From self-taught haircutter to a licensed barber, Vanessa Barner has pushed against stereotyping for more than 20 years.
Barner was introduced to cutting hair at the age of 17 after her former husband refused to go to a barber and asked her to take care of his locks. Soon after, family and friends flocked to her for their haircuts, some paying with Sunday dinners.
After a divorce at the age of 36, with two sons to raise, Barner decided she wanted to pursue a career as a licensed barber. Instead of making a 30-minute commute from Bearden, her hometown, to Camden for beauty college, Barner wanted to stick strictly to doing hair and not the extras — makeup, manicures and pedicures. Nine months filled with hour-and-a-half commutes to Arkansas College of Barbering & Hair Design in North Little Rock led to a barbering license.
“I graduated at the top of my class. I was the second oldest in college at the time. There was a man that started that was older than me. In less than a month, I went from beginner to senior haircutter,” Barner said.
Starting up her first barber shop, Barner worked out of her enclosed carport attached to her house in Bearden. Barner said several older men refused to come to her shop, saying, “Females can’t be barbers. It takes a man to be a barber.” She just asked them to give her a try.
“The thing about cutting hair in Bearden is it is such a small town. I was divorced and a single mother. A lot of the women wouldn’t let their husbands come to me because I was single and the barbershop was in my home. I had a hard time getting my shop started,” Barner said.
Through a bottle of wine and a haircut, Barner met her husband of 21 years.
While still working to acquire her license, her now-husband asked her for a haircut and showed up to her house with a bottle of wine.
“I don’t drink wine and I’ve never drank wine before. He insisted that I drank wine while I cut his hair. I asked him, ‘Are you serious.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it will help relax you.’ So we poured the wine and I started sipping the wine. It took me an hour to cut his hair because we kept sipping wine and talking. I’ve never taken that long on a man’s haircut. But after it was over with, he said that was the best haircut he’s ever had. I’ve been cutting his hair ever since,” Barner said.
A move to Hot Springs provided her the opportunity to work in a beauty salon on Richard Street. However, her unhappiness at the salon led her to Vanessa Barner cutting a customer’s hair.
Rosemary Davis’ shop. After meeting Rosemary and giving her a haircut, she was informed to show up to work the next day at 7 a.m.
“I walked in at 7 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., she said looked at me and said, ‘Here’s my book. Customers are all lined up. They will show up. When they show up, introduce yourself. Tell them that you can do their hair. And, if they decide they don’t want you to do their hair tell them Rosie will be back tomorrow.’ She walks out … walks out of the shop and leaves it for me to do all myself,” Barner said.
Only two of Rosie’s customers waited until she returned the next day. Since that day on Nov. 1, 21 years ago, Barner has been at the same spot, 622B Carpenter Dam Road. Working 13 months together with Barner, Rosie retired. She later offered to sell the shop to Barner and it is now Vanessa’s Barber Shop.
“I tell people, ‘When you walk out that door, that is my haircut that you are walking around with. That is my advertisement.’ I work in the salon by myself so I know anybody that leaves here, that is my name on their head. I try to listen to people. I consider my clients as family. When I lose one, it is like losing family,” Barner said.
Barner will be 65 next year and has no intentions on retiring any time soon. She said she’ll continue as long as she has customers who want her to cut their hair. “People ask me, ‘Vanessa, when are you going to retire?’ My answer I say is, ‘God put me here. I know that he is the one that put me in this spot on this corner. When God tells me it’s time for me to leave, he’ll let me know,’” Barner said.