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Transforming beauty and identity: Mayline Manivong

Mayline Manivong

Maybe it’s your hair, maybe it’s Mayline. Most likely it’s Mayline.

As I rushed across a crowded Nicollet Mall to the cozy Studio 52 hair salon, the first thing Mayline Manivong wanted to do was my hair. “Why…do I look that bad?” I was embarrassed for the poor excuse of a hairdo which looked like a bird’s nest on top of my head. “Let me cut and style it. I need to warm up to you!”, she insists. I plop myself down in her chair and we chit chat. “I’ve never done an interview. I’m a little nervous”, she tells me. With each strand of my hair meeting the shears, I felt her nervousness shed.

For over 20 years, Mayline has been passionate about hair. Some say her hands are like magic to their hair nightmares. “What I love about my job is I always make my clients look better than when they came in. Not just better, but transformed”. A true Lao at heart, Mayline is a lumvong (Lao dance) fanatic, who enjoys kicking it with her party-going elders on the weekends and cooking up Lao staples at home with her friends. We talk about growing up in Minnesota, her journey, and becoming one of the most well-known Lao American hairstylists in the Twin Cities.

Mayline Manivong at Studio 52 Hair Salon in Minneapolis

Mayline Manivong at Studio 52 Hair Salon

Tell me about your journey to America.

I was almost 11-years-old when we came in 1981. I was born in Houa Xai in Bokeo. Dad is from Vientiane and mom is from Hongsa in Xayaburi. There were four of us kids. Dad was a great carpenter and handyman. They wanted him to work in Northern Laos and mom said she couldn’t do it alone. We found our way to Thailand to seek refuge. We started out in South Minneapolis in a one-bedroom apartment with six of us together.

How was it growing up in Minnesota?

I remember telling my mom, “It’s so cold! We’re going to die!”

I was skeptical of America. I didn’t speak English, of course.  So I hung out a lot with the Lao community and by myself. I got teased by the boys a lot, so growing up, the majority of my friends were girls.

On my first day of school, I was put in 6th grade. I was so scared. I was lost and didn’t know where the bus was. It was a nightmare for me because I didn’t know how to get around. I only knew how to get home because I saw someone with the same puffy winter jacket that the United Nations gave us. I was so relieved to be able to find my way back home.

I thought going to school was to just be able to get fed and go home. We had nothing back then. My parents would tell us to do homework, but they couldn’t help us with it.

What is your passion? How did you decide to get into the beauty industry? 

I love making people look better. There was a Lao grocery store with an attached salon to it in South Minneapolis. I hung out there after school, to watch the women cut hair. It was called Ket Salon. Since I was 5-years-old, mom would always ask me to put rollers in her hair. It became a calling for me. Plus, we didn’t have many toys growing up, so I was pretty creative with my hands. I would gather kids around and play with their hair.

What does being Lao American mean to you?

I’m just as Lao as I was then as a child. I work and live like an American, but when I go home, I eat my sticky rice and badak. I always crave Lao food. I used to actually hate lumvong, but now I enjoy it a lot. Lumvong is my absolute favorite thing. I just go with the music.

What would you tell others getting into the beauty industry?

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. It’s the best way to learn. Learn as much as you can.

How was the experience of your first time back to Laos?

It was 1991. It was depressing. Everything seemed so small. The roads and alleys were tiny. Everything shrank.

Do you have a favorite memory from your first few years in America?

I loved to swim in Lake Nokomis and do picnics at the park and rollerskate on Sundays. There was a man named Roy, who lived in our neighborhood and he gathered the youth and brought us to a big garden to teach us how to grow vegetables. It was an all-day event. It kept us out of trouble, because there was nothing else to do.

What is the American Dream to you?

I didn’t have an American Dream. When I was a child, I dreamt of something like America, where there were no dirt roads, everything looked completely developed. I like living in the states because it means I have the freedom of expression and I can be who I want to be. I’m comfortable in my own skin. Living the American Dream means I don’t have to be suppressed anymore. I’m happy where I am because this work allows for me to be who I am, on my own terms.

Growing up, I was fascinated with beautiful women, because I wanted to be a woman. When I was young, I was afraid of people finding out. I had a fear of rejection, so I tried to suppress it and put up a flag saying I’m a man. By the age of 21, my friend and I went to Thailand to get gender re-assignment. We gave each other new names and started new together.

Mayline Manivong

Mayline Manivong

Anything you forgot to share? 

I hope that others like me, who are also transgender, can go wherever they want in this world without being afraid of who they are. There are places I would love to travel to, but I can’t because of who I am.

Studio 52 Hair Salon is located at 52 South 9th Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402

-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, editor@littlelaos.org

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