Cosmetologists and esthetists, like those being trained at Seattle's Greenwood Academy of Hair, rank somewhere between parents and lovers among the world's most dedicated validators and confidants.

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That business about beauty being in the eye of the beholder isn’t entirely right.

It’s also in the eyes and hands of hairdressers and makeup artists and skin specialists, your best friends in vanity.

Cosmetologists and esthetists, as skin-care providers are called, rank somewhere between parents and lovers among the world’s most dedicated validators and confidants.

From them we get physical intimacy and an admiring voice of authority that raves, “Damn, you look good! And I’m the reason why.”

Inside Seattle’s Greenwood Academy of Hair, 70 or so students at any given time are learning this age-old sorcery, which combines nurturing hair and skin with lifting egos.

The academy on North 85th Street is the smallest of Seattle’s three main training salons — Gene Juarez and Gary Manuel being the two others. But it’s also a Greenwood neighborhood institution, prominently positioned in an old storefront on a strip dotted with small shops, ethnic restaurants, taverns and cafes.

The school’s salon floor buzzes with a cross-section of the surrounding district in search of a low-cost cut or styling. Young rockers sporting the latest spiky hairdos strike quite a contrast to seniors who’ve been coming in for years to freshen up their perms.

It’s a busy but genteel place, where the receptionists beckon students to their appointments with a classy, “You have a guest.”

The academy itself underwent an extreme makeover this year after hairstylist Steven Cordell and client Patty Davis took a friendship forged in front of a salon mirror to a new level last fall by purchasing the venerable but run-down institution as an investment.

Cordell, a hairstylist who runs Steven Cole Salon a half-block away from the academy and who’s also a carpenter, took down walls, peeled duct tape off the bedraggled countertops and painted the place a cool palette of colors. Davis, a vice president at Nootka Hotels, which runs two properties in the University District, got the bright, Ikea-style office furniture on craigslist.

Cordell is the chatty one, the idea man, Davis the grounded voice of reason. With their complementary personalities, they’ve made the academy look and feel fresh again. Theirs is a story of can-do entrepreneurship that has always defined Seattle. But their focus is a class of professionals who fly under the radar in a local job market that often seems dominated by tech workers.

Many possess a potentially lucrative skill set but not a defined career path. High-school counselors are unlikely to suggest “beautician” as an ideal job choice, steering most kids instead to professions that require four-year college degrees. But that’s not a good fit for everyone.

The hair academy and other vocational schools help fill the void, giving purpose and marketability to what, for some students, comes naturally.

It doesn’t hurt that giving someone a good hair day never goes out of fashion, even in tough economic times. And fortunately for people who go into this field, you can’t outsource a spin in the barber’s chair.

HAIR CARE and makeup are as ancient as the Egyptians’ green malachite eyeshadow, red ocher blush and donkey’s-hoof baldness remedies, exercises in both self-preservation and self-absorption, both basic necessities and total luxuries.

Feeling special has understandable appeal, leading some to pay hundreds of dollars for an experience that’ll have to be repeated in a matter of days.

A new ‘do from über-stylist Rodger Azadganian, founder of Seven salons in Bellevue and Seattle, will set you back $200. But as Cordell says, “It’s a cheap facelift.”

Making someone feel special has its rewards, too. The validation works both ways.

“When you nail it,” Cordell says of executing a great hairstyle, “it feels good.”

And the bond between beautifier and beautified crosses all social boundaries. It’s no fluke that beauty parlors and spas are as much a part of the urban landscape as coffee shops and gas stations, accounting for more than $613 million in revenues last year in this state, up from $568 million the year before. More beauty workers are coming on line every day. Between 2005 and the middle of this year, Washington state approved licenses for more than 12,200 barbers, cosmetologists, estheticians and manicurists.

With so much competition, students at the Greenwood Academy learn not just how to set hair, treat skin and mix dyes. The most successful will master the art, science and business of personal chemistry.

With lots of asymmetric cuts, dramatic upsweeps and offbeat color treatments (like turf-green highlights), the students are walking billboards for the school. Most attend daytime classes, and they include a mix of fresh 20-somethings and older workers making a career shift. Some have aspired to haircare and makeup their whole lives, but others have just discovered they have a knack for it and see potential in the beauty business rather than white-collar or industrial jobs. Because the academy is the only one in Seattle offering night classes, it opens up options to more students, especially those with full-time jobs.

In general, this is a creative crowd that favors independence and individual expression over the structure and conformity of an office.

When Clio Herrera dropped out of Summit K-12 School in Seattle just a month into her junior year, her mom gave her an ultimatum: Get back in school or get a job.

The possibilities ran through Herrera’s head. In fact, her hair presented a neat option. She had an artistic bent, always styling her own hair, which she colored a different tint nearly every day. She served as a free-of-charge hairdresser for family and friends, too.

