Monday, 30 November -0001

Forget Diamonds…hairdressers are a lady’s best friend

A hairdresser doesn’t just style hair, says Andrew Barton – you are a confidant, mind reader and teller of harsh truths, too

Written by Andrew Barton
It all started with my mum. She used to cart me along to the local salon while she had her weekly ‘do’. The very smell of the place excited me. I would play with my building bricks as she flicked through the latest magazines (doubtless The Lady among them) under the hood dryer at ‘He and She’ – the local unisex salon in our Yorkshire village.

My mum and grandmother were there every week at the same time, transforming themselves from the working-class ladies they were into the Hollywood starlets they read and dreamed about. In my eyes, my mother looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor – all raven glossy locks – so the hairdresser didn’t have to work too hard to turn her into a divine vision of beauty, but she always left that salon looking fabulous, each week with a different ‘look’ depending on whether her hair had been flipped or coiled or teased. I was amazed. I stared in disbelief as the ladies were transformed via rollers and sprays, teases and tweaks. I marvelled at how they left with a spring in their step – at least until the harsh Yorkshire winds buffeted their new ‘dos’ and blew them all out of place – and I knew then precisely what I wanted to be.

I have since had the good fortune to work around the world. In Sydney I learnt how to do the perfect sun-kissed beach highlight; in Los Angeles how to surf and do hair in the same day. I’ve been blessed to work alongside the very best stylists, and I’ve sweated backstage at the top fashion shows in London, Paris, Milan and New York. I have tended to royalty and appeared on daytime TV, in 10 Years Younger. It’s all a far cry from my humble beginnings.

But perhaps the most important lesson I have learnt is that a hairdresser must be a lady’s best friend. Not just by changing the way she looks and feels about herself, but often by listening and being her very closest confidant, too. I don’t know what it is about hair salons that makes people want to reveal their most colourful and private secrets, but some of the stories my clients have told me would make your hair curl.

I’m told things that no one else knows. Completely out of the blue, clients will impart revelations they wouldn’t dream of sharing with their husbands, their doctors or even their psychiatrists. I have been privy to the details of affairs, divorces, court battles and, ahem, bedroom disappointments. They tell me why they’re worried about their children, why they’re fretting about their pets.

And sometimes things get a little out of control. There was once a terrible screaming match in my salon when by coincidence a man’s wife and his mistress turned up for an appointment at the same time. It turned into a full-blown catfight. There was shouting and crying and pulling of hair as curlers and tongs and cans of mousse went flying. I had to break it up – but then that’s all in a day’s work for a hairdresser.

On another occasion, I was cutting the hair of a well-known British businessman when I noticed another lady client staring at him. Eventually, she reached across and asked whether he was who she thought he was. He smiled politely and said ‘Hello’, doubtless expecting her to ask for an autograph, but instead she went absolutely bananas and blamed him for something he apparently had done to the business of some distant relative or other. The tirade went on for about five minutes, and as I pulled him out of the salon for his own safety, she just went back to her magazine – which wasn’t, for the record, The Lady. Just what is it about having your hair done that brings out so much unbridled honesty?

Hair has a language of its own. The way it’s worn, arranged and dressed reveals something of the owner’s identity. Hair is an expression of personality, individuality and rank. Hair has created rebellions, controversy, pain and joy. As a hairdresser, you have to understand this language. But you also have to be able to get to the bottom of what your clients really want. You have to be able to read their needs, just as a friend would.

I had one client who always used to go on about how she wanted her hair to be. I was clearly missing something, though, as she never seemed entirely satisfied. Until one day – when she came to the salon with her Afghan hound.

‘This is how I want my hair,’ she said, gesturing at the dog’s flowing locks. ‘Exactly like this.’

It’s a cliché that people tend to look like their dogs, but this lady evidently wanted to take it to the next level. She wanted the same colour, the same gradation of colour, the same length, even the same texture. And to be fair, she looked pretty good with it.

But just like a best friend, a good hairdresser must also know when to say no. After all, a woman’s hair is the one outfit she doesn’t take off; it must suit her personality, her build, her face shape, her age. Sometimes, older clients will bring 30-year-old pictures of themselves and ask for the same ‘do’. This is never a good idea. I have to explain gently that they’re hanging on to the past, that it’s time to embrace something new. It’s not always easy, but that’s what friends are for.

Some of the requests I receive can be a bit peculiar, too. I did one lady’s hair for years and years, and she always used to joke that I’d have to do her hair for her when she died. And when she did die, her husband called, asking me to do just that. She really had wanted me to give her a final cut in the coffin – and it was a very strange experience. In fact, I dealt with it by chatting to her throughout, just as I might talk to an old friend.

On other occasions, it’s a case of managing expectations – I work with scissors, not a magic wand – or helping someone through the transition from one look to another. Jerry Hall is one of my clients. She’s known for her beautiful mane of hair, but last year she had it cut off for a L’Oréal campaign. It was interesting after that, as she didn’t quite know what to do without her trademark ‘do’, which she always used to flick over her shoulder in that iconic way. We spent a while trying to work with the shorter look, but I have now encouraged her to grow it back. I’m seeing her through that process. Incidentally, an older woman should never cut off her hair simply because she thinks she’s past it. For some people, it’s all about who they are.

With the right hair, a woman can feel as if she can do anything – enabling that is my passion. And if it involves listening to a few secrets while I’m doing it, well, it’s all part of an honest day’s work.

Andrew is creative director at Urban Retreat at Harrods: 020-7893 8333,

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