Shellee Mendes, the only female African-American owner of a hair salon on Newbury Street, exudes glamour, with her flowing hair extensions, shiny pants, and eyelashes big as wings.
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler has come to her for his hair extensions, and she recently doubled the space at her Salon Monet, renting another floor and adding staff.
But the 48-year-old entrepreneur has another story to tell, one that few have heard. The Boston native got a chance to reboot her life nearly two decades ago thanks to a Quincy shelter that gave her and her two small children a place to live.
“It was the best break I ever had,” Mendes said recently. “I was able to save money, reestablish my credit, and come to Newbury Street.”
Mendes is now trying to help other struggling women to get the kind of support that she did. She is staging a gala show of hair styles, featuring several Newbury Street salons, and donating part of the proceeds to a daytime shelter in the Back Bay for poor and homeless women. The first Newbury Street Hair Show will be held Sunday at the Taj Hotel Boston. Mendes hopes the event raises as much as $10,000 for the Women’s Lunch Place.
“She is truly an American dream story, she really is,” said Cheryl McCallion, chief of anesthesiology at Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, a client and friend for more than a decade who drives from Dover to have her hair done by Mendes. “She wasn’t presented with a lot of opportunities yet she made it happen.”
Mendes grew up in public housing developments in Roslindale and Dorchester, and was one of five siblings raised by a single mother. After graduation from Hyde Park High School, she landed a job in John Hancock Insurance’s billing office. She had two children she was raising alone, but still dreamed of opening a salon. Her mother, a housekeeper, advised against it — she told her daughter to get a job that didn’t require her to be on her feet all day.
But Mendes said she didn’t see a future at John Hancock. She also had trouble paying for rent and child care on a salary of less than $300 a week, so she found part-time work washing hair at Vidal Sassoon’s Boston salon on Newbury Street.
It still wasn’t enough to cover her $1,100 rent and day care costs. She was close to eviction and moved into an emergency shelter run by Quincy Community Action Programs, a nonprofit that helps people in crisis. She qualified for one of the agency’s apartments and lived there rent-free for about eight months.
Kyle Martin, now Mendes’s husband, said he met her while she was living in Quincy. To the contractor who owned his own business, her long hours and sunny disposition left a big impression. She juggled her job at John Hancock with night classes at a Quincy beauty academy and the demands of two young children.
“She’d have to leave work, grab the kids, get them to a baby sitter, drop them off, go to school till 9 at night, and then pick them up,” Martin said. Then she would “start the day all over again.”
After 12 years at John Hancock, Mendes quit when she got her stylist’s license, taking jobs at Newbury Street salons.
Mendes said she built a loyal clientele by following another stylist’s advice: avoid the personal dramas that can unfold with co-workers and keep a steady stream of clients in your chair. Mendes’s reputation grew as an expert in installing hair extensions, a process that involves sewing expensive bands of human hair into horizontal braids tucked underneath a client’s natural hair.
The cost starts at $500 but can easily exceed thousands, depending on the size of the job. Mendes said she sometimes earned $6,000 or more a week. “It was a whole new world,” she said.
‘I love it and I’m not going anywhere. I’m standing my ground.’Shellee Mendes, who went from needing a place to live to owning a salon on Newbury Street
She saved and began to think about her own salon — down to the black-and-silver color scheme and the name, Salon Monet, after the artist, whose work she had once seen at the Museum of Fine Arts.
McCallion, her friend and client from Dover, recalled that Mendes initially considered renting less expensive space around the corner from Newbury Street. But McCallion told her, “If you get the salon around the corner, you’re always going to be Shellee’s salon-around-the-corner from Newbury Street. Take the risk. Take the leap.”
So Mendes did, funding the venture with savings and bank loans and opening 12 years ago. Her husband, who cosigned the loans, helped renovate the interior, which has black velvet drapes and light walls, framed in silver and black.
A diverse clientele with diverse hair types visits the salon. On one recent afternoon, Mendes wove long, dark extensions into a client’s hair, her nails clicking along as she braided, then threaded the hair in place.
Another client, Elizabeth Santos of Newton, a real estate agent, said she wanted her hair to look especially good for an important meeting. A client for more than a decade, the 38-year-old’s thick mane of long, wavy hair was tamed by Mendes into a shiny cascade of curls. “It’s really hard to find someone who knows your hair,” Santos said. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Many Newbury Street salons have come and gone since Mendes opened her business. She credits her success to the ability to style and treat anyone’s hair expertly, whether a rock star or her own mother (who is a client).
But she hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
At Sunday’s hair show, one of Mendes’s models will wear a style inspired by her teenage years, involving a top-of-the-head ponytail, wrapped in ribbon, culminating in a spray of loose hair from the top. It’s another statement that a woman who lived in public housing can make it in Boston’s toniest retail district.
“I love it and I’m not going anywhere,” Mendes said. “I’m standing my ground.”Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the significance of the salon. It is the only woman-owned African-American salon onNewbury Street.