Natalie James’s Vent Blow Dry Bar has become a Toronto hotspot since it opened two years ago, and it’s also attracted celebrities like Rachel McAdams thanks to the “feeling good” mentality that drives the business.
The salon is all about the blow dry, and comes with a scalp massage at no extra charge. (This is a typical add-on service or tacked onto the cost at other full-service salons, especially in Toronto.) For $50, clients can take in an hour-long blow dry with hair tousled and teased for any occasion.
“Early morning we get the corporate woman that is really focused and needs to get to where she needs to be. And then in the midday, those with more flexibility in their schedule, and those that still want to have a social life, come in and get a blow dry. There’s also a lot of women who come in before first dates,” Natalie told HELLO! Canada in a sit-down chat.
They’ve had bridal parties of 18 women all getting their hair and makeup (a service available at an extra cost) done, too. Some clients that have memberships “don’t even wash their hair in the morning and just come here instead,” Natalie says with a grin.
We should also probably tell you about the time Rachel came in.
“We weren’t even that old at the time, maybe a few months, and I answered the phone,” Natalie recalls of that beautiful day. “She used a different name and asked if we had any plant-based products. I said yes we do. She then booked the appointment and came in by herself an hour later, and we were all like ‘Ahh!’ and excited.”
Rachel asked for her look to be “done but undone,” which wasn’t on the menu (yes, there is a menu of different blow and style offerings). The stylist interpreted this request and did the blow dry, adding some texture and then “messed it up a bit” on Rachel’s bob at the time. The actress and activist was down to earth and “pretty much everything you’d expect her to be like,” says Natalie, who is also a huge fan of Mean Girls, of course.
“We were playing a lot of Mean Girls at the time too, so it’s super lucky that we didn’t have that playing on the screens while she was there---that would’ve been super awkward,” jokes Natalie.
Actress Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead ) once came in three times a week to get a “military doctor-looking” blowout while shooting.
A popular trend often chosen is the Hollywood waves with the straight part and red lips, says Natalie.
The blow dry is meant to be part of one’s self-care, and clients can enjoy a cocktail or two and watch shows like Friends on the screens in front of them. Also: the mirrors are behind the chairs, not in front, which is less intrusive and lets people settle down and not constantly monitor their hair. Some people bring in food, some fall asleep, and some share stories of the day.
Self-care is important to Natalie and it drives a lot of what she does. At 13, she started working at a Ladies Footlocker in Toronto and she hasn’t slowed on making money since. She spent 20 years working in politics at provincial and federal levels. Work has been part of her being, but much of her younger self was more focused on her appearance, particularly the rare deformity which sees one side of her body larger than the other. It affected Natalie from the neck down.
For much of her childhood, Natalie didn’t even notice. It wasn’t until the kids at school pointed it out that she started to get overwhelmed about her body. She was also experiencing physical pain.
“I had quite a limp, and still did everything that kids aged 10 and 11 would be doing, but as I started to grow my spine was curling and other kids were pointing it out, so I started really noticing,” Natalie tells HELLO! Canada in a sit-down chat.
“’Just be grateful you’re a pretty girl and it didn’t affect your face,’” she says one specialist told her. “His intentions were good, but for me that told me to ‘hide your body and only show your face,’ so that’s what I did.”
She says her insecurity led her to cover up and hide, and she also ended up changing schools to “create a new life for myself.” Natalie had seen specialists her whole life, and when things like finding pants, putting on shoes etc., were getting to be too much and doctors were telling her surgery was needed, she was optimistic. She just wanted to be “fixed” and “be like everyone else because when you’re young you don’t want to be different,” she tells HELLO! Canada.
She had the surgery at the end of high school right when her friends were preoccupied with their own university ambitions. Following the procedure, Natalie was basically bedridden for a year. She had to rotate this “structural rounder” within her legs, several times a day. Once the bone regenerated and was strong enough, Natalie was able to remove the contraption, but the measures left her with 13 scars from the leg down.
“I was recovering during the OJ Simpson trial, I can remember. It was a really dark time. I had excluded everyone and no one knew,” she says.
It was also during this time she began experimenting more and more with fashion and makeup. Makeup and dressing up empowered her, made her feel good, and it’s been an important part of her regimen since and it helps drive Vent Blow Dry Bar’s mission.
“I didn’t want to speak to just one woman, or build a team around one specific woman, but rather build a team that represents all women,” says Natalie, who says she’s grateful for the hard business questions she got upfront when starting the venture.
She was 40, married, had been working in politics and then as part of a hospital foundation, and a mother of three at the time.
“We had a very comprehensive business plan and we took that to the bank. Initially we were going to do it through government grants, and the bank doesn’t typically do loans for small new businesses and ideas like this, but they took a chance. They said they had never seen a business plan like mine before, which was very long, yes, but that was huge validation for me. I’m very Type A,” explains Natalie.
The business took a year to build and a lot of places wouldn’t approve a lease, says Natalie. But thanks to her tenaciousness, judgement and discretion, the business is now open in Liberty Village, an area full of busy, hardworking women.
“I took my passion, my lie, and then built a business. You can’t just do it for the money,” says Natalie.
As far as celebs she’d love to see come in, she’s made the call out to Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston —“The O.G.’s” as she calls them—to come live up the experience.
“I think they should all be here at the same time, don’t you?”