Ozzie Perez: From Catholic Camden to the trifecta of gay careers

Ozzie Perez: From Catholic Camden to the trifecta of gay careers

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I love when I get suggestions from readers. It’s always a little serendipitous talking to someone I don’t know much about. In this week’s case, someone wrote to the paper and recommended the namesake of Ozzie Perez Salon, 260 S. 20th St.: “He’s a local business owner and a nice guy who likes to give back. Plus, who does not want to see a photo of a cute Latino in the paper?”

I agree, so here’s this week’s cutie pie, Ozzie Perez.


PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.

OP: Sure. I’m originally from Camden, N.J., but I’ve lived in Philadelphia for easily 20 years. I am one of six: four brothers and a sister. She was the oldest, so the poor girl didn’t have a chance until we were all adults.

PGN: Where did you fall in the lineup?

OP: I was number five. My father died very young, he was only 45. I was just 14 and we moved from North Camden to the Cherry Hill/Pennsauken area. I had the most amazing mother in the world. I don’t know how she raised six kids on her own. When my father died, we had two in college, three in high school and one in grade school. She made it to her early 70s before passing.

PGN: Camden has been in the national spotlight as one of the most dangerous cities. What was it like when you grew up?

OP: It was a really different time. Back then, it was a wonderful place to raise a family; you could go out and play all day long, come in when the lights went on, that kind of thing. It was pretty great. My father was a politician so we were right in the heart of all things Camden.

PGN: What did he do?

OP: He was a councilman for the city of Camden. My mother was the chief dietician for a hospital here in Philadelphia. It no longer exists, but it was called Metropolitan Hospital and she was there for 18 years.

PGN: Any family traditions? For the holidays?

OP: Oh God, lots of food! Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and you came home all excited about Christmas morning.

PGN: So you were raised Catholic?

OP: Yes, yes, 12 years of Catholic school. My mother was also a huge part of our church. She had her own radio show on the AM dial where she counseled youth. She was a dynamic lady, she really was. She was probably no taller than 5-foot-2 but she was a little powerhouse, yet very soft-spoken.

PGN: Spoke softly but carried a big mic?

OP: [Laughs] Big time! When she spoke, you listened.

PGN: So she was on the forefront of the health/nutrition bandwagon?

OP: Yes, both she and my father suffered from heart disease. In her lifetime she had five heart attacks and I was always amazed and impressed at her discipline with her diet. She clearly added years to her life even with all of her health problems.

PGN: Out of the six kids, who was the funniest and who was the troublemaker?

OP: Funniest would be a tie between my brother Ed and my brother Tom, the second oldest boy and the youngest. Troublemaker … my oldest brother, Angel. Absolutely. Angel just loved life and he did his thing; he’d dive in head first without thinking of any consequences and then always got in trouble for it, always.

PGN: Ha. I was the stealthy one, I did as much mischief as my brothers, but I was better at hiding it so my parents thought I was innocent.

OP: That was me! I never got caught.

PGN: So what did you do after high school?

OP: Well, my father had been gone at that point for four years, so I decided to go straight to work and help my mother out a bit. I got a job in banking for about seven years … and hated it.

PGN: What was your very first job?

OP: I worked for Flower World in Pennsauken cutting and preparing flowers for the buckets in the show room.

PGN: [Laughs] You picked two out of three of the most stereotypical gay careers: ballet dancer, florist and hairdresser!

OP: I actually danced competitively, too. So I hit three of three!

PGN: The homosexual trifecta!

OP: Yes, dancing on the weekends and then having to put on a suit and tie on Monday and sit behind a desk was just awful. I hated the corporate world, so one day I just quit. I’d started thinking about what I really wanted to do and this just came up. I went to beauty school and then got a job here in Philadelphia. I was lucky; the woman I worked for, Valerie, was an amazing teacher and mentor. I got my work ethic from her. I worked for her for seven years before opening my own business.

PGN: Neat. I want to go back to the competitive dancing, what was that about?

OP: I danced within a drum and bugle corps as part of the color guard, part of what’s now called The Sport of the Arts. It’s an extremely popular venue for kids who have all these amazing abilities that need an outlet. Check out WGI — Winter Guard International. It’s really cool.

PGN: Did you get started with them in school?

OP: Yes, I was in eighth grade when a woman from Brooklawn, N.J., Millie Piscoteo, came to our junior high and spoke about the indoor drum and bugle corps she was starting. My brother Vince and I ran home and told our parents that we wanted to do it. By the summer, all five boys were part of it. Vince turned out to be an incredible soprano trumpet player, Ed was an amazing drummer, Angel turned out to be a great baritone player and I ran the gamut. I went from soprano to drums and then landed in the color guard.

PGN: What did you enjoy the most when you started hairdressing?

OP: People. The interactions and, it may sound over the top, but you can change someone’s day in an instant. I love when people leave feeling better than when they came in. It’s been 20 years and I still love it.

PGN: What was the worst part when you started out? I’d be nervous that I’d make a mistake and have someone’s hair fall out or turn blue.

OP: I was never worried about that. I was so excited about learning the craft that I never had any fear. I don’t know why, because it’s a common fear. I think that I trusted that the training I got with Valerie was thorough and correct.

PGN: Never a disaster?

OP: No! I’ve always been very analytical and thoughtful and — knock on wood — no disasters so far.

PGN: No crazy customers?

OP: Oh, now that we’ve had. Quite a few over the years, but you learn the fine art of what I call divorcing a client. It’s not easy but it can be done respectfully without offending anybody. 

PGN: What makes them persona non grata? Hitting on you? Wanting to look like Jennifer Lopez? A little cray cray?

