Getting into trouble with his teachers at a very young age was something Jacob Neal excelled at, and it was also how he first learned that he had a knack for aesthetics. He would often challenge his teachers when they were creating displays in the classroom, knowing that he capable of creating a better-looking product. He had a passion for design and fashion, and he refused to hide it. However, that outspokenness didn’t always work in his favor. The drive to do what he loved, coupled with the fact that he wasn’t a particularly big kid and already had such a sense of fashion often put young Jacob into situations where he was bullied at school. Luckily for him, he had the best support system available waiting for him right at home.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a close-knit family, Neal and his sister and two brothers shared everything from respect for their hard-working parents to a love for all things artistic. “My parents spent a lot of time with my sister and her dance lessons,” says Neal. “I always remember having a strong feeling of wanting to dance and perform. It was in my DNA!”
Despite having strong roots in New Jersey and New York, his family decided to make a bold move to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to seek greater opportunities while he was still young. This turned into a new beginning for Neal, a reimagining of himself as he began high school at Hollywood Hills High. He started to become his own person in high school and decided to finally stand up for himself. The move made him a stronger person. He found that he excelled in the arts, taking the spotlight in choir, musicals and the art department. He even joined the wrestling team. Neal began to excel in everything he tried. “I was no longer the kid that was bullied,” he says.
After graduation, Neal spent some of the summer on a high school trip to Europe. “My parents saved all the money from our tax returns to send me to Europe. That is where I gained a bigger, more worldly appreciation for the arts,” he says. “It was a very defining time for me.” Upon his return from Europe, Neal set his sights on the fashion world and moved to Columbus to study fashion design at Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). His plan was to take the fashion industry by storm.
Neal quickly found out that the curriculum was very tough at CCAD. He was looking for a more hands-on learning experience, much like the CCAD we know today. He decided to follow up on some connections and move to New York City to pursue performing arts. He lived in a very small studio apartment with roommates and worked at an advertising agency in the Empire State Building. Neal did all the layout work on remittance envelopes, so his days were spent cutting, pasting and getting the artwork ready for the printer. He spent his free time taking dance classes and voice lessons, performing in small reviews and auditioning for everything. He felt like he wasn’t fitting into any roles theaters were casting for. After a year or so, he realized the 70s in NYC was more about the sexual revolution. “But,” he says laughing, “I still looked like a 12-year-old boy!”
Neal moved back to Columbus to finish his degree at CCAD, graduating in 1977. He thought the next logical move would be to go back to NYC so he could dive into the fashion world, at least until a close friend convinced him to move to Atlanta, Georgia. There wasn’t much opportunity for fashion in Atlanta, but he made the move on faith, and it proved to be one of the smartest decisions he ever made.
While trying to find his way in Atlanta, Neal visited a friend in Chicago who owned his own beauty salon. He was overwhelmed with a sense of longing to create what he saw in that salon. The passion, the creativity, the beauty, the transformations – it made his heart pound with excitement. “It was magical,” Neal says, remembering the moment. Much to his parent’s disappointment, he decided to return to Atlanta, waited tables at a very nice restaurant and enrolled in beauty school. He took to it very quickly. What the other students took all day to accomplish—perms, colors, cuts—Neal, with his already strong sense of aesthetics, managed to perfect in a few short hours. “Whatever I saw or visualized, I could make happen. It was easy for me to excel and move through the classes very quickly,” he says. He found himself once again getting into trouble with his teachers by causing mischief during his down time. With too much time on his hands, he became the class prankster. Ultimately finding Atlanta wasn’t such a great fit for him, Neal returned to Ft. Lauderdale. His parents were not happy about his attending beauty school because of what he had already accomplished at CCAD. They just didn’t understand the artistry of the industry, or why he felt so drawn to it. So he worked, saved his money and put himself through beauty school in Ft. Lauderdale on his own.
At one point Neal found himself in the right place at the right time while working in the salon on Hilton Head Island. Two of Neal’s clients and good friends who were LPGA golfers on the tournament circuit called him to ask if he could come to the locker room during one of their tournaments on the island and do their hair. Word quickly spread (as did the smell of perm solution throughout the clubhouse) and he went from doing two, to ten, to twenty-five ladies’ hair in one day. “The ladies were sneaking me into the locker room,” says Neal. During one tournament, a reporter noticed piles of hair on the locker room floor and wanted to interview him about what he was doing. The article was accurately titled, “The Man in the Ladies’ Locker Room.” Following the buzz of the article, he was given credentials to enter any LPGA-sanctioned event. This was not only great for Neal, but also for the ladies of the LPGA, since they were finally getting press on both the sports pages and the fashion and beauty pages of magazines.
