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Life and Work with Toni Burns

Today we’d like to introduce you to Toni Burns.

Toni, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
When I think back to my childhood in my tiny hometown in Australia, there is one clear memory that always stands out. Sitting on the classroom floor chatting quietly with my third grade best friend. We had just come back from winter break and my friend was excitedly describing her family vacation to the Sunshine Coast and spending most of her days in her Aunts hair salon. I heard all about the exciting transformations she had seen. Color, cut, curls, styles, lots of smiles, chatting and laughter. To me, this sounded like heaven. Growing up in a large family, I had never stepped foot into a salon. Our hair was taken care of at home by our Mum with her sewing scissors and was never as exciting as what my friend had just relayed to me. After the stories were done, my friend turned to me and said: “When I grow up, I’m going to be a hairdresser just like my Aunt.” At that second, I decided I wanted to do whatever my best friend did, so I pronounced excitedly, “Me too!”

Before then, I had never spent a moment thinking about what I would be when I “grow up” but from that second on I held onto the statement as though it was a promise I wasn’t allowed to break either to my best friend or to myself. Even when she left high school early to work as a receptionist, I followed through with my promise and worked hard and long to find a Hairdressing Apprenticeship in our small town. These apprenticeships were a four-year commitment to hard work with little pay, lots of study and long hours. Before I could find a salon willing to take me on, I married and had two beautiful daughters and worked a retail job but I never forgot my childhood dream that seemed to be planted by sheer suggestion.

Finally, after one last ditch effort of searching and begging, I was offered the position of apprentice at a high-end salon and I worked harder than I ever had in my life. I loved pretty much every moment of it and knew that this was where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing. For the first time in my life, I felt truly fulfilled and I flourished. I did very well and entered many competitions. I would come home with a trunk full of trophies and pockets full of prize money. Life moved on, my marriage broke down and life changed drastically. I met and fell in love with an American. My daughters and I relocated to Miami, FL. I took on a short list of clients from home but missed being immersed in the creative world that I worked so hard to be a part of. Eventually, I spent more time tending to my family and less time on my dream. It had been a big move for my young children and their sense of security was more important than me working on my career in a new country but to be honest, it felt like a slow death of my dream and my identity.

It didn’t feel like I would ever be ready to walk away 100% from the “hair industry” but years were moving fast and I didn’t know how to reintroduce myself to a world that moves quickly and changes often. I missed being surrounded by fellow creatives and feeling a part of something exciting and new. I feared I would lose my skills and felt like an outsider in a world I had fought so hard to be a part of but life has a funny way of working out even when you think it is falling apart. Eight years later, I moved from Miami to Los Angeles starting over once again in a new city and putting my children as a priority. I felt further behind than ever. I walked away from my dream and went back to high-end retail. This, to me, was soul destroying. My youngest ended up being signed with Ford Modeling Agency and her sister and myself loved the excitement of her booking jobs, seeing the final images and hearing her stories about “being on set.”

One day, my daughters suggested that for me to be truly happy, I needed to take my own advice and do what I tell them to do which is “chase their dreams”. They thought it would be a good idea for me to step back into the industry I loved so much and here in Los Angeles that industry spilled over to “set work”. My youngest gave my information to stylists she was working with on jobs and one day, I got a text asking if I could assist on an editorial shoot. No money but come, help out and see if you like it.

That job made up my mind for me. I walked away with no pay but a full heart and a lightness that I hadn’t felt in years. It was a different world to salon work but it was creating, it was me being surrounded by like minded people. I was a part of something beautiful, something that can evoke an emotion, playing with texture and shape, working with a team and having a common goal, pushing your skills to the limit and thinking outside the box. This was where I belonged, I had plenty to learn but in this industry and this city I have been lucky enough to work with and be mentored by talented, kind and patient artists who have brought me into their world and trusted me to work beside them and grow my own skills and client base at the same time.

