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Amish journey from homespun to hipster

Miriam Jones' hair salon in Echo Park seems a world away from the settlement in Smicksburg, Pa., but she treasures the sect's values of hard work and self-sufficiency.

January 09, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Miriam Jones touches up Dusty Schlabach's hair. "When youre Amish, you work all the time and you dont work for money or for any other reason than God wants you to, Jones says.
Miriam Jones touches up Dusty Schlabach's hair. "When youre… (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles…)

Miriam Jones doesn't waste time analyzing how an Amish girl in long skirts and bonnets went on to become the owner of a salon in the heart of Echo Park's hipster enclave.

In her first 30 years, in addition to starting a business, she's butchered large farm animals, killed snapping turtles with a crossbow, sewn her own clothes, grown and canned her food, learned to fly a helicopter and raised a 12-year-old daughter.

Clearly, she's been busy.

But one moonlit night earlier this year — as Jones stood at a lookout off Mulholland Drive, dressed in drag to perform in a gender-bending art film by actor James Franco — she said she had to take a breath and wonder, what am I doing here?

"I thought I couldn't be further removed from everything I had known in my whole life," she recalled.

Jones is a petite woman, currently brunet, although she has cycled through blond curls and a red mane. Her look — tank top, riding pants and bright red wedgies — is a world away from the way she dressed at her family's dairy farm in Smicksburg, Pa.

There, homemade leather boots covered her ankles, and her hand-sewn dresses were held together with straight pins. "No snaps or buttons. Buttons were considered worldly," she said.

When Jones was 15, her father sold their handmade furniture, bought a car and hid it in the barn under the hay until he and his wife could spirit Miriam and her five siblings away.

You could only be born into the community, and you were supposed to die there, she said. But after losing his inheritance in what Jones described as a shady deal countenanced by Old Order Amish elders, her father lost faith.

Jones said she "bawled her eyes out" when her mother got her up in the dead of night and had her change into jeans.

"I was afraid lightning would strike and I'd go to hell," she said. Wearing jeans "was the worse sin I could've committed at age 15."

At the time, no explanation for their flight was sought or given, she said.

"Children and women were to be seen and not heard. We weren't allowed to ask questions," she said.

Jones knew some English, but the other children spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish dialect. They had never been in a car, and "every couple miles, we had to pull over for somebody to throw up," she said.

No one from their extended family ever spoke to them again.

In the small Missouri town where they relocated, Jones said, her parents went through an intense spiritual and emotional crisis.

"My parents were so uneducated," she said. "They didn't even know about wars that had happened."

Overwhelmed, Jones slid into depression. She got pregnant at the age of 17.

Then one day a stylist stopped her in the mall and offered to make her over.

"I loved it so much," Jones said. She was inspired to get her high school equivalency certificate, attended beauty school and in 2003 was on her way to sunny California with a 4-year-old daughter.

Three years later, she opened her salon, Refuge, followed by her beauty school, Form Academy.

It doesn't get much more worldly than being a stylist in body-obsessed Los Angeles. Jones' rough-hewn salon got its own makeover on a Bravo reality show. It's also been featured on an Instyle magazine top 100 list and a high-profile fitness video.

Still, growing up Amish is not something you outgrow.

"When you're Amish, you work all the time and you don't work for money or for any other reason than God wants you to," Jones said. "I work very hard all hours of the day and night."

She built the work stations in her salon space, wired and hung the lights and got a website up and running. Some of those skills she learned from her father; others were self-taught.

"One day she's in here in a tool belt, the next day in a bikini," co-worker Julio Romano said. "It just gets weirder and weirder."

Like the time Jones decided she was working too hard and needed a hobby. So she got her helicopter license, followed by hot-air balloon piloting lessons.

"It blows my mind helicopters just exist. It's the ultimate freedom, ascension," she said. "When we grew up, we saw white jet streams, but we didn't know they were planes. We thought they were clouds."

Then there's her part in the Franco project, which came about through a friend.

The film is based on a night of debauchery said to have occurred during the making of "Rebel Without a Cause." The women play men and the men play women.

Jones, in wig and makeup, plays Sal Mineo, the baby-faced icon of the 1955 James Dean classic. A magazine article about the shoot describes rubber sex dolls, tequila shots and assorted high jinks.

Jones said it was fun, but she is not interested in acting.

"I'll try anything if it's fun," she said.

The cultural holes resulting from Jones' Amish background sometimes poke through the fabric of her hipster lifestyle. During one hairstyling session, she asked a client what song was playing. "It's U2," he responded. "Did you grow up Amish or what?"

"He couldn't believe it," Jones said, laughing. "No one makes that joke and it's actually offensive."

If the folks back home could see her now, she said, they'd think "I was the Jezebel of the world." But she is grateful for her upbringing.

"I wouldn't give up being Amish. I love I have that perspective," she said. "Anybody who doesn't get how important electricity is, they haven't been Amish.

"But now I get to live in Los Angeles and have an Australian boyfriend!"

gale.holland@latimes.com

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