Cutting ties

The stress of breaking up with your hairdresser

I first met Lana when I won a free haircut with her in a fundraising raffle at the London Buddhist Centre, where I sometimes went to yoga classes. Lana meditated for an hour a day, didn’t drink, was nearly vegan, wore hippy clothes and worked from her flat, which had a Buddhist shrine in the living room. When I went for my free haircut, I had to wash my own hair over her bath, while she lit a joss stick and put on some mood music. It was unglamorous but she was a good cutter and intelligent; her conversation was high level. She offered another appointment for £30 and I snapped it up. Even then, though, she made me uneasy. I’m wary of overt spirituality, especially of western Buddhists, plus I couldn’t place her. Why was a very good hairdresser working out of her flat so cheaply, and not in a salon in the West End?

Over the next few years I got to know Lana quite well. She’d grown up in small-town Sussex and was from a modest background (belied by her classless, unplaceable accent), had done some professional acting as a child and had ambitions to become an actress but left school and home at sixteen due to undisclosed family issues. Her mother had another much younger daughter by her second marriage and this child was mollycoddled in a way that Lana hadn’t been. She intimated she’d done loads of drugs as a bored teenager, which jarred, as her new persona was so clean-living. Still, people grow up so I wasn’t unduly surprised. Having to fend for herself, she’d fallen into hairdressing. In her late twenties, she returned to education and eventually gained a first in politics from Cambridge. After university she attempted to have a corporate career in the City but couldn’t hack it and reverted to hairdressing. I met her not long afterwards. I suspected the Buddhism was a new direction for her, towards a simpler, less materialistic life.

I always felt she had the upper hand, since she was wielding the scissors

However, cracks in her wholesome image soon appeared. She was heavily involved in the Buddhist Centre and had a boyfriend she’d met there, but gradually revealed he was unsatisfactory and she was two-timing him with another guy. Once, she asked if I was interested in buying a pair of her old shoes – porn-star platform stilettos with six-inch heels. She told me she loved high-maintenance, Dita von Teese-esque glamour and that was how she dressed when she went out on the town. I couldn’t quite square this with her homespun yogi style.

Then her dad died. Understandably, she was upset. She inherited some money and told me she’d gone shopping in Selfridges and treated herself to a glass of champagne.

“I thought you didn’t drink?”
“In Buddhism they teach you there is a time for everything. Right now, it’s time to treat myself.”
“Are you not meditating anymore?”

No, she replied, because it wasn’t the right time. I didn’t know enough about Buddhism to question this and, in any case, who was I to pass judgement on how she dealt with her grief?

By then several friends were using her on my recommendation. She was visiting people’s homes as well as renting a chair in a scruffy salon nearby. Her prices crept up, but not unreasonably. She could be sweet: after I gave birth to my daughter, she gave me a free haircut. Once, she very gently detangled and cut the hair of a severely depressed friend and offered to do some mysterious-sounding “bodywork” with her, but never actually fixed a date. I forgave this because I could barely cope with my depressed friend’s frightening distress myself.

By now she had ditched the Buddhist boyfriend and was going out with an old friend from Cambridge, a corporate lawyer who had grown up in Dubai. This sounded unpromising but according to Lana he’d had such an international upbringing he was “completely non-racist”, one of the things she admired about him. They got engaged. Grand, complex wedding plans dominated her conversation, and rapidly she began to change.

She started sending out marketing emails, which contained haircare tips along with pensées designed to inspire and empower her clients. She introduced various loyalty schemes and began to upsell, encouraging me to buy expensive shampoos only she could source, and to spend money on colouring treatments I couldn’t really afford. She was persuasive and I was too cowed to say no.

Gradually, her manner became less confiding and more boastful. She got into fine wine and fine dining and her clothes became sharper. Her emails contained photographs of herself, heavily made-up, in magaziney poses. I’d never thought of her as beautiful but she was photogenic with the sort of generically attractive face that might have taken her far as an actress.

During this time I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and then, once I’d got through treatment, my partner was jobless for six months and I became the sole breadwinner. While I was still recovering, Lana began advising me how to boost my career with life coaching style maxims. She intimated I should leave Martin because he’d never earned enough. Our appointments became more psychologically fraught, infused with power play about class and taste and success; I always felt she had the upper hand since she was wielding the scissors. Like a frog in a slowly boiling pot, I didn’t register the friction until what turned out to be my final appointment.

