Our newest Nails of New York features the incredible hair stylist and inspiring entrepreneur Sarah Potempa, the inventor of the best-selling Beachwaver curling iron. Sarah charms celebrity clients, like Lea Michele (who she brought to Paintbox for a mani date!), Emily Blunt, Busy Phillips, and Camila Cabello, with her generous spirit and midwestern work ethic. Read more to learn her magical story of how she created the Beachwaver, why she has swears by gel manicures (and has worn them straight for six years), and how she cherishes a special, bonding memory of her grandma teaching her to paint her nails.
Tell us about your journey to hair. How did you get into styling?
I've always loved hair. Even at a very young age, I was super into braids for sports and styling my sister like Marilyn Monroe. We even brought over lamps for a photo shoot! Then when I was 15 years old, I got a job as a shampoo girl in Mundelein, Illinois, and my boss Patty was very inspiring. My first day she had me read Italian Vogue, French Vogue, and W, and she explained to me that the first pages are photo shoots in New York City. From that moment on, my dream was to move to NYC and style hair. I went to NYU for college and then worked at Prive Salon in Soho to kickstart my career.
When did you get the idea for the Beachwaver?
I had a friend introduce me to the Wall Group agency, which still is my current agency after 17 years, and then I started to assist the brilliant Bob Recine, who taught me about the beauty and art of hair and Danilo, who taught me about the structure of hairdressing. Both stylists were major inspirations. And then one day I was introduced to Procter & Gamble and started to work with Aussie for the next ten years. I loved teaching editors how to do their own hair and chatting with them about science, formulations, and styling. The one question I always got was: "How do you create a beachy wave?" And one day I was trying to tell an editor to turn a curling iron upside down, wrap it away from her face, use a glove, etc., and I thought there has to be an easier, less complicated way. I got off the phone and sketched out the idea for the Beachwaver, a curling iron that rotates away from your face while making a beautiful, long pattern for a stunning wave. From there, my sister quit her job as a corporate lawyer, and we started our company eight years ago. We got a utility patent for the engineering and then won many innovation awards (Allure, Good Housekeeping to name a few). But what's most rewarding is that we have changed our clients' lives by saving them time and making getting gorgeous in the morning so much easier. Now, we're launching products next year that are vegan, cruelty-free, and paraben-free, and are formulated with glucose (derived from sugar cane) to help rebuild your hair back to its virgin strength. We're also working with female surfers at this year's Beachwaver Maui Pro to celebrate women's empowerment and female athletes that are changing the world–one of the women is the first-ever female commentator for surfing.
What are you most excited about in the hair space right now?
I'm psyched that clients are now really starting to understand ingredients by knowing the formulas. Our goal is for people to really understand real active ingredients and how they can restore your hair. Hair can sometimes be a mystery, but it's now going in the route of skincare and is about products that can change your life and make you feel good. It's not about sexy models with perfect hair anymore, and that's exciting.
What's your earliest nail memory?
My grandma taught me how to paint my nails when I was about ten years old, and it's such a powerful memory for me. She was so specific with the red polish and taught me how to paint up the middle and then the sides with the brush flat. Beauty gives you those lasting memories and is such a bonding moment for me. And then my other significant memory is the first time I tried gels. I was going on QVC and got hot pink gels in 2012. Since then, I've only taken a break from gels twice for a couple of days. I'm obsessed. I feel super clean and put together when I'm working with celebrities, and I love that they don't chip with water and styling hair.
How does your manicure make you feel?
How did you pick your design?
I wanted something to match our new Great Barrier Heat Protectant Hairspray, which launches in the December Birchbox. Paintbox Lead Artist Anna Shinder and I loved the idea of playing off the pinks, so we picked subtle shades inspired by a rosy sky and sunset.
How do you use your nails as a form of self-expression?
I'm just obsessed with colors and gels! I've noticed that if I'm on tour with Camila Cabello, I'll go more rocker with grays and bolder shades. If I'm doing branded events with the Beachwaver, I'll do hot pinks. I also change my nails seasonally–aquas for spring break, then fall trends, and deep reds for winter. I also love going to the salon with my friends like Lea Michele, my family, and even my five-year-old daughter. It's such a bonding experience!
What does a day-in-life look like?
Oh, it's crazy! I've been on six flights in the last week. I was in Portugal speaking to 100 hair stylists and then flew to NYC to style Emily Blunt's hair. After that, I flew back to Illinois for meetings with my 50-person office about creative, packaging design, and formulations. Then, I flew to California to do a shoot with surfers and lastly back home for the weekend to hang with my kids. My life is always a mixture of running a business, raising two kids, styling hair for celebrities. My goal is to have fun and be creative while balancing all of those things.
What's been the proudest or most memorable moment of your career?
Definitely inventing the Beachwaver! And then also styling hair for the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was very memorable–not for just styling hair, but I actually had Bella Hadid and many other models use the curling iron to style their own hair. It made everything super relatable, and the video of the angels curling hair was the most viewed video Victoria's Secret has ever posted on Instagram.
What inspires you?
Colors in nature really inspire me. And my family and my sisters–the fact that my sister has four children, runs a business, and travels the world motivates me. My dad was a national champion football player and on the cover of Sports Illustrated–he's a very inspirational person and taught us through sports that we could do anything, which motivated us to think big and say, "Sure, we can sell products around the world!" Also, my husband is so supportive and always encourages me to not give up and to go for my dreams.
Three things you're into right now?
My new Paintbox nails. My pink hair. Women's empowerment.