Sue Levy, who makes a living teaching people how to eat healthy, was facing a rather unappetizing problem. After several weeks without a trip to her hair stylist, the Brookline resident noticed that her red curly locks were beginning to bear a startling resemblance to Ronald McDonald’s corkscrew coiffure.
Fearing that clients may have a hard time taking nutritional advice from someone who resembles the mascot of a fast-food chain, Levy had to confront a problem that many of us are facing as we shelter-at-home because of COVID-19. She needed to figure out how to tame those McDonald Land locks before she gave several webinars.
So Levy did what would have been unthinkable just weeks ago. She handed a pair of scissors to her daughter and told her to start cutting.
“It’s terrifying watching your 10-year-old in the mirror with a pair of scissors,” Levy said. “I was just thinking ‘Oh my God!’ In the end she did a great job."
Cooped up for weeks as we shelter-at-home, self-quarantine, and socially distance, we’ve suddenly lost the valuable skills of stylists, colorists, and barbers. Given that the president has extended social distancing guidelines until April 30, this is a coronavirus-induced hairy situation that’s only going to get worse. It’s not just a problem for folks deemed essential who report for work every day. Even those of us sheltering behind closed doors remain on daily display thanks to work meetings and social gatherings on Zoom and FaceTime.
But with the prospect of a proper haircut or dye job at least a month away, there’s a strong chance many of us will end up with hair that looks as if it belongs to Joe Exotic of “Tiger King,” Phil Spector, either member of 1980s hip-hop duo Kid n’ Play, Little Orphan Annie, Halle Berry in the movie “B.A.P.S.,” or, if we’re lucky, that time Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007. The more dramatic among us may opt for a floral Rhoda Morgenstern headscarf or a Joan Crawford turban.
Perhaps you recall the late 1980s infomercial for the Flowbee, a device that attached to your vacuum cleaner to cut hair. It promised to turn your Hoover into the Vidal Sassoon of household appliances. The Flowbee produced two hairstyles flawlessly: the Rue McClanahan for women, and the Richard Dean Anderson for men. Eventually the vacuum-as-barber contraption became a punchline, but it looks like the Flowbee is currently having the last laugh. It’s out of stock on Amazon. Mark Thatcher bought a Flowbee years ago to use on his son. The Clifton, N.J., dad recently had a rummage and pulled it out of storage.
“I can’t wait much longer,” Thatcher said. “By mid-next week I bet I’ll have my Flowbee connected to my whole house vac and it’ll be chomping my hair off.”
Tamed manes are important, but it’s the prospect of no professional color that has many women (and plenty of men) feeling nervous, particularly those who have been getting their tresses dyed for decades.
“I hit the panic stage three weeks ago,” said Allison Troiani, who is a regular at Escape Salon Aveda in the Back Bay. “Work was so busy I had to cancel my appointment. So next week I’ll be the most gray I have ever been and I’ll be wearing hats, even when Zooming with my friends. I’ve been coloring for 15 years and I’m not sure how gray I am. Maybe 50 percent?”
Panicked customers have found comfort in video chats and social media consultations with stylists. The stylists in turn are grateful for the additional income that they are making from these video conference calls, either by charging for them formally or accepting tips. Because all hair salons are closed (even though some of us may argue that hair is an essential service), most stylists have been laid off so they can collect unemployment. Many faithful and appreciative salon clients we chatted with for this story have pre-paid for their next appointment or bought gift cards to keep their stylists afloat.
Women and men who have regular dates with Miss Clairol — meaning they are DIY colorists — aren’t necessarily worried. But glamazons who make regular pilgrimages to the salon for professional color are already seeking out dark corners in their homes for video conferences. Stylist Sarah Bortner said she’s advising her clients on the phone and via social media not to color their own hair, saying that it will be more expensive to undo a bad home dye job than to simply hold off until salons reopen.
“I will only coach for styling,” said Bortner, who works at Escape Salon. “I wouldn’t coach on cutting or color because that would be the hottest mess. It’s really hard to coach someone on motor skills that they don’t have.”
She said those worried about their hair should think of this as an opportunity to give their follicles a vacation. We torture our hair with color, processing, and blowouts, let’s give our hair an opportunity to rest. She said boredom will likely drive people to try to cut their own hair. Bortner said to fight the temptation and instead simply style it differently.
Lack of motor skills and warnings from professionals haven’t stopped some reckless, vain, and desperate shut-ins from hacking their own hair. For example, the author of this story tried to cut his own hair and ended up making a mess of it. There are currently distinct patches of hair missing from sections of my head. Other spots look as if I had a fight with a lawnmower, and the lawnmower won. When my husband saw the self-inflicted hair torture, he told me I looked like Anne Hathaway in the film adaptation of “Les Miserables” (after she sold her hair and teeth to support her daughter).
Michael Washington has been taking it all in from the sidelines with a laugh. While his girlfriend is frantically worrying about what will happen to her intricate and pricey weave, the 34-year-old Arlington resident can maintain his beauty regime without a problem. He’s been shaving his head for a decade. He said he expects to see more of his friends doing it soon.
“I’m so happy I don’t have to think about it,” Washington said. “Who knew going bald would turn into an asset?”
Although they can no longer be on hand to cut and color, stylists say an important aspect of their work remains intact: Therapist.
“They want to talk about hair,” said Dirk Diegel, owner of Bradley & Diegel salon on Newbury Street. “Or sometimes you just talk for half an hour and it’s not about hair. They want to maintain that connection.”
The idea of not getting your hair done for a few months may sound daunting, but experts say both you and your hair will survive, and come out stronger than ever. For many of us, going to a salon or barber shop is the one thing we do to pamper ourselves, and it’s a chance to gossip with stylists and barbers who have become our friends. That’s a difficult ritual to put on hold for weeks, if not months.
So be patient, don’t hack your hair, and don’t put yourself or your stylist at risk of coronavirus by trying to sneak in an at-home appointment. Bortner already has a finely-tuned sarcastic response for those who ask for an at-home appointment.
“I tell them that the rate for a home haircut starts at $500 and that it will only be a bowl cut,” she said. “That usually gets the message across.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.