When hair stylist Michelle Lisa Pargee heard her name announced as master colourist of the year at the 2009 Contessa Awards in Toronto, she was in shock.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “To be honest, when they called me and told me that I was a semi-finalist I cried. I was like ‘oh my god, this is the highlight of my career’ and I was so excited. And then they told me I was a finalist and I think I almost passed out.”
It was a significant achievement for the mother of four and owner of Milica Salon and Spa in Walnut Grove, who was an unknown name in the industry at that time.
“I didn’t expect to win, because everyone that was there was really famous and really well known in the industry,” Pargee said. “I just felt so lucky to be there. When they announced my name I just started clapping thinking it was for somebody else, and my daughter was with me and she started beating me on the leg saying, ‘Mom that’s you, get up.’ I couldn’t walk.”
This was just the beginning for Pargee. She also went on to win makeover colourist of the year at the 2009 Contessas (Canadian Hair Stylist of the Year awards) and a finalist spot representing Canada at the Colour Zoom competition in 2009. Then in 2010, she won master colourist of the year again and another spot representing Canada at the Colour Zoom competition. She also had nine Contessa finalist placements that year, breaking the all time record. Most recently, she won BC Stylist of the Year at the 2012 Mirror Awards and will be heading to London this October for the World Hair Colouring Competition.
But what no one knew was when Pargee was reaching the highest point in her career, she was also at the lowest point in her private life.
Just hours before accepting her first Contessa award, Pargee was sneaking out of her home at 4:30 in the morning to catch her flight to Toronto. Her abusive husband had forbidden her to go.
Pargee was first introduced to the world of hair at a young age by her mother, who owned a salon. After apprenticing with her mother for five years, she started working in other salons, but was never quite satisfied.
“I worked in other salons but I just had a different air of professionalism of how I want to behave,” Pargee said. “I like to use really good quality products and I wanted more of a team environment, and more of treating people like they are valued.”
With that she started Milica Salon 13 years ago in a small 1,500 sq. ft. studio in Langley. Beginning with a staff of just three, she quickly expanded until she was “bursting at the seams.” Now in a new 4,000 sq. ft. location at 20330 88 Ave. in Walnut Grove, Pargee employs a staff of 37 and runs a distinguished apprenticeship program.
But a few years ago she began to get “bored” with styling and wanted to “change it up.” She decided to get more into the photography end of styling, where her true passion is.
“It was reigniting what I really love to do,” she said. “As much as we love our salon guests, we tend to do repetitive things. When we do other’s hair it’s not about us, it’s about them and what they want us to do, and we need to listen and fulfill their vision of hair. But when you do your own creative work it’s about what’s in your head. Normally, we don’t get to do that, so it gives us that outlet.”
Pargee paired up with photographer Greg Swales, a graduate of Langley Fine Arts, in 2008 to get some original photos done for the walls of her salon. They were so pleased with the results, they decided to submit them to the Canadian Hairstylist of the Year awards, where she won her first internationally acclaimed award in 2009.
“The first year I went to the Contessas I was kind of overwhelmed because I had never experienced anything like that before,” Pargee said. “They have all of the finalists names with their pictures on a board, and I was just standing back in awe of the fact that my pictures were up there. Then I heard two very famous hairdressers in Canada congratulating each other for being finalists together, and they looked at my pictures and said ‘oh those are good, who’s that? Who the hell is Michelle? Where’s Langley?’ They had no idea, because all of the finalists are from Montreal or New York or Toronto. They’re all people who are well known and published. So it was quite funny because the next year when I went, and I won the second time, one of them actually came up to me laughing and said ‘well I guess we know who you are now.’
Pargee is currently serving as a Goldwell North American Guest Artist, which requires her to travel to at least 12 different cities around the world each year to teach workshops.
This is in addition to running her own salon, working 30 hours a week with clients and raising her five-year-old and nine-year-old kids as a single mom. She says she is lucky to have her two grown children (ages 23 and 28) to help out, as her ex-husband is no longer in the picture.
Pargee spent many years under the control of her husband, but it wasn’t until her career began to take off that she realized she couldn’t carry on with him.
When she won the spot for Canada at Colour Zoom in 2009, her husband travelled with her to Las Vegas for the competition and was appalled at what he saw.
“When I won that spot it really bothered him, because I won attention,” Pargee said. “And then when he came with me to Vegas, the attention disturbed him so much that he actually told me that I wasn’t allowed to do it anymore.
“I found out at the same time that I had won the spot for the Hairdresser of the Year (Contessa) awards. We had tickets to go together, and he actually told me the night before that I couldn’t go. He said ‘you’re not going to win anyways and it’s a waste of money so you can’t go.’
“I actually snuck out of the house at 4:30 in the morning, brought my grown daughter with me, changed his ticket to her name and flew there. And I won. It was a month later that I told him to leave, because I realized that I could actually have a life.”
Using the services of Ishtar Transition Housing Society for victims of relationship violence, Pargee was able to separate from her husband and begin the process of healing and rebuilding her social life.
“For 10 years of my marriage I was hiding it, pretending he was perfect and I was happy and everything was great,” Pargee said. “I did that because I was embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t. Everyone looked at me and thought of me as a business woman, you don’t want them to know that ‘gee my personal life sucks, my husband controls me.’
“What made me make the decision to leave was winning the award. My son was getting older and I didn’t want to raise him as an abuser, and I knew that’s what he would turn into if he stayed around his dad. I needed to change it.”
Three years after separating, Pargee’s ex-husband sees the kids on supervised visits and is working on rebuilding relationships with them.
“Everything happens for a reason and I wouldn’t have my kids without him,” Pargee said. “I don’t regret it, but now all I want is for him to be good to the kids. As long as he is a good dad, that’s all I care about. I support the kids, I don’t get child support, so I’m on my own there. But I don’t want it and I don’t need it. I’m better to do it on my own.”
Now in her 30th year of doing hair, Pargee is focusing on mentoring others in the industry. She plans to stop entering competitions. in order to help others reach that high level of achievement.
She believes what has really set her apart from other stylists is her eye for what looks good in a fashion magazine, as opposed to a regular shot for hair.
“Hair can get really weird. I think the creative stuff is awesome, but I always feel like my picture should look like it has come out of a page of Vogue magazine, and not just a hair shot,” Pargee said.
“I think it should just be beautiful hair. Even if the colour is unusual, the photos should still look beautiful. You can make hair look crazy, but does it look pretty on the face of the model you’re putting it on? Does it suit her?”
These are the types of lessons she is now teaching to others through her salon and her Goldwell classes.
“I will never do anything else,” she said. “I don’t think many people can say they love coming to work everyday after 30 years. I’m really lucky that I get to say that.”
She also spends time giving back to her community, hosting two annual fundraisers for Ishtar House to help other families dealing with abusive relationships.
But more than anything, Pargee is enjoying her newfound freedom.
“I’m so independent and happy on my own,” she said. “I spent my entire life with a significant other, and I realize now that being on your own isn’t actually so bad. I can be in charge of my life.
“My life is mine, and I love it.”