When Karyn Santoro graduated from North Bergen High School in 1972, she had hoped to go to an art school in Connecticut, which she had received a scholarship to attend.
“But my parents told me at the time that I had to stay in my hometown,” Santoro said. “They wouldn’t let me go. What was I supposed to do? I had to do what my parents told me.”
Although she had two jobs while going to high school, working for a supermarket part-time and a car dealership from time to time, Santoro always had fun offering suggestions about hair and beauty to her friends at North Bergen High School.
“When it came time for the proms, I had so many girls asking me what they should wear or how they should wear their hair,” Santoro said. “I’d bring home homely girls and send them out looking like knockouts. I knew a lot about makeup at the time, so I just decided that is what I should do, open my own salon.”
So in 1973, at the tender age of 17, Santoro rented out a little space on Kennedy Boulevard and began to get customers – even though she never was a hairdresser herself.
“We had a staff of three back then,” Santoro said. “Things just grew from there.”
Seven years later, Santoro bought a building at 8201 Bergenline Ave. and moved her business there.
“The business grew like crazy,” Santoro said. “I went from three hairdressers to 23. It became a complete salon.”
And the Grasshopper Salon has been making men and women beautiful ever since.
Last week, Santoro celebrated her 30th anniversary as the owner and proprietor of the Grasshopper Salon, with Mayor Nicholas Sacco on hand to join in the celebration.
The highlight of the celebration came when a local radio station (88.7 FM) and the New York Daily News asked its listeners and readers to vote for their favorite salon in Hudson and Bergen County.
“We won by a landslide,” Santoro said. “We received 73 percent of the vote.”
So as part of the honor, the Grasshopper Salon provided complete makeovers for several journalists, including Lenny Tragmin, a cameraman for Channel 7 Eyewitness News, and Gail Whitley, who is a columnist for Wine, Dine and Leisure Time magazine.
“It was a lot of fun for everyone,” Santoro said. “We offered everything, from hair cuts and color, to makeup and massages. We gave them all the works, a complete day of beauty.”
It’s safe to say that Santoro’s life has been a lot of fun ever since she opened the doors of the Grasshopper 30 years ago.
“I never would have expected it would lead to all of what I’ve done,” Santoro said.
After opening the salon, Santoro first taught religion and began a Christian ministry. She then attended real estate school.
“It’s how I learned how to purchase this building,” Santoro said.
Soon after getting married, she entered a competition with her now ex-husband, Vincent Romano.
“It was the Beautiful People Competition and we took third place in the world in the Dynamic Duo category,” Santoro said.
Soon after, the Grasshopper became the first unisex salon in the state.
While the business grew, so did Santoro’s skills as an entrepreneur. She opened a Carvel ice cream franchise directly next door to the salon and ran that franchise for 15 years. She also opened an antique boutique that she operated for 10 years.
She also embarked on a modeling career.
“David Brenner [the famed comedian] hired me to wear the gowns that Greta Garbo and Eva Gabor once wore,” Santoro said. “I also traveled around as a Elizabeth Taylor look-alike and appeared on television shows like the Gordon Elliott, Montel Williams and Ricki Lake shows.”
She also dabbled in real estate restoration, fixing old brownstones and mansions.
“Howard Stern filmed one of his videos in my mansion in New York,” Santoro said.
Santoro’s career featured other wild twists and turns. She was hired to do the theatrical makeup for the Broadway show “Dracula.” She then got caught up in the theater bug so much that she started to produce her own fashion shows, then began her own dinner/theater production company, called Kazmataz Productions.
Needless to say, Santoro has led an exciting life.
“I had no idea it would lead to all of this,” Santoro said. “It’s sort of unbelievable. I just love doing so many things.”
But the heart and soul remains with the salon, which remains her biggest source of pride.
“What’s great is that the usual lifespan of a hairdresser is about five years,” Santoro said. “A salon usually stays in business for five years. I have a staff that has been with me forever. Peggy Dellapina has been with me since the beginning, all 30 years. Michele Speciale has been with me for 26 years. Donna Richards has been with me for 18 years. Usually, you can’t keep people that long. Having the great staff enabled me to branch out in the other areas.”
Santoro has no idea how much longer she will own the salon. Perhaps a 40th anniversary will be in the works or even a 50th, as long as she’s having the time of her life, which she is.
“I’m very happy doing everything that I do,” Santoro said. “But it all began with the Grasshopper.”