Sarah Potempa had always known she wanted to be a hairstylist. As a kid growing up in a suburb of Chicago, she played a lot of sports, but on her teams, she was the official hair braider. At 15 years old, Potempa opened the Yellow Pages and searched for jobs at hair salons. “This one lady named Patty answered, and she owned her own hair salon,” Potempa says. “She had no employees, so she was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, cool. I could use some help. You want to come sweep the floors and clean up?’ So that was my first job ever.”
But Potempa learned more than just the art of sweeping. Her boss assigned her some interesting tasks, like reading Italian Vogue or watching videos about Vidal Sassoon. “She was one of these women who was so in love with her industry and the art of hairdressing, and she just wanted to teach me about it,” Potempa says. “I always had this passion for hairstyling, but my parents really wanted to make sure I had an education.”
When it came time for college, Potempa decided to apply to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. “It’s an independent study program,” Potempa says. “You don’t have majors, you have a concentration. You basically come up with whatever idea you want … I said to them, ‘I want to do hairstyling and business.’”
Potempa also chose NYU because of the school’s location. “I really fell in love with New York City and the excitement and the industry. So I thought, ‘I’ll go to college in a place that also has hairdressing and cool runway shows and photo shoots.’”
After graduating college and attending beauty school, Potempa was introduced to an agent who helped her land a job assisting renowned visual and hair artist Bob Recine. While working on an Italian Vogue shoot, Recine was trying to figure out how to make a model’s hair look like ram horns. “I was like, should I say something? Should I not say something? I don’t know. And at that moment I was like, ‘I do feel like I have something to offer.’”
So she decided to tell him. “I showed him a Dutch fishtail, added extensions in, wrapped it up, turned it to the side, and looked exactly like a ram horn,” Potempa said. “[Recine] was mind-blown!” The result? Potempa got the Vogue credit, and the next day, she was signed as an artist. “I took a risk and I was like, ‘Let me show you something.’ I know my talent and my love, and it turned into this massive opportunity.”
As a celebrity hairstylist, Potempa’s worked with many amazing clients such as Lea Michele, Emily Blunt, Reese Witherspoon, and more. “So many incredible fond memories, so many celebrities that have been so creative and really cool to collaborate with,” Potempa says. “I did the cover of [Michele’s] holiday album, and that was very iconic. She had this beautiful red dress. She had big, gorgeous waves for that.”
As Potempa continued to work as a stylist, she realized there was a hole in the market. She remembers thinking, “It would be really cool if there was a curling iron that you could do on yourself,” she says. “I loved the style of it being wrapped upside down, but I realized it hurts you, hurts your shoulder — it’s not easy.”
After an endless amount of brainstorming, she had a solution. “I went through this process, sketched out the idea, and I literally ended up making a prototype,” Potempa said. “I called it the Beachwaver, because everyone always asked, ‘How do you get a beachy wave?’”
But the Beachwaver’s journey was not an easy one. Potempa was met with a lot of challenges, but luckily, she had the support of her sisters, Erin and Emily. Together, they decided that they would make the prototype themselves. “You’re going to have to do so many jobs you’ve never done before,” Potempa says. “You’re going to have to learn the jobs.” And learn they did. Coding, 3D printing, Adobe Illustrator — the list goes on. They also hired freelance engineers to make the prototype. “We had two prototypes made,” Potempa says. “My sister, Emily, was the first person to ever try it. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is cool!’” The Beachwaver hit the market in 2012, and since, it’s amassed a cult-like following, the latest of which can be seen on TikTok. The #beachwaver hashtag has almost 34,000 posts, and the brand itself has over 1 million followers on the platform.
Considering Potempa is a multihyphenate, as an entrepreneur and hairstylist, a day in her life isn’t ever the same. “Talking to our incredible team, coming up with concepts, ideas, or events. It could be writing an article or going on camera, but it is wild. Every day is different,” she says.
Creating content is another part of Potempa’s work. Her personal TikTok, @sarahpotempahair, has over 1.5 million followers, and it’s all about the art of hairdressing. One of her most recent viral moments was the TikTok Live she did on Black Friday, where she packed products in the warehouse — the Live ended with 45 million likes. “My day-to-day could be planning those kinds of wild viral shows, or it could be creating content,” Potempa says. “I love my hair-as-art pages, so I often will be in the studio. I do a lot of intricate basket weaving with braiding, kind of bringing it back to my love of hairdressing when I was a teenager.”
Sharing her love for hair is something Potempa is excited to keep doing in 2024. “I think this year, people are going to learn about products and not feel overwhelmed by routine,” Potempa says. “There’s a lot of mystery, so I’m hoping to demystify haircare and have people understand when and how to use products. I would definitely encourage a lot of people to tap into educational shows for that reason because I personally work with our chemists, and that’s one of my favorite things that I do.”
In the end, Potempa is all about hair creativity and education. “There’s so much inspiration that comes from so many different cultures and communities. Everyone has a right to enjoy their own unique fashion, style, or whatever you want,” she says. “Be your own icon.”