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Hair by Willy Leyba, Paris-based hairdresser

Ana P. Santos
Hair by Willy Leyba, Paris-based hairdresser
Cavite-born Willy Leyba never imagined that one day she would open a beauty salon in Paris, the world capital of beauty and fashion.

PARIS, France – Willy Leyba stood staring at the sign that bore her name. She still couldn’t believe it. She finally owned her own beauty salon.

Growing up in Cavite, Leyba had always dreamed of one day opening her own beauty salon.  

She never imagined that one day she would open one in Paris, the world capital of beauty and fashion.

“Before coming here, I didn’t know anything about Paris. I just knew that everything about it seemed magical,” laughed the 55-year-old Leyba.

Leyba remembers the exact day she opened her salon. It was December 1, 1995. The metropolis was at a standstill because of a strike.

“There was so much snow then and the entire city was on strike. There was no metro,” recalled Leyba in a mixture of English and Filipino.

Without the subway arteries that connected and kept the city running, there was no way for her Filipino customers to get to her salon.

“I was so nervous. My stomach was hurting all the time. I had poured all of my savings into the salon. If customers didn’t come soon, my business would fail before it even started.”

She had scraped together all her savings and taken out loans from friends and relatives to open the salon. Every day that passed with no business was a reminder that she may not be able to pay them back.

After two weeks, the strike ended, the city began to normalize and the customers came out in droves to patronize and celebrate the only beauty salon owned by a Filipina in Paris.

“The customers were all lined up outside–in the snow–waiting for their turn,” said Leyba, who still rejoices in the memory. “There was even a time when the clients would help out and shampoo each other or else it would be midnight and we still wouldn’t be finished.”

From cleaning to cutting and styling

Leyba first came to Paris in 1987. As many Filipinos who come to the City of Light, Leyba first started working as a housekeeper and cleaner. She started taking on side jobs cutting hair and doing make-up for other Filipinos.

Even if there was only one client who called for a home service, she would take it. “I would go from one seventh floor apartment to another seventh floor apartment for the appointments. It was like performing an act of penitence each time,” said Leyba, referring to the many Parisian apartment buildings that do not have elevators.

Leyba always left her customers primped and pretty and in turn, they always made sure she  was well-fed. In true Filipino tradition of hospitality, Leyba’s customers would always make sure that she had something to eat before she left. Her earnings plus the money she saved on buying food were all added to her beauty salon fund.

Her clientele grew when she won a Miss Gay beauty contest in Paris. Her title gave her exposure and street cred. “I think some of my customers liked the idea of being able to say that their hair was cut by a beauty queen,” Leyba laughed.

Her bustling home beauty service business was enough to keep her afloat, but the dream of opening her own salon tugged at her. It took close to 8 years before Leyba finally saw her name on a storefront with the word coiffure (hairstyling) emblazoned under it.

In later years, Leyba started receiving French customers. Leyba, who had learned French initially for practical survival said that it was also important for growing her business. “How can you trust your hairdresser if she can’t understand what kind of look or cut you want?”

Now, more than two decades of running her own business, Leyba still finds herself looking at her beauty salon in Paris’ swanky 16th arrondissement and what it took to turn the strands of a childhood dream into a reality.

“Of course, there are problems here in Paris. It isn’t always heaven.”

During those times, Leyba thinks of the promise she made to her mother who would wake up every day at 2 am to sell fish. She wouldn’t finish until early afternoon and if she didn’t make enough money for that day, she would take on more work as a laundry woman. One day, Leyba’s mother broke down under the financial weight she had to carry. “I told myself that one day she would never have to cry over money,” said Leyba.

For Filipinos who want to be an entrepreneur in France or any other country, Leyba says that the path will not be easy but it is possible and definitely worth it. “They have to have a vision so they can develop their talent. And they just really have to be determined.” – Rappler.com

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting under the Persephone Miel Fellowship.