In 1983, his fame with the LPGA tour led him to becoming a spokesperson for L’oreal. He was sought after by an NYC public relations firm that, at the time, only had two other clients – Bob Hope and J&B Liquor. The firm got him an appointment with Clairol on Park Avenue, and he was signed as the official spokesperson. He traveled the country with the LPGA and began taking the ladies on national talk shows such as the Today Show, Good Morning America and Regis. They would talk about things like how to give great haircuts in five minutes. His fame and impressive reputation led him to signing with the Virginia Slims Tennis Association where he gained clients such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Lloyd and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Prior to all the women’s sport awards shows, Neal was in charge of setting up the beauty room and hiring other beauty professionals to do hair and makeup for 200 women. He remembers that during one of the award shows he had the privilege of meeting and styling Ms. Rosa Parks. She was receiving an award at the ceremony, and he did a simple French braid while she sat in her wheelchair. “I was moved by the honor,” he recalls.
Neal emotionally recalls the 80s as being quite spectacular. Armed with a bit of fame, a tremendous amount of knowledge and just the right connections, he authored a book entitled, High Performance Hair in the late 80s. “My path in life became clear to me. I was given the ability and the tools to empower women to become greater and stronger,” he says.
Deciding that NYC was the place he would call his home base, Neal moved there full-time and continued to build on his growing empire. Through his partnerships with Clairol and his PR firm, he learned the value of PR. He continued his work in a small salon in the Plaza Hotel while also pursuing his media appearances and styling gigs. He hosted a lifestyle and beauty segment three times a week with Matt Lauer as the main anchor. The segment featured fashion, beauty, lifestyle and cosmetics. He was able to bring non-conflicting corporations (tennis, golf, beauty products, salon styling) into one segment and promote them all. “That is where all of my performing arts training came in handy!” he laughs. A real highlight was styling Jan Stephenson, the LPGA glamour girl, for her calendar shoot.
During the mid to late 80s, Neal found himself at a crossroads. His parents had both passed away, and many of his friends were dying from AIDS. It scared him seeing so many beautiful people dying so young. At the same time, the economy began to tank and opportunities began to dwindle. It was time for another change. However, Neal was not afraid of change, since it had often led to positive experiences for him in the past. As a result, he embraced the unknown and unfamiliar without hesitation.
Two of his sisters had moved to Columbus over the years. Neal wanted to be with his remaining family but was unsure if he could set up shop in Columbus and expect to make what he made in NYC. While he continued his work with Clairol and his PR firm, he decided to do a little test market in Columbus to see if he would be taken seriously. He rented space in a small salon in German Village for a few days one month, set up local TV appearances and was booked solid. He decided to test this out a few more times. Once again, he was booked solid. All the who’s who in Columbus wanted to be with him because of his reputation and talent. Once he began seeing clients return two, three and four times, Neal knew that the Columbus market was not afraid of his prices and could support a high-end stylist. So he shipped his product to Columbus and set up his own somewhat illegal salon in German Village while continuing to commute to NYC to keep up his media appearances, editorial work and styling gigs.
Today, Neal still has thirty of his original clients. Staying true to his desire for change, he saw the potential of the Short North and moved his salon to the most up-and-coming area of Columbus. The Jacob Neal Salon continues to deliver what his clients have always looked for: customer service. He finds that today it is hard to pass on this value to young people in the industry. “Aesthetics and customer service has always been the key to my success. Personal contact is rare in business today, and I really value that aspect of this field. I truly enjoy the contact I have with my guests. Communicating with them provides immediate feedback and gratification,” he adds. “You perform a service for them and you can see happiness and gratification immediately! It’s a very addictive feeling.”
Neal has also expanded his salon in recent years. He now offers home décor and custom bedding in an extension of his salon that is aptly titled the Jacob Neal Home Collection. He finds that home décor gives people the same satisfaction as a great haircut. It was a natural progression that allowed him to continue to expand on his art, fashion and aesthetic interests.
Neal feels very connected to all aspects of his life. He thrives because of his business, his family, his friends and his customers. Watching the city grow right outside his window gives this “man of change” the stimulation that he desires. “I love to see something change and evolve and to bring out its potential,” he says. “I love the construction and development that the city is constantly going through.”
Neal has been in business in Columbus for 25 years now. He doesn’t plan on celebrating, because to him every day is different and unique, and that is how he likes to celebrate. He loves to support the city through his clients’ passions, connecting with his them beyond just their beauty needs, and so not one donation request goes unfulfilled. He also continues to stay connected to his family, still here in Columbus, with weekly dinners and important celebrations.
Home is where this ever-changing, passionate prankster enjoys relaxing. After long days of connecting with those around him, he heads to his backyard oasis to decompress with his three 100-pound dogs and his husband. He loves to travel to Europe regularly to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, visit some familiar places, eat, shop and find inspiration for his new home collections. “I continue to be empowered to do things out of the ordinary,” concludes Neal.