Choice to support sister by cutting hair stirs row

Told to wear wig at work, she quits to show cancer fight

June 19, 2013

By Kaitlin Gillespie The Spokesman-Review

Dan Pelle photo Buy this photoStrandberg shaved her head to support her sister, Marisa Lowe.
Dan Pelle photo Buy this photo
Strandberg shaved her head to support her sister, Marisa Lowe.

There was no doubt in Melanie Strandberg’s mind when her sister was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. She had to shave her head.

She’d already done it once. Marisa Lowe, now 24, was first diagnosed with cancer in February 2012, and Strandberg shaved her hair to support the sister she calls her best friend.

This time, when 25-year-old Strandberg’s employer told her she had to hide her bald head with a wig, there was no doubt in her mind what she had to do: She resigned.

In a move that rapidly went viral, Strandberg quit her job as a salon supervisor at La Rive Spa at Northern Quest Resort and Casino last Thursday. She said a spa director expressed concern that she would offend the customers and that she wouldn’t be able to convincingly sell hair products without hair herself.

The sisters appeared on the “Today” show Monday morning, prompting public outcry on Northern Quest Casino’s Facebook page.

“It was a really tough decision, but in the end, my family is going to be there for the rest of my life,” Strandberg said.

Northern Quest denied how the events were characterized and in a statement on Tuesday the casino said her treatment is “inconsistent with our values, culture and past practices and it’s unacceptable.” The spa director who allegedly told Strandberg she couldn’t work without hair is on administrative leave.

Strandberg, who had worked at the spa since December, said she felt pressured by her supervisors to quit. Strandberg was told on several occasions to come back with a wig. When she went to human resources representatives to complain, they told her to follow her supervisors’ instructors.

“I didn’t do it to cover up,” she said. “I did it to support her all the time, and I wanted to show that and I took pride in it.”

Northern Quest initially said Strandberg hadn’t contacted its human resources department to complain about her treatment, but retracted that statement after an internal investigation.

Strandberg said that when she was contacted by HR the day after she quit, she was told not to come back to work those final two weeks and to turn in her badge and uniform.

According to Northern Quest, managers have repeatedly attempted to call Strandberg to offer her job back. Strandberg said that isn’t true. She said she received one email from HR the day after she resigned acknowledging her termination, and one phone call after she told her story on “Today.”

And besides, Strandberg said, she doesn’t want her job back.

“When somebody makes a negative comment in regards to how you look when you’re used to looking differently, it’s hurtful,” she said.

She has hired former Spokane County Prosecutor James Sweetser to represent her.

“This is an extremely meaningful gesture and she shouldn’t have been made to feel ugly, inadequate and unable to sell her product just because of the length of her hair,” Sweetser said.

Strandberg, a mother of three, was hired by the Glen Dow Academy of Hair Design, where she’ll be owner Martin Dow’s assistant. She hopes to begin teaching at the school.

Lowe is proud of her sister’s actions. Strandberg shaving her head helped show Lowe that she’s not alone, and regardless of La Rive’s actions, she’s happy with how her sister handled herself.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from cancer,” Lowe said, “it’s that we know that even though you can be told the most terrible thing, it doesn’t mean that the end is anywhere near.”