OP: [Laughs] Well, I have been hit on by both men and women. And crazy I can deal with; you find a way to embrace it. With people who come in with unrealistic expectations, I have very intensive consultations and explain honestly and diplomatically why it won’t work. I explain that the celebrities have make-up and style teams following them and even they don’t look like them without all that help! The divorcee is more the person who doesn’t want to be pleased no matter what you do, who wants to find an excuse not to be happy and, therefore, not to pay.

PGN: Do you have a mostly male or female clientele?

OP: I actually have a good balance of both. We do all services related to hair, except that I refuse to do some of the treatments that require some pretty toxic chemicals. They’re just dreadful and I just won’t do them.

PGN: How long have you had the salon?

OP: Almost 10 years. I started the business with my then-partner, Michael. I’m single now, but we’re still in business together; we’re both committed to the salon. We have a really solid friendship today that’s just amazing.

PGN: What hobbies do you have?

OP: I’m pretty physically active, I run, I bike. I do a lot of benefits to raise funds for various charities, mud runs, color runs, bike marathons, etc.

PGN: What’s the most exciting and the most challenging  events you’ve done? Ever get your boots stuck in the quagmire?

OP: The mud runs are pretty challenging but, again, I’m very cautious about trying to be prepared and not hurt myself or leave a shoe behind! Mostly, it’s just a really good time. The challenge is not so much the obstacles, but the endurance needed to get through. The MS rides are usually double century — 200 miles — in two days, so those are challenging but I love them. I used to do one in Lancaster with two friends, Chris and David, and it was 200 miles of rolling hills. That’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve done.

PGN: Avoiding road apples and such?

OP: Yeah, yeah, plus you’re riding in the middle of cornfields with absolutely no shade. It’s pretty grueling but I miss it. They’ve since canceled the ride but it was a great adventure.

PGN: By the way, what made you ride for MS?

OP: My friend Chris, a close friend of his passed away from MS when she was pretty young. He told us about it and all three of us signed up for the ride and started training together. Since then, I’ve found out that quite a few friends have been diagnosed. It’s a scary thing. I went to a fundraiser at Tavern on Camac for a friend of mine. It was a great drag show to raise money for the cause.

PGN: Do you remember your first kiss?

OP: Yes, it was in my sophomore year of high school and her name was Gina.

PGN: You were a late bloomer.

OP: Oh yeah. I was. She was my girlfriend until I came out.

PGN: First kiss with a boy?

OP: It was right after I came out after Gina, I guess I was 17 or 18, and his name was John. I met him through friends. He was a couple of years older, just this beautiful Latino male, and I was mad for the guy.

PGN: So if you weren’t in the beauty business, what would you have done?

OP: I would have danced.

PGN: An “aha” moment?

OP: When I realized that I was going to do this. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life after banking. I’d never played around with hair but I asked myself, What is something you’ve always wanted to do but never took seriously? And it came to me. I enrolled in school and here I am.

PGN: Have you ever faced discrimination because of being gay?

OP: Once. I’ve never suffered any physical harassment but I was traveling in the Bahamas and I was in a small shop with some friends. At one point, one of the friends said that we needed to go. I asked him why and he just said that we needed to get out of there. He informed me that the two clerks behind the counter had uttered quite a few gay slurs. It got me really angry and I turned around and went back in and confronted them. I yelled, “How dare you! We are guests here and were trying to spend our money here … and you think it’s all right to say those things!”  I was enraged and screaming at the top of my lungs. Not my finest moment. It’s not my personality at all to yell, but they just … you shouldn’t be treating people unkindly. For any reason!

PGN: I had something similar happen in a Brookstone store at the airport and I think the saleswoman was shocked that I confronted her, but she didn’t back down. She retorted, “Oh, you don’t think I should be using the word ‘faggot’?” So I then took it to a gay lawyers’ group and they sent a formal letter to the headquarters of the company. It ended with her being reprimanded or possibly fired (they weren’t allowed to share what actions had been taken but assured me she was in deep trouble) and they had a training on diversity. I didn’t particularly care about what she said, but I thought about some young kid struggling with their sexuality having to hear that crap on their way to a vacation.

OP: Exactly, it wasn’t that I was so much bothered by it either, but I wanted to fight for those who might not have a voice. I was very fortunate, even growing up, I never really faced any kind of discrimination.

PGN: I guess the family was OK with it.

OP: No, not at all. Coming out did not go smoothly. You have to imagine, I grew up with 12 years of Catholic school and church. My father did not live to see me come out but when I came out to my mother on my 18th birthday she cried; she cried a lot. It was in the middle of the AIDS epidemic and, instantly, that’s where she went with her thoughts: “I’m worried about your health, plus you’re going to burn in hell.” We didn’t communicate for about two weeks and then slowly but surely she came around and we became best of friends. I’m so grateful that she got to meet my business partner Michael when we were still together. They had a great relationship. So that was that and my one brother, Vince, who’s a complete alpha male, had a huge problem with it. He’s actually the reason I moved out: He was very threatening. Fortunately, he got over himself and now we’re also the best of friends.

PGN: You wore them down.

OP: And the world changed. The more being gay was part of the public eye with people like Ellen and Rosie coming out, it wasn’t so scary or mysterious.

PGN: As a Catholic, are you excited about the pope coming to town?

OP: Growing up, the pope was always this … larger-than-life entity. I was a little trepidatious at first, but now I’m getting excited. I still think it’s going to be a mess and I was thinking about closing, but I think I’m going to take my chances and ride it out.

For more information on Ozzie Perez Salon, visit www.ozzieperez.com.  

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