After years of correspondence, stylist Jeremy Pugh meets his mentor Candy Shaw for the first...

After years of correspondence, stylist Jeremy Pugh meets his mentor Candy Shaw for the first time at the President's Party at the America's Beauty Show in Chicago. 

“Mentoring is in my DNA,” says Candy Shaw. The daughter of the late hair icon Jamison Shaw and niece of Don Shaw, another industry legend, Candy Shaw has been mentored all her life and continues the family tradition with her son, Jamison Shaw Codner, who works alongside her at her Atlanta salon, Jamison Shaw Hairdressers. Shaw also is the founder of highlighting lifestyle brand Sunlights and had been influential in the salon industry for many years when she received a letter from a prison inmate, a hairstylist hopeful named Jeremy Pugh.

It wasn’t the first time someone in jail had written to Shaw, and she wasn’t the only salon pro this particular prisoner had contacted. But something took hold, and one letter turned into a correspondence that led to a mentorship that has become a friendship with mutual professional respect. Pugh credits Shaw with helping him gain confidence to be the social media phenomenon he is today, with 100,000 TikTok followers.

But without some persistence on Pugh’s part, this heartwarming story may never have been written.

“We weren’t allowed internet access,” Pugh recalls about his incarceration. “However, we were permitted to receive magazines directly from a publisher. I wrote to the editor of MODERN SALON asking to somehow subscribe via snail mail. A month later I received a year’s worth of back issues!” It was within those magazine pages that Pugh became acquainted with the stellar reputation of Candy Shaw.

Soul of a Hairdresser

Pugh’s interest in hairdressing dates back to his childhood, when he would hang out at his grandmother’s beauty salon.

“I knew early on that this was my home and these were my people,” he recalls. But his path to styling hair wouldn’t be a straight shot. Because of his drinking problem, Pugh was let go from his job at a tanning salon. After a dispute over the amount of his final paycheck, Pugh used his store key to let himself into the salon in the middle of the night and empty the safe.

Pivot Point CEO Robert Passage and Jeremy Pugh.

Pivot Point CEO Robert Passage and Jeremy Pugh. 

“This decision would change the trajectory of my life,” he laments. “I was sentenced to eight years in prison for burglary.”

At the Colorado prison where Pugh was incarcerated, inmates were permitted to enroll in education. Pugh was thrilled to see that the prison had a cosmetology program, accredited through Pueblo Community College.

“I knew I didn’t want to waste this amazing opportunity of a free education,” he remembers. “Hairstyling gave me hope that I could live a meaningful life beyond my alcoholism. It meant so much more to me than just learning how to do good hair; it meant the possibility of a future.”

No Sharp Objects

The prison supplied a full salon with coursework designed to meet Milady standards. The cosmetology students attended class Monday through Friday; when one student would graduate or leave prison, a new student would be admitted. There was a teacher on hand, but the students went at their own pace.

Candy Shaw's multiple letters to Jeremy while he was in prison offered the encouragement,...

Candy Shaw's multiple letters to Jeremy while he was in prison offered the encouragement, inspiration and advice to help him on his path to becoming a hairdresser. 

“Each day it was up to us to either attend to book work or practice a technique of our choosing on a mannequin head,” Pugh explains. “We weren’t provided a kit when we joined—they couldn’t allow things like shears in a prison for obvious reasons—and everything we used was kept securely locked in metal cages. Every tool, brush, and comb had to be signed out and then back in.”

The restrictions and general lack of educational support dampened Pugh’s enthusiasm for his training but not for his career. He still aimed to become, as he says, “the best hairdresser that ever lived.” He just had to figure out a way to get the information, insight, and encouragement he needed. He found his solution in the MODERN SALON issues he read cover to cover.

Ask the Experts

Pugh learned a lot about the industry from the articles he read in MODERN. Despite his forced break from the Internet, he saw that social media was providing hair pros with a new opportunity to display their talents and connect with clients. As he noted the names of people in the industry he wanted to follow, he knew that for the time being “following” would have to be through an old-fashioned, penpal type of arrangement. He compiled a list of contacts and wrote to 376 people, companies, and salons. He knows that exact number because, as a highly organized person with time on his hands, he kept a mail log.

