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April 8, 2010

My Hairdresser: A Love Story

Suzan Sherman's stylist was sexy — and straight. She followed him to the heights of success... and then all the way down again.

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warren beatty in shampoo

Hot hairdresser: Warren Beatty in the 1975 film Shampoo.

Photo Credit: Everett Collection

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I never would’ve met my handsome hairdresser if a friend hadn't given me a $50 coupon to a fancy Manhattan salon. With my coupon in hand, I sat in a black leather chair, surrounded by glistening mirrors that caught the sparkle of the crystal chandeliers overhead. As stylists fussed and buzzed around their well-heeled clients, I saw him walking toward me.

He ran his hands through his thick, curly brown hair. My eyes traveled down to his shirtsleeves, rolled up to reveal sculpted arms. Standing behind me now, he rested his hands on my shoulders as if I'd been his client for years, and asked what it was that I wanted.

At some point during this first appointment, which was back in 1995, my stylist alluded to being straight, mentioning an ex-girlfriend, presumably to set himself apart from the other male stylists in the salon, who were without question gay. He had a Harley-Davidson, he said offhandedly, which he rode to work. In the mirror I saw that he had a Harley belt buckle, too.

He was like Warren Beatty in Shampoo, holding his hair dryer with that certain movie-star swagger. As he ruffled my hair and tilted my head, I was mesmerized by the choreography, the slight, steady pressure of his belt buckle against my shoulder, my back.

I started to see him regularly. Up until then, I'd gone from stylist to stylist, never settling on anyone in particular. I was in my early 20s and just beginning my life in the city. I lacked confidence in my looks; I was awkward-seeming, bookish. But in the hours I spent at the salon, I could feel myself transforming, my haircuts perfectly framing my cheekbones, my chin, my eyes. Afterward, I'd brush the stray bits of hair off my lap, feeling like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, a poor flower girl elevated to a stylish woman of the world.

With each appointment, we'd try something different. I'd show him crumpled pages of hairstyles I'd ripped from magazines, and he seemed to appreciate my penchant for trying new things. Once, I produced a photo of a brunette with thick beige streaks — a sort of punk-skunk effect. Although it took hours for him to bleach out my black hair before adding in the beige, he gave me that look exactly.

As he worked, I'd surreptitiously gaze at the two of us within the frame of the mirror. His fingers, covered with sterling-silver rings, would touch my head, my hair, my shoulders. He must have kept this fine balance of intimacy and distance with everyone, I thought. A master at measuring out just enough.

By the end of each appointment, my blown-out hair — fluffed up, falling perfectly over one eye — made me a movie star, a rock star, a rich wife. Men did double takes on the street, and I felt my confidence surging. It was such a contrast to my otherwise mundane life, working as a freelance writer at home, my hair pulled up into a ponytail with a rubber band.

My hairdresser was so good at what he did, he quickly moved up to the most exclusive salons on Manhattan's moneyed Upper East Side, where blonde women of leisure dropped hundreds of dollars on highlights. I followed him everywhere, feeling proud for having discovered him in his more humble beginnings. And even though he always gave me a discount of sorts — prices were never listed at these hushed, refined salons — he was beginning to go way beyond what I could afford. But still I continued to see him, because I was, well, becoming addicted to him.

>He was an addict, too, I learned, or a recovering one, for he occasionally hinted that he was sober. Ten years without a drink. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. We didn't talk about it much; it seemed as if it would be crossing a line.

When he and I had been together for 10 years, I spotted my first grays, and seeing him became even more of a "necessity," even if my hands shook every time the receptionist handed me my receipt.

After he had reached the height of success — he'd been working at Oribe, an upscale Fifth Avenue salon — things began going south. He whispered that he'd had a conflict with the owner, and weeks later I received a message from his assistant, informing me of my stylist's new address.

After that, the salons changed rapidly.

Inevitably, I called for appointments at places where he no longer worked, but I always managed to track him down. At one tiny salon in the city's gritty meatpacking district, I walked up three flights of creaky stairs. As he cut away my frayed ends, he confided, "I've been taking painkillers."

The next time I saw him, it was at a different salon yet again. A pair of neon scissors blinked in the window, and I wondered if I had the wrong address. I peered through the glass, and he ushered me in.

After my shampoo, he stood behind me, thinner, more pale, his eyes slightly red. I didn't say a word. What I wanted to say was that he was so much better than this. The woman cutting hair beside him wore ripped fishnet stockings, revealing her plump, puckered thighs. She said something about having a hangover, before laughing about it for too long. I saw then that my hairdresser's hands were shaking, and I caught a whiff of liquor on his breath. My heart sank. We had been together for 15 years, but, sadly, I was done.

I've only seen him once since then, walking down the street with two much younger women. In that fleeting moment, I couldn't tell if his eyes were bloodshot from alcohol or pills; I only saw his wry smile.

By then, I was in my 30s, and I'd grown confident in my appearance. My layered, chestnut-brown hair was shoulder length, with subtle auburn highlights. More importantly, my inner life felt far more mature than it had during that first appointment so many years ago, and I'll always be grateful to the man who helped me get there.

Suzan Sherman has written for the New York Times and the New York Observer, and is just completing her first novel.


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