I was getting my hair cut before a friend’s 40th birthday party. Her husband, another corporate lawyer, was taking a group of us out to Hakkasan in Soho. As I walked to the salon, I realised I was steeling myself for the prospect of Lana. Why was I so nervous about my hairdresser? This was ridiculous. Still, many women will testify that they have fraught relationships with their hairdressers. A bad haircut can ruin the next few months, and it can be so hard to change hairdressers that the only way to do it without pain is to fake your own death. Remember the scene in Fleabag where the sister has a breakdown over a terrible wonky bob? My life changed drastically, aged thirteen, when garrulous Brian from the salon Hair by Brian got carried away with talking and cut my hair so short I looked like a boy. I was a flat-chested teenager who did not “bloom” early and after that haircut I was bullied by a group of older boys at school, who said I looked like a particularly ugly footballer. It took me ages to grow my hair back to an acceptably feminine length, by which point I’d moved to a girls’ school. In my twenties I suffered psoriasis of the scalp and hair loss, so a hairdresser who can make my thin hair look half-decent is a prize indeed. Still, I couldn’t continue going to one who made me feel so anxious. I feared Lana and I were going to have an argument or at least some sort of reckoning.

Hairdresser Lana’s wholesome, clean-living image was at odds with her luxury aspirations and aggressive marketing

“I love Hakkasan. The cocktails are divine,” Lana pronounced, as she confidently snipped.
“I’ve never been but the menu looks great. I think I’m going to order the lobster. Jonathan’s loaded, so he can afford it.” I was joking but Lana flinched slightly.
“Can I just ask something?”
“What?” I was on alert. This was it: the reckoning.
Lana’s tone was breezily forthright: “Has anyone ever told you that you talk about money a lot?”
“No. They haven’t.” My heart started beating. “Do I?”
“You’re always mentioning money.”

I was startled. “That’s probably because I don’t have very much. It’s a constant worry.” Plus, you are constantly trying to extract money from me, I wanted to say, but instead diffused the tension with blustered excuses about my impecuniousness.
When I came to pay, she admired my Marc Jacobs purse.

“It’s ancient. I got it in a sale for ten quid.”
“There you go again. You should just thank me for the compliment and not mention that it was cheap.”
Astonished, I escaped from the salon.

It can be so hard to change hairdressers that the only way is to fake your own death

“She’s insane!” said Marcia, a jeweller friend who had used Lana. “Last time I saw her we got into an argument about whether lab-grown diamonds have the same energy and meaning as diamonds formed by the earth. She went bananas when I said they didn’t and stopped cutting my hair. Wouldn’t even dry it. I realised I was actually scared of her. She’s projecting – she’s the one who’s obsessed with money.”

Madeleine, another friend, had also fallen foul of Lana’s temper: “I asked her to recut a bit and she got really angry, started recutting in this furious way. I was too scared to move.”

Another, more self-contained friend said she “wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Lana” but had managed to stay on the right side by never engaging in conversation.

For ages, I dreaded going past Lana’s salon, in case I bumped into her. She still bombarded me with marketing emails and even messaged to ask why I no longer used her, as the feedback would be helpful in developing her business. I didn’t respond.
Google tells me she is no longer a hairdresser but now runs a high-end jewellery business, more aligned with her aspirational soul. She is ultra-glossy and transformed from the modest Buddhist I originally met. Perhaps the key to Lana is that, at heart, she has always been the actress she once longed to be; she has moved through radically different phases and this is her latest role. Or maybe this is the one she always wanted.

For the past five years I’ve had a lovely male hairdresser in Fitzrovia, a friend of a friend, who is into Five Rhythms dancing and doesn’t frighten me. The ghost of Lana has haunted me, but the pen is mightier than the scissors, and hopefully, by writing this, I have exorcised her.

All names have been changed

Rowena Macdonald is the author of “Smoked Meat” and “The Threat Level Remains Severe”. She has just finished a third work of fiction, set in Selfridges

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Life, March 2024

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