Memoir: I’m usually loyal to a fault—so why do I always betray my hairdressers?

Memoir: I’m usually loyal to a fault—so why do I always betray my hairdressers?

It’s time I faced the truth about my philandering ways

Janet opens the door to her house, already wearing her powdery white latex gloves, left over from her mother’s kidney dialysis.

“Did you bring the foils?” she asks.

“Yeah, I cut some at home.”

“We should get the ones from the beauty supply store for next time,” she says. “They’re thinner and easier to work with.”

I put down my bag of contraband hair products, procured from my sister, a professional stylist, and pick up a glass of wine. Our friend M. is already here, with a towel around her shoulders. Her hair is swirled around her head in a muddy paste. (M. has asked for anonymity out of respect for her former colourist.) She checks her watch; eight more minutes to go.

“Shall we start?” Janet says to me, snapping her gloves. I pull out assorted bleaches, toners and potions, along with my sister’s handwritten instructions. One sentence is underlined: “No more than 10 minutes under dryer,” it reads, “or hair may fall out.” We mix up a nasty-smelling brew that turns a purple colour—a horrible Easter pastel that, when slathered on my hair and blasted with heat, will result in lustrous streaks of blond.

Homemade highlights.

I was tired of spending $120 and long afternoons in a salon chair. Everything else today is high-speed; I eagerly await the blond app. In the meantime, our colour cabals have become a pleasant ritual. We save a pile of money, while also enjoying a nice sauvignon blanc. And so far no one has run screaming from the results. Our DIY salon intervention is working out well.

In Janet’s kitchen, we pour more wine as she paints thin strands of my hair with the purple stuff, then folds them up in aluminum foil, like nasty little hors d’oeuvres. Next, I go under the hair dryer—an old-fashioned table model with a transparent bubble hood, salvaged from some family garage. The roar of the dryer takes me back to my first after-school job, at the age of 15, as a shampoo girl at Rico’s House of Beauty in Burlington.

My salary was 84 cents an hour—a step up from my paper route—and what I liked about the job was, well, handling people. I liked cradling their heads in the cutaway sink as I tried not to shoot hot water into their eyes. I didn’t mind sweeping up other people’s hair at the end of the day; hair is easily swept. Most of all, I enjoyed the warm and slightly raunchy world of the salon, which was run by Sam Rico and his gorgeous wife. There were a lot of salty jokes between the two of them and their customers—a change from my unsalty WASP household. I can still see Rico, his dark, thick hair neatly barbered, holding his comb and scissors over the head of a customer who had just made him laugh. He would stop, step back, bend over and laugh one of those prolonged, only-on-the-inhale laughs. No fashion angst or house music; Rico’s House of Beauty was a relaxed, accepting world.

I was tired of spending $120 and long afternoons in a salon chair. Everything else is high-speed; I eagerly await the blond app

Things were different in Toronto. I moved to the city at the end of the ’60s, when the salon was gaining a new cultural currency. Stylists were not just in the personal service business; they were our consultants in the suddenly crucial matter of self-expression and public image. Hair had evolved from the stiff beehives and military brush cuts of the ’50s to long, unfettered locks or Vidal Sassoon precision cuts that swung with the body. What we were looking for in a stylist was not just skill, but a “good relationship” with someone who “understood us.” Finding the right one wasn’t easy.

Playing the field involved a number of regrettable flings. I put up with a pricy stylist-owner who scolded me for meekly asking him to “change my part” (a metaphorical urge, no doubt). “Why are you being so neurotic about your hair?” he asked. “Why are you in this business?” I should have replied—everyone is neurotic about their hair. I went to a flame-haired Wiccan with pots of toxic foxglove growing in the window of her shop. She used only natural products, with disastrous results.

Eventually, I gravitated to the Rainbow Room, a zone of hipness presided over by the legendary John Steinberg. John was the consummate stylist—creative, charming and on the cutting edge (so to speak) of the city’s cultural scene. He always dressed well to cut hair—a way of saying, “What we’re doing here matters.” (When he died last fall at the age of 67, I felt a pang, even though I hadn’t seen him in years—evidence that our relationship with the salon is not as superficial as we think.) But I left him, too. I remember talking to a friend my age who was also seeing John. We both agreed that he had been “making us look middle-aged.” Ha! Hermana, it’s not the cut—it’s the calendar.

So we move on, hoping someone new will make us look the way we used to. After all, there’s so much in life we can’t change—but leaving your stylist is always an option. You don’t have to give notice, go to counselling or put up with late-night breakup texts (“Wuz it the bangs? I cn fix”). You just stop calling.

Back in Janet’s kitchen, the wine is finished. The foils come off. I am blonder. And I’m optimistic that my shabby salon habits are behind me, because there’s someone new in my life—Karleena, a stylist who works in a low-key shop on Dundas West. She’s young, she’s gifted, and I hope to treat her in the way she deserves. I’ve been open with her about my past philandering, and all she said was, “Let’s take it one appointment at a time.” She’s even supportive of my DIY highlights.

Meanwhile, to all the hairdressers in Toronto I have betrayed in the past, I just want to say I’m sorry: it’s not you, it’s me.

Marni Jackson is a journalist and author. She’s currently completing a new work of fiction.

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