An incredibly organized person, Jeremy kept a daily log, recording every letter he received from...

An incredibly organized person, Jeremy kept a daily log, recording every letter he received from someone in the industry.

“I wanted to do great things, and I knew burnout in our industry is common,” Pugh says. “So I set out asking the legends in our industry how they stay inspired and what they’d recommend I not do. Basically, I just begged for advice.”

In return for his efforts, Pugh heard back from about 20 industry experts, including Candy Shaw, who feels more should have responded. Some may have had their letters returned, Pugh theorizes, because  markers, highlighters and stickers weren’t permitted.

“Jeremy’s letter was so well written, and I was quite excited to write him back,” Shaw remembers. “I knew right away that ‘grace’ dictated that this guy receive forgiveness and a second chance. His passion for hairdressing was so apparent. I felt as though I had a chance to make a difference in his life.”

Candy + Jeremy Make Magic

Shaw couldn’t have known then that the difference would be truly life-defining for her new friend.

“I'll never forget the first time I read about Candy in MODERN SALON,” Pugh says. “The magazine ran a piece about a panel called ‘The Leading Ladies’ with Candy and other women in the industry. Then when I turned the page, she was in the next article, too. I thought to myself, “Who is this Sunlights lady? I had dreams of being a platform artist, so I wrote to Candy to hear tales from the show floor and the show stage.”

Candy Shaw and Jeremy Pugh, from penpals to in-person friends.

Candy Shaw and Jeremy Pugh, from penpals to in-person friends. 

With Pugh’s goal of educating on platform in mind, Shaw began writing him from her travels, typically while sitting on planes. He’d write back, and that’s how they communicated over the following two years. In addition, Pugh sent Shaw a Christmas gift, and everyone on Shaw’s salon team sent Pugh a card on his birthday.

“My approach was to write Jeremy as if I were journaling my life on the road,” Shaw says. “I told him about everything that was happening in real time. I also reached out to Pivot Point CEO Robert Passage and Winn Claybaugh, dean of the Paul Mitchell Schools, to help get Jeremy the books and tools he needed during his incarceration. Under prison regulations, the materials had to come directly from a company or a school. Robert and Winn were amazing and both very eager to help.”

Pugh asked Shaw to send him books on social media, which he devoured. He intuitively understood that social media would open doors that didn’t even exist before his incarceration.

“Imagine someone reading a book on how to use Instagram!” he exclaims.

When the pandemic hit, Pugh was released a few months early because his crime was nonviolent. At age 30, he finally obtained his cosmetology license. By then, he’d also taught himself all about this new online marketing thing he thought might get him somewhere.

From Penpals to In-Person Friends

Once out in the world again, Pugh got back online to email the people who had been helping him.

“I thanked everyone who had sent tools or advice or had just taken time to write me back, because I think people don’t realize what that really meant to me,” Pugh notes. “When I was in the darkest moment in my life with no hope and no clue how was I going to turn my entire life around, those letters brought me hope. I’ll never forget that, and I mean never.”

Shaw and Pugh arranged to meet in person for the first time at the 2023 America’s Beauty Show (ABS) in Chicago. While the meet-up was monumental for them in some ways, they both say it seemed like the natural next step after their candid exchange of letters.

“It felt as if I were meeting an old friend,” Shaw reports. “It was exhilarating for both of us! I introduced him to Sam Villa, Sonya Dove, Ted Gibson, Jason Backe, George Alderette, Robert Passage, and many others. I told them the abbreviated story, and some of them even shed tears. Not one judged him for his mistakes; instead they each applauded him for overcoming adversity.”

At the Ulta Beauty Show at ABS, Jeremy gets a special welcome from Sonya Dove.

At the Ulta Beauty Show at ABS, Jeremy gets a special welcome from Sonya Dove. 

This was not only Pugh’s first time meeting his mentor but his first hair show as well.

“I may not go next year, because nothing will top this year—kidding!” he laughs. “It will live in history as the greatest weekend of my life. I had been quietly writing CEOs and company presidents, which just seemed like names on paper until I was released and realized that these were CEOs and company presidents! The event where I met Candy was literally called the ‘Presidents’ Party.’ I was nervous to meet her—she is a legend, after all—but it felt normal. She was waiting at the door when I came in.”

