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A Cut Above
11/2/2006

By Shaun Brown
Special to the Splash

When 11-year-old Karen Pagliaro's mother died of leukemia, her entire world changed. Her growing up years became turbulent times with nannies, step-mothers and relatives while she struggled with the grief of losing her mother. When she left for college at the encouragement of her father, she wasn't sure classroom lectures were her forte. The budding beautician in southern California had other plans.

"I had to fight my dad because people in my family are Italian, and they all go to college," Pagliaro said. "I'd wait for everyone else to switch classes, and then I'd run to the beach."

Eventually, Pagliaro succeeded in convincing her father that beauty school was a better fit, and she headed up the coast to Seattle to begin formal cosmetology training. Today, Pagliaro is a successful stylist and operates her own salon in Liberty Lake that's become a kind of social center for many local residents. Her growing number of clients have spread the word about her business, Karen Does My Hair, and Pagliaro couldn't be happier.

"I think she's fabulous," said Liberty Lake resident Stacy Julian, who's been visiting Pagliaro for haircuts since 2000. "Karen's constantly taking courses to learn more about hair design, and she's passionate about what she does."

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As a student at Auburn Cosmetology School, lines, colors, and chemistry filled her days as she logged 2,600 hours of cosmetology training. And even though Seattle had beaches, Pagliaro stayed in class this time around. When classes ended for the day, Pagliaro would gather up any long hair that had been cut and take it home to experiment with colors.

"This was my passion," Pagliaro said. "This was an art for me. I was focused and determined."

As she learned, Pagliaro dreamed of becoming a podium artist, traveling around the country to hair shows and demonstrating the latest techniques in hair design. However, her career goals were scaled back when she married and began to raise her children, Nicole and Kyle. Even as a full-time mom, Pagliaro worked to keep her skills current. When the family moved to Liberty Lake, Pagliaro made a space for haircutting in her home.

"I loved the action in the salon, the smells, and I loved being of service to people, helping them make a change," Pagliaro said.

With her little black chair tucked in the laundry room, Pagliaro began to make friends as she continued to cultivate her talent for hair design.

"When someone sits in my chair, immediately my eyes go to the line of their design." Pagliaro said. "I think about head shape and the way their hair flows. My cutting is all about line of design and the structure in the hair."

In addition to cutting hair, Pagliaro listens. She values the fact that individuals have different comfort levels and looks for something unique and beautiful about everyone who sits in her chair.

"Listening is really important to me," Pagliaro said. "I ask my clients to tell me the worst thing I could do to their hair and to tell me what they really like."

Between hair design, parenting, and community involvement with SCOPE, Pagliaro began to build a circle of friends in her new home. Little did she know that circle would become a lifeline. No one posted a sign saying "strong undertow," but Karen's tsunami hit about five years ago. The first wave came when her husband took a job in another state and let her know he had no plans of returning to the family. As a single parent, Pagliaro worried about money, health insurance, safety and survival.

Depression set in and then heart problems. Then Pagliaro found herself on an operating table, about to experience emergency surgery on the wrist of her hair-cutting hand.

"I grabbed the surgeon's cutting hand," Pagliaro said. "I told him how much I needed the use of my hand for my livelihood and my passion of haircutting."

The surgeon delayed the operation and found a way to treat Pagliaro's pseudo-radial aneurism without damaging the mobility in her hand. As Pagliaro began her physical recovery, the emotional recovery was under way as well.

"I had some really good friends," Pagliaro said. "Even though I couldn't believe there were people who wanted to help me."

Some friends literally took turns staying the night for the first couple of days after her husband left. Keri Jensen came over and taught her how to pay her bills. Harry Hansen of SCOPE made special trips down her street in the middle of the night to help Pagliaro feel safe while home alone with her children. On Valentine's Day, her son Kyle went to the mail and came back with ten cards containing not only kind words but $20 bills as well. People sent grocery cards, gas cards and get-well wishes.

As time passed, Pagliaro began to dream again. She began making plans to build a salon in her home. She went back to school, taking classes in marketing, computers, business law and hair design. Pagliaro became a Redken specialist and mastered the art of hair design, color, symmetry and shape.

"She's the ideal of the American dream to me," Julian said. "She came from not a great background, picked herself up by her bootstraps and learned to be a business woman. Almost every time I go to her studio she's learned something different. I've never seen someone with such a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement."

As the salon began to take shape, her friends again came to her aid. One installed the hardwood floor. Another assisted with interior design and even purchased paint. Jacob's Upholstery refinished her salon chairs and National Business Service provided pens that read, "Karen does my hair."

"It never occurred to me that I would survive divorce," Pagliaro reflected. "Not only did I survive, but I came to thrive. This adversity has made me a better artist, a better mother and a better person."

Profiles is a weekly feature highlighting a personality or business in the Liberty Lake community. If you know of a Liberty Lake resident who should be considered for a future Profiles article, state your case by e-mail to editor@libertylakesplash.com.