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Keeping a Traveler's Haircut From Becoming a Tale of Shear Horror


'To get a bad haircut is to be humiliated," said a wise woman I know. Anyone who's walked out of a salon in a state of self-loathing and shock can attest to the truth of that. And to make matters worse, the horror lasts for two or three months, leering at you in the mirror every morning when you wake up.

For this reason, most women I know wouldn't dream of walking into a salon when they're away from home and letting the first available stylist loose with a pair of scissors. A colleague of mine who's had her hair cut by the same hairdresser for the last 20 years likened such foolhardy behavior to having sex with a stranger, and one of my friends who is just as devoted to her stylist said she wouldn't dare do such a thing because when she got home her haircutter would never forgive her.

The relationship between a woman and her stylist is a deep, mysterious thing--partly fueled by the experience of the haircut itself. A shearing is something overextended modern women do for themselves, a half an hour of guiltless narcissism that can result in a restored self-image. You go in feeling like an ugly duck and emerge a swan, with a whole new lease on life. My old New York stylist, Jim Green, who works out of the spartan West Village apartment where he also lives and teaches tai chi, became a dear friend. Over the years, he helped me sort through my problems while I sat in his chair and always kissed me on both cheeks when I left.

None of this explains why I routinely take my life--or, maybe more important, my appearance--in my hands when I'm on the road by having my hair cut by strangers. But travel is bedraggling, and halfway through a trip I generally find myself in dire need of a make-over, or at least a little upkeep. And I feel bolder than usual when I'm away from home. So I just go for it. Besides, I think it's fun to visit salons in exotic places to see how the women there conduct the rite of the haircut.

Two years ago, on a little alleyway in northern Beijing, I stepped into a salon that didn't look much different than one you'd find in Tulsa or Dubuque, said nihao (or hello, about the extent of my Mandarin) and then asked for a haircut in pantomime. The hairdresser knew exactly what I wanted, sat me down in his chair and poured half a bottle of shampoo on my head, diluted with only a little bit of water. The ensuing shampoo-massage went on for 30 minutes. I couldn't imagine how he'd ever rinse out all the soap. But he did, and when I looked at myself in the mirror at the end of the procedure, I had a nice pageboy (for about $2), like every other woman in the People's Republic.

As a college student in the East I once went into New York and got a cut from a Madison Avenue stylist, then returned to school for finals feeling like Jacqueline Onassis. After a camping trip in the Cevennes Mountains of southern France, I showed up at a Paris salon in muddy hiking boots, which--much to my surprise--seemed to charm the hairdresser, who gave me one of the most chic cuts of my life.

I know I'm not the only woman who has her hair cut around the world. At dinner recently, three of my girlfriends admitted that they'd all gotten their first shags while visiting London back in the '70s. Brave Thalia Zepatos, author of "A Journey of One's Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler" (The Eighth Mountain Press, $14.95), saves money by frequenting haircutting schools wherever she goes.

Another woman I talked to got a haircut for her wedding at a little salon in a village in southern Germany, and on the spur of the moment a journalist I know from L.A. stopped into the salon at New York's Plaza Hotel because she was just about to interview the Duchess of York and didn't want to show up looking frumpy. When she told the stylist, Peter Vancek, that the prospect of the interview was making her feel stressed, he waved his magic scissors over her head and sent her off looking like royalty herself.

Vancek, who cut the hair of countless travelers while working at the Plaza (he now works at Lugo Chabrier on Madison Avenue), is never fazed when unfamiliar women come in and want him to change their lives with shears. "I'm a hairdresser, after all. That's what I do," he says. Jim Green is a little more circumspect, advising women to be conservative when they stop for a cut on the road. "Don't go for a major change," he says. "Ask for a little trim."

If you want 2 inches off the bottom, tell the hairdresser 1 1/2 inches, just to be on the safe side. And make sure he knows how upset you'll be if he lets loose and turns you into Boy George, because as Jim says, "No stylist wants a woman freaking out in the chair."

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