What It’s Like
What It’s Like … to Turn Hair Loss into Self-Empowerment
Elline Surianello is changing the way women deal with hair loss
-Mary Beth Sammons
With its prime location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, LeMetric is the kind of place where you would expect to find ladies sipping Pinot Grigio and chatting with other clients, as top-tiered stylists create bouncy, layered cuts and demonstrate the mastery of to die for blow-outs. Well, it kind of is, except there are no blow dryers, and the ladies are discussing their thinning hair woes as compassionate listener and hair caregiver Elline Surianello offers them green tea and hope.
Surianello is in the business of customized care. Like so many of her customers, the 53-year-old has been living with thinning hair since she was in grade school. At age nine, when other girls were trying to tame their thick locks for the long, straight Marcia Brady look, Surianello was diagnosed with androgenetic alopecia, one of the leading causes of hair loss in females.
After decades of finding no suitable, safe and all-natural alternatives for her own rapid hair loss, she took it upon herself to stand up for the estimated 50 million women in the U.S. and Canada who suffer from some form of hair thinning or hair loss and created a viable hair loss solution. This has been the driving force behind LeMetric Inc., and continues to be her main focus. Today, the feisty, outspoken Surianello runs five affiliate salons outside her New York City headquarters in Philadelphia, Chicago, Phoenix, Toronto and Calgary.
We caught up with Elline this week, before LeMetric and BettyConfidential.com co-sponsor “An Evening of Reinvention,” Thursday at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.
What’s it like to be the founder (and a client) of LeMetric Hair Center Inc., a chain of salons devoted solely to women who struggle with hair thinning and hair loss?
Let me just say that if I didn’t love what I do, then there is no way I could do what I do. I help these women to find solutions that satisfy their lifestyle needs. Every day is different, because every client is different, and thus every problem or triumph is different. I become a confidante. It can be really difficult and very emotional with lots of ups and downs and I work constantly, so most people don’t envy what I do. But I love it, am passionate about it, and have the joy of loving my career.
This is a very personal business for me; it’s not just about the hair.
What do you like most about helping women feel confident in their looks?
No one assumes that working with hair is going to be life changing, but that’s exactly what it is. The hair is just the catalyst, and by giving women a voluptuous head of hair again, you give them their confidence, their joy, and their life back.
If I had to define what I like most, I would say it’s that moment. It’s that moment, after the client has gone through all of the preliminary phases, and now she is finally wearing hair for the first time. She looks in the mirror, and I see a flip in the way she holds her posture, the way she holds her head, and then the tears well up – and she tells me, this is the first time in her adult life that she has been able to look in the mirror and feel beautiful. That moment is what it’s all about. It still gets me every time.
Any funny stories?
Funny? OH – always. Every day! I had a woman in here yesterday, in her sixties, who decided she’s back on the market, and that she’s going to be having sex again and she says to me, “Hello, I am not going to bed with a wig on! OK!?” And this is her reason for seeking a permanent, additional hair solution. I mean, really, there is just as much laughter in here every day as there are tears. Some of us find it easier to make light of our misfortunes than others. We often tell horror stories about hair gone wrong. It’s never funny in the moment, but most of us can laugh about it days, months, years later.
Do you have any particular stories that were deeply moving? Inspiring stories?
Too many to name. I would venture to say that every single woman who makes the choice to do something special for herself is moving and inspirational in her own way.
I’ve had many women who come in here very bruised and battered, either in the emotional or physical sense. I have a couple of clients who allowed themselves to be in abusive relationships for years, because they didn’t believe they deserved more or that they had the strength to get out and do better. It was reclaiming their appearance, their femininity and their womanly strength here, which eventually allowed them to get out. Once they fix their insecurity, they’re able to get themselves out. It’s a complete transformation, really. And not just on the outside.
What did it feel like to be a nine-year-old tween on the brink of adolescence, and discover that you were losing your hair? How did you cope? What did you do?
At that age, I didn’t have enough information on what my choices were because I just didn’t know anyone else like me. Doctors didn’t know much about alopecia. I was very isolated in this problem, and I wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to put a word to it or an emotion to it. I just knew that my sister had more hair than me, and that my mother kept saying that if we shaved it, maybe it would grow back normal.
I’ve been wearing hair since I was 13. They were called “falls” back then. My first job was selling wigs in 1972, and then I started wearing hair permanently in 1978. I guess, in a way, hair was always such a relevant part of my life.
And then sadly you lost your sister in a horrific shooting accident when she was 28; how did that trauma impact you?
When my sister was killed, it was pure devastation. I thought to myself, there is no way that I’m going to be asked to go through this kind of pain unless it’s preparing me to do something really important, really huge.