I believe that this is where I was meant to land and this is what I was supposed to be doing. Life has timing and dreams rarely come to fruition overnight and sometimes The Universe is waiting to deliver your dream in a form that you could never imagine because it will be somewhere that you’ve never been, doing something in a capacity that you’ve never done it in before. As a little third grade student in a tiny Coastal town in Australia, my dream was planted through the words of a best friend. I carried that dream with me from that day on but only in the realms that I could imagine. If I could go back and be the third person sitting on the floor between two best friends I would thank my best friend for lighting a spark in my soul and me would tell my 7 year old self that I can’t tell her where that dream would take her because she would never believe me but to trust the process and the timing. The Universe never gets it wrong.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road has been long and bumpy with more dead ends and pot holes than I care to remember. Was it worth it? Unequivocally yes! There’s a saying “Anywhere that’s easy to get to is not worth being.” and I would tend to agree. The key is to never give up. If you have a true burning desire to achieve something or “become” something don’t stop until you’ve reached it. There will be many times you may believe the journey is over. This is true at least for me. I exited school at a time of record high unemployment. Finding any job was difficult to let alone my dream job that every other bubbly girl fresh out of high school was chasing. I heard dozens of no’s but it only took one yes. That yes came after I had given up and tried to let life dictate to me what I would be doing and where I would be working. I gave up. I was married, had two children, took on a retail job and told myself to learn to like it.

I would turn up to my own hair appointment an hour early just to sit and watch the girls cut, dry, color and create. It fed my soul. I would fall asleep imagining myself standing behind that chair creating something with my own two hands. Eventually, I just couldn’t accept things how they were anymore and decided to call my hairstylist and ask if the salon needed a cleaner. After years of regret, I knew that just to be in that environment would change me. Was I embarrassed to be a married woman of two children asking for a job as a cleaner, yes but I felt I would die a slow death working anywhere else. I wanted to be involved in this creative world any which way I could. To my utter shock, I was hired. I swept, scrubbed, washed dishes, did laundry, greeted clients, made tea and coffee, organized lunch and was happy to be at the mercy of every request. I was delighted to be just a small part of the team but also realized it was an integral part. The salon was running smoother than it ever had and because of this was able to make more money.

Before I knew it, my hard work was rewarded with more responsibility and soon I was immersed in a course to become the salon’s Nail Technician. I was excited by this but a little sad because I was so close but still so far from the position I really wanted. I was building a nice client base and proving myself but heartbroken at the same time when an Apprentice was hired. Young, tall, blonde, thin, and vivacious I felt she was everything that I wasn’t. I believed I didn’t have what it took to be offered an apprenticeship somewhere that I felt I had already proven my dedication but as I mentioned before life always has it’s own timing.

Six months passed, I’m at home on my day off when my boss calls. She asks me if I’m sitting down and that she has a proposition for me. Our Apprentice had put in her notice, this job just wasn’t for her, she thought it would be a little more glamorous. The position needed to be filled as soon as possible and as much as she didn’t think I was the best fit for the job, one of our top clients had suggested she gives me the opportunity after the hard work I had already put in even though in my boss’s eyes I was a little too old, a little too dorky, not cute enough or single enough to attract the male clientele. Our client told her that she should support women at all stages of their lives and she just may be surprised where it leads. She was a forward thinker and looking back, at 25, I was hardly old.

So, finally the Yes I had yearned for arrived and in a manner, I could never have imagined. I was on track to achieve my dream and even though I never counted on hearing that Yes I worked hard to get so close to it that I could at least live happy in the thought that I had done everything I could within my own powers. Hard work never goes unrewarded and to me that phone call was proof. Sometimes it takes the longest route possible but the reward always comes.

After that initial green light there were four more years of hard work and study as I faced major health issues, divorce, being a single mother and eventually moving to another country not to mention the day to day drudgery that we all encounter. Through all of this, my fire never went out, my dream never dimmed. At times, it did feel like it was taken away, it was again unattainable, it wasn’t my destiny, I wasn’t good enough and I didn’t fit the mold. I look at where I am today and I am so thankful for every hard moment because it makes the present moment so much sweeter. My dream is like a childhood friend that I could never walk away from, I can never forget. We have history, we’ve built each other up and torn each other down but we always come back to each other. My children are grown and I’m now a single woman but I have my career and my mentors and so many memories that I hold dear to my heart and I am lucky enough now to be making even more memories as I write and rewrite my story.

Never give up. Sometimes, you’ll go off course or take a detour. Some days, you will need a break and those days may turn into months or years but your true calling never stops calling you. You’re never too old, it’s never too late and doesn’t let anybody tell you this is not the dream for you. If you’re willing to put in the work and have patience and faith you will get where you want to be and where you are meant to be.

