Secrets of the salon: The Irish hairdressers who hear it all
A brand new RTE2 show, ‘Salon Confidential’, is about to give us the low-down on what really happens between stylist and client, a relationship characterised by honesty and intimacy. Over four weeks, we will watch as dilemmas are aired, advice is given and experiences shared. And all as hot new looks are being created. So who are the nation’s new agony aunts and uncles? Emily Hourican meets them
'Come for the hair, stay for the therapy' could be the unofficial promise of every good salon. Yes, we book in for a cut, colour, maybe an upstyle if we're feeling fancy, but once installed in that chair, we find ourselves confiding all sorts of things to the person in whose hands, literally, we are.
We might start with holiday or weekend plans, but pretty quickly we're on to split ends and problems with frizz, and from there it is a small step to far more personal matters: a job interview we're nervous about; a sick mother; a partner whose love we are not feeling. Many of us tell our hairdresser things we wouldn't tell anyone else, not our closest friends; sometimes not even our therapist, if we have one. Under cover of the general kerfuffle around towels, shampoo and the masking sound of a hairdryer, out it all comes: the worries, the fears, the stuff we don't think is important enough for professional counselling but too gloomy to burden our friends with.
This is the exact premise of a new, four-week RTE show, Salon Confidential, which eavesdrops on these intimate conversations so that we - the TV audience - get to overhear what issues are aired. Further, and often far more fascinating, we are also privy to what suggestions or observations are offered, even as we watch a magic-wand makeover in progress.
Somewhere between walking into a salon feeling sad, scruffy, old, downtrodden, and walking out feeling a million dollars, is where the confiding begins. The show is based in a proper working salon, where hair is cut, curled, coloured just as normal, and where problems are shared, solutions are sought. Sometimes, particularly knotty dilemmas will be kicked around so everyone in the salon can add their tuppenceworth to the discussion.
The physical transformation - from frump to fab - is very evident, and each of the stylists we spoke to singled this out. One even called it a "sacred" process. But the psychological unburdening matters, too.
Salon Confidential is tapping right into that. Each week, a recurring cast of hairdressers and barbers, with their real-people clients, will together try to resolve life's big dilemmas. Both stylists and customers have been carefully chosen. The stylists for their skills, personalities and life experience; the customers because they have a need for a makeover, but also some really good advice on a wide range of life's questions. Love, loss, children, ageing, money, dating, dick-pics, sexism, body image and anxiety all crop up, to be discussed and analysed over a cut and colour.
Gone are boundaries of age, profession, location and social class, leaving just open, honest conversations, about the kinds of things we are all invested in.
So, meet the stylists who are the nation's new therapists.
Hair by Nigel, Kilkenny
"Born and reared" in a village in north Tipperary called Gortnahoe, Nigel was an underage inter-county hurler with Tipperary, and knew very early on what his career would be. "There was never going to be another lifestyle choice other than hairdressing," he says. "From the age of eight years old, it was all I wanted to be, even though I was slagged by my friends for playing with my hair because it was so girlie and feminine. As a teenager, I was a trendsetter with my look, and when I graduated to bleaching my own hair, I was never short of female attention. I saw the effect that hair had on me and others. My father encouraged me, saying that if I could make a living out a hobby, I would never work a day for the rest of my life."
Nigel started training in Peter Mark in Kilkenny, then spent a few years in Dublin with the same company, and his work now brings him in "lots of directions".
"My main base is my salon, Hair by Nigel in Kilkenny," he says, "which I am proud to say has picked up many awards and accolades."
What does he love about it? "I never get bored and I love the effect we have. People never forget the way you make them feel. We can change people's perception of you, which is crucial for building relationships, creating employment, and most of all creating happiness and peace of mind."
Describe the customer-stylist relationship? "It comes in many forms," Nigel says. "We depend on the salon guests as much as they depend on us. We will laugh together, cry together, speak about almost anything - sports, kids, love life, church, boob jobs - but there is a line that you can't cross. You need to learn about boundaries too."
And, of course, not everyone gets that. "A long time ago, I had a lovely lady who came to me for years," recalls Nigel. "Before she left for Australia, she confessed to me via a letter that she had fallen in love with me, which wasn't ideal, as she was married with kids and planned to never return to Ireland again. I was totally surprised. Then she rang me in work to tell me she had made it all up, just to imagine the look on my face. I laughed it off, but to this day, I still don't know whether she was joking or not."
And how did Nigel get involved with the show? "All my Christmases came at once when I got a phone call to invite me in for an audition," he says. "I was working in France on a day trip at the time, and felt it was a wind-up, but I did my research and saw that it was legitimate. I went to Dublin very clueless about what to expect, but thinking, 'I have nothing to lose'. I originally felt it was simply an honour to be in the room, but then I realised that this was all my dreams come true. Doing what I do on-screen was like a fantasy, something I always wanted but never really knew how to achieve. Getting the email to say I was in was the definition of happiness and achievement."
Red Velvet, Crumlin
From Tallaght, Stephanie has been hairdressing since she was 13. "I got a Saturday job, and I was doing heads of highlights by the time I was sitting my Junior Cert," she says. "It's all I know, all I want to do. It's my everything, far more than just a job."