I was so damaged physically, mentally and emotionally. I lost every part of me. Literally, due to the stress, my hair fell out profusely. All that was left to do, was to pick myself up. I guess that’s when I first discovered the power of reinvention. She was killed in 1984, and the series of events that transpired thereafter led to my opening LeMetric in 1989.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the causes of hair loss in women and the statistics?
The causes of hair loss in women are broad and factor in a lot of items, many of which lead back to our hormones. Common causes include: A genetic predisposition (like me, I have androgenetic alopecia. It’s in my genes. ) Or it can be an autoimmune disorder (which is on the rise, like diabetes or lupus); post-pregnancy (a lot of women lose hair after giving birth, but sometimes this is only temporary); severe stress or trauma (like a divorce or death); malnutrition (caused by eating disorders); various medications or treatments, and of course, menopause or the general effects of aging.
Studies show that 50 percent of North American women will experience some form of hair loss by menopause, due to any combination of the reasons above. The stress of the current economic situation also is causing more women to experience this.
Why is it that women care so much about our hair?
Well, on the most basic level, think about some of our icons over the decades – Marilyn Monroe, Farrah Faucet, Jennifer Aniston – and what are they all defined by? Their hair ‘do!
Hair definitely defines a woman’s image. “Oh she’s that blonde girl,” or “oh she’s the red head,” and in our society, more and more, so today, image defines us and image is power.
Even women who haven’t dealt with hair loss can relate to your motivational story.
Exactly. For me, it’s hair. But for other women, it might be an endless battle with their weight, or their body shape, or their skin. There’s always something.
How did you keep your attitude positive and turn adversity into something positive?
For me, after I had been through enough doom and gloom, I had enough. You have a choice to be positive, and do your very best with what you’re given, and once I decided to just go for it, there was no stopping me. Clearly, I have a strong personality, so I decided if no one else wanted to step up and be the face of women’s hair loss, I would.
What advice do you have for women seeking to empower themselves, and feel good on the outside and inside?
Remember this: We are always more powerful than we think we are! If we could just give ourselves credit for living the life that we lived, then we shouldn’t second guess ourselves. Once you’ve been through enough hurdles, you know you can deal with it, you have before and so you should be able to deal with it and move on. Sometimes, we deny the exterior things that bother us. And I just want to remind women that it is SO easy to just make that change, and then move on with our lives, rather than spending decades dwelling on it.
Tell us about the “Evening of Reinvention,” at Saks that Betty is sponsoring.
I along with Dr. Valerie White and Lois Joy Johnson (Betty’s Style and Beauty editor) will be talking about how to live a happy, healthy and beautiful life, and we’ll give practical tips on how to achieve these elements. Plus, there will be shopping, cocktails, makeovers, treats, and good company. What could be better!? It’s 2009, and with all of the doom and gloom we’re being exposed to, the timing is just right. Women are in need, more than ever, of a reinvention. Like I had to go through at one of the lowest points in my life, lots of women are being forced back into the workforce this year, or being laid off of once-stable positions, so it’s important that we all feel great about ourselves and empowered!
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always knew I wasn’t going to get married or have children and I knew the universe had a different plan for me, I just didn’t know what. At 11-years-old, I was standing in my bedroom, picking out jewelry in front of my mirror, and this thought came in my head and I said “you’re going to help women.” I always knew this.
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
Everybody, I was not a groupie.
3. What’s your workout?
Walking my dogs, my babies! AND – the ultimate use of my mouth!!!! (hahaha) and the ultimate use of my hands (because I can’t talk without moving my hands a lot). And my laugher, I get comments about that all time! I laugh loud, and long, and hard!
4. Cat or dog?
Dogs, three of them.
5. What woman from the past do you most identify with?
When I was in college, we were asked to interview people, and I thought, “How boring.” I decided to go to the nursing home and I interviewed women who worked during WW2, because I wanted to know what they were thinking in the 40′s. When they were mothers and housewives, and on the brink of being women in the workforce for the first time. I brought my mother with me, and I ended up interviewing several women. It turned out to be this incredible thing of how powerful women have been through the years. I am inspired by the various generations of women in our time. We all identify, different struggle, same perseverance.
6. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
I need the ocean or the mountains.
7. What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
8. If you could have dinner with any two people, whom would you choose?
Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt (and throw in Oprah, because she’d love to sit down with those two).
9. What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
Education, I want the next generation of girls to encounter every opportunity for education.
10. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I’ve really done what I’ve wanted to do in spite of everything that’s happened to me. If I could change anything, it would be to have one last conversation with my sister who was killed, and to ask her if there would have been anything I could have done to stop it.