs. Detra was in her element, doing extreme runway styles for top names in the fashion design industry, something she had dreamed of doing while playing with Barbie dolls and later as she began  practicing and creating exotic hairstyles on her most willing model, little Hannah, who was raised in a salon practically from birth. 

Working with models from all over the world would sometimes present a challenge for Detra, but she learned quickly that her job was to create a haute’ couture hair style in what was literally minutes at times, employing things like wire, and all kinds of props to make the model’s hair something of an architectural feat at times. “Sometimes the ones who were the most in demand would arrive with literally minutes to spare to change clothes, do makeup and get their hair styled,” said Detra. 

She often had to hustle from the airport to the venue, just getting in under the wire, lugging suitcases filled with tools, products and her clothes. 

But although the pace is hectic, she has enjoyed every minute of it. She says that most successful models were always easy to work with because they realized that they were there to do a job, just as she was. 

She never had a problem with ‘attitude’ from any of them, even with foreign models and the challenge of communication that the language barrier presented. Somehow, beauty is a language unto itself which few men and most women understand, in spite of language or cultural barriers. “I learned early to respect cultural differences and I believe that respect was mutual,” Detra said contemplatively. 

She also learned to work fast, although meticulously. She might be standing on her feet, arms often held at shoulder level, working intently for up to ten hours per day, both at shows and in her salon. Sometimes Danny was able to travel with her. After retiring from Delphi, he frequently helped out in the salon when things got hectic. 

She just happened to be at home in 2014, when she got a call saying that her salon was involved in a fire. She and her family were devastated when the cause turned out to have been arson. The arsonist was apprehended and served time for the destruction. But, Detra was determined to build back better than before and she has since built a beautiful, modern salon which has become one of Moulton’s top businesses. Just as the old shop was being bulldozed, she was leaving for a reality show assignment in Las Vegas, followed by a photo shoot in NYC. “Modern Salon Magazine did a story about my salon and shot a collection called, “Up from the Ashes,” she added. 

In 2018-19, Detra worked as an educator at Ulta and JC Penney national training, helping to prepare up-coming young stylists for their salons. She still enjoys training students for careers in the beauty industry. 

During college, Hannah was cheering for the Tennessee Titans.  After graduating, she worked in the beauty industry in PR and Marketing for nine years. Three years ago she married Lawrence County Revenue Commissioner, Brad Henderson. She recently completed cosmetology training with plans to partner in the family business, because she noticed that when clients left the salon, they were happy and felt better about themselves. “After all, how many people can say that their job lifts self esteem and has customers leaving with a smile?” asked Detra reflectively. 

That statement certainly describes the beauty industry in its entirety. It is a field that holds opportunities in many directions and it isn’t one that takes years of schooling to accomplish. It is rewarding and offers unlimited potential, from a one-person salon in a small town to a ten-chair shop in a bustling city; it can be what you are willing to make it. Detra is the perfect example of this, having a small shop, and a national career at the same time. She spent her daughter’s formative years with her, while still having time to carve out a name for herself among the country’s top stylists. It wasn’t always easy, but it has given her a lot of personal satisfaction and she has met many influential people along the way. 

Last fall, Detra worked on an ad campaign for world-renowned makeup artist, Scott Barnes. According to Barnes bio, by the time he was ready to create his own makeup brand, in 2004, his work had graced every cover from VOGUE to Vanity Fair. He had worked with every best photographer in the world, from Annie Liebovitz to Francesco Scavullo and worked his artistry on iconic faces from Beyonce to Julianne Moore. Barnes now has three decades of knowing exactly what works and has perfected his own palettes on JLo during their two decades and counting, duet. He even used them for her It’s My Party tour and on her recent film Hustlers. 

Barnes credits include 450 covers, seven films, 283 music videos, an Oscar consideration for his work on El Cantante, written two bestselling books showcasing his complete mastery of the art of transformation and launched a best selling makeup line of his own creation. 

Barnes chose Detra to work with him on his new ad campaign, designing hairstyles to compliment his makeup line. “It is apparent that his success comes from a strong work ethic and creative genius, he can envision a concept and immediately develop it, taking it to the next level,” said Detra. “I knew the caliber of work I was expected to deliver and it was exhilarating to work in that kind of environment. He does such great work, sets the bar so high, that it inspires everyone around him to achieve new levels.” 

She was flattered to be recognized and grateful for the experience. That recognition  was closely followed by her being named the 2021 Top Hair Stylist of the Year, by Hair Awards USA, a competition created by hairdressers for hairdressers to celebrate the best of the best in the American beauty industry. Detra won overall best hair stylist from an impressive list of very talented stylists.  

Last year was certainly Detra’s year, as she also won the International Beauty Awards Bridal and Wig Styling Awards. 

Detra’s career has spanned the gamut in hair styles, ranging from the ‘big hair’ of the 80s to stick straight hair and everything in between. She is now in the process of working on a big shoot with nationally recognized photographer, Zoe Christou Welsh, designing hair for top models, as well as planning a new runway exhibition for the next awards ceremony since this winter’s event got cancelled due to COVID restrictions. 

“Trends in hair styles come back around and when they do, I always put a modern twist on them,” she explained. “This keeps them fresh and interesting.” 

Detra continues to educate for a global company, Olivia Garden, as a member of their educational team, helping to develop new products and launching these innovative additions in the field of personal beauty. 

Last year she was involved in several arenas of the beauty industry, achieving awards for her work to promote this fast-paced and lucrative part of the world economy.  

She most enjoys the creative aspect of her work, setting the foundation for future styling trends and working with young people who want a career in the beauty industry. 

“In this season of my career, I’m focusing more on mentoring other stylists,” says Detra.   “For the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor Hannah, who is joining me full time in the salon. I also try to mentor and recognize each person who assists on the sets where I work.” 

To young people searching for a career path, Detra points out that this industry offers many opportunities and advantages. “It’s not all just standing behind a chair anymore, the internet has opened more ways to work from home, while there are still many positions that require travel for those who enjoy meeting new people and visiting new places. Continuing education and experience will determine the potential growth of your salary. There is no cap on your earnings and it is one of the easier careers allowing you to determine just how far you want to take it. Be prepared for success so that you are ready when it happens.” 

Detra Smith’s work has appeared in the following publications: 

Modern Salon

•American Salon

•Beauty Launchpad

•Behind the Chair

•HOT by Hair’s How

•Salon Today

•OTC Beauty Magazine

•Sophisticates Hairstyle Guide

•Pelaquarius

•Today.com

•Elegant Magazine

•10ten Magazine

 

She has participated in the following Runway Shows with these well-known models and designers: 

•Prabal Gurung featuring international supermodels such as Ashley Graham, Romee Strijd, Bella and Gigi Hadid, Taylor Hill, Sara Sampaio and Josephine Skriver

•Badgley Mischka

•Sherri Hill

•Veronica Beard

•Heidi Elnora, TLC’s Bride by Design

•Maria Cornejo

•Project Runway Alums - Anthony Ryan Auld, Joshua McKinley, Johnathan Kayne, Gunner Deatherage, Laura Kathleen, Michelle Lesniak

•Jeff Garner, Prophetik, 

•Leona

•Amy Smilovic, TIBI

•What Goes Around Comes Around

•IOTA

•Annie Griffin

•Show Me Your Mumu

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