By Lucy Papachristou | Outer Banks Voice on November 30, 2019
Linda Porter fell into hair styling by accident. She was 24, a single mother of a six-year-old boy. She had split with her son’s father a year after he was born, and as she didn’t get the chance to go to college. It was wintertime in Wilmington, Delaware, and she didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bills.
“I was really struggling,” she recalled.
Now, more than four decades later, Porter owns and operates Shear Genius, a hair salon and spa in Nags Head. This Sunday, Dec. 1, marks the fortieth anniversary since the business opened in 1979, and Porter is throwing a small party for her oldest customers to celebrate.
Shear Genius is a bright, stylist shop, with makeup, shampoo and cutting stations, as well as a back room for facials. In the front of the store, Porter sells a variety of beauty products, including Aveda and FarmHouse Fresh, both organic, naturally sourced brands.
“We’ve always been conscious of the environment and the products we use, not for our clients, but for our own exposure to chemicals,” she said. “I’ve been doing hair now for forty-five years, so I have to be conscientious about what [products] I’m using.”
The road to success, though, wasn’t easy.
In her early twenties, Porter was apprenticing at a fine art photography studio and hoping to start a similar career herself. But over lunch one day, a friend told her about a state-sponsored program for single parents. The program would send students to trade school for one year and pay their living expenses and childcare while they attended. Porter applied and was accepted.
They didn’t offer photography at the school, so Porter thought, “‘Well, I’ll do cosmetology,’ because I could do our photography models’ [hair].”
Once she started studying cosmetology, she found it was equally as creative as photography. “I could sculpt the hair. The hair was my canvas, and the tools are the scissors and the comb. Everyone’s head is different. The cowlicks, the texture. Back then we used to do a lot of perms, which changes the texture [of the hair]. I love texture. And I got good at it,” she said.
Porter had come to the Outer Banks to vacation in high school, and always loved the area. She is originally from Korea, but grew up all over the U.S., as her father was in the military.
Porter moved first to Elizabeth City, in 1976, and was hired to open up and manage a salon in a new shopping center. She then got a job cutting hair on Poindexter Street, downtown. Before starting at the new job, Porter went back to Delaware to collect some of her belongings. “When I came back, I was booked for a solid month in Elizabeth City,” she said.
Porter opened Shear Genius in Elizabeth City in 1979, but still found herself wanting to move to the Outer Banks. Specifically, she wanted to open up a spa, because there wasn’t one in the area at the time. She convinced a friend, who was studying to become an aesthetician (someone who performs facials), to move with her to the Outer Banks.
They relocated Shear Genius to the Sea Ranch Resort in 1982. The salon became the first to offer facials and full body massages, as well as the first to go non-smoking. Business was “excellent” from the beginning, Porter said, and many of her Elizabeth City clients remained loyal, even to this day.
Around this time, Porter decided she wanted to have another child, and gave birth to a daughter. Her aesthetician friend bought the shop from Porter, who continued to work part-time and finance the business.
“My son and I kind of raised each other. I was working all the time. I used to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Awful hours. I really wanted to be able to raise my daughter and not work those kind of hours. My friend helped me so I could do that,” she explained. Porter’s friend owned the shop for five years.
Then, in September 2003, Hurricane Isabel struck.
“Isabel took everything,” she said. “I didn’t have any insurance. We had a concrete foundation floor. The water came in and pulled the sand out from underneath the floor, so the floor collapsed…My son called me from Atlanta and said ‘Mom, I just saw your color bottles floating down the street on CNN!’
Porter lost the store, but kept the salon open, moving it around to different rental spaces for a few years. Her customers followed. She got a loan from the Small Business Administration, and, for a moment, things were looking up. But then the loan fell through.
“I was really devastated, and didn’t know which direction to go.,” she recalled. “So I bought a digital SLR [camera] and went hiking in Wales for two weeks along the Pembrokeshire Coast. During that period, I wanted to do everything I had never had the chance to do before. I got started so young, raising children, I never had the time.”
Porter became a certified mission leader and led a mission trip of teenagers to Belize. Pursuing her interest in design, she also went to digital medium school at the University of Montana in Missoula, where she learned Photoshop, a new program at the time.
But when she came back to the Outer Banks, she found herself wanting to do hair again. “I would go to Walmart, and see people’s hair, and just wanted to reach out and fix it up!”
She moved the salon to Nags Head, and also started an art gallery, Eastern Fusion Gallery. She cut customers’ hair in the gallery and sold her own art and that of other local artists.
“With hair, I get to create, and I’m also very outward,” she stated. “I get to talk to my clients, and I love that aspect. I get to be social all day here. But when I do my photography work, I’m very inward.”
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