Please tell us about your business.
The best part about my job is that every day is different. Different location, different crew, different expectations and different plans of action in order to reach a common goal. I still assist other hair stylists at times and I enjoy watching how they work and learning how they got to where they are. In this industry, like all others, you never stop learning and for me, the opportunity to work with many different stylists from many different backgrounds and walks of life gives me the chance to grow my skill set in a way that salon life could never have.

From spending a day on set with a gaggle of temperamental toddlers to navigating cactus in the desert with a crew that doesn’t speak English, each day brings a new set of challenges and whether it’s my responsibility to pass pins, hairbands, brushes or product to a lead stylist or being the lead stylist myself the pace is always fast with a sense of excitement. There are discussions with creative directors and “the client”. Mood boards come out, an in-depth conversation concerning the images the client would like to have by the end of the day, what order the images will be shot, how many changes will be expected and what time frame you have to achieve the desired looks. You work hand in hand with wardrobe, makeup artists, and the photographer. The work you produce that day will help you grow your clientele.

I would say, I’m most proud of my ability to work as part of a team and to understand that nothing is beneath me. Stepping in to help anybody that might need it at the moment, thinking ahead and being prepared for what’s coming next because onset time is limited. I believe that if you are genuinely willing to go out of your way and go above and beyond your general job description you will quickly build a good reputation. Word of mouth travels fast in the industry and I get most of my jobs this way. If you can show up, play fair, be polite and perform to the best of your ability it’s possible to grow your own little business and eventually, you can be a little picky with the jobs that you accept. Again, hard work always pays off.

Were there people and/or experiences you had in your childhood that you feel laid the foundation for your success?
My childhood was not an easy one. I grew up with plenty of dysfunction (like most families) and not a lot of support. The upside of this was that I didn’t have parents or family members imprinting their dreams or expectations onto me. I was free to chase what fed my soul and usually in an unconventional manner. I was never guilted into doing something different with my life and when things got difficult I didn’t have anybody that was able or willing to save me so I had to navigate my own way out. Those experiences make you resilient and you learn that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Every new day is a new opportunity to get a little closer to where you want to be.

I didn’t have any immediate family members that were living a typical kind of life. Nobody holding down a steady job, no degrees to hang on the wall, not a lot of structure or guidance. When anybody asked my mother what her hopes and dreams were for each of her 8 children she flippantly replied: “To be happy.” At the time, I was embarrassed by that answer. I believed that it was thoughtless and had zero depth. I was sad that she hadn’t come back with suggestions that her children become doctors, lawyers, trailblazers, world changers. In my mind that would have translated to her believing we were capable of achieving these things and I thought maybe she should suggest we achieve what I believed she hadn’t.

My mother passed away a few years ago but not long before her passing we were in the middle of our daily phone call and out of nowhere she asked me “Are you happy?” I replied “Yes, I am” and she said “That’s all I ever wanted for all of my children. Nobody ever thought that was enough to want for you and your siblings but I knew that’s all there really is to want in life.” I realized that through all of those years her answer had been so far from flippant or came with no thought. She laid the seed of “happiness”. I took on the belief that I was responsible for achieving it and that it was important that I did. She allowed us to be the truest version of ourselves and not chase her definition of success but to find what truly made us happy.

Success is not proven with a big bank balance or “things” you accumulate along the way. Success is smiling at the end of a hard day, it’s looking forward to what tomorrow might bring. Success is knowing you’re enough, recognizing your own accomplishments and not comparing your journey to others journeys. Days can be long and sometimes the only constant is what you do for a living. If you’re able to support yourself by doing what makes you happy then it sets a strong foundation for the moments in life when everything else is falling apart. I found my happiness and for that, I will be forever grateful.

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Nicole Hill, Julia Hill, Ali Collier, Natalie Belmont, Daisy Clementine, Rachael Vang, Susanne Kindt, Ella Mai Weisskamp, Alexandra Burch, Mia Yang, Orwell Chang, Milk X Hong Kong, Jasmine Hollins, Aris Jerome, Georgia Gibbs, Chesleycarele, Stone Fox Swim

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