Even so, Stephanie didn't love it immediately. "The first time I put my hand to someone's head, I was, like, 'That's disgusting'. Then I found that I was good at it," she explains. "I loved how you could change someone. They could come in looking like a bag of cats and leave looking a million dollars, and you did that. You can see how thrilled they are, and that really gets me going."
And, of course, it isn't just the way they look. "When someone is sitting there, relaxed, they tell you everything," she says. "You're not just a hairdresser, you're a counsellor. People talk about everything, from a cheating husband to a friend who's after their partner, to troubles with kids. You have to be quite diplomatic in what you say. You don't want to give terrible advice. But life is very tough, especially the times we're living in now. Everyone has problems. I try to tell people that you're not on your own. Everyone feels the same. I have two kids I'm bringing up myself as a single mother. I identify with them, listen to the clients, and give them good hair at the same time."
Over 16 years in haidressing, Stephanie has heard "some mad stuff". She says: "Sometimes it's stuff you don't want to hear, because you wouldn't be equipped to deal with it. But I try my best. I had a client a few years ago, she was in a relationship with a seriously abusive partner, and she started telling me about it. I said, 'Without getting involved here, I think you're in a really bad domestic relationship'. Over the course of time, while I was doing her colour, we got really close. I was giving her numbers of places she could call, and she actually left him. After that, she'd come in after and tell my other clients, 'She helped me leave my husband!'"
Doing Salon Confidential has been a good thing in Stephanie's life. "I went through a transformation," she says. "Realising there's more out there than you know when you're inside your own little bubble. Life has changed dramatically - I'm happy at work, the kids are happy, I've a new partner. Everything just came together."
"I knew that if I was going in to do the show, I was going to be real," she says. "I'm very honest, very black and white. I talk about my dating experience, about being a mother, the things that have happened to me over the years. I want to show people that you're not on your own."
Peter Mark, Rathfarnham
"I made my name up when I was 16," says Billy, "because you need a good name if you're going to be making a name for yourself! So I took Bulsara, which is Freddie Mercury's real name, and the comedian Aziz Ansari, and put them together. I changed it on Facebook, and everyone came to know me as Billy Bunzari; even my mam calls me Bunz."
So what is his real name? "I'm not going to disclose that," Billy says. "This is mine because I proclaim it and I made it, and I feel proud of it. My features are dark, my aesthetic is always to be tanned, and I like the fact that people might be thinking, 'Where's he from? He's not Irish . . . ' I think it gives me a bit of substance I don't actually have."
How did he get into hairdressing? "When I was leaving school," Billy explains, "I wanted to do everything: fashion designer, stylist, journalist, TV presenter, hair stylist, blogger. First I did an apprenticeship in a salon, then I left that and went to study fashion-industry practice. I left that, too, and did a lot of odd jobs. I worked in Topshop, McDonald's, and then I thought, 'What am I doing?' I realised that I regretted leaving the salon apprenticeship, so I started back hairdressing, qualified, and I love it. In hindsight, I'm glad. I feel that everything that led to this point has brought me here."
What exactly does he love about it? "Hairdressing is the career where I get to incorporate all the things I love," Billy says. "It ticks all those boxes. It's creative, I make people feel beautiful and confident, and that's a really powerful thing for me."
"A client comes in and she mightn't feel great about herself," he says. "There could be anything going on that I don't know about. She doesn't have to tell me, I know she's here because she wants to change. She wants to look good and therefore feel good, and I am the person who brings her to that point, and for me, that is sacred."
"Hairdressers often get a bad rap," Billy says. "People think we stand around all day, and don't do very much. The reality is that I bring out people's beauty. You give people back the spring in their step, and for me that's a gift."
As for Salon Confidential, Billy spotted an ad online: 'Calling all hairdressers, do you want to be on TV?' "I was, like, 'That's me'. I spent hours perfecting the email I sent. I knew I wanted this; this is who I am. I knew I was meant to be on the show, and I was right. It's been an amazing experience."
Mr Snips Barber, Carlow
From Augher in Co Tyrone, Ross's older brother started barbering in a shed at the back of the family house and Ross helped him by sweeping up. "Watching my brother have his friends come in for haircuts," Ross recalls, "They'd be having the crack, and by the end of the day, he would have a few quid. At 16, isn't that the dream job?"
He trained in Mr J's Barber Shop in Co Monaghan. "It was the best training I could have got," Ross says. "The shop was constantly busy and Mr J taught me how to speak to people and make clients feel comfortable."
Ross moved to Dublin, and he now has his own salon in Carlow. "I have brilliant, loyal customers and still love what I do as much as when I first started. I love the crack with my customers in the shop, and I love that in barbering, we're always learning. As new styles and fashion come in, we have to adapt and teach ourselves. I'm also well known for my skills in hair tattooing [tribal designs and so on] and I enjoy that a lot, too."
So why did Ross want to join Salon Confidential? "The show is a brand new concept and really appealed to me," he says. "I've been a barber for 20 years, so I was confident in my skills and in my ability to chat to new customers and help them with their problems if they were looking for advice.
