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Battle of hair stylists benefits group that aids impaired vets

Michelle Chetty, of South Africa, models the winning

Michelle Chetty, of South Africa, models the winning look at the Shear Runway Project contest, which was held at the Emporium in Patchogue. The style was created by Stefanie Balchi, 22, of Patchogue. (July 7, 2013) Credit: Tara Conry

Before the models hit the runway Sunday night at The Emporium in Patchogue for the fifth annual Shear Runway Project hair styling competition, Ralph Anthony Capozzi stepped onto the catwalk cradling a puppy in his arms.

The 2-month-old black Labrador retriever came from the Smithtown nursery of the Guide Foundation for the Blind and America’s VetDogs.

For the past three years, Capozzi, 48, the owner of Capozzi & Co. Salon in Sayville, has donated proceeds of the event to America’s VetDogs, which provides service dogs to disabled war veterans. The group named the Lab “Capozzi” in the salon owner’s honor.

“I really felt strongly about the cause of our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Capozzi, a Holtsville resident and the son of a World War II veteran. “The soldiers are surviving injuries that they wouldn’t have survived 20 years ago, but they have a lot of special needs when they come home.”

Katherine Fritz, director of development for America’s VetDogs, said Capozzi will receive updates on the pup as it progresses through the organization’s training program to one day become a service dog for a veteran or another visually impaired person.

“We like to say our dogs choose their own careers,” she said, adding that the charity spends more than $50,000 on each of its dogs.

The 2013 Shear Runway Project pitted seven of Capozzi’s technicians against one another in a friendly competition to see who could create a look that best captured the theme, “Another Cha Cha.” Capozzi said the concept came to him when he heard Santa Esmeralda’s song of the same name.

“The Latin culture is vivacious and energetic, and I think they really captured it,” Capozzi said of this year’s contestants. “The looks are very exciting, very sexy and very colorful.”

Capozzi started the Shear Runway Project in 2008 as a way to challenge his staff to flex their creative muscles. As the event has grown, he’s had to move to bigger venues. There was a crowd of about 200 at Sunday’s event, which raised about $6,000.

This year attendees could use their cell phones to cast their votes for Audience Favorite. That title went to Bayport’s Tricia Mittendorf, 19, who has worked at the salon for three years. Mittendorf wrapped her model, Melissa Guleilmo, 19, of West Babylon, in colorful scarves, painted gold leafing on her skin, dyed her hair red and added orange and yellow extensions to complete the vibrant look.

Each model made their way down the catwalk strutting, dancing or being hoisted by an entourage of shirtless male dancers, while a Latin song selected by their stylist played. The contestants drew inspiration from images of flamenco dancers, South American tribal culture and Rio de Janeiro’s annual festival, Carnaval.

The look Capozzi’s model sported was partly inspired by an episode of “I Love Lucy,” which, coincidentally, was playing Sunday morning as he flipped through TV channels. (Capozzi wasn’t eligible to win, though.)

The judges -- Capozzi & Co. Salon’s manager, Sonya Balchi, hair industry veterans Barbara Radican and Claudette Rondinelli, and Tommy Matos, a wig technician for the Broadway musical “Wicked” -- crowned Balchi’s niece, Stefanie Balchi, the victor.

“She got the whole vibe of Carnaval, top to bottom,” said Matos, 43, praising Stefanie Balchi’s execution.

To win the $500 grand prize, Balchi, 22, of Patchogue, spent close to eight hours Sunday working on her model’s hair, supplementing it with Styrofoam and artificial hair pieces, so it resembled a tall headpiece.

“She had to duck going into every doorway,” Balchi said of her model, Michelle Chetty, 22, of South Africa.

This is the second consecutive year Balchi has won the contest, and she’s planning to go for a hat trick. Next year’s theme will be “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The wheels in my head are turning already,” Balchi added.  

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