This is a slightly revised version of an essay I wrote for my stylist. Last June we were talking about how hard it is to change haircutters and I decided to write an essay about it… This is my story.
I walked into the party on a hot June night last summer anxiously prepared to meet the woman I had agreed to trust, sight unseen. The day had been full of parties – first a family reunion, then a friend’s wedding – and this going-away party was the last stop of the day. I’d already consumed enough liquor to ease most of my butterflies – a good thing, as this meeting was all-important to me for one main reason.
I was about to meet my new hair stylist; the woman into whose hands I was placing my hair. The woman who could either make me look stylish as well as ten pounds lighter, or give me appearance of an overblown country music queen. It could go either way. It had in the past.
Changing hair stylists can be considered a major event in the life of a woman. The ideal stylist should not only possess the technical skills of cutting and styling hair, they must also be creative. They need to be able to see the real you under the mess of hair you enter their salon with. They need to have excellent social and conversational skills. It helps if they’re psychic.
When I was in my early twenties, I entrusted my almost-waist length locks to a woman named Valerie, the first real sylist I’d ever been to. The salon was called Nature’s Way, and since we were in Austin it was, of course, an all-natural experience. The salon possessed no blow dryers or curling irons, and absolutely no hair dyes/gels/mousses/or hair sprays. Hair was cut to follow its natural lines and dried by hand. The hand drying part was a very big deal and I tried unsuccessfully to get them to adopt a tagline such as “We do hand jobs, not blow jobs,” which they considered, but ultimately rejected as too smart-ass. On my first visit to have my long hair cut off, I was told this horrifying fact: Blow dryers reach a temperature high enough to bake cookies. This means you could technically fire up your blow dryer, aim it a blob of cookie dough, and voila! Instant Tollhouse.
Blow dryers were considered an evil and unnecessary appliance and I have a vivid recollection of going home and promptly throwing mine into the trash. Years later, after moving back to Missouri and hating the slower process of hand drying my hair in the middle of winter; I snuck out and bought a blow dryer. I felt terribly guilty and frequently mumbled apologies to my hair during the first month I used it, envisioning each and every strand of hair as a burnt cookie.
After ten years of having my hair cut the Only-In-Austin, natural way, I moved to Kansas City, a place not normally known for being cutting edge or bohemian. The words rural and homespun are much more apt to be used instead, and hair styles seemed to reflect this down-home atmosphere. After turning down an offer to use my mom’s haircutter, a guy who owned both the only salon and the only Laundromat in town, I tried a stylist several towns over who had been recommended by an acquaintance. “Well, what are we doing today?” my new haircutter asked me. I began to describe the way Valerie always cut my hair along its natural lines, making sure each section balanced the other to complement my face, as well as complement my sun sign. When I got to the hand-drying part I could tell she’d probably zoned out long ago. After a bit of silence, she clapped her hands, plastered a fake smile on her face and said ”Well OK then. Let’s give it a whirl.” I think she tried to follow the instructions with the cut, but when it was time for the drying part she said “You know, I really think I could do a better job if I just went ahead and used the blow dryer. You don’t mind, do you?” Before I could answer, she whipped out the dryer and proceeded to bake my hair. “OK, calm down” I told myself. “You’re not in Austin anymore and this is just the kind of stuff you’re going to have to get used to. It will be OK. Go to your happy place and try not to think about it.” After a few minutes, she clicked off the dryer and walked around my chair, fluffing my hair here and there, checking her lengths and saying “I think you’re going to be really pleased. Just one more thing…” That’s when she pulled out the hair spray and began lacquering her creation into place. “Uh, uh” I stammered, flapping my hands around. “No hairspray please!” “No? Are you sure?” she asked, as if I didn’t know my own mind. As if I wasn’t exactly SURE whether I wanted a highly flammable product applied to my head or not. “That’s OK!” she said brightly, obviously pleased with herself. “All done anyway. Ready?” She spun me around in the chair. I donned my glasses and stared at my reflection. My initial disbelief was followed by a profound sense of shock. It had happened, my worst nightmare come true. It wasn’t exactly a Loretta Lynn, it was more a Dottie West look. And it definitely wasn’t me.
I went home, promptly washed my hair, and didn’t set foot inside another salon for more than a year. I was growing my hair back out.
Twelve months later, I had become much more conditioned to the midwestern way of life. Having made peace with my new blow dryer and sick of the lanky carpet that my hair was beginning to resemble, I tried a series of chain haircutters, mostly for convenience’s sake. I figured it couldn’t get much worse than my first experience in this part of the country. Sadly, I would inevitably leave those places looking unevenly chopped, my hair slick against my head like a baby seal’s. It floored me that they charged extra if you wanted your hair washed and/or blow dried, and I always chose not to bother with either service. Being fresh out of cosmetology school, the haircutting skills in those places were barely passable anyway and I figured the less contact we had, the better.
One day I noticed a neighbor’s new haircut. It looked young and bouncy. It was well cut and enhanced her facial features. THIS was the type of haircut I’d been looking for. I immeditely asked for the name of her hairstylist, which she enthusiastically gave me, saying “You’ll love her.” I made the call, booked a date, and after my first appointment with Christee I was hooked. Thus began a brand new stylist chapter in my life. My hair took on a much happier and bouncier persona after my very first appointment with Christee. She was nice and really funny – attributes that make a trip to the salon worth both your time and money. Plus she was good, and took enough time to make my hair look stylish and decidedly un-country music star-like. I spent about 5 years on a faithful 6 to 8 week schedule with her – unprecedented for me – until the day she informed that she had some “news” for me. Pulling out a section of my hair and studying the length, she casually said that she and her husband had sold their house and were moving out of state. “We’re done with this place” she said. Sadly, I understood perfectly what she meant, but her happiness wasn’t my main area of concern. What about me? What about all the years I spent searching for her, finding her, dedicating my hair to her? Crying seemed only slightly over the top as a reaction to that news, but since I’m not a crier I resorted to begging. “Can I go with you? Please say yes. My hair neeeeeeds you.” The whining was pathetic. “Don’t worry,” she said while prying my fingers from their vise-like grip on her arm, “we’ve got someone else lined up that I think you’ll like. Chandra’s really, really nice and it would be a personal favor to me if you’d just promise to give her a try. Besides, you can meet her ahead of time at my going-away party next month. Just give her a try. That’s all I ask.”
After flexing my fingers and taking several deep cleansing breaths, I agreed. I figured if Christee was giving her the thumbs-up, everything would probably be OK.
So here I was, on a hot June night, drunk and apprehensive and ready to meet the woman who would take the place of those who came before her – the good and the bad, the talented and the horrible, the chic and the drab. And I knew it as soon as I saw her – I knew which one she would be, because sometimes you just get a sense for these things. For once I didn’t have to go looking for my next hair relationship. For once in my life, it came to me.
Chandra has exceeded my expectations ten-fold. She uses words like pretty and delicious to describe my hair. Words that nurture me and make me feel confident enough to let her do whatever she wants. She knows what my hair is supposed to look like and I always leave her chair looking both 10 years younger and 10 pounds lighter. Strangers have gone out of their way to comment on my hair, and while I can’t adequately duplicate her efforts at home, I’ve learned to embrace both the hairstyling mousse product and a good hairspray.
Yes, after a year of having my hair Chandraized, I’ve determined that this is a good match, a perfect match even. She’s better than any other hair stylist I’ve ever had. I’m content, and really, it’s all about what’s good for me, right? So here’s the deal, Chandra, and I hope you understand – You can never, ever quit doing my hair. Never. Because if you leave I’ll cry. I swear I will.
And if that doesn’t work, I will beg.