“Everyone I know is either a tattoo artist or a hairstylist or musician,” she says.

Art school was too expensive, but Herrera could afford classes at the Greenwood Academy, where tuition is $13,000 for the required 1,600 hours of cosmetology training and $8,500 for the 700-hour esthetics program. Federal financial aid and private career-training loans are available for those who qualify, and many do, co-owner Davis says. The academy also offers interest-free, in-house loans with monthly payment plans.

Herrera took her high-school-diploma equivalency exam, which she aced, and enrolled at the academy last year. “This is kind of like school and a job,” Herrera says.

With babyish full cheeks and a calming manner offset by an edgy pair of Converse lace-ups, Herrera was one of this spring’s most promising students. Cordell and Davis even asked her to style their hair. They don’t give out gold stars, but if they want you to be their hairstylist, you can count that as a sign of high regard.

Herrera is typical of the younger students who train here. Many are full of ideas and talent, but sell themselves short, hesitating to capitalize on their potential.

Herrera says she was an avid artist but wound up giving away most of her work rather than trying to sell it. But she didn’t want for ambition at the academy. She made a habit of showing up to class 45 minutes early each morning and finished the program this summer. The academy classes put terms and formal procedures to things she learned intuitively as a child, she says. “Color makes sense to me, and haircutting makes sense to me because I’m really good at math. There’s a lot of math and chemistry here.”

And then there’s the social alchemy that binds hairstylist to client, a talent that’s hard to teach but essential to building a loyal client base.

“You have to be a conversationalist in this job,” says Cordell. “It’s almost like free therapy. A lot of people don’t have anybody to talk to.”

Sometimes an affable student with only average styling skills receives lots of repeat customers, while less approachable but more talented ones go without.

“There’s a language of love per client,” says instructor Sarah “Boo” Brantley, who teaches hair-care theory in a tiny room beside the main salon. Students need to be fluent and adaptive. And while they’re taught not to talk about sex, religion or politics, a basic awareness of the world is important.

Herrera picked up on the social aspects of her chosen profession — the uttered desires, the insecurities, the gossip — on the salon floor.

“Some people sit down and tell you their life stories, and I’m like, whoa,” she says. When they veer into controversial stuff, “You just have to steer them away.”

Davis says it’s also important for students to present themselves in a professional way, to smile and make eye contact when shaking a client’s hand, to be tactful when giving style advice. She’s been shocked to discover that many of the students lack those skills in the beginning.

Herrera, now 18, plans to take what she learned and join a salon in Seattle. She’s been mentally preparing herself for the uphill career climb in this fiercely competitive industry, where all those intangibles, like a winning aura, carry disproportionate weight.

“I figure when you get out there, you’re not going to have a huge clientele right off the bat,” she says. “For the first couple of years, I’m more than likely going to be poor.”

The academy’s hair-color specialist, Martin Diveley, says starting annual pay at a mainstream shop like Great Clips can be low, by Seattle standards — around $30,000. A coveted position at a high-end downtown salon can fetch a salary of $50,000 to $70,000, putting expert hairstylists on a par with other middle-class careers such as teaching and police work, provided a graduate can endure months of low-paid apprenticeships to gain experience.

Diveley says 98 percent of the academy’s students find a position of some kind by the time they graduate.

Cordell says some salons in the city hire graduates only from the Greenwood Academy because of the variety of specialty skills taught there, such as a sugar-based hair-removal technique.

That reputation helped lead Mary Jo Wagner to the academy’s esthetics program. Wagner, a 36-year-old single mom who commuted to the school from her home in Lynnwood, graduated July 1. She represents a sizable portion of the academy’s students who already have careers but are looking to make a change. She used to work at Nordstrom as a marketing coordinator for a cosmetics line, which taught her all about the importance of building rapport with customers.

Six years ago, she moved to Minnesota and did custom drapes for interior designers. That was fine for a while, but when Wagner moved back to Seattle in December, she turned again to the beauty industry.

“I miss that contact with people,” she says. In the esthetics field, “you have much more physical contact with the client, touching the skin, massaging it, relating skin to a person’s overall health. . . It’s really digging in and getting to know your client.”

“SIR ISAAC Newton discovered gravity,” Brantley declares to her theory students in her Alabama drawl. “Today you just learned how to defy it.”

Next to bins full of hair rollers in the classroom are rows of mannequin heads implanted with human hair for students to practice on. Brantley props hers on a camera tripod and grabs a comb to demonstrate how to tease out a wild French lace bouffant.

“You can make a woman with four hairs on her head look like she has a mane,” she says, pausing for effect, “with the right technique.”

