Mary Zatarain, owner of The Right Face in Hammond, Louisiana, has made the most of what she deems an accidental career path—one that started at the United Nations, took a detour through Louisiana state government and currently rests in an area that is recovering from devastation.
After graduating from college with a major in foreign languages, she started working at the United Nations, but found herself feeling unfulfilled. Returning to her home turf of New Orleans, and beginning work on her master’s degree, Zatarain had a fateful meeting. “I was working in a hotel checking people out, and the next ones in front of me are salon legends Edwin Neill and Paul Mitchell, and I’m fresh out of college and they’re being flirtatious,” she recalls. That fateful meeting led her to connect with her future husband—Neill—and his influence would cause the trajectory of her life’s path to be altered in ways Zatarain had never imagined.
When Neill of the Neill Corporation, a large Aveda distributor, asked Zatarain to speak at a training event about skin care in the place of hairdresser who had to cancel, she studied up on the subject madly in order to fulfill Neill’s request. At the session, she witnessed how much interest there was in skin care and how unavailable the information was in Louisiana at that time. Motivated by wanting to fill the void, Zatarain took the first step toward professional skin care by enrolling at Christine Valmy’s school of training in 1973, and still considers Valmy to be a major mentor. Then, when Neill Corporation began the task of installing skin care into hair salons, Zatarain traveled abroad to learn more about skin care. “I went off to Europe, studied some courses and got to use my languages there,” she laughs.
During the process of adding skin care to the salons in Louisiana and Mississippi, the training of employees fell into Zatarain’s lap. Because of this, she found herself with a decision to make. “The manager of a salon we installed said that she didn’t want to handle the business and suggested that I buy it. Twenty-four hours later, I was the owner of a skin care spa in Baton Rouge.” The company, named The Right Face, opened its doors in 1976.
In 1979, Zatarain moved her business into a large Victorian home in Hammond, started a school, and innocently picked a fight that would make a permanent mark on her—and on the industry as a whole. “The cosmetology board decided that I should be a hairdresser if I wanted to deal with skin. Being young and naïve, I decided to take it on myself, and put a bill into legislature to license estheticians separately,” she says. “All hell broke loose.”
Her proposal did not go over well with the board, and soon the media picked up on the story, identifying Zatarain and her followers as The Lipstick Brigade. After a campaign that ran her ragged, the bill initially failed in 1979, but then passed in 1980. “We got esthetician licenses separate, schools separate ... you could teach as an esthetician and practice as one and not be a hairdresser. The fact that I came out of that in one piece was amazing,” she says.
After that, her business continued, as well as her involvement with training for the Neill Corporation. Zatarain decided to step back when her sons were growing up and focus more on the skin care aspect of her career. She currently works with a dermatologist in New Orleans and maintains The Right Face in Hammond. With regard to the increased visibility of esthetics in medical settings, Zatarain thinks it’s a good thing. “It’s made a major turn. I think it’s for the best. The overall awareness ... people know what an esthetician is and dermatologists have figured out that it enhances their practice to have an esthetician on board.”
And, like all of the people in New Orleans, her life was altered by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. After escaping the storm in Hot Springs, Arkansas, she turned on news coverage of the disaster and saw her own business literally under water. “We were located right where the canal broke,” she says. “I went back the following February and it was so depressing. It was an incredible emotional drama, and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. That’s just one of the crosses you bear forever.”
But balancing the weight of that cross is the joy Zatarain has found in her accidental career. “I love what I do. My clients have become part of my family,” she says, and she notes that, as long as she’s healthy, she’ll still be working in skin care. She is even considering returning to teaching.
And although she didn’t really get to utilize her foreign languages degree to its fullest, she doesn’t regret getting it. “I think I am proof that what you get from college is not necessarily the degree, but it teaches you how to learn,” she says. This ability has allowed Zatarain to grab onto life and live it to its fullest; something she continues to do.