One highlight of the weekend was a full day of education Pugh took with Shaw. Another was when Pugh’s heroes told him that the inspiration went in both directions—he inspired them with his courage, determination, and achievements.

Free and Living His Best Life

What may have helped generate admiration was that by that pivotal ABS show, Pugh had established his own reputation in the industry. His first baby steps led him to part-time work in a salon. While in prison, he wrote to Lindsay Gore, owner of Strandz Hair Studio in Littleton, Colorado, who offered him a small role.

“Lindsay was the only person willing to offer me a job, and she didn’t even really have anything,” Pugh reports. She let him assist her one day a week, and then some of the other independent stylists in the salon hired him for other days. It meant a 45-minute commute, but Pugh says he was grateful to get the experience.

“Those hairdressers at Strandz forever have a place in my heart, because they knew my story and didn’t judge me,” Pugh says. “In fact, they lifted me up the highest.”

Pugh went on to work at other salons while, at the same time, experimenting with social platforms. He decided to focus on TikTok, where he felt salon pros had fun and were open and honest. He must have struck a chord with other new stylists, because his videos caught on immediately.

“I knew starting out fresh I didn’t want to put pressure on myself,” he recalls. “When I worked at Drybar, I posted a video just showing me curling a super-long piece of hair. It went viral.”

Although Pugh still works behind the chair, he now considers himself a fulltime content creator. He livestreams daily on TikTok, carving out a niche in hair hacks and tips. He agrees to represent brands, but only those he fully trusts with staffs who treat him with respect.

Today, Jeremy livestreams daily on TikTok. "I just hope to leave people with a little light,...

Today, Jeremy livestreams daily on TikTok. "I just hope to leave people with a little light, because I know how powerful that can be," he says. 

“I just hope to leave people with a little light, because I know how powerful that can be,” Pugh says. “I want people to feel special and empowered—even if they don’t do hair. The great thing about Tiktok is that people accept you for who you are. More and more, hairstylists are realizing that clients as a whole feel judged by our industry, so going live on TikTok allows me to reach my followers in a genuine, meaningful way.”

Pugh believes it’s that passion coming through that has earned him such a following.

“Social media and content creation are fun for me,” he adds. “I love sharing my viewpoint with the world. If I’m being honest, I’m not surprised I’ve accomplished what I have—I spent years dreaming and manifesting this.”

That makes two of them. Shaw, too, says Pugh’s success is no surprise.

“He is talented, kind, hardworking, and downright hilarious!” she says “Have you seen him? I think he’s a genius! People work a lifetime to create a brand. He developed his from Day One. Brands are gravitating to him because he makes learning fun and is openly honest without being overly insulting. You either love his Tik-Tok persona or you don’t; there is no middle with Jeremy. He’s all in!”

The Power of Mentorship

With mentoring inherent in the Shaw family legacy, Candy Shaw was a great choice to spearhead a campaign recently that raised more than $100,000 for Beauty Changes Lives, the industry’s primary organization that funds beauty industry scholarships.

“Mentorship is the name of the game,” Shaw maintains. “Our industry will not survive and simply cannot sustain high quality talent without it. We all have to pay it forward—write letters, volunteer our time, support our communities, and just give back.”

Shaw didn’t charge Pugh for attending her classes at ABS, and she points to that day as one of the times she observed how much mentorship gives new pros their wings.

At ABS, Jeremy meets Nick Arrojo.

At ABS, Jeremy meets Nick Arrojo. 

“Jeremy was like a kid in a ‘Candy’ store,” she jokes. “He was a sponge, a grateful learner, open-minded, and receptive—the quintessential self-taught cosmetologist. It was readily apparent to me that he had studied my videos for years, and I felt like a proud parent having him attend my classes.”

When the class ended, Shaw brought Pugh on stage and let him tell his story. As he did, she says you could hear a pin drop.

“It was in that moment I realized he had finally overcome any embarrassment he had felt from his actions and had really turned his life around,” Shaw concludes. “He had made prison a positive part of this life story. I am really proud of him and know we will stay connected forever.”


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