"Customers talk to me about everything from tough relationships to family problems, bereavements, affairs, children, health. Many have thanked me over the years for my advice and support, which is very humbling. Unfortunately, men often aren't as open when speaking about their problems. I'm very lucky that my customers know they can open up with me and I will support them or just have a laugh with them if they need to take their mind off something."
Bedford Stuy, Temple Bar
"I came into the game late," Ciaran says of hairdressing. "I started when I was 20. Before that, I was doing graphic design in college, but that wasn't working out, so I ended up getting an apprenticeship in a salon in Temple Bar, and just took it from there."
What does he enjoy most about it? "It's creative, and it doesn't get boring. You never do the same thing twice, even for the same client. The customer interaction is great, and I've made really good friends out of it. I don't even call it work - I get up in the morning, and I look forward to coming in."
"My clients are mostly men, or women who go for short hair," says Ciaran, "and they talk about all sorts. I don't think we could publish most if it! It would have to be really out there to surprise me at this stage. Working in Temple Bar for so many years, it would take a lot. No one's confessed to murder yet! Mostly, it's relationships, what they get up to at the weekend, their hair. Men are far more into hair these days."
The first step, he says, is establishing trust. "The first thing I do in a consultation is to establish a bond. I'm the first person apart from this guy's wife or partner who actually touches his head, and I'm pretty much in control of his image for the next couple of weeks, so he has to trust me."
How did he get involved with Salon Confidential? "One of the guys I work with put me on to the show, and it was a whirlwind," he says. "From the moment I was put in touch with the producer to the date we started filming would have been eight or nine days. I was one of the last ones cast."
And, is he loving it? "Yes. It's something new, a challenge - being taken out of your comfort zone, being in front of cameras, which I found I really enjoy. If someone had told me three months ago that I'd be doing all this, I would have said, 'No way!'"
"My sister was a hairdresser and that's how I got into it," says Lucan-born Ruth. "I always loved an audience. I always loved people, and a salon is perfect for me. I love stories. I don't read much, but I love to hear stories, and this way, they are so personal."
Over nearly 40 years as a hairdresser, Ruth has now followed the stories of her clients across generations. "I can see the same person, week after week, for years, and hear the ongoing story of their lives," she says. "I have four generations of the one family coming to me. Last year, someone rang me to see if a client, who had died recently, had a will made. I knew she had, and I knew where it was, and her own sister and brother didn't know. I know things I will bring to my grave."
It is a constantly evolving process. "I never get bored," says Ruth. "Each week is another instalment, a new chapter. Sometimes their lives are going well and they're happy, other times they come in and life is hard."
But she is adamant that the hard times are better shared. "It's better out than in," she says. "Sometimes, these people can't tell their partners, or their kids, so they confide in us. And I always make sure anyone who comes into my salon, they leave with a smile on their face."
That said, she points out that "you can't get too involved with someone else's life. You might offer a suggestion, even from the experience of another client, but you have to keep a bit of distance too." And you have to be discreet. "If someone comes in to me, and tells me something, that's important. I would be very private, so I would always respect that with clients. Everybody calls the hairdressers a gossip shop. It's not."
Through her decades in the business, Ruth has seen plenty of change. "When I was training, back in auld God's time, we were told never to talk about religion, politics or sex. These were taboos. You never spoke about them. Now, well, I wouldn't say I'm prudish, but I would say people are a lot more open! Sometimes I nearly have to ask what they are talking about - I don't live in a bubble, but I haven't come across some of this stuff before!"
TV producer and salon coordinator
Aine, from Tallaght, is the producer of Salon Confidential, and also the salon coordinator and receptionist. "I'm the first face the clients see as they come in," she says. "I'm not a stylist, but I have got a hairdressing background. I started hairdressing when I was 17, part-time, and I loved it, mainly because I love people. I loved doing colour and upstyling as well, but meeting clients and talking to them is what excited me. And it was a way for me to travel the world, which I did, even though media was always my first love."
Following a diploma in media studies, and then an English and History degree in Carlow, Aine started working in TV production "as a runner, a researcher, at the bottom and I built up from there, working my way up."
Within the salon space, she stresses that "it's not just about what's going on with the clients hair, it's what's going on inside their heads. You need to really draw that out of people. The stylists we have, we knew they would get the best out of people while doing such a good job.
So how do you go about persuading someone to share their troubles or concerns? "I think it comes out naturally," she says. "You can tell when someone has something on their mind - all of the stylists can. If they have a client who has something they want to say or get off their chest, if they need advice, our stylists will recognise that. They are all caring people."
"When clients come in," says Aine, "they can relax, get their hair done in a nice environment, and they can talk to someone. If they feel they look better, they feel better, that radiates from the inside. We send them away lighter, happier, feeling better about themselves. How their hair looks is less important than how they feel."
"Women," she says, "used to go to salons because they felt pressure to look a certain way. Now, we go because women are running the world and we want to look a certain way. There's a difference!"
Photography by Evan Doherty
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