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Wichita Stylist Finds Her Niche With Anime-Inspired Hair

Stylist Thao Vu curls Priscilla Nguyen's freshly dyed hair.
Katelynn McIlwain
Stylist Thao Vu curls Priscilla Nguyen's freshly dyed hair.

Thao Vu is best known for the vivid colors and unique haircuts she gives her clients. And many of them found her through a viral TikTok video.

On a Saturday afternoon, Thao Vu washes Priscilla Nguyen’s purple-dyed hair with cold water, so the color stays. Before Nguyen met Vu at a former job, colored hair wasn’t really her style.

“Thao kind of recently got me into that,” Nguyen said. “And so ever since then, I’ve been going back to natural, but then I go back to purple, and then — I’ve just been all over the place.”

Nguyen is going for something subtle. But Vu is best known for the vivid colors and unique haircuts most of her clients ask for. And many of them found her through a viral TikTok video.

In March, Vu posted a TikTok that called on anime fans in Wichita to let her give them a character-inspired look. At the time, she had no idea whether it would attract people. It was a week before her first day at Cut Salon, and she needed clients so that her first few days on the job weren’t boring.

The video went viral. Today, it has more than 130,000 views.

“I made that and fully expected, like 50 people to see it and like two people to call and maybe one person to book,” Vu said. “I went to bed with less than 200 followers. And I woke up with around 2,000.”

People from Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas have since messaged her on Instagram asking to be transformed into characters like Todoroki from “My Hero Academia” or Scorpia from “She-Ra.” And character-inspired looks aren’t the end of it.

Some clients want flames or spider webs painted onto their buzzed hair. Some want to be blonde. Some just need a cut or a wax.

“She’s not the type of stylist who will pressure you to be like, ‘Oh, you should do crazy colors,’” Nguyen said. “You want to do something natural? She’ll plan with you on that. … She’s just very friendly and loves to get to know you and see what you want to do with your hair, and she’ll figure it out.”

Where it began

Vu’s been an anime fan for as long as she can remember. Her uncle used to burn DVDs for her to watch at home. It wasn’t until elementary school that she realized it wasn’t mainstream.

“I would talk about anime, and then all my little homies would be like, ‘What are you talking about? Like, those Adult Swim shows?’” Vu said. “And I’d be like, ‘Huh?’”

Thao Vu sports several anime-themed tattoos.
Katelynn McIlwain
Thao Vu sports several anime-themed tattoos.

Her interest in fashion and cosmetics began in middle school, when she joined an online community of people interested in East Asian fashion. They had followings on Instagram; Vu remembers she was the youngest in the group.

“So of course I want to be like them,” Vu said. “And I would wear wigs and cosplay and stuff to school, and it’d be super embarrassing. I look back at old pictures now, and I’m like, ‘Who let me leave the house like that?’”

But at the time, Vu owned her style. Cosplay — based on characters from books, movies, or TV shows — became her everyday look. That didn’t change until she entered Goddard High, where people weren’t as accepting, even mean, Vu said.

“I was like, I ain’t trying to do this every day,” she said. “So, I started dressing down again. … At the time, everybody was wearing leggings and big T-shirts, so I was like, ‘I guess that’s what I’ll wear.’”

And Vu saw a lot of success in high school. She was the student council vice president, drum major for the marching band and was even a competitive powerlifter. Upon graduation, she intended to take the traditional college route, but she enrolled in Wichita’s Paul Mitchell cosmetology school instead.

“I took a leap,” Vu said. “I signed up for cosmetology school super last minute. Five years ago, if you asked me if I’d be doing this, I’d tell you, ‘No, you’re crazy.’”

In cosmetology school, she once again embraced her cosplay style. And now, she’s helping others step into their own inspired looks.

Embracing the look

Julian Hemenway is a cosplayer in Wichita with a following on Instagram. They were in cosmetology school with Vu.

Julian Hemenway is one of Vu's clients.
Credit Julian Hemenway
Julian Hemenway is one of Vu's clients.

In April, Vu gave Hemenway a makeup look for their Toga cosplay. Toga is a villain from "My Hero Academia" with blonde space buns and blushed cheeks.

Vu also gave Hemenway pink hair — without burning it.

“Which was impressive, because I’ve had my hair pink before, but (the hairstylist) completely fried it and it ended up like a pinkish purple,” Hemenway said. “I have never had a hairstylist (before Vu) who knows how to work with my curly hair.”

Hemenway said they appreciate Vu for achieving the color because they want to be known for their use of pink in their cosplay styles. They’re working on debuting a new pink look based on one of their favorite characters.

“None of my followers know about that yet, so I’m really excited to show them.”

“They just don’t know”

High school teasing is one thing, and Vu is well-past caring about what others think about her style.

But being Vietnamese, especially during a pandemic that roused anti-Asian sentiment, presents another challenge. Vu remembered a conversation she heard about while hanging out at a restaurant with her friends.

“These two old men were sitting near us, and my friend told me that when I got up to throw my trash away, one guy nudged the other and was like, ‘We’re in this situation because of them,’ and pointed at me,” Vu said. “I’m glad I didn’t hear that, because I would’ve made it everybody’s problem.’”

But the racism doesn’t surprise Vu. It’s Kansas, she said, and some people might not interact with minorities enough to know how not to be racist. Even in the salon.

“People will come in here and say the craziest things,” Vu said. “I had a lady not too long ago come in and was like, ‘These darn Orientals,’ in not those words.

“I thought, ‘Ma’am … I am a whole Vietnamese girl. … And that kind of sucks because I have to stand there and listen to that and not be able to say anything because they’re clients at the end of the day, and I need to be nice to them.”

Vu works on a client's hair.
Katelynn McIlwain
Vu works on a client's hair.

Looking ahead

But Vu is anything but apologetic. While she’s drying Nguyen’s hair, she fills the salon with laughter and silly stories, like the time a child called her to brag about successfully using the bathroom. She’s focused, moving her tattoo-covered arms in just the right way to trim and curl Nguyen's long hair, which is now black with dark purple ends.

Vu has found her niche, and it’s taking her places. Literally.

In August, Vu will be in Minnesota, where she was hired to do hair and makeup for an aspiring K-pop singer’s concert.

Vu’s artistry is finding a home, even if society doesn’t typically welcome it. Or, her. But the final product is always rewarding — for both the client, and herself.

“I recently did a really gorgeous look where it was split dye,” Vu said. “It was dark purple to pastel purple on one side and then dark blue to pastel blue on the other side.

“I was like, ‘That’s gorgeous. I did that.”

Katelynn McIlwain is a senior at the University of Missouri majoring in journalism (with a magazine writing emphasis) and minoring in digital storytelling. When she’s on campus, she works as an intern at the MU News Bureau and as a resident advisor for MU Residential Life. She is also a member of the Alpha Omega campus ministry.