“We’re training their neuropathways,” she says later, in essence practicing techniques so often that a student can perform them almost without thinking.

Brantley’s classes play out like a stage show, with techniques, chemistry equations, pop-culture asides and historical tidbits thrown in for context: “Some say what we do isn’t rocket science,” Brantley tells the class during a lesson on the chemicals that affect hair color and form. “Well, what’s in rocket fuel? Hydrogen peroxide.”

Brantley favors the British method of hairstyling, which requires the stylist to section a client’s hair in a grid pattern. Precise parting and cutting are essential. The idea is to build the hairdo one step at a time, giving the hairstyle structure. It’s helpful for teaching students the basics.

“A formal look has a lot of stuff going on that you do not see,” she tells the class. “We want to keep it that way.”

“Now, how many of ya’ll have seen ‘Absolutely Fabulous’? ” With another mannequin, a few bobby pins and a brush, she starts in on the loose, beehive-like up-do similar to one worn by a character in the British comedy series, creating a crosshatch of hair up the back of the head to support a lofty crown. The hair is swept at an all-important 45-degree angle, which emphasizes the angle of the human jaw line.

Her lesson encompasses the invention of the bobby pin in the late 1880s, the popularity of the bob hairdo in the 1920s and personal digressions inspired by her Southern roots to stress the cultural importance of hair care.

“In the South, you were not a hairdresser unless you went to the funeral home and did your clients’ hair when they died,” Brantley says. “I did my grandmother’s hair when she died.”

With the wrist action of a graffiti artist, she applies a layer of hairspray to her finished ‘do, then mashes the top to loosen it further, creating a racier, post-party look.

“She’s a Gibson Girl,” Brantley says lustily, referring to Charles Dana Gibson’s hugely popular turn-of-the-last-century pinup images of buxom women with piled-high hair and free spirits.

Brantley intends for her little social histories to show that hair and hairstyling are symbols not just of personal identity but of social change. “Hair’s such an integral part of our culture,” she will say. “Even making fun of mullets tells you something about society.”

In class, she dispenses this wisdom with the forthright common sense worthy of “Steel Magnolias.”

“There are two things you don’t molest on a woman — her hair and her pocketbook . . . Those are holy and sacred.”

It’s a lesson Bill Bates has learned quickly since enrolling in night classes earlier this year. Working as a truck-loader at a produce warehouse, where he pulls the graveyard shift five days a week, he wasn’t really primed on the finer points of beauty.

The 25-year-old from Ballard is one of the school’s few male students.

On one hand, this is an advantage: “The teachers love it because I’m very malleable,” he says. “I don’t have to be broken of bad habits — like using your teeth to open bobby pins.”

On the other hand: “I was intimidated for the first three weeks. The first time I picked up a curling iron was at the academy. I was like, ‘I know what this is, but I don’t know how to use it!’ “

Because he wants to succeed, he still asks instructors to check his work. Bates says he’s financially comfortable as a single guy living in a condo he inherited. But he’s tired of the heavy lifting, wages that maxed out at $14.50 an hour and some warehouse employees who tease that he’s not fit to do anything but load trucks. He’s trying to back out of a career dead-end.

Bates plans to graduate on Jan. 25, 2010. He could even shoot for the exact time, as “graduation” happens the minute a student completes the required training hours. Applause and the giving of balloons often ensue.

Bates will just have to deal with coming home from work at 5:30 a.m., sleeping until it’s time for class at 5 p.m., then heading to the warehouse at 9.

“I’m sucking it up till graduation,” he says. “Every time things get rough, I say to myself: ‘Jan. 25, 2010.’ “

CORDELL POPS into theory class one afternoon to demonstrate a bob haircut on a live model.

With confident snips and deft finger action, Cordell flamboyantly zips through the haircut the way Edward Scissorhands might take down a hedgerow. This, he says, is the flashier, more free-flowing French haircutting method. The idea is to expose his students to this and the British method, giving them a résumé advantage when applying for jobs.

But there’s a practical side to working so quickly. Assuming you charge $32 per client, every 15 minutes lost on a haircut is like losing $6,500 in pay each year, he says.

At the hair academy, you get a crash course in business management as well.

After the demonstration class, Brantley became giddy talking about people in history who made their fortunes selling the idea of beauty and the pastes, creams and liquids that helped make it happen. She noted that Madame C.J. Walker became the nation’s first black female millionaire a century ago by sending sales reps door-to-door.

“It only takes the tiniest thing for a student to say, ‘OK, I’m not cut out for this,’ but look at what they’ve done,” Brantley says, scanning a classroom full of braided hairdos done by her students. “They’re all cut out for this.”

“They’re laymen when they come in here,” Brantley says. “They’re experts when they go out on that floor.”

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.