Monday, May 23, 2011

Salon Confidential

By Eunnie Park
Reproduced with permission of
The Record of Hackensack, NJ

When Jennifer Aniston split from her husband, Brad Pitt, earlier this year, she reportedly ran straight to Chris McMillan - her hairstylist - to cry on his shoulder.

Not to her family.

Not to her "Friends."

But to the dude who cuts her hair.

Granted, Aniston is a celebrity known for her lovely locks (i.e. "The Rachel" in the Nineties), but it still seems strange that a hairstylist would be the first person she turns to in a moment of crisis. Surely girlfriends, therapists and spiritual advisers are better suited to handle this sort of thing - I mean, how close could she possibly be with her haircutter?

Pretty darn close, says Pat Wynn Brown, creator of "Hair Theater," a talk theater piece about the importance of hair, and author of the upcoming "Hair-A-Baloo: The Revealing Comedy and Tragedy on Top of Your Head."

"There are times in a woman's life where they want to go to the safest place on earth," says Brown. "And a lot of times, our hairdresser is deemed as one of the safest persons that we know."

Celebrity or not, many women have strong, close bonds with their hairstylists that are incomparable to any other client/service professional relationship. We come to them on our best days, we come to them on our worst days. We sit in that swivel chair, spilling our secrets, problems and life stories while getting our hair cut/permed/ colored/set.

We see this relationship all around us - in movies such as "Beauty Shop" starring Queen Latifah and on Broadway ("Steel Magnolias"); in celebrities' lives, like Aniston's; in real life, with our own hairdressers. Unlike our pharmacists or dry cleaners, these professionals often end up becoming a unique combination of confidante, friend and therapist.

But why?

A lot of it has to do with our relationship with our hair, says Brown. For many women, hair is our security blanket, our identity, our source of anger, frustration and (if we're lucky) pride and joy.

"Hair is emotional, psychological, it's sexual, it's so much a part of who we are," says Brown.

My friend and fellow hair aficionado, Aram Bae, explains it like this: "If you have a bad hair day, your whole day is bad. Good hair day means great day. Great confidence."

And our obsession with our hair isn't entirely unfounded, either. Hair is among the first things people notice about us. |It has a significant impact on our overall appearance, and a new 'do can go a long way.

"Hair is one of the biggest changes you can do to yourself in a short period of time, other than plastic surgery," says Rodney Cutler, celebrity hairstylist and owner of the upscale Cutler Salon in Soho.

Which is why when undergoing major shifts in life, we make changes in our hairstyle. Women do this all the time, especially famous ones. Some examples:

Ashlee Simpson dyed her blonde hair dark when she was coming of age and trying to distinguish herself from her sister, Jessica.

Samantha of Sex and the City shaved it off when she could finally face the reality of breast cancer.

Alanis Morissette cut her signature long hair short to symbolize the release of her "last piece of stereotypical femininity," she told

And as people who can deliver these changes in appearance and spirit, hairstylists wield a lot of power.

"It's almost like they're hair gods," says Brown. "We want them to give us the type of hair that will lead to the type of life that we cherish and we hope for."

Hairdressers are very aware of this power - enough to influence some beauty schools to revamp their curriculum to focus more on customer service. Parisian Beauty Academy in Hackensack, for one, recently became a Paul Mitchell Partner School, a franchise that values its students' interpersonal skills.

"If your hairstylist is making you feel comfortable even when you're just walking through the door, you're going to open up to him [and] confide in him," says Penny Muccia, dean of Parisian.

And building trust with the client is an extremely important part of the beauty industry, adds Jim Cox, executive director of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools: "I think you'll find that the more successful hairdressers are not necessarily the ones who have the greatest technical skills, but the ones who have the best chair-side manners and have the personalities."

In addition to Parisian's standard texts (which already emphasize communication), Muccia also incorporates into the curriculum principles from self-improvement books. Two that she considers bibles are Be Nice (Or Else)! by Winn Claybaugh and Life as a Daymaker: How to Change the World by Making Someone's Day by David Wagner.

Both authors are renowned hairdressers. In his book, Wagner talks of the time he unwittingly saved a client from suicide by being particularly warm to her during an appointment. He writes, "The wonderful time she had during our appointment had given her hope that things could get better."

With these kinds of stories, it's no wonder there's a common saying that women are more likely to listen to their hairdressers than to their doctors. ("It's almost a cliché," says Cox.)

In other words, it's not just about the hair. So what is it about?

First, the conversation.

My friend Aram goes to her hairstylist not for his haircuts (his work is good but far from great, she says), but for his company. "I go to him because we've developed this bond - a stranger-to-stranger, fellow humanity bond," she says. "I totally respect him, and I know he respects me. ... He's actually interested in my life and why I do what I do."

Second, the time and attention.

During a typical appointment, we have at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time, during which we make eye contact (albeit through the mirror) and talk about any topic of our choice. In this busy day and age, we're lucky to get that kind of attention from our friends.

"You have this intense, concentrated period of time, where you actually have open dialogue and you're touching their hair at the same time," says Cutler. "I think the dynamics and the chemistry create a very strong relationship."

Which leads us to the third bond-building experience: touching.

Everyone agrees that touch builds a relationship like none other. And in that sense, hairstylists are head-and-shoulders above therapists, life coaches, spiritual leaders and other professionals who are not supposed to touch us (legally, at least).

"The physical touch breaks down a lot of barriers," says Muccia.

Adds Cutler: "Once you touch a woman's hair, the whole dynamic changes."

"Anytime anyone touches somebody else, there's a bond there," Brown says. "So you're connected to that person physically, emotionally and psychologically."

And so, a relationship is born. The hairstylist becomes one of the most important people in our lives. The kind who sees us at our worst and best. The kind who can shampoo our problems away. The kind we want to run to when we're breaking up with our husbands.

But wait. What happens when we break up with our hairstylists?

Forget it. That's another beast entirely. We'll hit that topic some other time - maybe when Jennifer Aniston does the unthinkable and breaks up with her man. Her hairdressing man, that is.

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